Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


 DK Langford | TAMU Press


Lone Star Land Steward winners reflect on the program’s impact after 25 years.

2020 would have been the 25th year of the annual Lone Star Land Steward awards banquet, where private landowners from multiple Texas ecoregions are celebrated for their land and wildlife management efforts. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was postponed.

The conservation and stewardship work by landowners, however, never stops.

“Lone Star Land Stewards aren’t just doing great things on their land — these landowners can tell you how and why they’re doing it,” says Justin Dreibelbis, private lands and public hunting program director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “They want to take care of their land and steward it. They do their research. They’re being an example for other landowners and want to be able to tell their story.”

The Private Lands Advisory Committee was formed to advise TPWD in 1992. The Lone Star Land Steward program that sprang out of it began simply as an idea to shine a light on private landowners who were doing good work for Texas habitats.

In 1996, the first event took place at the Capitol, a small group gathering held in the lieutenant governor’s chambers. Over the years that meeting grew into a ceremony that typically welcomes some 400 guests, including landowners, biologists and more.

“The mission derived from that first meeting remains the same,” Dreibelbis says. “This is a celebration of land stewards who are doing the right thing for the land, wildlife and people of Texas.”

 chase fountain | tpwd

 chase fountain | tpwd

The Private Lands Advisory Committee recognized that private landowners, by taking care of their own property, were contributing to the well-being of the general public through soil and water conservation and grassland restoration, as well as the management of fish and wildlife species and other ecosystem services.

“Texas is predominantly privately owned. Irrespective of who you are and where you live, if you care anything about where the raindrops fall and where our aquifers are recharged and where our springs, creeks and rivers flow, our fish and wildlife habitats, where our clean air and water are derived, those places are largely found on private lands in Texas,” says Carter Smith, TPWD executive director. “Private landowners are the ones who wake up every day and work on stewarding those things that we all get to enjoy — sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.”

Smith says that one of the best ways for the public to appreciate private lands stewardship is to simply go for a drive in the country and experience the drop in blood pressure that comes from admiring the diversity and richness of the Texas landscape.

Richard Taylor and his partner Suzie Paris own Blue Mountain Peak Ranch in the heart of the Texas Hill Country. Their property, originally purchased by Taylor and his late wife, sits atop blue-gray limestone hills, the highest reaching more than 2,000 feet in elevation. Blue Mountain Peak Ranch received the Lone Star Land Steward award for the Edwards Plateau ecoregion in 2011 and then received the Leopold Conservation Award, the highest honor bestowed in the program, in 2016.

 chase fountain | tpwd

“With this property being on top of the aquifer, we’re at the top of the watershed. We can do good stuff, all while making sure we’re improving the aquifer.”

— 2016 Lone Star Land Steward statewide winner Richard Taylor of Blue Mountain Peak Ranch

Thanks to the extensive Ashe juniper (often called cedar) tree removal Taylor initiated on the ranch, more rainwater is able to fill the Edwards Aquifer. The aquifer supplies water to a large portion of south-central Texas, including San Antonio.

“Back in the day, when my wife and I went on this quest to find a place, we were looking for ‘interesting’ land, and this property fit the bill,” Taylor says. “With this property being on top of the aquifer, we’re at the top of the watershed. We can do good stuff, all while making sure we’re improving the aquifer.”

Taylor says that when they first began work on Blue Mountain Peak Ranch in 2002, they saw many signs of water on the land in the way of calcified rock, tiny streams and “frozen” water, as Taylor describes the evidence of where water used to flow. Because of the dense Ashe juniper throughout the ranch, though, any and all rain and spring water was being absorbed by the tree’s roots before it had a chance to contribute to the aquifer, much less feed the ravines Taylor found strewn across the property.

“So, we began the process. We sectioned off 200 acres, above the frozen water, started cutting cedar, and low and behold, the water started to flow,” Taylor says. “I would guess in the ravines we have 50 springs that connect together and stay running now regardless of rainfall. It’s a miracle, the most amazing part of the process that we’ve done, to see all of this water.”

Taylor says he and Paris drive or hike the property almost daily to see what work needs to be done next. Over the years, the couple have utilized the help of multiple agencies to assist with land management techniques, including prescribed fire, to reach their overall goal: increasing species diversity and providing clean water to the Edwards Aquifer.

