Neblett tapped to lead NERR
University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute, says that with a grin. But the fact is that Fuiman announced Neblett's appointment Monday morning,
and that afternoon, Nov. 27, she was in Rockport talking to officials about a cooperative marine education program.
The Mission-Aransas NERR became official in May; it's been without a director since Dr. Paul Montagna, who had worked seven years to get the program, accepted a position at the Harte Institute at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi in July.
It's one of 27 national estuarine research reserves under a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) program that conducts research and education in coastal states. NOAA provides the funding; a local lead agency - in this case, MSI - actually operates the reserve.
Neblett, who is not a marine scientist, was chosen for the position by Fuiman and Dr. Mary Ann Rankin, dean of the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.
However, Neblett, a former chair of the Corpus Christi Regional Transportation Authority board and former Port Aransas mayor, has spent much of her career meeting people who can help.
"The next step for the NERR will be to develop partnerships within the state and local community, and that's where Georgia's going to be really important to us," Fuiman said. "She has good connections and has already built up a great network of people."
Indeed, Neblett said her first step will be to get acquainted with the people in the Texas General Land Office (GLO) who will be working with the NERR.
"The (GLO) attorney is somebody I worked closely with when I was mayor," Neblett said. "I'm looking forward to seeing him again with a different hat on."
Also high on her agenda is finding funding for some of the NERR projects.
Fuiman said the NERR has a list of construction and acquisition projects, and tops on that list is building a headquarters on the MSI grounds, between the MSI administration building and Cotter Avenue.
"(The headquarters) will house the research activities of the NERR as well as the administrative activities," he said. Fuiman said he expected the headquarters building to cost $10-$15 million.
Another upcoming project - "Not too much later," Fuiman said - will be a visitors' center in Rockport.
Neblett said she had met on Monday with newly-elected state Rep. Juan Garcia, D-Corpus Christi, and newly-elected state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, to go over some of the legislative initiatives connected with the reserve.
Garcia, who unseated Gene Seaman earlier this month, will represent Texas House District 32, which includes Calhoun, Aransas and San Patricio counties and the eastern part of Nueces County.
Hegar's Senate district 18 includes Aransas and Refugio counties and extends as far north as Bastrop and Brenham.
Neblett said she wants to ensure a presence in the visitors' center for both the university and the NERR.
"That's one of the things both the mayor of Rockport and the county judge said they want to see happen," she said.
Although planning isn't far enough along on the visitors' center to pinpoint a site, Neblett said concepts have been agreed on.
"I think we could certainly say that the (Rockport-Fulton) Chamber of Commerce, the Aransas County Navigation District and the Mission Aransas NERR ... are looking forward to being partners, that's how it's envisioned right now," Neblett said.
"The Navigation District has identified some land that would meet ... needs, and would probably be an excellent visitors' center site."
Besides the GLO, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Coastal Bend Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy, Fennessey Ranch, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program are already partners in the NERR project.
Already, three of the four platforms designed to collect data on the estuary system have been built, and the fourth is under construction. The platforms will send the data from the Mission Aransas NERR to a nationwide NERR center in South Carolina as well as to the Texas A&M University Coastal Ocean Observation Network. That's a system of buoys that reports water conditions from Port Isabel up to Sabine Pass.
Fuiman said besides local programs, the NERR will also conduct programs that are mandated by the national system of research reserves. Those include system-wide monitoring and coastal training, he said. Also part of the reserve's mandate are freshwater inflow research, climate change research, marine debris removal, habitat mapping, teacher training and student field trips.
The research is expected to benefit not only "hard science" but social science as well, said assistant reserve director Sally Morehead, including information that will allow cities and counties to do better planning.
Backers have emphasized from the beginning that the Mission-Aransas reserve is not a regulatory program. Instead, they said, it's designed to bring together scientists, landowners, policy makers and the public to ensure that coastal decisions benefit flora and fauna, water quality and people.
The local reserve covers 185,708 acres of wetland, upland and water between the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and the State Hwy. 361 causeway between Port Aransas and Aransas Pass. It includes coastal prairie, freshwater and saltwater marshes, wind tidal flats, seagrass meadows, mangroves and oyster reefs.
The Mission-Aransas reserve is the only such project in the western Gulf of Mexico.