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Lone Star Land Steward 2007

Native grasses and one old cowboy helped the Price family turn overgrazed land into a conservation showplace.

By Tom Harvey

It was June 1959. The morning sun was just starting to send moist heat rising off the pastures at the 77 Ranch south of Dallas.

Ranch owner Lee Low stood in the corral, smiling up at a 10-year-old kid on a horse. The young rider was Gary Price, who never dreamed in those days that someday he’d own the ranch. “You think you can handle that horse?” Low asked. The fine cutting horse had just arrived from Oklahoma City, where Lee’s son Bill was a successful cattle buyer.

“Yes, sir” said Price, though he eyed the big horse with some trepidation.

“All right,” said Low, saddling up to accompany his young charge. Low was seeing Gary’s widowed aunt and had become like an uncle to the boy. The Prices lived in south Dallas, but Gary would come down on weekends and in the summer, tagging along and helping the old cowboy from San Saba. Somehow, the relationship between boy and man that began here grew into a lifelong friendship.

“Let’s go to the bumper gate,” Low said, and the two spurred their horses out of the corral. Low was riding Piss Ant, a horse that lived to be 35 and became a minor legend in Navarro County.

At the bumper gate pasture, Low told Price to move some dogies (motherless calves) into a corner, so he could try out the horse and “see how cowie he is.” The boy complied with gusto, but on the first calf he headed, the horse stopped so abruptly Price sailed off and got a mouthful of Navarro County. He quickly rolled to his feet, rubbing his noggin.

Low sat on his horse, laughing, but not unkindly.

“He stops hard, don’t he?” said Low.

“Yes, sir,” said Price, still rubbing.

After a few more tries, Price was able to sit a little deeper in the saddle and ride the cutting horse to Low’s satisfaction.

More than two decades later, Price and Low were again riding together, helping a neighbor catch some yearling cattle.

Over the years, the small boy at Low’s boot heels had grown into a young man. And Low had passed along some important insights, ranching principles that eventually led to model stewardship. Low had come from dry San Saba County, where ranchers emphasized drought-tolerant native grasses and rotational grazing to move cattle often from pasture to pasture so they won’t eat the grass down. These ideas were less common in the greener country east of I-35, but they took root in Gary Price.

Low was now more than 80 years old, but still active. Price still clearly recalls what happened that day.

“Lee came in behind this yearling, and he couldn’t quite get up there on old Piss Ant. I was worried it might get into the brush, and I was riding a young roan horse named Eveready, so I just flew right by Lee and roped it. I have some regrets about doing that, because it wasn’t quite cowboy etiquette. But that was probably the passing of the torch, right there.”

Several decades later still, Price was standing in the north pasture of the 77 Ranch, explaining his ranching approach to an Associated Press correspondent, a TV news crew from Dallas and other reporters.

Price was talking about grass. The reporters asked questions and took notes, trying to understand what’s so important about grass.

Much had happened since those early years with Low, and a series of events had brought Price full circle back to the 77. In the 1970s, Low’s son died suddenly, leaving him without an heir. Gary had married Sue and was in Lubbock, working for a veterinary pharmaceutical company. Lee surprised them one day by offering to sell them part of the ranch. The Prices moved back in 1977 and repaid Low over 20 years, continuing payments to his granddaughters after the old cowboy finally died in 1987.

The reporters don’t know any of this. But as Price speaks about grass in his slow, patient drawl, the pieces start to connect, and they begin to realize what he’s really talking about is a holistic approach to the land. It’s about working with natural processes as much as possible, about simulating the effects of migrating bison by rotating cattle, about using controlled burns to mimic long-suppressed natural wildfire, about restoring native grasses and plants, the ones that evolved to be here over millennia, about how these plants are better for cattle, and wildlife, and water resources, and ultimately for people too, for people in cities as well as folks in the country.

“The key for me was when I realized about water cycles,” Price said. “You can never control how much water you get, but you can control how much you keep. When you see that and understand it, it’s going to completely overhaul your land management. What we used to call weeds can be very beneficial plants.”

When raindrops fall on the 77 Ranch, tall native grasses with deep fibrous roots catch and hold the water, slowly filtering and releasing it, recharging the underground water table and sending cleaner water with less silty erosion downstream to Richland-Chambers Reservoir. For this reason, Tarrant Regional Water District and USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service have for years provided cost-share financial assistance to ranchers like the Prices.

