Native grasses may flower again as pipelines are built

LIVE OAK COUNTY — At Dobie Ranch, brushy plants common across South Texas blanket the rolling hills: granjeno, tasajillo, hog-plum, mesquite, prickly pear.

But where a new pipeline route slices the property, native grasses such as slender gramma and pappusgrass sway in the breeze, knee- to waist-high and giving a glimpse of what the land once looked like.

Thousands of miles of pipelines are under construction across the state. And in South Texas, where historic cattle overgrazing caused thick brush to take hold of the land, the new pipelines provide a chance to replant native prairie grasses that have been crowded from the ecosystem.

“This used to be a shortgrass prairie, so it would be great if it was that way again,” said Pauline Word, one of owners of the Dobie Ranch, where researchers have been testing native seed mixes and planting methods.

Reseeding gives the land a chance to recover from pipeline construction more quickly, and it helps prevent soil erosion. During relatively rare rainfall in South Texas, the native plants help the ground retain moisture.

It’s also a way to make the best of the construction process, one that landowners have little control over. Pipeline companies have the right of eminent domain.

“There is some destructive type stuff that goes on. It’s not all great,” said Kason Haby, district conservationist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service. “This is an opportunity to get some land cleared and get some good grasses back in here and get some good grazing value and some good wildlife value out of this.”

The idea of replanting natives is a relatively new.

A decade ago, pipelines went through, tearing out whatever plant life was in the way, and whatever grew back, grew back.

“Whatever happened, happened,” said Forrest Smith, director of South Texas Natives and Texas Native Seeds at the Cesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University at Kingsville. “We’re shifting to a place where most of the operators are willing to do natives.”

South Texas is in a wave of midstream development as companies build pipelines, gathering systems and processing plants to move Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas to market.

Word said in the last three years she’s dealt with five pipeline companies. Four ran transmission lines through the property. The fifth leased the mineral rights as well as property to build a central gathering facility for wells in the area.

Smith said an estimated 10,000 acres in South Texas are under pipeline construction this year, with a similar level of construction expected in 2014.

Haby said pipeline companies should double trench, first digging a shallow layer of topsoil and setting it to the side before digging the deeper dirt. Keeping the piles separate, so they can be replaced where they came from, will help the new native plants grow. It also could keep a deeper salt layer from ending up on top.

“You want to get that topsoil that was on the surface back on top,” Haby said. “That topsoil has all the good stuff that helps plants grow. It’s rich in organic matter.”

More than 80 landowners and industry professionals went to a workshop at Dobie Ranch last week, piling in and out of pickup trucks to drive around and see the results of recent efforts to replant native grasses.

The field day was organized by several groups, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute and South Texas Natives, all of which said they could offer landowners or operators advice on what natives to choose in different areas and how to plant them.

Smith said landowners should make specific provisions about replanting native seed mixes during negotiations.


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