Partners purchase vast coastal property to preserve for public enjoyment.
By Tom Harvey
“These gravestones have been here as long as I’ve been coming here, and they all appear to be children, based on the size of the headstones and the size of the graves as demarcated by the footstones.”
Wendel Denman Thuss is standing in a little graveyard near his family’s former ranch house at Powderhorn Ranch on Matagorda Bay. One headstone is dated 1882. The graves are not far from the historic town of Indianola, on the bay just a few miles north. It was here in 1844 that German Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels (for whom New Braunfels is named) landed with 100 German families. Their Indianola community would be ravaged by disease and ultimately destroyed by a hurricane.
“It appears they were the children of immigrants who died in Indianola and were brought over here to be buried in this sort of ad hoc little graveyard,” Wendel says. “The thing that’s always amazed all of us [family members] is that none of the rock is native to here. Which means that somebody had to haul the rock back to this place to bury their children. I think that shows a certain level of discipline and fortitude that it probably took to be a new immigrant in this part of the world and scratch out a living.”
Indeed, the first settlers paid a dear price to claim their piece of Texas, and it certainly took determination and courage for them to succeed. When they arrived, the Texas coast was an unbroken sweep of native prairie, verdant woods and sparkling wetlands, empty and vast. Today, in places like Houston, most of the coastal prairie is gone, covered by buildings and roads.
In a changing world, the ranch that was run by Wendel’s family is one of the last wild havens on the Texas coast. And now, it will be protected in perpetuity, because a new group of determined pioneers had the fortitude to work together and pay the price needed to protect it forever.
On Aug. 21, a multipartner coalition announced the purchase of the 17,351-acre Powderhorn Ranch in Calhoun County. At $37.7 million, it is the largest dollar amount ever raised for a conservation land purchase in the state. In years to come, Powderhorn Ranch is expected to become a state park and wildlife management area.
“If ever there was a sportsman’s paradise, it’s the Powderhorn Ranch,” says Carter Smith, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department executive director. “The place is literally teeming with fish and wildlife. And if you like to wade-fish, or canoe or kayak to catch a tailing redfish, or catch a trout or flounder, the bays and back bayous and marshes are going to be the place for you. If you like to hunt, the game there is just simply extraordinary — from deer to ducks and doves and bobwhite quail. And if you like to bird-watch, there’s no place finer.”
The acquisition will protect the sprawling prairie, wind-sculpted coastal live oaks and Powderhorn Lake, a tidally influenced, secondary bay off Matagorda Bay. The range of habitats is perfect for hunting, fishing, hiking, paddling and birding. The property also includes thousands of acres of freshwater wetlands and salt marshes, which provide natural filtering to improve water quality and also shield people and property from storm surges and sea level rise.
From the 1950s to the early 1990s Texas lost more than 200,000 acres of coastal wetlands, but the Powderhorn acquisition helps combat this trend. The ranch includes more than 11 miles of tidal bayfront on Matagorda Bay and provides habitat for hundreds of species of birds and animals, including the endangered whooping crane.
Partners in the Purchase
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation is spearheading fundraising for the $50 million project, which includes purchase of the property and a long-term endowment for habitat restoration and management.
A significant portion of the funding comes from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, created with dollars paid by British Petroleum and Transocean in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. NFWF has committed $34.5 million over the next three years, making this the largest land acquisition in the nation to date using BP spill restoration dollars
To facilitate the purchase, the Conservation Fund and the Nature Conservancy of Texas are each providing $10 million in interim funding to buy the property in 2014. The two organizations will be reimbursed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, which will hold title on the property by the end of 2016, and will ultimately turn it over to the department.
Powderhorn Ranch is one of the last wild havens on the Texas coast. The 17,351-acre property was purchased for $37.7 million, the largest dollar amount ever raised for a conservation land purchase in the state.
Achieving the Dream
Acquiring Powderhorn Ranch has been a dream of the conservation community for close to 30 years, but its history goes back much further.
Wendel’s great-great-grandfather, Leroy Gilbert Denman, was a Texas Supreme Court justice connected with the San Antonio Loan and Trust Company in the 1900s. Shortly after, the bank repossessed the St. Charles Ranch (now the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge), making Denman the ranch’s new owner. His son was also named Leroy G. Denman who in turn had a son of the same name, now 91.
In the 1930s, as part of the New Deal, the St. Charles Ranch surface rights were sold to the federal government, which bought the land with funds raised from the sale of migratory bird stamps. The Aransas refuge was established in 1937, with 47,261 acres.
After the St. Charles sale, the Denmans realized that they had 3,000 cows to sell and a very poor cattle market in which to do it. In 1936, the family bought Powderhorn Ranch and moved the cattle down the road.
In the 1920s, Leroy Denman's son provided legal counsel to the King Ranch and Bob Kleberg. His grandson later continued that legacy as a King Ranch attorney from 1939-88 and as the first nonfamily chairman of the board from 1990-95.
Collaborating with Kleberg, the Denmans conducted various ranching and wildlife management experiments. They purchased exotic species, including nilgai antelope, sambar deer, axis deer and Russian boar, and brought them to both the King Ranch and Powderhorn. The idea was to find an animal that would eat and control brush, such as running live oak and mesquite.
In this ranching and wildlife paradise, Wendel spent formative boyhood years.
“As a child, I spent countless days running around the Powderhorn shooting dove, fishing — lots of fishing — a little bit of sailing, lots of exploring,” Wendel says. “I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity here, at this place. And this particular piece of land has tremendous meaning to me. Because it was where I was a kid and it’s where I had the opportunity to learn all the lessons that come outdoors. And what better teacher than this place?”
Someday, new generations of Texas kids will have a chance to learn similar life lessons at Powderhorn, though few may get into the scrapes that Wendel did.
“I’ll never forget my brother and I one time going out to one of the piers on Powderhorn Lake to go fishing,” he recalls. “We got out there and we decided that we were going to turn the car around in the tidepool on sand, so we wouldn’t have to back out all the way down the rock jetty. Sure enough, we got the car about halfway turned around, and it sank. The tide was coming in. I was about 12 and he was about 9 or 10, and we thought, wow, we’re going to have to go explain to Mom and Papi why there’s a Suburban rotting out in the bay. Lo and behold, we got real creative, real fast. And, through a lot of hard digging and carrying rocks, we managed to pile it under the car and get it back up on the jetty.”
All through those years, Wendel says his grandfather always stated his intent to sell Powderhorn Ranch. But whether for love of the land or other reasons, he continued to ranch the place almost his entire life.
After the Denmans, Powderhorn Ranch went through a series of quick ownerships. One of the owners had plans to subdivide and develop the entire property. Fortunately, a conservation-minded owner eventually bought the ranch. Having worked hard to keep the property in a more natural state, he was willing to collaborate with the partners to make the current acquisition possible.
Park for the Future
It will be years before the property opens to the public as a park, something that will depend on balancing other needs facing the state park system. But the partners were able to seize a historic opportunity to use BP spill restoration funds and act now to protect a long-sought treasure.
“We have to think of places like the Powderhorn in generational terms,” Smith says. “These are the proverbial trees that we’re planting so that somebody else can enjoy their shade. And if we wouldn’t take ambitious steps, we wouldn’t have any more state parks for our growing public to enjoy.”
The TPW Foundation is still seeking donations to fund the Powderhorn acquisition, which is part of its statewide fundraising campaign called “Keeping it Wild: The Campaign for Texas.” More information is online at www.tpwf.org.
“Powderhorn is going to be one of those places that we look back on for generations to come,” Smith says. “We’re going to thank goodness that we had the courage and the foresight to acquire this place.”
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