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Green Lake gets another green light (w/ video)

By Elena Watts
June 13, 2014 at 1:13 a.m.

Kenny Finster, 57, drives along the rough trails on the Green Lake property being developed by Calhoun County with assistance from the National Park Service. Finster hopes to see this park  developed into something beautiful and natural for the public to enjoy wildlife.

PORT LAVACA - Calhoun County Commissioner Kenny Finster bumped around the rugged terrain surrounding Green Lake in an old, snub-nosed military truck named Puff.

In 2012, Calhoun County purchased the 6,400-acre property with $3.5 million in grant money. The county has since worked to develop a master plan for the conservation of the wildlife habitat and for the development of a public recreational park on the property.

Last month, the National Park Service announced that the Green Lake project is one of five projects in Texas selected this year to receive technical planning assistance from the park service.

"This is a testament to Judge Mike Pfeifer, Kathy Smartt and Kenny Finster," said Justin Bates, community planner for the park service. "It is rare that resource advisers are brought into a project like this so immediately."

The National Park Service has committed to help Calhoun County community members form and move forward with their ideas, Bates said.

"The focus will be engaging the community through workshops and surveys so that the park reflects the vision of those who use it," Bates said.

County officials and a core group of community members already have met with environmental groups to identify fish, birds and other wildlife and their habitats for future discussions.

"It's a remarkable opportunity for the county to protect natural resources and improve upon them," Bates said.

Discussions about recreational activities for the public park have included fishing, hunting, bird-watching, camping, hiking and photographing wildlife.

"More variety of birds have been spotted at Green Lake than anywhere else in Texas," said Smartt, retired Coastal Impact Assistance Program coordinator for the General Land Office.

Smartt, who composed the grants that secured the money to purchase Green Lake, said public meetings are planned for late summer. Smartt has encouraged the county to continue applying for state and federal grants, including funds destined for Texas as a result of the British Petroleum oil spill.

Potential improvements to the property include an observation deck, fishing pier, boat platforms, hiking trails, campgrounds and an RV park.

"I'm pushing for an observation deck first," Finster said. "Like when you buy a used car - first impressions are important."

As Finster rambled along the narrow pathways throughout the property, his truck's air suspension system snorted occasionally from beneath its cab.

Finster sat high enough in Puff to enjoy the breathtaking view of the 5,400-acre lake, one of two natural lakes in Texas. He surveyed the estimated 860 acres of lowlands as well as the 150 acres of wooded uplands and coastal prairie. He followed the Victoria Barge Canal, which borders 4 miles of the property and adds saltwater to Green Lake's offerings.

About 200 yards from the bank of Green Lake, Brent Ortego, a wildlife diversity biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said he saw a rookery on a small island in the natural lake.

He paddled out to find alligators circling the herons, egrets and other bird species that had nested on the island. For several years, the birds have spent more than half of each year nesting there.

"The alligators occasionally eat baby birds that wander to the edge of the island, but they protect the adult birds from mammals like raccoons and hogs that might try to swim over," Ortego said. "The adults would abandon the nest if they were being killed, so it's a natural balance."

The Green Lake project has become a reality because of Pfeifer, said Neill Amsler, the Rockport real estate agent who represented Indianola Liquidating Trust, the company that sold the property to the county.

"Only a person in a position like his could make it happen, and he had to have the vision to want to create a world-class park," Amsler said.

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