Of the estimated 6.5 million acres of coastal prairie that once covered the Texas Gulf Coast, less than 1% remains today. The University of Houston Coastal Center (UHCC) is fortunate to be the steward of a sterling example of that remaining coastal prairie at its field laboratory facility located in La Marque in Galveston County.
At both state and federal levels, there is renewed awareness of importance of prairies. Prairies support unique species, provide wildlife habitat, preserve native pollinators, provide flood control, and sequester carbon in their soils. Yet until 2017, there was no designated Texas center focused on the study of the unique characteristics of coastal prairie and the best methods to restore it. The University of Houston was uniquely positioned to fill this void.
In recognition of the quality of the coastal prairie within UHCC and because of its potential to become a hub for coastal prairie restoration and research due to its university affiliation, the Texas Legislature designated UHCC as the home of the Texas Institute for Coastal Prairie Research and Education in 2017 via House Bill 2285.
“There are very few areas in Texas that still support their native flora, especially that of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. And very few of those contain as high a quality of prairie as the UHCC site does…. As such, it is an irreplaceable resource and serves not only as a seed source, but also as a research reference site for comparison to degraded or restored prairies.”
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
The Institute has a slice of the remaining Gulf Coast prairie at the landscape level, with about 200 acres of actively managed coastal prairie within a prairie-wetland mosaic. The remaining acreage contains degraded prairie undergoing restoration, potential prairie restoration sites, forested wetland and manmade wetlands, and facilities for research and education. The focus of the Institute is on coastal prairie restoration, research, and education statewide, with the goal of eventually becoming a regional and national hub.
Prior to its transfer to the University of Houston, the site of the UHCC was acquired by the federal government as the location of Camp Wallace, which began construction as an Army Coast Artillery Replacement Training Center in 1940. The camp site was coastal tallgrass prairie that lay in the Highland Bayou watershed.
“The site… can be classified as a little bluestem-brownseed paspalum-indiangrass community type… few of such sites still remain in relatively pristine condition along the Texas coast and southwest Louisiana… the UHCC’s costal tallgrass prairie is an ecologically significant site worthy of conservation.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
As part of the construction of Camp Wallace, 17 miles of oyster shell road were laid. Buildings were largely of wood on top of concrete piers. After Camp Wallace was declared surplus, the buildings were either sold and moved or otherwise cleared off.
The University of Houston received the first parcel of property from the federal government in 1960. An academic plan was established, and an environmental field laboratory was constructed in 1968. Research programs began in 1970.
By 1972, the current 925-acre site was established as the UH Coastal Center, and the remainder of Camp Wallace acreage became Jack Brooks County Park. The two facilities share a common boundary.
Today, the oyster shell roads—some overtopped with asphalt—remain. Some concrete foundations survive. The coastal tallgrass prairie has also survived. Since establishment as the Texas Institute for Coastal Prairie Research and Education, there has been steady progress in restoring coastal prairie acreage and increasing the local and statewide outreach of the UHCC.