The Columbia Bottomlands is a unique Texas coastal forest composed of forested floodplain wetlands interconnected with adjacent coastal prairies. This forest is found only along the lower Colorado, San Bernard, and Brazos Rivers in Fort Bend, Brazoria, Wharton, and Matagorda Counties.
This forest has magnificent Live Oak, Pecan, Sugarberry, American Elm, Green Ash, Dwarf Palmetto, Water Hickory, Water Oak, Bur Oak, Cedar Elm, Durand Oak, and other trees; many other plant species; and important wildlife species like migratory songbirds, White-tailed Deer, Gray squirrel, waterfowl (Wood Duck and Northern Mallard), egrets (Great, Cattle, Snowy), herons (Great Blue, Tri-colored, Little Blue), and many amphibians, reptiles, and fish (Large-mouthed Bass, sunfish, catfish).
The name Columbia Bottomlands (CB) came from the town of Columbia (now West Columbia) which in 1836 was the first capital of the Republic of Texas. Stephen F. Austin (The Father of Texas) located his “First Colony” of 300 people in this area. This is why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) calls this conservation project, “Austin's Woods”.
Del Weniger, in “The Explorer’s Texas: The Lands and Waters”, quotes W.B. Dewees, in 1838, who described the Columbia Bottomlands area as, “San Bernard, Cedar lake, and Cane Brake creek lie west of the Brazos. These are all minor bodies of water, but they flow through the most extensive body of excellent land in Texas. This is a district about 40 miles in width and fifty or sixty miles in length, covered almost entirely with cane brake and forests.”
At one time the CB covered 700,000 acres. Today it covers less than 175,000 acres. This area is important as a staging/stopover area for Nearctic-Neotropical migratory landbirds. Over 100,000 shorebirds and thousands of waterfowl migrate through the CB each year. The CB provides the only large expanse of forest adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) in Texas.
Millions of neotropical migrants use the CB during spring and fall migrations. This forest draws birds 600 miles across the GOM from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico during spring migration. Migrating birds depend on this forest to rest/feed before and after crossing the GOM.
There are about 237 species of birds, which total at least 239 million individuals, that migrate through this forest each year. Neotropical and resident birds breed or winter in the CB. Wood Ducks, Mottled Ducks, and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks breed here. The CB is located within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Texas Mid-Coast Initiative of the Gulf Coast Joint Venture of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.
The CB is in the Central Flyway on the Texas Coast. CB have been incorporated into the Texas Mid-Coast National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex, which includes Brazoria, Big Boggy, and San Bernard NWRs. These NWRs are about one and one-half hours south of the over 2 million people who live in Houston, Texas, the Nation’s fourth largest city. Houstonians and others in surrounding counties use the CB and other habitats found in NWRs for hunting, fishing, birding, environmental education, photography, canoeing, kayaking, boating, wildlife observation, nature study, hiking, and other low impact and compatible recreational, educational, and scientific activities.
Birdwatchers from around the world travel to SBNWR and the other NWRs of the Mid-Coast NWR Complex to experience spring migration on the Upper Texas Coast. Tourism is the 3rd largest industry in Texas, and ecotourism makes up a significant share of total tourism in the state. Texas is the number one bird-watching state/province in North America.
How did we save it?
In the early 1990's Dr. Sidney Gauthreaux, Jr., Clemson University, used doppler radar to locate fallout/rest areas used by neotropical migratory birds. Review of radar data from Dickinson, Texas, and then in-the-field verification, found that the CB was a major rest area for neotropical migrants as they arrive from their migratory flight across the GOM.
Remaining stands of CB hardwood forests were found to be highly fragmented and continuously lost/degraded by residential, commercial, and industrial development, overgrazing, logging, and infestation by non-native plant and animal species (Chinese tallow and feral hogs).
As the FWS began an effort focused on protection of this crucial migratory bird habitat some officials in Brazoria County expressed concern about additional federal government activities in the area and formed a Columbia Bottomlands Task Force of local citizens to review the FWS program. Over a several year period, after FWS drafted a “Proposed Columbia Bottomlands National Wildlife Refuge Land Protection Document”, some local citizens and officials decided while they preferred no additional federal presence, that they would not oppose the effort.
The FWS has prepared and implemented the “Austin’s Woods Conservation Plan” (AWCP) which consists of a land acquisition and conservation program in the CB that includes FWS, Houston Audubon Society, Houston Sierra Club, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, The Nature Conservancy, and many other partners.
The AWCP establishes protected tracts on a regional landscape so that ecosystem integrity and function and biological diversity are protected. The goal is to protect 10% (70,000 acres) or more of the original Columbia Bottomlands Ecosystem. About 46,000 acres have been protected to date.
AWCP acquisitions are usually added to the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge (SBNWR), which exists in the Colorado, San Bernard, and Brazos River Floodplains. The SBNWR is part of the Texas Mid-Coast NWR Complex which has been designated an Important Bird Area and a Site of International Importance by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Network.
The first acquisition of CB was key for the entire program. The FWS didn’t have enough money to acquire a 657-acre, Dance Bayou, old-growth tract. An “angel of mercy” arrived in the form of famous plaintiff's attorney, John O' Quinn. Mr. O' Quinn purchased the tract and donated it to the FWS. The FWS and its partners now have 46,000 acres of CB habitat protected.