Scenic Padre Island is the world's longest barrier island.
South Padre Island Scenic Padre Island is the world's longest barrier island. ©: Kenny Braun

Newsroom | The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy to Acquire Over 6,200 Acres on South Padre Island

New acreage will preserve and protect habitat for the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.

The Nature Conservancy, with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Texas Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustees—the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the General Land Office and federal  agencies—today announced the acquisition of over 6,200 acres on South Padre Island. The acquisitions will close in two phases, with the first portion completed on March 7 and the second to close this fall. The effort represents a nearly $16 million effort with private landowners to secure and safeguard part of South Padre’s last unprotected stretch of land. This will be the largest conservation effort on South Padre Island since the Conservancy’s purchase of approximately 25,000 acres in 2000.

North and South Padre Islands are the most important nesting habitat in the U.S. for the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, which nests primarily along the Gulf of Mexico. Contact with humans and human development can result in “false crawls,” when turtles enter the beach but do not nest, making the protection of this remaining length of wild, undeveloped coastline vital for replenishing their numbers.

“We’re incredibly fortunate to have such a strong coalition of partners dedicated to this effort, which will go a long way toward closing the largest gap in unprotected land on the world’s longest barrier island,” said Laura Huffman, Texas regional director of The Nature Conservancy. “That’s a remarkable investment not only in the recovery of an incredibly dynamic ecosystem but in the Gulf of Mexico’s overall resilience. With more storms and floods threatening our coastlines, nature’s an important first line of defense for communities. Protecting these natural resources protects our collective future.”

A popular vacation and recreation destination with a bustling tourism economy, Padre Island’s dunes, coastal prairies and wind tidal flats also provide habitat for 16 animal species that have federal or state conservation status, including the peregrine falcon; piping plover; several species of shorebirds, wading birds and migrant birds and three species of threatened or endangered turtles—the loggerhead sea turtle, green sea turtle and Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.

“South Padre Island is home to some of the most pristine and productive coastal shorelines throughout the entire Gulf of Mexico,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. “Protecting and restoring these rich ecosystems along the south Texas coast is one of the most effective ways we can help wildlife recover from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

“This is a shining example of how we can use a portion of Deepwater Horizon funds to support large-scale conservation efforts. The benefits of this project—protecting wildlife, supporting the economic vitality that South Padre Island brings to the region and preserving its natural landscapes—will extend long into the future. I am pleased that the TCEQ is able to play a part in safeguarding this important habitat,” said Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The new acquisitions are funded with over $10.5 million in grant support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, as well as $5.4 million from the Natural Resource Damage Assessment settlement from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which is managed in Texas by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas General Land Office.

Boyd Blihovde, Refuge Manager at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, said, “The conservation community in Texas has enjoyed a long legacy of working together to secure and safeguard the state’s most cherished and iconic landscapes and species, and this effort is no different. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and our partners, like TNC, will help protect South Padre Island from impacts like erosion and loss of habitat to ensure that the area’s sand, surf and wildlife will be available for people to enjoy for generations to come.”

While the northern and southern tips of Padre Island are developed, the remaining 90 miles of beach on which the new tracts sit represent one of the longest undeveloped portions of coastline in the contiguous United States. The newly-protected acres on South Padre Island will be incorporated into surrounding wildlife refuge lands at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Reserve. All existing access to the Gulf beach frontage will remain open for the public to enjoy opportunities for hiking, fishing, camping and more.

Spotlight: The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle

The smallest and most critically endangered of the world’s seven sea turtle species, the Kemp’s ridley is found primarily in the Gulf of Mexico. In the U.S., the majority of their nesting occurs on Padre Island, where hundreds of visitors gather each summer to watch hours-old hatchlings make their journey from the beach to the water. A natural imprinting process occurs along the way, enabling female sea turtles to return to the beaches from which they hatched to lay their own eggs.

The Kemp’s ridley population was historically threatened by predation, poaching, over-harvesting and by-catch from the commercial shrimping industry. In Texas, their numbers were nearly wiped out until the 1970s, when eggs from Mexico were translocated to the U.S. in a bi-national effort to restore the species and form a secondary nesting colony. Since then, these turtles and others from the wild stock have returned to nest, year after year, helping them repopulate on the south Texas coast.

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill polluted over 1,000 miles of shoreline spanning five states and devastated thousands of marine animals. Estimates show that up to 20 percent of oceanic juvenile Kemp's ridley sea turtles present during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill perished from oil exposure. This challenge, in addition to modern impacts such as beach erosion, coastal development, human contact and pollution, make the protection of Kemp’s ridley nesting habitat a critical priority for their survival. 

Safeguarding South Padre Island Our latest conservation deal in South Padre Island protects vital habitat for the endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtle.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.