By Colleen Schreiber
ALPINE — Former First Lady Laura Bush came home to West Texas recently, to the Trans-Pecos, a place that she has cherished since a young child.
She came here to do what she did as First Lady, to listen to the people, specifically to the stewards of the private lands in the Trans-Pecos. She also heard from leaders of a wide variety of conservation groups actively engaged in stewardship and conservation efforts in the Trans-Pecos.
Mrs. Bush was here on behalf of her newest initiative, Taking Care of Texas, formally launched in 2011, and what she heard from the stewards of the land in this conservation briefing about the Trans-Pecos were concerns about water, fragmentation, relevance, a disconnect between the producers of the food and fiber and the consumers of those food and fibers, global markets and world population to funding issues and a lack of a appreciation and understanding by the general public for the many economic benefits derived from private lands for the public good.
Dr. Louis Harveson, director of Borderlands Research Institute, the host of the event, welcomed Mrs. Bush.
“We’re very excited to bring someone of Mrs. Bush’s status to the conservation forefront to partner with her not only in the Trans-Pecos but throughout the state.”
Before Mrs. Bush turned her ear to the crowd, she offered some opening remarks about her beloved West Texas. Calling it one of her favorite places in the world and adding “and I’ve seen the world,” Mrs. Bush recalled childhood memories of staying at Indian Lodge and swimming at Balmorhea. She talked about how her three year-old twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna, rode a horse for the first time during a Sunday school retreat to Prude Ranch.
She talked about hiking in Big Bend National Park last year with some of her childhood friends. Mrs. Bush also shared her passion for native prairie restoration when she talked about the ongoing restoration work that she and President Bush are doing on their Crawford ranch.
Finally, Mrs. Bush shared some additional comments about what she hopes to accomplish through the Taking Care of Texas initiative. Though very much in a fledgling state, the group’s intent is to communicate, catalyze and connect. Specifically, according to press materials, their intent is to communicate the value of safeguarding the state’s natural resources, to catalyze successful conservation based on proven practices, and to connect natural resource users, science-based conservation experts and private industry financial supporters to implement practical, innovative solutions that not only solve a problem, but also lay the groundwork for continuing partnerships.
Calling the participating groups in the luncheon forum “the heart of conservation,” Mrs. Bush told participants that the idea is to reach out to every single conservation group across the state, from the large, well-known groups to the much smaller local groups like the Midland Naturalists, known by the locals and its members as the “Midnats”, a group that her mother is a member of.
“We have a broad, broad reach if we can all work together,” she stressed. “As tough and as hard as it looks, our ecological system is fragile and it needs us to be able to make sure we take care of it.”
Prior to the panel discussion, Harveson took to the podium again to introduce the Trans-Pecos to those attending who were not familiar with the area. One of the most diverse ecological regions in the state, Harveson told listeners, the Trans-Pecos has been described as “Sky islands surrounded by a sea of desert.”
The region is home to a diverse array of flora and fauna, including more than 1200 plants, 16 species of hummingbirds, the desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, desert mule deer, whitetail, elk, mountain lions, and bear, to name but a few.
“People can’t help but be overwhelmed with nature and conservation because it is inherent to the region, whether you’re a traveler or someone who lives here,” Harveson remarked.
Half a million people, he said, come to this remote part of Texas to enjoy the treasures like Big Bend National Park, the various state parks and also the wildlife management areas. It is the matrix of private lands, however, Harveson said, that make the region special.
“It’s the private landowners who are carrying the load. They’re the ones who are doing conservation on the ground.”
Dr. Neal Wilkins, board member of TCT and president and CEO of the newly formed Robert East Wildlife Foundation, provided some specifics with regard to the demographics of the area.
He noted that private lands in the Trans-Pecos make up more than 70 percent of the area, encompassing
16.3 million acres. Those 16.3 million acres are owned and operated by about 2000 individual operators, and 600 of these individuals own properties greater than 2000 acres in size. However, the average ownership size in the Trans-Pecos is about 7500 acres. Wilkins noted, however, that since the year 2000 that figure has declined by about 70 acres per year.
