Family struggles to keep wetlands project afloat financially

By by Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Sept. 8, 2012 at 4:08 a.m.

Louis Soderholtz looks over a section of bottom land where water will eventually be pumped into farmland to develop a wetlands area for water fowl. The Texas Prairie Wetlands project is designed to help private landowners convert their land to wetlands.

Louis Soderholtz looks over a section of bottom land where water will eventually be pumped into farmland to develop a wetlands area for water fowl. The Texas Prairie Wetlands project is designed to help private landowners convert their land to wetlands.   Frank Tilley for The Victoria Advocate

James Soderholtz stood on the edge of a levee, staring at an ocean of marsh grass. His younger brother, Louis Soderholtz, walked along the parched wall of dirt, kicking at clumps of earth with his work boots.

Long before they got here, thousands of years before farmers and ranchers arrived, the land was wetlands like this, an ocean of grass that hid a world of intricate wonder. Ducks, eagles, spoonbills and countless other birds lived in the tall grasses of wetlands that used to cover much of the Texas Coastal Plains.

Now, working with Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit organization, they are trying to convert the land back into wetlands. Once, this would have seemed like a desecration to generations before, but it may be the only way they can keep the land in their hands.

"It's the same old story," Louis Soderholtz said. "We're land rich and cash poor."

The brothers thought this rolling expanse of grass would be their salvation, but now they are working to avoid financially drowning in the wetlands they have created.

More than 150 years ago, their ancestor, James McFaddin, labored with his sons and hired men to build up this land. They worked with mules to put together barriers to drain this stretch of river-bottom land and turn it into a place they could grow crops and run cattle.

The McFaddin Ranch was never the biggest ranch in the area, but it was a vast swathe of acres, a kingdom for the McFaddin clan. To James McFaddin's descendants those acres seemed like something eternal.

They were wrong.

Like so many ranches, as the family grew and fractured, family members wanted to have a say in how the ranch was run. In the 1980s, the family went to court to settle the disagreement. In 1990, after years of squabbling, the unthinkable happened - the land was divided among family members.

Suddenly, Margaret Lowery owned about 2,000 acres of some of the finest ranch land in the county. Her sons, James and Louis Soderholtz, were thrilled by the prospect.

Once they got the place, they realized they hadn't inherited any cattle or the mineral rights beneath it to help pay for it.

Over time, it became clear that they had the land, but they were going to have to find a way to keep it. The Texas Prairie Wetlands Project seemed like a solution.

Wetlands once covered much of the Texas Coastal Plains. Wetlands perform a number of tasks in the ecosystem, doing everything from cleaning water, supporting wildlife and acting as buffers against flood and soil erosion.

Since 1992, Ducks Unlimited has worked with Texas Parks and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to help landowners convert tracts of land into wetlands, said Matt Kaminski, a regional biologist with Ducks Unlimited.

James Soderholtz and his family had been renting the land to a farmer for years when it flooded in 1998. The water from the San Antonio River covered the fields where their tenant had raised sorghum, corn and soybeans. The water was so high Soderholtz used a boat to inspect the ancient levees and dykes built by his ancestors and survey the damage.

The family started talking about the wetlands project then. It seemed reasonable since the land flooded anyway. Why not just let it flood? They didn't make any decisions. Then the water came back in 2006 and again in 2007. They talked it over and decided to turn 315 acres into wetlands.

As the big ranches have increasingly become relics, the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project has given landowners a way to do something else with their property. Once the land is converted, Kaminski said, it gives ranchers a water supply for cattle, but it also provides them a place for hunting water fowl, and those who are interested can get in on the burgeoning eco-tourism trade in Texas.

"There are several ranches that have utilized these projects not only for hunting but for wildlife tours," Kaminski said. "It provides them with more revenue streams. Hunting is a seasonal thing, but the eco-tourism trade is growing in Texas, and it's year round."

That's what James Soderholtz and his family envisioned for this land when they started the project last year.

He and his brother already run a deer hunting business on the property, but he'll add duck hunting into the mix once the acres are converted.

His eyes light up as he points out where he'll build a duck blind, where he'll put in an observation deck, a place for bird watchers and photographers to sit and wait for native creatures to show themselves.

The federal wetlands conservation program pays for all the cost of converting land, but the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project allows landowners to convert tracts to wetlands in a way they can more easily control, Kaminski said.

Ducks Unlimited offered to pay 75 percent of the estimated costs if Lowery and her sons came up with the other 25 percent. However, the contract stipulates that the organization is responsible for 75 percent of the estimated cost at the time of signing. If the price of the project goes up, the family has to pay the extra cost.

Soderholtz and his family didn't realize that.

The tract selected for the project is prone to flooding. Normally, from the time a landowner starts the process, it takes six months to a year to get the land converted, but the McFaddin site is still not completed, more than a year after work started.

"It's next to the San Antonio River. It's just a wet site and those are always more difficult," Kaminski said.

The family didn't know that either. The water floods their land whenever a big rain shower falls or a glut of freshwater rushes downstream. This was just a fact of life until they started working on the project. The water gushes in and destroys the work they've done, Soderholtz said.

"It hurts. Every time we make some progress, it floods and gets undone and we're back to square one," he said.

While Ducks Unlimited was once able to completely fund these projects, its funding has become increasingly strained because of the recession, Kaminski said.

Last year, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act - a program that provides a large part of the grant money for the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project - was almost cut by the U.S. House of Representatives. The act survived but funding was reduced by about $10 million, Kaminski said.

Even if Ducks Unlimited chose to provide extra funding, beyond what the original contract required, it would be difficult because its funding is tight, Kaminski said.

Now, the family finds themselves at a crossroads.

They aren't independently wealthy, James Soderholtz said. Between paying taxes and providing for Lowery, the money they make from the land isn't enough to pay the extra cost to complete the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project.

"With the downturn in the economy, we just don't have the money to pay for it. We're going to finish it. We're determined, but we're not sure how we're going to do it," Soderholtz said.

Every time it rains, Soderholtz winces, thinking of the water undoing their latest bit of work. He thinks it'll take more than $10,000 to complete the project, and he and his mother have been studying the family budget to see where they can find the money.

They've taken inventory of family heirlooms, jewelry, anything that might fetch enough money. Selling these things will be hard, but turning this expanse of acres into wetlands may be their only way to keep the property.

"This land is ours, and we've got to make this work," he said. "There are people who work their whole lives to save up to buy land. We're blessed that we were able to inherit this. Now we've got to keep it."



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