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On Higher Ground

By E. Dan Klepper

Clay and Jody Miller’s stewardship of their Trans-Pecos ranch brings the Lone Star Land Steward Award to a new level.

I have lost track of the number of dust devils strafing the alluvial fans of the West Texas mountain country by the time I find the road to the C.E. Miller Ranch. After counting 30 or so, I no longer can determine whether I am seeing fresh wind or only adding up old whirl that had vanished temporarily, then availed itself once again upon more loose dust.

After passing through the little town of Valentine, population 185, the road to the ranch turns south off U.S. 90 and heads straight into the Sierra Vieja Mountains. The roadbed zig-zags among flats of creosote, cholla and blooming yucca. I pass through the belly of a scrawny whirlwind, then watch it bump across the dry tracks and scrubby bajadas, sucking up sand and caliche and the pulverized remnants of the region’s volatile past. I stop to take its picture but it dissipates too quickly, its vigor spent as its resources scatter.

After another nine miles I drive through the ranch gate. Unlike the transient whirlwind, the landscape I enter offers a robust and lasting impression. The C.E. Miller Ranch, a 33,000-acre swath of the Trans-Pecos owned and operated by Clay and Jody Miller, has remained almost unchanged since Clay Miller’s great-grandmother first set eyes on it in the 19th century.

The landscape owes its current good health to the careful and educated stewardship of the Miller family. In recognition of their efforts, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has awarded Clay and Jody Miller the 2003 Lone Star Land Steward Award. This statewide award was established to honor private landowners for their outstanding accomplishments in habitat and wildlife conservation. It is an impressive distinction, but after taking in the sweeping view of the Millers’ legacy as it rolls across the grassland range and over the rugged Sierra Vieja rimrock, I feel that the award’s status has just been elevated.

Tides of grasses including tobosa, blue and sideoats gramma and cane bluestem flow along the course of the draws. Alligator juniper, madrone and Emory oak woodlands share the ranch with seeps and canyon springs and bigtooth maples. Mule deer, pronghorn antelope and javelina pepper the ground, while hundreds of species of birds share the skies.

Since its purchase in 1925 by Clay Miller’s father, Espy Miller, the ranch has functioned primarily as a cattle operation and has survived devastating drought, primarily through proper range management. How did Espy Miller practice wise land use in the early 20th century?

“The best he knew how,” says Clay. “The drought of 1934 was pretty catastrophic for the whole area. He realized that the country had been severely overstocked prior to that time. It was primarily a matter of stocking rates.”

Clay and Jody moved to the ranch in 1949 and took over ranch operations in 1960 upon the elder Miller’s death. They have done much to uphold wise land use practices and have added many programs of their own, including mule deer and pronghorn antelope harvests. The Millers use TPWD’s Wildlife Division census numbers to regulate the hunts.

“There has always been a population of antelope in the valley,” says Clay, “but in my youth it was exceptional to see a pronghorn on the ranch.”

By maintaining an extensive water system, including pipelines, troughs and natural seeps, the Millers have aided wildlife populations. “After the land was settled, it was originally watered primarily by wells with windmills,” Clay Miller recalls. “At one time I took care of 14 windmills. But we have retired nearly all of the windmills during our tenure. We now use three wells, available surface water, submersible pumps, booster pumps and a system of pipelines to distribute water throughout the ranch and its remote locations.”

The stunning ZH Canyon, believed to be named after an area resident of the late 1800s, begins at the rimrock a mile or so behind the Miller’s home. “The water for our house is piped fresh from ZH Canyon,” Jody Miller says. The Millers have sustained a Dr. Seuss-like trail of pipe that begins at the mouth of the canyon, then crisscrosses the landscape, clinging to volcanic bluffs and bridging windswept draws to finally arrive at the ranch house with pure, untreated drinking water.

Birds are abundant across the ranchland and the Millers, both enthusiastic birders, have kept detailed records of observations.

“The bird count for the ranch is about 300 species,” says Jody Miller. “We’ve included sightings in Valentine and in the mountains and on a few of the neighboring ranches.”

The ranch is a highly anticipated destination for many of the region’s birding clubs. Members of the El Paso/Trans Pecos chapter of the Audubon Society, the American Birding Association, and the Texas Ornithological Society have all been enthusiastic benefactors of the Millers’ largesse. In one day, birders have identified as many as 100 species, says Jody Miller.

In 2002, the Millers began participating in an aplomado falcon release program. (See Betty Moore’s article “Return to the Range” in TP&W magazine’s December 2002 issue). “They are releasing more this summer,” Jody says. “We saw them pretty regularly for a while, but they dispersed over who knows how much distance. We are hopeful that they are going to take hold.”

What has surely taken hold is the Millers’ hard work and enlightened land management, providing clear evidence that conservation and ranching can thrive hand-in-hand. It is a legacy that began, as have many of Texans’ finest achievements, with the courage and foresight of our ancestors.

“This was a new country opening up in the 1890s,” Clay Miller says, “and as many others did who settled this country, my great-grandfather left his home, arrived here and began the legal proceedings for acquiring some land. Then he rode back home to San Saba County in the late winter, got caught in a snowstorm, took pneumonia and died. So he never had the opportunity to live in this country. But he and my great-grandmother had several children, including a grown son in his 20s, and so my great-grandmother brought the family on anyway. The grown son did most of the physical labor and my great-grandmother took care of the rest. Her name was Amanda but I always called her Mammy.”

Gratitude is due Amanda for her commitment to recognizing and embracing all the bounty the Texas mountain country has to offer. But Texans have Clay and Jody Miller to thank for making it last.

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