“What that means is we’re converting about 36,000 acres per year out of ranching into other uses in this region, which on a percentage basis is relatively small. In addition, many large ranches are being fragmented into smaller ownerships.”
With that descriptive background, Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and moderator of the panel discussion, asked panelists for their perspectives on the top two or three issues facing the Trans-Pecos in the next five to 10 years. Second, panelists were asked to offer their opinion on the missing elements necessary to encourage and enhance voluntary conservation and stewardship in the Trans-Pecos.
Jon Means, whose family has ranched in the Davis Mountains since the 1800s, put the questions aside and first welcomed Mrs. Bush, referring to her as “his” First Lady.
“Thank you for what you’ve done for Texas, and I thank you for what you’ve done for the world.”
Means told listeners that the three most pressing issues facing West Texans are water, water and water. He then stepped back and highlighted the issue, looking at it from a global perspective. He noted that production agriculture is the largest user of water, “and rightfully so.” He also noted that there are seven billion people in the world, a figure that is expected to double in 20 years, and that 96 percent of the people in the world live outside the U.S.
“We have the resources to feed the world, and we have a moral obligation to do so,” Means said, “but we cannot feed these people without water.”
He pointed to the devastating drouth that no longer is just impacting parts of Texas but a vast majority of the country, particularly the nation’s breadbasket.
“When they’re hauling water to cows in Indiana, trust me, they’re dry,” Means told listeners.
The markets, he noted, are in turmoil. Imports and exports are being impacted by the drouth, and the volatility in the corn market in the end, he said, will impact all consumers in the form of higher food prices.
“West Texas is fragile. We all know that,” Means stated. “We do understand out here better than a lot of people how precious water is. We can’t make it rain, but we can put practices into effect so that when it does rain we are better able to conserve and to use our water.”
As for the wildlife in the Trans-Pecos, Means commented that it is the stewards of the private lands who continue to help keep these populations sustainable.
Gary Joiner, CEO of the Texas Wildlife Association, reiterated what Means and speakers before him said. “Trust the landowner. The future of wildlife and wildlife habitat in this part of the state is depending on and is entrusted to private landowners.”
As for the challenges, Joiner stressed the need for all conservation organizations to come together to establish relevancy of the issues facing the Trans-Pecos.
“This is not a very large populous voice out here,” he reminded. “You all heard the demographics of who lives here. We need to articulate, promote and advocate the necessity and the desire to manage and find solutions to those issues to a larger state population.”
Harveson, also a member of the panel representing the research angle, pointed to concerns over fragmentation.
“We need these large ranches to stay together,” Harveson said. “They are the best thing for conservation on the landscape level.”
Funding, he said, is the missing element.
“Whether its incentive programs or cost-share programs, we need more to help landowners keep these properties together.”
Blair Fitzsimons, executive director of Texas Agricultural Land Trust, agreed that fragmentation is a concern, and she blamed part of the problem on estate tax issues, something that she said is not going to get better any time soon. With that in mind, Fitzsimons said part of the solution is to do a better job of articulating the public benefits provided by private lands and the stewards of those lands.
“Our local appraisal district has denied our nonprofit status because they feel we, as a land trust, who is in the business of helping people protect private lands, don’t provide public benefits. They say there is no public benefit to protecting private lands. It’s a minor issue, but it really symbolizes, in my mind, the challenge that all of us in private lands conservation have.”
In addition to articulating those benefits, Fitzsimons opined that the designers of the incentive programs need to get better at designing such programs.
“I tell my colleagues in the land trust business that we can’t make conservation expensive, and it can’t be so restrictive that it takes away a landowner’s ability to derive income from the land.”
Billy Tarrant, wildlife biologist and West Texas regional director for TPWD, pointed to the commonalities noted by other panelists, first and foremost, the importance of water.
“Most ranches in the Trans-Pecos are typically well watered for livestock purposes, but we remain mindful that if groundwater resources get depleted, that could have a significant impact on a wide variety of wildlife.”
