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Ecologists team up to buy Calhoun County bayside ranch

Aug. 21, 2014 at 7:36 p.m.
Updated Aug. 22, 2014 at 12:41 a.m.

This  photo provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department shows fringe marshes along Powderhorn Lake in Texas in July 30. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation is leading the purchase of the 17,300-square-foot Powderhorn Ranch, near Port O'Connor. It is largely financed by a fund created by BP and Transocean in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

HOUSTON (AP) - A sprawling private ranch in Calhoun County will be converted into a state park, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation announced Thursday.

The $37.7 million purchase of the Powderhorn Ranch, near Port O'Connor, is the highest price ever paid for a Texas conservation project and the biggest land acquisition so far using the assistance of a restoration fund created in the wake of the BP 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The state agency said it has been plotting for more than three decades with The Conservation Fund, the Nature Conservancy and other groups on how to acquire the ranch.

"I'm excited that it's going to be open to the public. A lot of times when the Nature Conservancy buys lands, the gates are locked, and the public doesn't have any access," said Calhoun County Judge Mike Pfeifer.

BP spill restoration money has not been distributed at the county level, Pfeifer said. When the money does make its way to Calhoun County, Pfeifer hopes to use some of it for Green Lake, a park the county is building.

Until then, Pfeifer remains excited about the prospect of a new state park coming to the area. A state park hasn't been built in Calhoun County for at least a generation.

"It's going to be pretty neat," he said.

Some $32 million to purchase the Powderhorn Ranch came from a fund created by BP and Transocean following the Macondo well blowout on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that killed 11 people, including two from the Crossroads, and caused the largest marine oil spill in history. An additional $12 million was raised for habitat restoration and management and a long-term endowment.

The Conservation Fund and the Nature Conservancy of Texas each provided $10 million, and the balance of the $50 million project was provided through private donations.

"I think it's great for a couple of reasons," said Randy Vivian, CEO of the Victoria Chamber of Commerce. "The state is using money from an incredibly horrific event and using it to better preserve and make an area of land that will be great for tourists and visitors."

Victoria County Judge Don Pozzi echoed Vivian's comments. He said all state parks have the potential to bring in people from Texas as well as across the country.

Dan Friedkin, chairman emeritus of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission and the billionaire owner and chairman of Gulf States Toyota, said the acquisition also creates an "exciting, new, recreational opportunity" for hunting, fishing and bird-watching.

The 17,351-acre property along the Texas coast in Calhoun County contains freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, tidal flats, oyster beds and live oak forests and is hoped to become a wintertime refuge for the endangered whooping crane.

Aside from serving as a buffer for nearby communities from storm surge, the new park will play "an important role in protecting the integrity" of Matagorda Bay, said Carter Smith, the executive director of Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation.

"The size and scale and diversity of the ranch are really almost unparalleled," he said.

The purchase is particularly significant for Texas, where 95 percent of land is privately owned. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation estimates as much as 99 percent of the coastal plain in Texas has been lost to agriculture or animal grazing.

The sellers of the property were Cumberland & Western Resources, a limited-liability corporation managed by Wyoming billionaire Brad Kelley, among the largest private landowners in the U.S., and his Florida-based business manager, Greg Betterton, according to the Texas comptroller of public accounts.

The property drew the interest of a handful of buyers willing to pay more than the conservationists to use the ranch for commercial purposes, but the owners' "preference was to see a conservation-related outcome," Smith said, and were willing to sell it below market value to achieve that aim.

Advocate staff reporters Sara Sneath and Natassia Bonyanpour contributed to this story.



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