AUSTIN – The ability to manage land in difficult times, through extended dry periods, floods, wildfires and economic downturns, is the hallmark of a good land steward. In spite of the challenges, many owners of rural land continue to safeguard the wildlife, fields, forests and waters of Texas, even though many urban residents may not know it.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Lone Star Land Steward Awards program recognizes those private landowners for excellence in habitat management and wildlife conservation. The awards also seek to publicize the best examples of sound natural resource management practices and promote long-term conservation of unique natural and cultural resources.
This year’s crop of award winners represents broad and sometimes unique conservation goals, from traditional wildlife management alongside livestock operations to next generation conservationists.
On May 16 in Austin, award recipients representing ecologically diverse regions of the state will be recognized. Also during the annual banquet, the prestigious Leopold Conservation Award, the highest honor awarded in the program, will also be presented by the Sand County Foundation.
“The 2019 winners are diverse in property size and management focus but what they all have in common is a love for the land and a desire to make it the best functioning system it can be,” said Justin Dreibelbis, director of TPWD’s Private Lands and Public Hunting program. “The clean air, water, food and fiber that come from these properties is important to all Texans and we are honored to be able to recognize this group of land stewards for their efforts.”
Following is a list of this year’s ecological region award recipients, and a summary of their stewardship achievements:
Blackland Prairie — Vacek Family Farm
Ultimately, the land management goal of the Vacek Family Farm in Fayette County is to protect the natural and cultural resources of the property to ensure the family will be able to enjoy the land and wildlife in perpetuity. By implementing a conservation easement with Colorado River Land Trust (CRLT), the Vacek family has preserved the natural, scenic open space of the farm. Additionally, the family conserves the natural resources of the property through rotational grazing, brush management and native grass planting. These management techniques create suitable habitat for an abundance of native wildlife that can be enjoyed by the entire family. By utilizing these conservation tools, the Vacek family is building a strong land and wildlife stewardship legacy to last for generations.
Cross Timbers — Pigfoot Ranch
The Head family’s goal for the Pigfoot Ranch in Mills County is to develop and sustain an ecosystem as near as possible to the way it existed before their family purchased the ranch in 1885. A priority management goal is to restore the land to predominantly native rangeland. By promoting native plants that have evolved into healthy eco-systems over thousands of years, the Head family has had success in conserving soil, clean air and clean water. Within this sustainable framework, their goal is to produce wildlife that are healthy and appealing to hunters. They also seek to produce livestock that are free-roaming and produce food and fiber in the most natural of settings. The family saying “Keep it, preserve it and share it with future generations” is something that they intentionally live out in practice when sharing what they have learned on the Pigfoot ranch. The landowners put an emphasis on fostering community at all levels by using the Pigfoot as a meeting ground to share ideas regarding land management and stewardship. They hope to continue to share the experience of being in the outdoors with hunters, bird watchers, naturalists, ranchers and various eco-tourists.
Edwards Plateau – The H. E. Butt Foundation Camps
Since purchasing the Real County property northwest of San Antonio in 1954, the H. E. Butt Foundation has sought to create a natural setting for spiritual renewal. Land stewardship objectives direct activities to achieve the goal of managing the property so that animal and plant life is diverse, balanced, robust and native. The Foundation currently operates five programs at six camp facilities where land management practices are rooted in the long-term vision that the property can be even healthier and more beautiful in 50 years than it is today. This is accomplished through habitat management practices, including: extensive ashe juniper clearing, prescribed burning, population control of native and exotic wildlife species, control of invasive plants, and native plant reseeding efforts. Each year thousands of camp visitors are able to enjoy the fruits of the Foundation’s labor while participating in activities such as bird and wildlife watching, photography, hiking, biking, kayaking, and canoeing during their stay.
Post Oak Savannah — Lochridge Ranch
The overriding management goal for the Cox family with Lochridge Ranch in Henderson and Anderson counties is to enhance and conserve the native ecosystem while maximizing the health, welfare and productivity of the local flora and fauna. Stewardship efforts over the years have demonstrated that livestock production and outdoor recreation activities are not counterproductive to healthy resource management. Prior to the acquisition of what is now Lochridge Ranch, much of the land had been used for cattle production. Clearing of timber, introduction of nonnative pasture, erosion and overgrazing had decreased the native post oak savanna and bottomland hardwood ecosystems. Some of it damaged to the extent that it could never be reestablished within any realm of economic feasibility. Today’s ranch is a far cry from the landscape that existed 50 years ago. Wetlands have been restored, upland timber thinned and burned, bottomland hardwoods reestablished, and fish and wildlife populations have responded accordingly. Through their wildlife and habitat restoration efforts, the Cox family is leaving an important family legacy of stewardship in some imperiled habitat types of east Texas.
Rolling Plains — Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch
The RPQRR in Fisher County not only employs the techniques from master conservationist Aldo Leopold’s toolbox, i.e., “axe, plow, cow, fire” to foster plant communities and habitat structure of benefit to bobwhites, but also serves as an “information agent” in order to disseminate these strategies to other area stakeholders. Successful habitat management in the western Rolling Plains begins with managing the water cycle, and the ranch achieves this objective through grassland conservation. By maintaining grasses on the landscape for quail nesting cover, the RPQRR also maximizes water infiltration. While the ranch’s main focus is solving for the quail equation, they also recognize the importance of other species, e.g., small mammals and arthropods.
South Texas — Kirchoff Farm
The Kirchoff’s conservation goal for their Wilson County property is to ensure the family land that they have reverted from cotton fields to native prairie is protected for future generations. They have placed the property into a conservation easement restricting the use of the land in the future. Another effort to protect the restoration effort includes plans to establish a brush barrier along the southern boundary of the property to reduce the invasion of non-native bluestem grasses. They are also investing in moist soil management to establish seasonal wetland habitat for wintering waterfowl and wading birds. The Kirchoff’s also have implemented several experiments to control invasive grasses and semi-woody species and to use stands of tall grasses to crowd out invasive species.
Toyota is the presenting sponsor for the 2019 Lone Star Land Steward awards, with major gold level sponsors that include: Bud Light/Silver Eagle Distributors, Dallas Safari Club, the Perry R. Bass II Foundation, Shield Ranch, and the Winkler Ranch. Silver level sponsors: Apache Corporation, Lower Colorado River Authority Creekside Conservation Program & Colorado River Land Trust, Mary & Mike Terry, Partners for Fish & Wildlife – U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Wexford Ranches. Bronze level sponsors: 4K Ranch and Farm Operations, Warren & Dori Blesh, the Brown Ranch, Danny & Shirley Butler, Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, Capital Farm Credit, Dixon Water Foundation, Dorothy Drummer & Associates, East Foundation, Dick & Jimmie Ruth Evans, Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, Nancy White Hughes, Land of America & LAND Magazines, Llano Springs Ranch, Kasey Mock and the Mock Ranches Group, Mills County State Bank, National Wild Turkey Federation, Oncor Electric Delivery, Quail Forever, Republic Ranches, Simms Creek WMA, San Antonio River Authority, Spicewood Ranch/ Christopher M. Harte, Sycamore Canyon Ranch – The Russell Family, Ellen C. Temple, Texas A&M University Forest Service, Texas A&M University Natural Resources Institute, Texas Agriculture Land Trust, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Texas Farm Bureau, Texas Land Trust Council, Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, Texas Tech University Center at Junction Llano River Field Station, Texas Wildlife Association, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Wildlife Consultants, LLC, and Cathy and James Wright/Wright Double “J” Ranch.
Additional information about the Lone Star Land Stewards program can be found on the TPWD web site.