Memorial Park Conservancy

Memorial Park was once a dynamic mixture of landscapes. This majestic and unrefined gallery along Buffalo Bayou dissipated north and south then evaporated into savannah then into prairie. Large diameter oaks and pines were scattered throughout.

Hardwood trees including bald cypress edged the bayou and bottomlands transitioning to a pine and hardwood mix upland. The north-to-south slope along with clay-pan soil made for a slow draining system creating what is known as a wet ecology. Dramatic drops in elevation were provided by tributaries and ravines (affectionately called barrancos, the latin word for steep narrow canyons) and buffalo breaks (which refer to the physiology of the slopes leading down into Buffalo Bayou). The area was lush with plants and alive with flourishing populations of bison, coyotes, beavers, armadillos, opossums, raccoons and deer. Bears and alligators would not have been uncommon.

The forest today in Memorial Park is the product of over 10,000 years of human activity with the most recent century as the most impactful. Earliest inhabitants tended the land with a gentle hand, mimicking what they saw nature already doing such as the use of fire management. Native Americans and early settlers harvested wood products and cleared the land for agriculture. When the Park was established as the Camp Logan military training base in the early 1900s, these clearing activities stopped and the area was allowed to regenerate naturally, with no intervention or human guidance.

The first arrivals post-Camp Logan were sun-loving native species like pine, sweetgum and oak, then more shade-tolerant species such as hickories and elms, and finally very shade-tolerant species such as yaupon and cherry laurel. More recently, however, the natural forest growth has been altered by urbanization and the invasion of non-native species, often imports from Asia such as privet, wax-leaf ligustrum, Chinese tallow and camphor tree.  These invasives fiercely compete with the native species.  They also have fewer insect predators, grow more densely and tend to block the sunlight that might normally reach the forest floor.

Today’s dense understory is also a result of the gradual evacuation of many important ecological functions such as grazing by large mammals and naturally induced grass fires.  These regimented disturbances have historically worked in symphony to create and maintain vegetative composition. The human manipulation of land surrounding the park through the development of the city combined with a deliberate lack of human intervention in land management ultimately created a profound disruption to the natural forest succession—creating a weak and vulnerable environment.

In 2011, the driest year and second hottest on record arrived in Houston, creating another ecological disturbance.  By then, the gallery forest/savannah/prairie ecosystem had grown into a virtually single age closed canopy forest with little to no natural regeneration occurring. The density of the forest and lack of biodiversity created enough stress to magnify the sequence of natural disturbances that would have typically been routine. On top of the drought, Hurricane Ike caused damage which stimulated an abnormally severe pine bark beetle infestation leading to concerns of a potential forest fire. It could be considered somewhat of a perfect storm for accelerating the decline of the pine forest. And many Houstonians found such a significant reduction of mature trees and understory to be no less than heartbreaking.

Memorial Park Conservancy (MPC) in conjunction with the Houston Parks and Recreation Department (HPARD) had already developed a conservation-oriented master plan which included plans to restore the forest as the canopy gradually died. The process was expected to take ten years. Instead, the forest’s decline came to fruition in one summer. In 2013, the Uptown Houston Tax increment Reinvestment Zone (Uptown TIRZ) joined the partnership to support the MPC’s restoration and improvement efforts.

Since 2012, working in partnership with HPARD, the Conservancy has completed fire hazard mitigation; removed thousands of dead trees; implemented a site preparation program treating over 500 acres of invasive plant species; and planted approximately 105,000 seedlings and trees. The cost of these efforts have totaled nearly $2 million thus far.  Recovery efforts continue with the development of a long-range master plan led by MPC, in conjunction with HPARD and now the Uptown TIRZ. With all this and a team of consultants carrying both national and international recognition, the Conservancy can plan for the future with confidence and incite management practices that support the ecology and succession of the Park.

The Memorial Park Master Plan, unanimously passed by Houston City Council in April 2015, was jointly led by MPC, HPARD and Uptown TIRZ. This plan was produced after an extensive public input phase that solicited feedback from stakeholder groups and the general public. The guiding principles of the new plan are to:

  • Restore the ecology of the park and our connection to it
  • Consolidate compatible uses together in appropriate areas
  • Tend the land and our cultural history, maintaining balance through responsible management
  • Reconnect the land, waterways, trails, people and memories
  • Enhance the overall park experience and its amenities

As MPC continues implementation of its Master Plan, the Park’s natural areas are being gradually transitioned from their existing state of imbalance to the appropriate ecology for each area within the Park. Each of these areas requires an extensive ecological restoration and conversion process, often taking many years before moving into a maintenance regime. Components of MPC’s successful maintenance approach include:

  • Removal of invasive species to open up the ground plane
  • Conversion of the landscape through addition of woody species and herbaceous plants
  • Ongoing maintenance of the newly established healthy condition

The resulting improved natural areas will more resilient to climatic conditions and more hospitable to diverse fauna. Initially, these landscapes will require more intensive maintenance during the conversion process; however, this will gradually decrease over time as they become established. 

The outcome will be a Memorial Park that is more robust and resilient, reminiscent of the forest of the past—a majestic gallery gently dispersing into savannah and prairierestoring this unique urban wild for present day and future generations.