First seeds planted in bid to restore San Jacinto Battleground vegetation
HOUSTON — After almost a decade of planning, preparation and delay, giant mechanical seeders lumbered across the San Jacinto Battleground on Thursday as the effort to rebuild the historic site's devastated native coastal prairie moved toward fruition.
If the project is successful, the battleground should sprout a luxuriant growth of sunflowers, coneflowers, bluestem and other flowers and grasses within three years. More than three tons of seeds representing approximately 100 species are to be planted - weather permitting - by week's end.
The 110 acres included in the project are part of the 1,200-acre state historic site, and are believed to represent the terrain that separated the troops of Sam Houston and Santa Anna in the April 1836 battle. At the time of the military confrontation, the field, south of the present San Jacinto Monument, was covered in head-high grass that provided cover for Houston's troops as they advanced on their numerically superior foe.
"This will really make interpretation of the battlefield a lot easier," said Andy Sipocz, southeast region natural resources coordinator for the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife. "Visitors will be able to see what the Texian and Mexican armies really experienced."
Restoration of the battlefield prairie marks the second victory for environmental conservationists this month. Earlier, $4 million was raised through a Bayou Land Conservancy campaign to save a pristine, 50-acre prairie in nearby Deer Park.
As recently as the 19th century, undisturbed prairie covered some 9 million acres of the Texas and Louisiana coasts. Today, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wetlands Research Center, as much as 99 percent of that habitat has been lost to agriculture and commercial development.
The battleground site was used to graze cattle by the early 20th century, and by the 1960s, the land was heavily infested with Chinese tallow trees, an invasive species.
"No one now living has seen the land the way it looked at the time of the battle," Sipocz said.
Efforts to restore the battleground's prairie began in 2004, when state agencies and citizens groups began discussing ways such habitats could be restored or preserved. In that year, the state parks department cleared the land of tallow trees.
The reseeding is being directed by Bill Neiman, president of the Junction-based Native American Seed Co. Neiman and his crew arrived at the site early Thursday in a four-truck convoy that carried two tractors, three mechanical planters and giant bags of seed.
Neiman, involved in the restoration effort since its beginning, cautioned that the battlefield project "will not be an overnight thing. You don't fix a situation like this by just setting the seeds out.
Animals and insects associated with the native prairie will not immediately return, he said. "So much has been lost. We don't even know the names of the microbes associated with the prairie soil that we have lost."
Seed for the project was harvested in late 2011 from a 30-acre site near League City and from the University of Houston's Coastal Center in Galveston.
George Cates, who oversaw the harvest, said the effort was hampered by the disastrous 2011 drought. Nonetheless, 2,220 pounds of top-grade, ready-to-plant seed were harvested. An additional 4,300 pounds required extensive cleaning at the company's headquarters.
Planting has been delayed repeatedly by weather conditions and the need for weed control at the site. In April, archeologists made a final sweep of the field to ensure it was free of historically significant artifacts.
"There are a lot of people feeling that, man, we're finally going to make it work," Neiman said. "There's a lot of excitement." The newly planted seeds, he said, should sprout in little more than a week.
The restoration is funded through a $100,000 grant from the Shell Oil Co. The parks department has spent $30,000 on site preparation.