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HISTORICAL – Houston’s Environmental Past

Sarah and Army Emmott at the Little Thicket Nature Sanctuary established by Joseph Heiser and the Outdoor Nature Club, circa 1950s. (Photo - Houston History Archives)

Sarah and Army Emmott at the Little Thicket Nature Sanctuary established by Joseph Heiser and the Outdoor Nature Club, circa 1950s. (Photo – Houston History Archives)

Since 1970, April celebrations of Earth Day inspire activism, re-dedication, and outdoor events designed to engage humans with the natural environment. Houstonians have a long and organized connection with the environment along the Texas Gulf Coast, a history that is sometimes overlooked in Earth Day Celebrations.

In 1923, Joseph Heiser founded the Outdoor Nature Club to encourage wilderness recreation, preservation and tourism. Heiser practiced a brand of amateur “conservation” that arose across the country following the rise of the experts during the Progressive Era. Historian Stephen Fox labeled such activists “radical amateurs,” for their ceaseless efforts to preserve and enjoy America’s natural heritage.1

Sarah and Army Emmott were members of the Outdoor Nature Club. In the late 1950s, the Emmotts along with others protested against a Texas Supreme Court ruling that allowed parceling of private tracts along Texas beaches. Founding Texas Beaches Unlimited, the Emmotts identified legal grounds to challenge the ruling and enlisted support from Texas Representative Bob Eckhardt to secure in 1959 the Texas Open Beaches Act, the first such legislation passed in the United States. An array of conservation campaigns across the country during the 1950s introduced the “environmental” activism of the 1960s.

In 1966, Terry Hershey noticed devastation along Buffalo Bayou caused by flood control efforts. Coordinating groups and individuals, Hershey called upon the Emmotts, appealed to the Outdoor Nature Club and re-ignited the Buffalo Bayou Preservation Association. Following an arduous campaign and passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Army Corps of Engineers canceled that particular project on Buffalo Bayou in 1971.

Despite Houston’s reputation as a laissez faire city, groups of Houston’s citizens labored throughout the 20th century to usher volunteer conservation, environmental action, and later sustainable management, into the 21st century. Hershey’s efforts during the 1960s led to the formation of an environmental community with proliferation of organizations seeking to protect the city’s natural resources and inform the public on issues from transportation and air quality to parks and urban gardening to effective and aesthetic flood management.


Terry Hershey, circa 2011. (Photo – Brian Swett, Pagosa Springs, Co)


  1. Stephen Fox, American Conservation Movement: John Muir and His Legacy. New York: Little, Brown, 1981.


Author Dr. Teresa (Terry) Tomkins-Walsh is historian and archivist for the Houston History Archives with the Center for Public History at the University of Houston. Located in Special Collections at the UH Libraries, the Archives collects historical documents on the growth and development of Houston with particular concentrations in energy, environmental and ethnic history. Contact her at tomkinswalsh@uh.edu.
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