He, too, voiced concern with land fragmentation.
“Our wildlife require large expanses of contiguous habitat. When places get broken up, it has serious impacts.”
The case he used to make his point was the breakup of some large desert grassland ranches into small “Internet” sale properties. The resulting infrastructure and road systems, Tarrant said, seriously impacted the pronghorn population in that area.
Tarrant also talked about the real and ever growing concern with invasive species, both plants and animals. Finally, as for what is missing, Tarrant pointed to the need for continued research funding to answer the questions that landowners have.
“While we are blessed with tremendous research partners such as Borderlands Research Institute, they can only help us answer the questions that have a funding mechanism attached to them.
“Also, even though increasing demand for land management support systems is positive, we all face considerable challenges with personnel and resources that impact our ability to successfully provide good customer service to those folks,” Tarrant commented.
The discussion turned to some of the positive conservation stories in the Trans-Pecos. The one that was repeatedly noted was the restoration of the desert bighorn, a project made possible largely through the cooperation and collaboration of the Texas Bighorn Society, private landowners and TPWD.
David Wetzel, president of the Texas Bighorn Society, talked about how they’ve spread water across the landscape. They’ve done this through the use of strategically placed guzzlers which collect the rains that fall on the landscape so the water can be rationed out over time.
“We all share a common interest,” Wetzel told the group. “We’re all here because we care. We may not agree on everything, but we can all work toward the things in which we do agree.”
Means called the bighorn restoration project a “remarkable success story.” He also pointed to the research and restoration efforts of the Pronghorn Working Group.
On that front Tarrant shared numbers from the department’s recently completed annual pronghorn population survey.
“A similar kind of decline that we’ve been seeing in the Marfa Plateau, Marathon basin and Alpine area is now occurring in Culberson and Hudspeth County,” Tarrant told the group. “We’re probably looking at another 1000 animals lost, which means we’re down to 2600 to 2700 pronghorn left in the entire Trans-Pecos. In 1987, we were at 17,000 and now we’re under 3000, so it’s pretty dire. In fact, it’s the lowest since we started restoring pronghorns back in the 1940s.”
While the Pronghorn Working Group cannot yet claim victory in terms of the actual restoration of the species, what the team of scientists, biologists and landowners have learned, Means stressed, is hugely valuable.
“All of this information and scientific data will pay huge dividends for many years to come,” Means insisted.
He also pointed to the commonality in this project. Referencing an old cliché, Means said, “Everyone from the butcher to the baker and the candlestick maker is on board. And, for these kinds of attempts, that’s what it takes. It also takes trust, and it takes believing in the outcome. We haven’t given up.”
Because there was a lot of discussion about native plant restoration, something which Mrs. Bush highlighted, Dr. Bonnie Warnock, associate professor and department chair for the Department of Natural Resource Management at Sul Ross State University, was asked to brief the group on Texas Native Seeds, an offshoot and expansion of the successful South Texas Natives project initiated by the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute.
Warnock acknowledged that Texas Native Seeds, at least in West Texas, is still “getting its legs” as the wildfires and severe drouth set them back some.
The idea of the project is to develop commercial mixes of native seeds specifically adapted to the Trans-Pecos. It’s a long and tedious process, and the first step, Warnock explained, involves gathering native seeds from area ranches. Warnock and the TNS team are in the process of doing that now on some sites where rains have finally allowed for some of the plants to set seed. The team will be gathering seeds from the same plant from several different sites in the Trans-Pecos. Those seeds will be used to establish test plots, and researchers will scientifically evaluate over several years which of the collections are in fact the most resilient, most adapted, most prolific in terms of seed production.
“We want native seeds that will work in restoration programs along roadsides, on pipelines, on oilfield pad sites,” Warnock noted. “We’re also working with the pronghorn group to identify some pronghorn-preferred forb species as well.”
