Recently, The Daily News ran a series about economic and environmental value of and need to preserve and restore our coastal wetlands (Low Lands, High Stakes). The wetlands of the Galveston Bay estuary cover 384,000 acres and the shoreline is 171 miles. The 50-mile drive from Houston to Galveston passes by and through large sections of these wetlands, but it’s not easy to experience the various types of vegetation and marine and bird life supported there. However, once on Galveston Island turn west for about 9 miles and there in the 2,000 acres of the park you can see close up, in miniature, both natural and reconstructed Galveston Bay wetlands.

The bay periphery of the park is only one-and a-half miles wide, yet it contains about 10 miles of shoreline because in that width there are four bayous and three coves. The bayous don’t fit the dictionary definition since there’s no river involved, but they’re marsh-lined, half-mile long narrow bay projections into the park. The coves are wide, roughly semicircular, bay projections.

Southern ends of the bayous are ringed by a broad swath of variegated marsh, predominantly low-growing succulents in shades of green and yellow in spring and summer that change to vivid reds, browns and blacks in fall and winter. Succulents are ringed by a narrow band of black needle reeds in a sea of dark green cordgrass. Long narrow peninsulas between bayous form bayou shorelines that are lined with a narrow band of smooth cordgrass marsh, but there’s an abrupt transition from salt water vegetation at water edge to freshwater growth on the slightly elevated midsection.

Further north, the terrain drops to near sea level, and tides form salt flats ringed by succulents and salt grasses. At the north end cordgrass grows out of the mud forming acres of natural marsh. Cove shorelines also are lined with cordgrass marsh of varying width. Additionally, the shallow cove waters foster seagrass growth over large areas of the muddy bottom. Barren topped marsh grass ringed islands formed from sand dredged from the bay fill half-mile wide Carancahua Cove to restore the natural marsh that once filled the cove.

Shallow waters and muddy bottoms of marshes provide both shelter and food for a variety of finned and shell fish and crustaceans that hatch and grow there until large enough to enter the Gulf of Mexico. These same grasses and islands provide sheltered nesting sites for shorebirds and large long leg wading birds, and growing sea creatures comprise their food.

Glimpses of natural and manmade wetlands can be seen from the paved park roadways, and hiking trails lead from roadways through marshes, along bayou shorelines, through salt flats and into marshes. Two observation towers along trails provide a panoramic view of this wetlands splendor, but the best way to get up close is to bring a kayak and paddle the three trails that take you into the marshes and among the islands.

Frank J. Bowser lives in Galveston.

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