‘Environmental godmother of Houston’
Terry Hershey, an influential conservationist who prevented Buffalo Bayou from being channelized and stripped of its natural beauty, died Thursday, her 94th birthday.
Hershey is widely credited with jump-starting the environmental movement in Houston by fighting the reviled Buffalo Bayou project in the 1960s.
She later launched several conservation groups, inspiring legions to pick up the torch for the environment. A former member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, she also was a powerful advocate for parks and worked hard to make sure the state’s most spectacular places were protected.
“She was sort of like the environmental godmother of Houston,” said Jim Blackburn, a local environmental attorney. “She was a constant presence
in parks, in Buffalo Bayou, everything involved in environmental quality … she was interested in it all.”
Terese “Terry” Tarlton moved to Houston from Fort Worth to marry Jake W. Hershey in 1958. The fun-loving couple spent years in international yachting competitions before putting down permanent roots in the Memorial area.
It was there, in 1966, when Terry and her neighbors discovered bulldozers clearing land near Buffalo Bayou. Amazed to find out the Army Corps of Engineers had planned to straighten the bayou for flood control but hadn’t notified the public, Hershey called her local county commissioner, Squatty Lyons, and was promptly rebuffed.
“And it made me mad, and I stayed mad for 30 years,” Hershey said in a 2002 interview.
Hershey and the Buffalo Bayou Preservation Association managed to persuade the county commissioners to temporarily delay the project. Knowing she would need more firepower, Hershey turned to newly elected U.S. Rep. George H.W. Bush.
But she and her growing circle of friends also continued to challenge the Corps, the county commissioners and the Harris County Flood Control District.
“She was always charming, but very persuasive,” said Mike Talbott, the district’s former director. “She always wanted people to do the right thing and never hesitated to tell them what the right thing is.”
Their work culminated with the passage in 1972 of the National Environmental Policy Act, which among other things requires federal agencies to notify the public of plans that could have any negative environmental impact. Not long after that, the Buffalo Bayou project was dead.
Hershey liked to give credit to the “two Georges” — Bush and billionaire Texas oilman George P. Mitchell — for stopping the project.
But both men publicly deferred to Hershey, who Bush once quipped was a “force of nature for nature.”
The description stuck, and Hershey would go on to launch several other conservation-focused groups, such as Citizens Who Care, the Citizens Environmental Coalition and Urban Harvest. Not long after Ann Richards was elected governor, she appointed Hershey to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission in 1991. She was only the second woman appointed to the commission.
Hershey might have seemed an obvious choice. She founded the Park People, a group dedicated to parks and open space in Houston.
But at that time, the commission was geared toward hunting. Hershey was not a hunter. She was widely known for feeding the wildlife in her backyard. It was not uncommon for her to take a giant Ziploc bag out of her purse at fancy galas and stash away a half-eaten roll or some wilted lettuce.
Distaste for hunting
Her passion for wildlife helps explain why at the end of her first commission meeting, after a long debate on hunting regulations and the distribution of photos of dead deer, Hershey famously remarked, “All this talk makes me want to throw up.”
Andrew Sansom, the former director of the commission, said Hershey was branded “anti-hunting” for her comments and faced tremendous blowback from the incident.
Yet she was tenacious and went on to make her mark, most notably by promoting conservation easements to help preserve some of the state’s most ecologically valuable parcels of land.
“At the time, most people who were appointed to the commission were there because of their interest in hunting and fishing, which is obviously very important for the state,” Sansom said.
“But Terry was one of the first commissioners to come in there and really champion the state park system and things like wildlife viewing.”
Deflected the credit
Hershey’s influence extended far beyond Texas. She was a leader in many national organizations, serving as a trustee of The National Recreation and Park Association, The Trust for Public Land, The National Audubon Society, The National Association of Flood Plain Managers and The National Recreation Foundation.
Several prominent awards bear her name, such as Audubon Texas’ Terry Hershey Women in Conservation Awards.
Hershey always brushed off personal tributes, expressing appreciation but insisting others did the hard work.
In 2013, she told the Chronicle: “I made little differences here and there. That’s all you can do as one human. You can help by joining groups that do good things, and you can give your time if you’re lucky.”
Hershey was preceded in death by her husband, in 2001.
Donations in her name may be made to The Bayou Preservation Association, Planned Parenthood of Texas and The Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation.
“She was always charming, but very persuasive. She always wanted people to do the right thing and never hesitated to tell them what the right thing is.” Mike Talbott, former director, Harris County Flood Control District