Making the Case for Stewardship
On the South Texas plains, restoration efforts pay off for Rene Barrientos, Lone Star Land Steward of the Year.
By Dan Oko
One look at Rene Barrientos’ cowboy boots would dissuade anyone from considering the South Texas attorney and winner of the 2004 Lone Star Land Steward Award merely a gentleman rancher. Sure, Barrientos maintains busy offices in San Antonio and Laredo, and journalists have to compete with the attention of federal judges when setting an appointment with the 50-year-old landowner. But when I arrive at La Golondrina Ranch in La Salle County, Barrientos is dressed in faded jeans and worn boots coated with dust. “It’s amazing when you close the gate behind you how your blood pressure drops,— says Barrientos. “Mine drops about 20 percent, which makes being here pretty therapeutic.—
Of course, it’s the therapy that Barrientos has performed on his 8,000-acre spread that garnered him the 2004 Lone Star Land Steward Award. The annual prize recognizes private landowners for their achievements in habitat restoration, preservation and wildlife management. In 1995, Barrientos purchased the supposedly “worn out— La Golondrina outside of the town of Cotulla (pop. 3,850); since then, he has worked with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and various federal agencies to rescue a sizable chunk of South Texas real estate from the brink of biological collapse. Using tools ranging from prescribed burns to hog trapping, Barrientos and company have eliminated a host of unwanted species, increased biological diversity and improved hunting opportunities while maintaining a working cattle ranch.
All this impresses consulting TPWD biologist Jimmy Rutledge: “People ask if the wildlife population and ecosystem response is textbook, but what we’ve seen goes way beyond textbook. A good environment contributed, but I credit the landowner who was willing to set the stage to allow for this sort of comeback.— As indicators of Barrientos’ success, Rutledge points to expanded grasslands, improved health of plant and animal communities, the presence of uncommon wildlife (such as the seldom seen chaoti, a large raccoon-like mammal) and bird species not normally found in the region. Furthermore, a 7-mile stretch of the Nueces River flows through the ranch adding biological value.
La Golondrina is not exactly movie-set handsome; but the broad horizons of the South Texas plains give the ranch a touch of that “Big Sky— feeling. As Barrientos and I tour, he points out various improvements. For example, workers recently completed 15 miles of cross fencing, enabling him to move cattle from range to range, which facilitates intensive grazing in some areas, allowing other areas to recover; or using cows to clear away underbrush elsewhere. Amid the mesquite trees and prickly pear, we pass acres of thick grass, including Arizona cottontop and pink pampas. Barrientos pauses to point out shrubs preferred by white-tailed deer, including the guyaacan, with its small green leaves.
Thanks to an unusually rainy summer, the undergrowth has the riotous look of a jungle rather than a landscape on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. But the ranch water supply hasn’t been left to chance; Barrientos says that water availability was one of his priorities in selecting the property. In addition to the seasonal flows of the Nueces, the Carrizo Aquifer beneath the ranch has enabled Barrientos to drill two wells. Twenty miles of pipeline carry water across the property to fill a growing number of strategically placed cisterns, which range from 10 to 20 feet across. Spigots are also positioned to pump water back into the Nueces when it occasionally runs dry. “In South Texas you plan for dry times, not for the good times,— he explains. “We didn’t want any animal to travel more than half a mile for water; and now in most cases it’s every quarter-mile. When the cattle are here, they are welcome to use it, but now it’s here for the wildlife forever.—
The wildlife certainly seems to be thriving under these conditions. Horned toad lizards have staged a comeback; alligators are found in the sloughs; and biologist Rutledge attests that more than 150 species of birds have been spotted on the ranch. During our midday drive, Barrientos and I spot roadrunner, crested caracara and red-tailed hawk among others. Habitat restoration has played a definite role in this success story, but the elimination of thousands of feral hogs and a heavy deer harvest have also helped improve conditions. What’s more, unlike many ranchers, Barrientos doesn’t merely tolerate but celebrates predators on his land: Bobcat, coyote, badger and mountain lion are all present.
As we travel along the dirt roads, it becomes apparent that Barrientos has dedicated more than time and money in creating a model ranch. At the turn of the last century the historic farming interests associated with the Iowa Colony (as opposed to the Houston suburb) owned the property, and they planted crops such as cotton, corn and onion; in fact, the area may be the birthplace of the original sweet Texas onion. By the time Barrientos got his hands on the property, overgrazing and farming had severely limited its productivity, but he has taken to heart the lessons inherent in helping restore the habitat for wildlife. “Going in, I knew some of the things I wanted to do,— he says. “But as you accomplish things, you see that the big picture is a whole lot bigger than you originally thought.—
According to Jimmy Rutledge, although Barrientos professed to want to improve wildlife conditions, he took some convincing on how exactly that would best be accomplished. “When he first contacted me,— Rutledge says, “it’s fair to say that he didn’t think much of my ideas. We laugh about it now, but that first phone call he was somewhat skeptical.—
For the first three years Barrientos owned the ranch, he removed all cattle; now he uses the cross fencing for a rotational grazing scheme that puts less pressure on the land. An aggressive prescribed burn program has been used to reinvigorate the grasslands, with 1,800 to 2,500 acres burned annually. Likewise, to promote native species re-vegetation, more than 1,000 acres of agricultural land have been taken out of production. Barrientos has enrolled in the federal Riparian Buffer Program, building contour fences to keep cattle out of the Nueces and off its banks. The next challenge will be to bring back more indigenous plants, says Rutledge.
As a youngster in Eagle Pass, Barrientos grew up hunting and fishing, usually traveling with his chums by bicycle. He credits the Boy Scouts of America with helping awaken his love of the outdoors. On the August weekend I visit, several of his friends are drifting in and out of the main lodge, taking a break from chores in summer heat.
Two hands work the ranch full-time, but Barrientos – who is divorced, but hopes to get married and have kids someday – counts on his amigos to handle the upkeep. Barrientos allows them to hunt in exchange. “That’s the test for the hunting access on this ranch,— he says. “We have a commercial side of hunting, but the people who get to come in the winter are the ones who work in the summer.—
Barrientos’ commitment to his land runs deep, and it’s easy to see his decision to make the ranch a so-called “life estate— as an extension of some boyhood dream. The legal designation will keep the ranch from being subdivided or fragmented, establishing a trust to ensure that the hard-fought recovery of La Golondrina has not been in vain. But even though Barrientos is a lawyer, he doesn’t resort to fancy talk to explain his plan. “It’s just a system to preserve it,— he says – and yet another reason Texans owe him thanks.