In addition, Blue Mountain Peak Ranch, similar to many Lone Star Land Steward award-winning properties, serves as a place where nearby schoolchildren, older students aspiring to work in a wildlife or forestry-related field and others can come and experience a natural, native landscape at its best.

“The native stuff is so beautiful,” Taylor says. “To me, it’s the little things — finding tadpoles, watching them grow. We have bullfrogs and leopard frogs in all the springs; because we have frogs, we have snakes. It just keeps waterfalling with all the improvements. We have harvester ants, a much smaller population of fire ants, so we find horned toads now. Black-capped vireos [delisted in 2018]. It’s just fun to know we are providing an ecosystem that allows for species to come back.”

Daniel Kunz is a TPWD technical guidance biologist who works with landowners daily, answering their questions and providing them direction on ways they can better manage their properties based on their goals.

“We rely on landowners to maintain the habitat of the state. This program showcases those who are spreading a conservation and land ethic message across Texas,” Kunz says. “These landowners are acting as examples to other landowners. It’s my job to give them advice and guidance on things that might be good for the habitat, potentially point out a lack of management practices on some lands and sometimes advise that just leaving it alone is the practice.”

Landowners, no matter how many acres they have on their property, can reach out to a TPWD biologist in their county should they have questions or need advice. Kunz encourages owners to investigate all the resources that are available to them so that they can do what’s right for their specific habitat and ecoregion, as one size does not fit all.

Properties across the state that have earned the Lone Star Land Steward title are just as unique as Texas itself. Land and habitat management efforts on a ranch in the Trans-Pecos region of far West Texas will vary significantly from practices implemented on a parcel of land in the Pineywoods. Similarly, work done to manage land where cattle graze will differ from land that isn’t a working ranch.

 DK Langford | TAMU Press

 DK Langford | TAMU Press

The Hillingdon, Laurels and Leslie Ranches are just such a working property. The ranches are all owned and operated by the same family and have been since 1887. Founded by Alfred Giles after he moved to Texas from Hillingdon (Middlesex, England), the land is named for Giles’ homeland. The Hillingdon Ranch family is committed to preserving their heritage and the land they occupy, all while raising cattle, sheep and goats.

“There are two philosophical cornerstones that were laid down by my great-grandfather: always plan for drought so that you’re surprised when it rains, and if you have to feed, you have too many,” says David Langford, referring to the practice of keeping only as many cattle as your land can support. The ranches are in Langford’s family, and he, along with many others, continue the necessary work to make sure the property is functioning and healthy.

“Our cattle, sheep and goats have to get by on what the natural landscape provides for them,” Langford says. “We have to care for the natural landscape to make sure those things under our care do well, and that includes the wildlife, the flora and the fauna of all kinds. The cattle have been here as long as we have. My great-grandfather acquired three Angus in 1890, and the cattle on the ranch now are descendants from those.”

The Hillingdon, Laurels and Leslie Ranches were named a Lone Star Land Steward winner in 2014. Langford’s work and advocacy for land and habitat management dates back many years, as he served on the original Private Lands Advisory Committee.

“We have to care for the natural landscape to make sure those things under our care do well, and that includes the wildlife, the flora and the fauna of all kinds."

— 2014 Lone Star Land Steward winner David Langford of the Hillingdon, Laurels and Leslie Ranches

Langford hopes to show others that the footprint of private lands management goes far beyond property lines. The Hillingdon family of ranches, like Blue Mountain Peak Ranch, lie in a contributing area of the Edwards Aquifer. In addition, Block Creek, a stream that flows through the ranches and for another four miles outside the property, is a major tributary to the Guadalupe River. The Guadalupe River empties into San Antonio Bay on the Texas coast, which serves as an overwintering site for whooping cranes. This endangered species relies upon clean water and a pristine habitat to survive.

“In my case, it’s easy. I just want my heritage to continue,” Langford says. “Those of us who care about it — all seven generations of us — or those of us who still hang around, this is our heritage and we’re going to do the best we can.”

The Lone Star Land Steward recognition banquet is expected to resume in 2021, honoring a new set of private landowners who work tirelessly to take care of Texas.

As Langford says, “It’s your responsibility to be the best steward you can be. You’re supposed to do the best you can do for the land. Our gift is our heritage.”

Megan Radke covers land and wildlife issues in TPWD's press office.

 DK Langford | TAMU Press

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