WALLER, Texas — Mary Anne Piacentini's dream is for the Katy Prairie, a wide-open grassland some 40 miles west of Houston, to become a living reminder of a once common and bountiful landscape.
For decades, her Katy Prairie Conservancy has purchased land here with the goal of preserving it for ducks, geese and egrets, for wildflowers and tall grasses — all for the public.
Now, some public officials are pushing a strikingly different vision for the prairie: a highway to link Port Freeport and rapidly growing Brazoria and Fort Bend County suburbs to Waller County and points north.
The proposed Texas 36A would slice through the conservancy's land, stirring doubts about whether a four-lane route for truckers and commuters can be built without sacrificing treasured open space. The conflict also raises a ticklish question for the Houston region: Are there limits to urban growth?
"There has to be some place that can stay wild," Piacentini, the conservancy's executive director, told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/KLOR21).
The project's backers, who include officials from the three counties along the proposed 107-mile path, said their routing options are limited, but they will work to minimize the environmental impacts to the prairie.
"There may be a way to go around the Katy Prairie Conservancy," said Richard Fields, an engineer who chairs the Highway 36A Coalition, an advocacy group. "But you can't go around it without plowing through someone else's property. The highway is going to impact someone."
Fields said the new highway would allow trucks hauling freight from Port Freeport to bypass Houston's congested freeways while providing a hurricane evacuation route for coastal counties.
It also would spur economic development in mostly rural Waller County — possibly attracting business related to the port, officials said.
As envisioned, the project would widen the existing two-lane Texas 36 from Freeport to just south of Rosenberg in Fort Bend County. The new stretch of the highway, also known as the Prairie Parkway, would extend through Waller County before connecting with Texas 6, three miles north of Hempstead.
Waller County first proposed the highway in 1985. But the plan failed to gain traction politically until recently, when it was tied to the port, one of the nation's busiest and poised for expansion. On Friday, the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a regional planning group, is expected to authorize a $2 million study into whether the roadway is needed.
"Right now, it's an idea," said Alan Clark, director of transportation planning for the council. "These areas are rapidly growing, and the window of opportunity is closing. So there is a sense of urgency among officials."
While the size, scope and cost of the project are not fully known, some environmentalists said the outcome is clear: the disappearance of a once vast coastal prairie.
They said the road will destroy part of the last 150,000 undeveloped acres of a prairie that once covered 750,000 acres. The landscape has changed over time as Houston spread westward, aided by the construction of outer beltways around the region.
The conservancy has purchased or protected nearly 20,000 acres of the coastal prairie, even as real-estate developers in recent years have pushed up the price of land. The nonprofit's goal is to stitch together 50,000 acres, which biologists say is the amount needed to save the landscape and keep it thriving.
Some of its land was farmed. But the plan is to restore the prairie to its untamed, pre-pioneer condition.
On a recent afternoon, Piacentini and two staff members stood on the edge of a conservancy-owned field where the road would go. A large, long-legged falcon wheeled overhead, while mottled ducks dabbled in shallow ponds. A lone coyote ran through the tall grasses.
Recently, the National Audubon Society named the prairie a "globally important bird area" for its more than 300 types of winged creatures, from the Northern bobwhite quail to the long-billed curlew, North America's largest shorebird.
"It's the size of the Katy Prairie that gives it its power," said Jaime González, who leads the conservancy's education programs. "Once you break the prairie up into pieces, it loses its power for wildlife."
Despite the proposed highway's route, the conservancy believes the land is protected because federal funds were used to purchase it. But its preserve is not parkland, so some legal experts question whether it would be considered a higher public use than a highway.
Piacentini said the proposed roadway should be re-routed, perhaps along the existing Texas 36, which runs about 15 miles to the west of the conservancy's land.
But officials said using the current highway as a major route for moving freight is unlikely because the two-lane Texas 36 serves as a main street in several small towns, such as Sealy and Bellville.
"If you're bringing wind turbines up from the port, you're not going that way," said Clark, the regional transportation planner.
Waller County's engineer also defended the proposed route as the "path of least resistance," adding that plans for the roadway preceded the conservancy's land purchases.
"I grew up on the Katy Prairie, so I understand what they're trying to do" in preserving the land, said Orval Rhoads, the county engineer. "All we did was clip one corner, and they want us to move away."
Fields, chairman of the Highway 36A Coalition, said the growing region cannot afford to pass on the project. The roadway could be constructed in a way that limited runoff and noise pollution and allowed wildlife to move around the area. Without it, highways and farm-to-market roads throughout the three counties will be choked by traffic.
"This is a common-sense solution for a real mobility problem, and we want to do it in a responsible manner," Fields said. The highway coalition and conservancy "both are looking out for the public's interest, and we're both right."
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com