Land and water conservation depends on private landowners.
By Russell Roe
When it was time to name the winner of the 2009 Lone Star Land Steward Award, the choice seemed like a natural.
J. David Bamberger, who owns a 5,500-acre Blanco County ranch, served on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department committee that created the awards program and has spread the message of land stewardship for decades. It was his turn to be honored with the top prize. The awards ceremony was packed with those he had inspired to care for soil and trees, grass and water, flowers and wildlife.
Bamberger talked about how he took an overgrazed ranch and turned it into a place where springs flowed and native grasses returned. They had all heard the story before, but the message was no less powerful.
It’s a message the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department spreads through programs like the Lone Star Land Steward Awards, which have recognized private landowners for excellence in habitat management and wildlife conservation since 1995. TPWD is partners with the Sand County Foundation, an international nonprofit organization devoted to private land conservation, in issuing the Leopold Conservation Award (the top land steward prize) along with several eco-region awards each year.
With 95 percent of Texas land in private hands, TPWD counts on private landowners to share its mission in conserving land and water. The future health of our lands and the wild things and wild places they sustain depends on the efforts of these Texas families.
“In a state primarily held by private landowners, if we’re going to make good conservation impacts, the only opportunity to really do that on any scale is with the landowners,” says Arlene Kalmbach, coordinator of TPWD’s Landowner Incentive Program. “We’re doing projects that restore native prairie. We’re doing projects that plant longleaf pine. We’re doing projects that protect riparian [streamside] areas and springs.”
Through the land steward awards, the Landowner Incentive Program and habitat management programs, TPWD has worked with landowners from the mountains of West Texas to the pineywoods of East Texas, from the plains of the Panhandle to the rangeland of South Texas, effectively enlisting those landowners as conservation partners around the state.
In many cases, land steward winners had been working with TPWD biologists for years to get guidance on how best to manage their lands.
As of February 2013, TPWD biologists were assisting more than 8,000 landowners in implementing wildlife management plans on more than 29 million acres.
TPWD also depends on groups such as the Texas Wildlife Association, the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and universities to accomplish its conservation objectives.
Building on the success of its landowner assistance programs, TPWD has been initiating watershed-scale conservation projects to protect Texas waterways, and those projects require the help of organizations and landowners.
Everyone in a watershed is affected by whatever else happens in that watershed. Partnerships among those connected to a watershed are key to making the projects work. Rather than using a regulatory approach, TPWD helps empower communities to take care of their watersheds with a holistic view.
Two of the bigger projects are under way in the Texas Hill Country.
The South Llano River received its first stocking of Guadalupe bass, the state fish, in spring 2011. The stocking marked a new chapter in a decades-long effort to save the fish and was part of TPWD’s new watershed approach to conservation. TPWD and its partners are working to accomplish several tasks on the South Llano: fight erosion by stabilizing riverbanks and planting native plants; enhance river habitat by installing boulder and log complexes; offer grants to landowners to manage the river corridor and share river protection strategies.
The South Llano Watershed Alliance, made up of riverside landowners and other stakeholders, has been working with TPWD, landowners, local governments, state and federal agencies, conservation groups and local fishing groups to enhance the watershed. The alliance is a 2013 land steward award winner.
On the Nueces River, a team of private landowners and conservation partners led by the Nueces River Authority has been working to remove invasive giant river cane from the river to return it to a more historically natural state. The landowners and volunteers have been engaged in hand-to-hand combat to remove the cane, and the removal effort has spread to the Sabinal River as well. TPWD has offered money, support and technical guidance.
For Bamberger, the work never stops. With TPWD funding, he’s established populations of Texas snowbell on ranches throughout the Hill Country. In the process, he exceeded his original goal of 500 plants, established working relationships with landowners, discovered several new wild snowbell populations and continued his mission to spread the good word of Texas conservation.