Once they’ve determined the best of the best, TNS will approach farmers in Pecos, Balmorhea, and the Fort Stockton area about establishing “increaser fields.” It will be the native seeds from these increaser fields that in time will be made commercially available for restoration projects in the Trans-Pecos.
Mrs. Bush added to the discussion, and again her passion for native plant restoration came through.
“Right now while the price of oil is high, it’s a good time for us to pay attention to the surface,” Mrs. Bush remarked. “The people who are benefitting from the minerals need to reinvest in the surface.
“One of our goals is to work with oil companies and the operators, and get from you and from all the research being done by the research institutes information to help educate them on what they can do to mitigate surface damage.
“The domestic energy production is great for our country,” she continued, “but we also want to pay attention to the surface of our whole state. And, in many parts of our state you all know there are many farms that have been abandoned and degraded, and those areas can be restored as well.”
Warnock was also asked about the impact of the 2011 wildfires on the flora and fauna. Specifically, West Texas rancher Bobby McKnight asked about the impact the fires had on setting back some of the invasive type shrubs. He also suggested that the existing native seed lying dormant in the soil might now, with timely rains, have a better chance at getting established. Warnock concurred, saying that where there are pockets of native grasses it is better, at this point, to allow those areas to reseed themselves rather than spend large amounts of money to reseed with native seed that is not specifically adapted to the Trans-Pecos.
On burned areas that have had some timely rains, the warm season grasses such as tobosa, blue grama and sacaton are coming back nicely. On some sites, Warnock said, tobosa is knee high. Hall’s panicum, whose seeds are particularly good for grassland birds, has also come back strong. However, Warnock said she is concerned about the black grama which grows on the low, rocky, rolling hills.
“On areas where we’ve been doing some monitoring it’s looking like we have about 90 percent mortality on the black grama,” Warnock said. “We could be looking at a long road ahead for those low rolling hills.”
As for the wildlife, TPWD surveys indicate that the mule deer population is down 30 to 40 percent. Some adults died, Tarrant said, from toxic plants, which typically came in first following fire and drouth, but by and large, a lack of reproduction drove the decline, he said.
Harveson added that the drouth was hard on the quail population as well.
“We have several ongoing quail studies, and last year in particular on two of the three sites we had total reproductive failure,” Harveson commented. “We captured 500 to 600 birds, and each one was an adult — no chicks.”
He added that blue quail tend to bounce back somewhat better than the other quail species, and despite the spotty rains, he predicted that at least a hatch would come off this year.
The songbirds, Harveson continued, were also severely impacted by the drouth.
“There are more flowering plants on these table centerpieces here today than there were last year in West Texas. Consequently, we had hummingbird species lower their elevations preference looking for anything with a flower,” he commented.
“Overall, the drouth severely impacted all wildlife populations, and it’s going to take some time to recover,” Harveson reiterated. “They will but, in particular, the pronghorn is going to need some help.”
Harveson noted, too, that efforts like the Pronghorn Restoration Project need to be highlighted in popular press and across the nation to bring more attention and gain public buy-in to the challenges facing the region.
“Identifying the public values of private lands is a tough nut to crack, but it’s one of the biggest challenges we need to work on,” Harveson told listeners.
West Texas landowner and TCT board member Tina Buford agreed.
“Water has been an issue that most everyone has addressed as a concern, and also the public values of private lands are extremely important,” Buford noted. “We need to recognize the similar foundations within all these organizations and then work to bring our message together so that we’re speaking with a unified voice. If we elevate our message, we essentially affect many other dominoes,” Buford commented. “We must get those folks in Dallas and Houston to understand the services that the landowners provide them — clean water, clean air — things they truly value.”
Moderator Carter Smith pointed out that 85 percent of Texans live in one of the nine major metropolitan areas.
“Those people are far removed from the things we’re talking about today, but having that strong voice in the Trans-Pecos and taking that voice to where the people are is clearly something that we have to have going forward,” Smith reiterated.
Along with the need for education and the recognition of the public benefits of private lands, Fitzsimons noted that it needs to go a step further in that there needs to be economic incentives available to the stewards of those private lands. Furthermore, while government incentives are important, all citizens need to take ownership in helping pay for these public benefits.