“The water district is convinced that what happens in the watershed very often drives not just the quantity of water in our reservoirs, but also water quality,” said Darrell Andrews, TRWD assistant environmental director. “That in turn affects the water we sell to our customers in the western half of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. It translates to reduced costs, because the water is cheaper to treat, because the water going into the reservoir is cleaner.”

The Prices have some land they bought from adjacent owners, pastures covered with non-native coastal bermuda grass, low-growing turf introduced as cattle forage. But they’ve gravitated toward tall native bunch grasses, planting or protecting classic prairie species like eastern gamagrass, indiangrass, and big and little bluestem. This benefits not only water resources but wildlife as well.

One beneficiary is the bobwhite quail. Like many places in Texas, the 77 Ranch used to have a lot of quail, and years ago it hosted hunters from the Metroplex, but in recent years, few wild quail have been seen. The Prices have helped enlist their neighbors to reverse that trend by forming the Western Navarro Bobwhite Quail Initiative, comprising about 20,000 acres in western Navarro County.

For all these reasons, the 77 Ranch received the 2007 Leopold Conservation Award for Texas from Sand County Foundation and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, part of the agency’s Lone Star Land Steward Awards program.

On May 23 at the Austin awards banquet, when Gary and Sue Price stepped on stage to receive their award, a surprise guest was there to shake their hands, Governor Rick Perry.

The small boy who used to ride out with Lee Low had become the toast of the hour, a model for others.

It has not been an easy road. The past two years brought extreme drought to the area, and the Prices came close to selling all of their cattle last fall. Fortunately, rain finally returned this spring.

“When you lose production, you lose income, and trying to balance financial needs with protecting natural resources can be quite a challenge,” Price said. “But we know that by protecting the resource, when we finally do get water, the country is going to respond better and we’re better off in the long run. We’re not looking for short-term gains; we’re in it for the long-term. My son runs a ranch in West Texas, and I’d like him to have the option to come back here and run this place. It’s the old standard of leaving it better than I found it. That’s what Lee Low taught me.”

Neighborhood Goes Wild

Texas leads the nation in the loss of green open space, with buildings and roads replacing what used to be wildlife habitat, a trend that threatens people and water and air quality as well as wildlife.

The Woodson Place “conservation development” east of Dallas represents part of the solution, and for this reason it is the first residential developer/builder to earn a Lone Star Land Steward Award from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Woodson Place also earned statewide recognition in 2005 when its model “Idea Home” achieved a top, 5-star rating under the Austin Green Building Program, the world’s oldest and largest such program, with more than 5,000 homes rated.

Woodson Place is located about 80 miles east of the Metroplex, in Rains County. The small-scale residential development is led by the seventh-generation owners of a 108-year-old family farm. More than half of the community’s 66 acres are preserved as shared woodlands, meadows, ponds and trails, professionally managed for recreation and wildlife habitat.

Frank Woodson bought the original homesite in 1896 to raise his family and farm the land. Frank’s grandson R.O. Woodson was born there in 1914. After completing high school in nearby Emory, R.O. borrowed five dollars to travel to South Texas to work for his uncle in the lumber business. He eventually became a successful residential builder, completing close to 10,000 homes across South Texas during his career. However, R.O.’s heart remained in the East Texas farmland of his boyhood, where he and his wife, Bernice, retired in 1973.

R.O.’s grandson Chris Allen has worked on renewable energy projects and large-scale land management plans. In 1997, he started looking at the conservation subdivision model as part of a bigger project for the U.S. Department of Energy.

“I saw the chance to pick up on my grandfather’s legacy as a builder and developer, but with a 21st century spin on it,” Allen said. “This land was a pretty sizable amount of my mother’s inheritance in 1998, and she didn’t want to be a farmer or rancher, so we started looking at it. We didn’t want to see it turned into something that would go against the character and tradition of the place. The idea that eventually emerged was to plan for limited development on part of the property, allowing us to keep the rest of it for the family.”

To reduce its ecological footprint, the neighborhood clusters groups of half-acre home sites to preserve contiguous open space, enhancing sustainability through water conservation and energy efficiency.

Habitat enhancement includes water development, fire ant control, erosion control, bird nesting structures, tree snag preservation and wildflower planting. Native prairie is being restored through native grass and wildflower seed plantings and controlled burns.

Lot buyers get six hours of free consulting with a landscape architect specializing in native plant wildscaping.

For more information, visit <www.woodsonplace.com>.

Details

Ecoregion and special category nominations for Lone Star Land Steward Awards are accepted June 1-November 30. Leopold Conservation Award nominations are accepted June 1-January 15. Nomination forms and instructions may be obtained online at <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/lsls> or by calling (512) 389-8119.

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