Living on a prairie

Houston conservationist is helping to find new ways to protect local species and ecosystems

Memorial Park, which is currently undergoing a master plan renovation, and other Houston parks can be a great opportunity for introducing urban conservation inside the city limits. Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz

The Houston toad is a species that was discovered in Harris County in the 1950s. It has a very distinct, loud call that reverberates at quite a high pitch. But the Houston toad's call hasn't been heard in the city of Houston for almost 50 years. The species is locally extinct and critically endangered elsewhere. In fact, it's the most endangered amphibian in North America, says Cassidy Brown Johnson, a Rice University lecturer and president of the Coastal Prairie Partnership.

"When we think about extinction, we think of the dodo bird or the woolly mammoth," Johnson says. "But extinction is happening right underneath our noses."

The Houston Zoo has a breeding facility for Houston toad, but other than that, it's extremely unlikely that the Houston toad will ever reside naturally in its namesake city.

"We have modified the environment so heavily, that it'd be a bit of a dicey thing to do [to reintroduce the species] because there are so few of them, it's better to focus on an environment where it's still OK for them," Johnson says. The largest population of the Houston toad is actually in Bastrop, however due to the Bastrop fires in 2011, the species is only just recently back to a good place even there.

Johnson is giving a free lecture in April at Rice regarding extinction, where she'll bring her Astros-named Houston toads, Springer and Julia Morales, as her teacher aids.

Changing tides in conservation
As cities like Houston continue to be developed, scientists and researchers are challenged with finding new ways to effect conservation. Johnson says within the industry, there's been a shift in thinking when it comes to preserving nature.

"There's a new burgeoning movement in conservation called urban conservation," she says. "For a long time, if you talked to the traditional conservationists, the idea of conservation is to protect big spaces — the national and state park systems are the perfect example."

But large parks are expensive and a huge undertaking. It's still the strongest form of conservation, but introducing conservation efforts in a city — perhaps in some of Houston's parks, like Memorial Park or Hermann Park — helps not only the species of animals involved, but also educates the local population and forms a connection with residents.

"That has a twofold kind of benefit," Johnson says. "It protects the greenspace so species to live with us, and then also it makes the connection to this place we try to protect."

Of course, this type of effort is new, and there's not a lot of data to show how this would affect the ecosystem and its species, from the migratory and genetic diversity standpoints. Despite the lack of data, Johnson says this type of effort needs to happen.

"We're going to continue to manipulate the world, and maybe if we started thinking about this now, that we can get to a point were we understand enough were we can make these some sort of functioning ecosystem," she says.

Part of the shift in thinking about these ecosystems has to do with new ways of tracking species and understanding their environments.

"Technology is helping us ask a lot of these questions," Johnson says. "Ecology is surprisingly complicated. There's so many variables. ... I think technology and our advance with computing is definitely going to help us understand it."

Using preservation to solve flooding
The educational component is also very important to conservation, and Johnson is making strides on campus with her class. Last year, her department and her class introduced a pocket prairie right on the Rice campus.

Before it was the fourth largest city in America, Houston was a prairie. That type of ecosystem — thick with prairie grass — is very absorbing when it comes to rain water.

"It's really surprising to people that the trees and all this lushness is actually all artificial," Johnson says. "We know that this ecosystem evolved with the cyclical flooding events that happened here."

This movement to bring back Houston's ancient ecosystem is a new focus on a few prairie conservationist groups — and even the Harris County Flood Control. This has been going on for a while, but recent flooding events have opened the eyes of people now looking for reliable solutions to flooding problems.

"After Hurricane Harvey, people started realizing that this might be one of the solutions we could actually investigate and see if it can help us," Johnson says. "A green space is going to absorb way more water than a parking lot."

Of course, there are other flood solutions being discussed — some even incorporating tech or even a tube system underground.

"Historically, there has been some budding of heads between the environment and technology, but I really think moving forward, those two fields have to work together. We need to use technology to save the environment," Johnson says. "I think Houston is one of the places where that conversation is starting to happen."

Missing the toads

Courtesy of Cassidy Brown Johnson

The Houston toad has been locally extinct since the 1970s.

This summer, Station Houston is connecting the dots for student and alumni entrepreneurs within Houston's innovation ecosystem. Station Houston/Facebook

Houston universities — namely the University of Houston and Rice University — have been providing student and alumni entrepreneurs with acceleration programming for some time now through RED Labs and OwlSpark, respectively. But nonprofit acceleration hub Station Houston is connecting the dots with these programs — and inviting more schools to join in — through a new summer acceleration program.

"One of the things we haven't historically had in Houston that other cities have are broad collaborations between our universities to help build on one another's resources and really demonstrate for our young people — the talent that we want to keep here — exactly how deep and strong the opportunity to be in Houston is," Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station, tells InnovationMap.

The program will bring in 30 to 40 student and alumni from academic partners, which currently includes Rice, UH, and the University of St. Thomas, to Station. The schools will be responsible for selecting their participants and some of their own programming, and Station will provide additional resources, events, and full member access.

"We're not just going to depend on them bumping into someone at the coffee pot," Rowe says. "We're going to do meet and greets, some speed dating events, and some pitch practice events, so that they have the opportunity to have experienced entrepreneurs give them feedback and share their experiences."

The program, which is free to its participants, has derived out of planning for the Rice University's upcoming innovation district hub called The Ion, for which Station is the programming partner. Launching the student and alumni summer program ahead of The Ion's debut allows Station to get a couple summer cohorts under its belt.

"We have been for a number of months now — and will continue for the next two years — built out out a hub where all of the things that can be happening in The Ion," Rowe says. "We're piloting an building here first, so that, when the building opens, it can open in full force."

The plan is also to collect more universities in the area for the program and even expand it to provide more student and alumni access to resources.

"We have the ability at Station to give an expanding base as more schools choose to join them over time, so that hopefully we end up with something that is really robust in its ability to support students all year round — not just as a summer program," Rowe says.

Combining the forces of Houston's universities is unprecedented, Rowe says, but crucial to ensuring that these young entrepreneurs aren't leaving Houston for other major cities unaware of what their city has out there for them.

"For me, more than anything, it's about exposing these young, motivated entrepreneurs to all of the resources available in Houston," Rowe says. "By bringing them here into Station, we have the ability to show them first hand what entrepreneurs in Houston have access to. It allows them to see what an incredible place Houston is to stay and build and grow your company."

The Ion is expected to debut in 2021. Courtesy of Rice University