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Burning Ring of Fire

Prescribed burning turns watermelon patch into award-winning property.

Story by Mike Cox
Photographs by Earl Nottingham and Chase Fountain

Simon Winston starts his pickup, and the country-and-western channel on his satellite radio kicks on with the late, deep-voiced Johnny Cash singing his classic Ring of Fire.

“And it burns, burns, burns
“The ring of fire, the ring of fire…”

Winston was parked on the highest point of land on his family’s timber- studded farm five miles south of Nacogdoches to discuss with a visitor, among other things, the important role of prescribed burning in conservation. Cash’s song could not have been more appropriate. Winston and his parents may not have burned in the shape of a ring, but their smart, safe use of fire has transformed the 3,418 acres surrounding him this summer morning in
the pines.

“Before my parents owned it, we used to slip on to this place to steal watermelons,” he says of his high school days in the 1970s. “That’s all it was back then, basically just one big sandy watermelon patch with no trees.”
These days, the only watermelon to be found on the Winston 8 farm comes from a grocery store.

What the Winstons have done with their property, one of the larger privately owned pieces of land in this part of East Texas, earned them the 2014 Leopold Conservation Award, the state’s highest honor for private land conservation efforts.

Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the prestigious award is conferred each year by the Sand County Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to private land conservation, in partnership with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as part of its Lone Star Land Steward Awards program. In Texas, the Leopold Conservation Award program is sponsored by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Lee and Ramona Bass Foundation, DuPont Pioneer, Farm Credit and the Mosaic Company.

Virginia H. Winston accepted the Leopold crystal award and a check for $10,000 at the annual Lone Star Land Steward Awards dinner in Austin last spring.



The Winston 8, while sometimes called a ranch, is not a typical Texas spread. It has grass — native bluestem — but no cattle are growing fat on that grass.

“Tree farm and wildlife preserve” would be a more appropriate moniker.

When the late John Winston and his wife acquired the acreage in the 1970s, they began reforesting it. Today, the place is a verdant blend of loblolly pine with a growing number of longleaf pines. The Winstons kept some of the land clear — planted with native grass — to provide cover for a resurging population of bobwhite quail and Eastern wild turkeys. Wetlands provide habitat for migratory waterfowl.

“Thankfully for Texas, more and more landowners are quietly yet diligently working to restore their property to benefit a host of habitats and fish and wildlife species,” TPWD Executive Director Carter Smith said at the awards banquet. “The Winston family has absolutely led by example. Through a substantial commitment of time and effort, they have converted a close-cut tract of land into one of the state’s finest examples of exemplary land stewardship.”

Most of the Winston 8 and probably 99 percent of the rest of the timbered land in East Texas are covered with loblolly pine. But that’s not the way it used to be.

“Originally, East Texas was mostly longleaf pine,” Winston says. “After all the native timber had been taken, they went to planting loblolly pine, which grows faster.”

But longleaf grows straighter and is generally acknowledged as a better variety of pine. And unlike loblolly, it won’t be killed by surgical, prescribed burning. Because of that, the Winstons started planting longleafs.

burn



“The nation benefits when private landowners seize opportunities to recover damaged land, as the Winstons have done,” said Brent Haglund, Sand County Foundation president. “Families like the Winstons show us that the ethic and spirit of Aldo Leopold’s writing and work continue.”

The Winston family was nominated for the Leopold Award by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Jeffrey A. Reid.

“The property has an active wildlife habitat improvement program that involves timber management, prescribed burning, invasive species control and native habitat restoration,” he says. “It is obvious the Winston family is planning for the long term and not just immediate wants and needs.”

Reid’s nomination of the ranch noted these accomplishments:
 » Restoring 180 acres of native longleaf pine, thinning 700-plus acres of loblolly pine to promote forest health, and clearing and seeding 93 acres for native grass and forbs, as well as undertaking significant efforts to rid the ranch of invasive Chinese tallow trees.
» Stocking 80 Eastern wild turkeys in 2007-08 and suspending turkey hunting on the property until the population expands and is sustainable beyond the boundaries of the ranch. Already, wild turkeys are frequently seen on the property.
» Managing the ranch’s deer population to produce some trophy bucks. Additionally, 45 white-tailed does were released on the property to diversify the genetics of the deer herd on the ranch. Since the ranch is low-fenced, this also benefits the deer herd on surrounding properties.
» Employing innovative wildlife management techniques, such as creating clear spaces on the ranch to increase usable habitat for wild turkey hens. These openings, in addition to all pipeline and power line openings, have been planted with native grasses.
» Using the ranch for research, educational and life-enrichment purposes. In addition to often providing access to other private landowners, youth groups and physically challenged individuals, the property is routinely used by state and federal agencies as a demonstration area for southern pine beetle hazard reduction, prescribed burning, thinning, longleaf pine restoration and native grass and forb restoration.
» Using prescribed burning to reduce the threat of wildfire.

With input from the Texas Forest Service and TPWD, Winston does controlled burns in 5- to 30-acre chunks on a two- to three-year rotation.

burn

Simon Winston and his mother, Virginia, do a controlled burn.

Winston tries to get his neighbors and other landowners in his part of the state interested in prescribed burning, but it’s been a hard sell.

“A lot of them are more scared of controlling burning than a possum is of an ax handle,” he says. “But it’s what needs to be done. Just look at the wildfire they had in Bastrop in 2011. The places that didn’t burn are where the underbrush had been reduced by prescribed burns.”

Actually, other East Texas landowners don’t have to go to Bastrop to see the benefits of prescribed burning and other conservation measures. All they have to do is visit the Winston 8.

“When John Winston acquired the property in the 1970s, it was largely a cutover tract of land,” Reid said in his nomination. “Intensive planting, management and harvesting have led this property to be held up as one of the premier examples of multiple-use forest land and open pine management.”


Land Steward Awards

To nominate a landowner for a Lone Star Land Steward Award or to learn more about, go to www.tpwd.texas.gov/landsteward. Nominations are due by November 30.

 


Related stories

Making the Case for Stewardship

Bluebonnet Fields Forever

 

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