Early Morning Vista
Picturesque South Texas ranch wins coveted Leopold conservation prize.
Story by Tom Harvey • Photography by Chase Fountain
On a clear day, you can see forever.
Those words might have been written especially for the Killam Duval County Ranch, 125,000 acres straddling Duval and Webb counties near the South Texas town of Freer.
Its story is familiar in the pantheon of other Texas ranches that’ve claimed the coveted Leopold Conservation Award — an overgrazed place with poor grass and little water that became a conservation showpiece through decades of dedication.
“That’s really one of the most impressive things about this ranch and this part of South Texas, the fact that you can literally see so far,” says ranch owner David Killam, squinting into a red sun rising. “Having that sense of room and scale and vista, I think, is something unique and wonderful.”
It’s spring in South Texas, and Killam is walking along the Bordas Escarpment, a line of hills and bluffs that fall away to a vast, spreading plain of flowering forbs, green grasses, cactus and mesquite, a landscape that has become rich in plant and animal diversity through the thoughtful enterprise of Killam and his team.
“I think probably the most beautiful thing about this place is you come over in the early morning and you look over to the west and the land falls off from there and you get this great vista,” he says.
The Texas Legislature established Duval County in 1858. By 1867, the Texas Almanac reported, Duval and nearby Dimmit County had only four stock raisers and their population was unlikely to grow much absent the discovery of mineral wealth. Not long after, a wave of European immigrants — English, French, Germans, Irish and Scots — entered the county to raise livestock.
Many years later, successful Oklahoma businessman and state senator Oliver Winfield Killam moved to the area, settling in Laredo in the spring of 1920. One of eight children, O.W. was born in 1874 in a small Missouri farming community. O.W. was no stranger to hardship and hard work; he possessed a pioneering spirit. Improbably, he set out to strike oil where no one had yet done so — south of San Antonio and north of the Rio Grande. And he found it.
Killam Duval County Ranch owner David Killam: "We try to improve the habitat for everything."
Fast-forward yet further, to 1992. The property that was to become Killam Duval County Ranch came onto the market in a bankruptcy proceeding. The land was in poor condition. The ranch was purchased by O.W.’s descendant, David, who’d grown up roving working ranches as a boy, and was running the family oil and real estate business. He saw promise in the neglected sprawl of cactus and mesquite, and he set about assembling a crack team of employees and partners to help him restore the landscape.
“The slower you go, the quicker you get done,” is the paradoxical wisdom from David Kitner, Killam Ranch Properties manager. He has lived the axiom for many years here, working with steady intent, slowly and thoughtfully, learning through ups and downs.
“I told David early on, I am a fix-it kind of guy,” Kitner says, drawling around his white handlebar mustache. “I like a challenge. I’d be happy to work on this place if you want to fix it.”
Killam told Kitner to do whatever he needed to do.
“This land was bare dirt when I came here,” Kitner says. “We were hard-pressed to find a blade of grass on it. It’s covered in grass now, and forbs.”
Why do ranch folk get so excited about grass? On the arid plains of South Texas, water is the precious key to life and success, and plants conserve water.
“Where you have a plant cover, the soil temperature is 40 to 50 degrees less than it is on bare dirt,” Kitner says.
On another part of the ranch, Killam is now walking with another partner and adviser, David Hewitt, who is executive director of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute.
“There are markers all over this ranch that show anybody how productive and what a wonderful piece of property this is for wildlife,” Hewitt says. “I mean, while we’re talking, we’re listening to quail call. The brush diversity, the herbaceous plant diversity that we have around us is just amazing.”
As they walk, Hewitt handles a big pair of multi-tined deer antlers, holding them before him, occasionally clacking them together.
“When you look at the diversity of brush and just this ground cover that we have right here, and the forb production that’s generated in this area, it gives us the kind of nutrition that produces these kinds of antlers right there,” Killam says.
Over the decades, the team has used every one of Aldo Leopold’s famed five tools of ecological management — the ax, cow, plow, fire and gun. They run cattle only with sustainable rotational grazing to mimic the historic effect of bison, letting pastures rest for one year between grazing. They control invasive brush with chemical applications by an airplane. They also use prescribed burning to control brush, and to encourage regrowth of beneficial native grasses and forbs.
And they’ve created an astounding 350 miles of water lines, distributing precious water for wildlife as well as livestock.
“You have to have both cattle and wildlife,” Kitner says. “If you don’t graze this country, it just becomes a spot looking to have a wildfire run through it. The grazing enhances any areas of bare dirt. The hoof action of the cattle will break that cap up, let moisture penetrate and put organic matter back into the soil as natural fertilizer. The cattle benefit the land, which in turn benefits the wildlife.”
Deer, quail, turkey and other game are now plentiful.
David Hewitt of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute and ranch manager David Kitner helped restore Killam Duval County Ranch.
“All the different migratory wildlife come through here,” Killam says. “Migratory songbirds in spring. The different migrations of butterflies, and all the other animals that exist on this land. We try to take care of everything. I believe that you have to have a balance. We don’t try to concentrate exclusively on any one species. We try to improve the habitat for everything.”
Hunting leases geared to families bring kids and grandkids out to enjoy the property.
“We do see a lot of value in outreach and education,” Killam says. “And we have wounded veterans. We’ve done that for over 10 years; we have the opportunity to share this with others and have them participate and enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. That’s been personally satisfying, to be able to give back just a little bit.”
For all these reasons, Killam Duval County Ranch received the 2019 Texas Leopold Conservation Award. In Texas, the award is presented by Sand County Foundation in partnership with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It’s part of TPWD’s Lone Star Land Steward Awards program, which is supported by the nonprofit Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation. Texas sponsors of the Leopold award include Lee and Ramona Bass, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, Dixon Water Foundation and McDonald’s.
In his influential 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage. He wrote it was “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.”
The nonprofit Sand County Foundation created the Leopold Conservation Award, a competitive award that recognizes landowner achievement in voluntary conservation. Now presented in 15 states, the award is arguably the highest honor for landscape conservation, consisting of a crystal trophy depicting Leopold and $10,000 to the recipient.
“The vast majority of land in Texas is privately owned,” Killam says. “The state of Texas has a great conservation model with the relationship Texas Parks and Wildlife has with different landowners. It’s going to help perpetuate this legacy of caring for the land, seeing that land ownership is going to result in better habitat and a better environment for everyone here in the state.”
The results will be felt for generations.
“This land is going to be here long after we’re gone,” says Kitner, “and it was here a long time before we showed up. To have a positive impact and carry it forward to future generations in better shape than it was when I got here is extremely important. And, you know, I love it.”
Tom Harvey is the deputy director of communications for TPWD.
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