Texas ranchers preserve land to protect habitats and heritage.
by Kathryn Hopper
Updated: Wednesday, September 02, 2009
More people are concerned about preserving large family ranches, says Roger Welder ’80, pictured at the Welder ranch southwest of Victoria.
Ranching isn’t just about the cattle. Modern ranchers have whole ecosystems to consider.
With an eye toward preserving their heritage and protecting the abundant wildlife that make their home on the range, more ranchers are embracing sustainable practices.
“We have to be good stewards in order to preserve this asset for future generations,” says Roger Welder ’80 BBA (RM ’80), of the J.F. Welder Heirs — the limited partnership that owns and operates the ranch in the coastal Texas community of Refugio. “Sustainability is not just about now, it’s about 10 from years from now. Are we going to be proud of the decisions we’ve made?”
TCU’s Institute of Ranch Management makes sustainability a part of its curriculum, taking students on field trips to the Welder ranch and others operated by alumni who take a holistic approach to land management.
“It’s actually part of our mission statement,” says Jeff Geider, director of the Institute of Ranch Management. “Everything we teach is grounded in economic and environmental sustainability.”
Students learn how something as simple as keeping a pasture clear of invasive brush and weeds requires detailed planning for rotational grazing, burning, clearing and replanting.
“If you don’t do something to control brush encroachment in south Texas it will take 100 percent of the canopy and then the land becomes much less productive. Plus, it’s not as pretty,” Welder says. “When we were kids, this was all native prairie, but now you look around and see we’re losing that.”
With many ranches operating on paper-thin margins, an eco-friendly approach must also benefit the bottom line. Fortunately state and federal agencies are stepping in with a variety of financial incentives to entice ranchers into embracing an eco ethos.
Ranchers who take advantage of the programs get perks like longer hunting seasons and can dramatically cut their tax bills if they set aside lands under a conservation easement.
In Texas, ranchers can partner with Parks and Wildlife biologists to develop individual land management plans free of charge. Biologists can offer tips on developing habitats favored by prized hunting game ranging from Bobwhite quail to white-tailed deer.
Because hunting is a major source of revenue for the state’s ranchers — often accounting for half of their annual revenue — developing healthy habitats directly hits the bottom line. Without the right grasses and shrubs the right insects won’t thrive and that means the right birds — namely duck, dove or quail — won’t either.
Texas Parks and Wildlife also hands out special hunting benefits to ranchers who manage their lands properly.
“We try to do more things with incentives rather than regulations,” says Len Polasek, regional director for the wildlife division of Texas Parks & Wildlife’s office in Rockport. “We still regulate bag limits and seasons, but we have programs like our deer programs. If the landowner is managing their lands, managing the ecosystem well, they’ll get more permits and a longer hunting season.”
But even with the incentives, ranchers eager to preserve the environment have to face another potential problem — a growing number of heirs. As the state’s large ranches get passed down, they are often fragmented into smaller tracts, making comprehensive land management more difficult.
“More and more people are concerned about preserving the legacy of these large ranches in Texas,” Welder says. “Once they’re divided into smaller tracks of land, it’s very expensive and almost impossible to put them back as undisturbed landscapes.”
The Welder family has a complex limited partnership of more than 30 family members who share the ranch’s profits and split time at the homestead using a system akin to a time-share resort.
“Whatever you’re doing to manage an asset like this, you have to have long-term sustainability — the economics have to work as well as the preservation.” Welder says. “It can’t just be philanthropy and people saying, ‘I want to preserve this ranch.’ They have got to have an economic incentive to do that.”
For some ranchers, the answer to preserving the land is handing over development rights through a conservation easement. The Womack family ranch south of Victoria includes fragile wetlands where the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers empty into the Gulf. For a century, the land had been drained to grow crops, but the family worked with various government agencies and environmental groups to set up a conservation easement in a program called the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project, creating the second largest private wetlands project in North America.
The program pays ranchers 75 percent of the value of the land, easing the tax burden on future generations and protecting it from future development.
“One of the biggest problems in preserving large ranches is the land is valued at so much that when it’s passed down, the next generation can’t afford to pay the inheritance taxes so they have to sell the land to come up with the cash,” said Jesse Womack III RM ’02.
His parents’ decision to preserve the wetlands transformed the ranch’s former cotton fields back into a vibrant marsh ecosystem that ranked third nationally for the most number of species spotted in the annual Audubon Society bird count. In 2002, he Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission honored his parents, Jesse Womack II and Helen Louise Stumberg Womack, as Lone Star Stewards of the Year.
“He came up with the idea of selling it to the government,” he said of his dad, who passed away in 2005. “Now thanks to the easement, it’s preserved for perpetuity.”
On the Web:
Cover story: The Crucial Crusade of an Amazon Cowboy
Rewarding producers who do the right thing
Green acres: Texas ranchers preserve land to protect habitats and heritage
What you may not know about TCU Ranch Management