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Listening to the Land

A North Texas family diversifies its business while nurturing the land, earning this year's Lone Star Land Steward Award.

By Dan Oko

Every bit as much a Texan as singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett, native son Brent Hackley represents the sixth generation of his family to help manage the 15,333-acre Richards Ranch in Jack County, west of Fort Worth. While sitting shotgun in Hackley’s pickup — with his white-haired dad, John, in the jump seat behind me — I remember a line from Lyle Lovett’s This Old Porch. He sang of a “red and white Hereford bull/standing under a mesquite tree … Just a-sweatin’ and a-pantin’ / Cause his work is never done.” In that moment it strikes me that Lovett probably was singing about a spread very similar to the Hackleys’.

A working cattle operation, Richards Ranch is a diverse business, that typically boasts from 900 to 1,200 cows, spread across a varied North Texas landscape that includes mid-grass prairie, oak forest, perennial springs and, of course, a few mesquite trees. In 1999, the Hackleys opened their property to recreation, such as hunting and fishing; and birding is on the horizon. Meanwhile, they’ve built a lodge, gazebo and cabins and have begun to host weddings and family reunions to further increase the ranch’s profitability. “It’s a working ranch,” says John Hackley. “A lot of people don’t understand that. The different ventures we’re engaged in on this ranch have to each sustain themselves.”

With a toothpick in the corner of his mouth and a spotless straw cowboy hat on his head, Brent Hackley leaves no doubt that with two kids of his own, he plans on maintaining the family legacy. He has watched his father struggle to learn new ways of doing things, and when it comes to some land-management strategies, such as prescribed burning and planting food plots for wildlife, Brent has had to learn a few tricks of his own. He has seen hard times, as well, like the drought in the late 1990s, when they halved the number of cattle on the ranch by not replacing dead or dying cows and calves. Today, he says, about 80 percent of the operation revolves around livestock — and, truth be told, even though they used to raise Herefords, as did the ranch in Lovett’s song, now the Hackleys stock Black Angus.

When it comes to some land-management strategies, such as prescribed burning and planting food plots for wildlife, Brent has had to learn a few tricks of his own.

This spring, the state recognized the Hackleys’ efforts by naming them statewide winners of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Lone Star Land Steward Award, an annual program that “honors private landowners for their accomplishments in habitat management and wildlife conservation.” With the prize now in its 10th year, TPWD for the first time also celebrated an urban park, White Rock Lake in Dallas, in its corporate category. Other regional winners included the Cibolo Creek Ranch and the Cave Creek Wildlife Management Association. Acknowledging the program’s breadth, TPWD Executive Director Robert Cook notes: “These awards showcase the best out there, and this year we’ve got some new twists on stewardship that reflect the changing face of Texas.”

In Texas, where about 94 percent of the land is privately held, the protection of natural resources obviously requires participation of landowners. This is largely the raison d’être for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Land Steward Program, which in 2005 found a new partner in the Wisconsin-based Sand County Foundation. Founded by the godson of the late Aldo Leopold, one of the leaders of the modern conservation movement, the Sand County Foundation regards voluntary private efforts as essential to help build ecosystem health. In addition to the TPWD award, meanwhile, the Hackleys’ work has been recognized by the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Society for Range Management. Winners of the LSLSA prize receive a plaque, a crystal trophy and $5,000.

“We’re happy that the process brings to the top people who are really committed to stewardship,” says Linda Campbell, TPWD director of private lands and public hunting.

I want to be able to do what my parents did for me, to keep the property together to have to pass on to future generations. Hopefully, that's something I can leave to them.

TPWD Wildlife Biologist Jennifer Barrow, who has worked with the Hackleys since 1998 and who nominated them for the state award, says that their pioneering spirit is just one aspect of the business that prompted her admiration. On the ground, their grazing rotation has helped maintain the native grassland community, including dependent animals; the success of the quail hunting operation, she notes, probably stems from aggressive habitat protection. Likewise, while the cattle side of the operation has seen success, the health of the white-tailed deer population shows — once again — that landowners don’t need to choose between livestock and wildlife. A list of other animals on the ranch includes a range of predators such as bobcats, coyotes and the occasional mountain lion. Moreover, Barrow says, healthy grassland helps trap rainfall and limit erosion. “Before we got here, there were no stock tanks,” she says. “It was only the buffalo, and the grass was the only flood control.”

Not that the Hackleys don’t appreciate the attention, but riding the range with them, it’s clear that the recent bouquet of awards makes little difference in their day-to-day activities. In other words, this is one ranch where the work truly is never done. “We thought it was wonderful to receive the awards,” says John. “But we don’t do what we do for recognition. We do it to increase the productivity of our land.” That productivity counts both for the cow-calf operation that has sustained his family since 1865, when the region was still considered “hostile territory” by white settlers, and for the brand new hunting operation, which has yielded a few bucks that scored 150 points on the Boone and Crockett scale. Other game populations include Rio Grande turkey and scaled quail, which have benefited from the progressive rangeland management employed on the ranch.

The Hackleys first shifted away from conventional grazing regimes nearly 30 years ago. John Hackley returned to the homestead after a brief stint working in a bank, poised to take over the operation. In the early 1980s, Hackley and his maternal uncle, representing the fourth generation to care for the ranch, began experimenting with cross-fencing pastures and a purposeful grazing rotation. This then-newfangled strategy reflected a shift in the family’s philosophy of land management as Hackley began to link ecological and economic considerations. At first, the grazing innovations didn’t win many accolades; friends and neighbors remained doubtful, and many so-called experts expressed qualms. “Even the academic or educational community was critical of what we were doing,” says Hackley. “To be fair, there was no long-term data. Now, they have all come on board.”

From the scale of the ranch to the considered financial assessment that goes into every aspect of its management, Barrow of TPWD says, the Richards Ranch serves as a model for sustainability. “Everything is structured to stand alone,” she says. “It either has to make a buck or it has to go.” And in an era when many ranches are under corporate control, Barrow is quick to point out that the effort remains very much a family affair. “They come together as a family, and vote on every aspect of management,” she says.

For his part, Brent Hackley is proud of this family tradition — one that he says must be nurtured, just like the land upon which it has been built. “If you’re looking at strictly dollars, it doesn’t make sense to do what we’re trying to do,” the younger Hackley says. “But I want to be able to do what my parents did for me, to keep the property together to have to pass on to future generations. Hopefully, that’s something I can leave to them.”

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