Houston from a new perspective; Coalition has formed to promote area's natural treasures

The Houston Chronicle
Gary Clark
April 09, 2004, Friday 2 STAR EDITION

GARY CLARK; Clark is a naturalist and professor at North Harris College. Kathy Adams Clark teaches photography at Leisure Learning. Contact them at http://home.houston.rr.com/wondersofnature.

Rosie Zamora knows that if we want to keep enjoying our birds and butterflies within wilderness retreats, we will all have to work together.

She has formed a remarkable coalition to envision Houston not just as a place of concrete and steel but a place at the center of a diverse natural region. The result is a new organization called Houston Wilderness.

Zamora, president of the organization, is a booster of the city's economic and cultural growth as well as its natural heritage. An inveterate hiker, she understands the value of wilderness experiences to people's lives.

Here is my interview with her:

Q: What is Houston Wilderness?

A: It's an alliance of government, business and environmental organizations that have come together to promote the incredible wilderness treasures we have in the 24-county region around Houston. The region stretches from Matagorda to the Louisiana border and includes such natural regions as the Columbia bottomlands, coastal marshes, tall grass prairies and the Big Thicket.

Q: With such an expansive region, why the name Houston Wilderness?

A: One of the things we wanted to do was to create an interest in what we have in the region among people outside the area. For example, people outside the country may not know where the Big Thicket or Matagorda is, but they will certainly know where Houston is. So once we catch their attention with the name Houston, they will look at the natural beauty that exists in our region.

Q: Was the project modeled on Chicago Wilderness?

A: Yes. Chicago Wilderness, which has been in existence for 10 years, came about because there was a need to bring in funds to work on land conservation and restoration. Most people don't think of Chicago as having wilderness, but it does.

As I started showing Chicago's project to people in the Houston business community, they said this is what we need here. For example, (developer) Dick Weekley said that this is the kind of thing we can send all over the world so people will get a different impression of what we have.

Q: Should homebuilders be interested in wilderness conservation?

A: In order for a builder... to keep building homes, he has to have people to sell homes to. He has to have corporations moving to Houston with young people who want to move here and raise a family.

At the top of the list of things young people are looking for is wilderness recreation, and they don't think we have that in Houston. So if a developer wants to sell homes, there has to be nature and people aware of nature.

At the same time, Houston Wilderness has the responsibility to educate developers and homebuilders so that we can work together to build in ways that will not harm our natural areas. Then we'll all be ahead of the game.

Q: Any other economic benefits?

A: We haven't exploited nature tourism in Houston. Ted Lee Eubanks Jr., whose company Fermata Inc. developed the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail and other nature trails, wants to work with us to develop a wilderness trail for tourism. If we can marry conservation, nature and historical heritage, we will have an incredible wilderness trail around our region. It's one of the things our board is moving on.

Q: How diverse is the board of directors?

A: We have people on our board like Jim Kollaer, president of the Greater Houston Partnership, and Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney, and representatives from foundations, businesses, government groups and environmental groups.

We have business organizations sitting right next to environmental organizations, and they're working through issues that they've been at odds about in the past. It's the only way we're going to be able to save our natural resources.

Q: Where can people get information?

A: Visit our Web site at www.houstonwilderness.org. We have an illustrated map of the ecosystems of the entire region, and you can click on any ecosystem, and it tells you what's there.

We've identified over 100 sites like Jesse H. Jones Park and Nature Center, Washington-on-the-Brazos and the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. We tell you where the areas are for birding, hiking, canoeing, kayaking and hunting.

Then we have a kids section. It's one of the most important pieces, because we really want to turn our youngsters into stewards of our land.

Q: When is the introduction of Houston Wilderness?

A: We will officially introduce the organization to the public at 2 p.m. on April 16 at the Sims Bayou Urban Nature Center, 3997 River Drive off Park Place Boulevard.

© Copyright 2004 The Houston Chronicle Publishing Company