She pointed to the state water plan as a prime example of where more is needed.
“One of the most important pieces of water legislation to come out of the legislature that deals with private lands is the state water plan. However, I think there may be only one or two mentions of the role of private lands in that plan,” Fitzsimons told listeners. “Private landowners steward the land where most of the rain falls. Yet we have no landowner incentives in that water plan. We need programs built into that plan to help incentivize those landowners who manage the watersheds to encourage them to keep managing those watersheds and to keep them from being fragmented.
“What that looks like, I think, is very specific to the region,” she continued. “It’s very difficult to come up with a cookie cutter approach, but regardless, it needs to be a program that does not lead to more government intervention, and it needs to recognize the role and the value of private land stewards.”
Several others commented that more could be done on the conservation front if more funding were available.
“We would like to be more engaged, and we are as much as we are able,” commented TPWD’s Billy Tarrant. “I think those opportunities on a broad scale are some of the most important, but we just can’t find the resources to make them happen.”
Fitzsimons agreed, noting that this is where collaboration is paramount.
“I’ve always thought that collaboration was an overused word, but in this era of severe cutbacks to our state agencies like TPWD and funding challenges that we as nonprofits all face, I think that collaboration and that ability to share resources and leverage each other’s projects, to take a piece and share it with others, is really, really critical.”
The landowner incentive discussion led to a comment and a question from a reporter from the Big Bend Sentinel.
“We live in a low regulation state which has an open season on mountain lions, and we’re talking about private landowners and talking about fragmentation, which is really a function of economics. What’s wrong with the government buying this land because not everyone is for incentivizing ranchers?” the reporter commented. “When I see a $75,000 pickup truck and you know they paid $51 (an acre) for 17 sections of land, you’ve got to wonder about that, so not everybody is for incentivizing landowners. Why not have government — state government — buy these lands that are for sale, so they can do something like what we did with Big Bend State Park, a marvelous success story? So I’m for more public lands.”
Fitzsimons responded that the answer starts with a $12 trillion deficit.
“Federal and state governments don’t have the money to buy the land, and secondly, research bears out that private landowners are excellent managers of that land, and that’s what we’re trying to support here. I would be very hesitant to have our government buy a lot of land right now.”
Mrs. Bush added to the discussion, pointing out that private lands contribute to the state’s coffers through the taxing structure. The public lands states, she noted, don’t have that luxury.
“Perhaps there’s not enough said about these private landowners who are wealthy — good for them — and what they do for our public lands, and how they make gifts and help our parks,” Regan Gammon, vice president of TCT, commented.
TPWD’s Carter Smith added that in so far as his agency is concerned, it’s not an either/or proposition.
“You’ve heard about the treasures out here — Big Bend, Balmorhea, Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area — the places that we do steward on behalf of everyone in this room and on behalf of the 24 million Texans. We want to do as good a job as we can, and so we have to figure out a way first and foremost to take care of what we have and what we’ve got and lead by example.”
Smith added, “In a state that is 95 percent privately owned, the only way we’re going to achieve any kind of meaningful conservation at scale is through voluntary partnership with private landowners in which we try to provide resources and assistance if they want it and by choice. We don’t force that on anyone, but when asked, we’re certainly there to provide help on issues that confront them on a day to day basis.”
The roundtable discussion concluded with a wrap-up from Katharine Armstrong Love, former chair of Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission and president of the board of TCT.
“The point was made here so many times that there just aren’t enough tax dollars in the world to get done what the private landowners of Texas do mostly out of a passion,” Armstrong Love told listeners. “There are some awards; there are some incentives; there needs to be more,but the majority of the work is driven by love and passion and a sense of duty, and we must remember that. Our FirstLady appreciates that.
“I can’t think of a more beloved and effective voice than Laura Bush to help spread the word of all the good things that get done and to help take the message from the country to the city to share why urban Texas needs to care about what happens in rural Texas,” she concluded.