Natural Resources in Houston

Increasing shares of developed land indicate economic and ecosystem shifts throughout the three-county area

Despite economic prominence at the state-level, farm, forest and wetlands are in decline in the Houston area.

Why natural resources matter to Houston

Houston is a community rich in natural resources and ecosystems with a mix of bayous, prairies, wetlands and forests. Houston’s land and water supplies provide space for residents to live, play and work. But more importantly, they provide habitats for fish and wildlife and for agricultural purposes. However, many of these assets both natural habitats and altered farm and ranch lands are being lost or destroyed to accommodate the growing number of people who live in urban centers. Because having nature near urban centers is important for maintaining biodiversity as well as for contributing to the quality of life, managing protected areas and conserving land in urban environments is essential to safeguard the Houston area landscape and its heritage.

The better we understand natural and developed land use in our region, the more we can do to protect the natural resources that make our communities vibrant places to live and play.

The data

Developed land increasingly sprawls across our region

Land cover data from H-GAC and Texas 2036 for the past 17 years shows that the growth of developed land in all three counties has occurred at the expense of many other land cover types, with especially large declines in land cover devoted to cultivated crops, wetlands and forests.

Between 2001 and 2018, land cover trends in all three counties have shifted dramatically in favor of developed land. During this period, Fort Bend County went from 59% of agricultural land cover to just 15%. However, Fort Bend still boasts the region’s greatest percentage of agricultural land and the lowest percentage of developed land. Cultivated crops land has been all but eliminated in Harris and Montgomery counties where it represents 1% and 0% of land cover respectively, although Montgomery County retains a strong (but declining) percent of forest land cover, at 43% as of 2018. The pasture and grassland cover has also increased throughout our region, growing the most in Fort Bend County (34 percentage points) from 2001 to 2018. Much of the transition from cultivated crops to pasture and grassland use signals a change in farm type and possible future development.

460+ square miles

Fort Bend County has the largest land cover of cultivated crops, pasture and grasslands combined in the three-county area.

Declining forest and agricultural land cover reflect changing economic priorities in the three-county area

Texas forests have historically been of great importance for the environmental and economic development of the state. The vast availability of woodlands helped the development of the lumber industry in the state.

While forest land is still an important economic resource at the state level with some of the densest forest lands in the country, data shows a significant decrease in the annual percentage of forest between 2011 and 2018 in all three counties, consistent with shifting economic priorities and development pressures in our region. The highest level of forest coverage is in Montgomery County, with a total of 461.47 square miles.

During the same period, all three counties have seen a considerable decrease in the percentage of wetland. Preservation and environmental protection of the forest and wetlands are a key priority of the state.

“The low levels and gradual decline of wetland coverage throughout the three-county area come with increased risk of flooding from heavy rainfall in urban areas.”

While farming and agriculture remain a defining force in Texas’ state economy, the number of farms in each of the three counties has been in decline, albeit inconsistently. The number of farms in Harris County remained mostly consistent from 1997 to 2012, punctuated by a sharp increase between 1997 and 2002. Montgomery County lost 285 farms between 2007 and 2012, the highest among the three counties.