Former First Lady Laura Bush returned to one of her “favorite parts of the world” recently to urge a widespread message of conservation.
“Our ecological system is fragile,” she said. “It needs us to take care of it.”
Mrs. Bush, the founder of Taking Care of Texas, participated in a conservation briefing at Alpine’s Holland Hotel with several organizations, co-hosted by the Borderlands Research Institute (BRI) at Sul Ross State University. Also participating in the briefing, titled “Taking Care of the Trans-Pecos” were representatives from the Texas Agricultural Land Trust (co-host), Texas Bighorn Society, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Wildlife Association.
During her opening remarks, the former First Lady cited the need for state conservation organizations to work together with private landowners to spread the word of conservation.
“If we can all work together along with private landowners, we can broaden our reach,” she said.
Dr. Louis Harveson, BRI director, and Dr. Neal Wilkins of the Institute of Renewable Natural Resources at Texas A&M University, both expressed the major role that private landowners play in conservation efforts across Texas.
“Private landowners are carrying the load. They are making this part of the world special,” said Harveson, adding that collaboration of private landowners and conservation organizations are necessary to make programs successful.
Wilkins noted that in the Trans-Pecos region, about 2,000 individual operators own 16.3 million acres of private ranchland. Of this number, 600 operators own ranches of 2,000 acres or larger.
“Ninety percent of private lands are in the large operator class,” he said. “The (conservation) decisions made by 600 owners have a major effect on the biological health of this region.”
Wilkins added that “a relatively small number of decision makers have to convince (the public) to carry out land management practices that benefit the whole region.”
After the opening remarks by Mrs. Bush, Harveson, and Wilkins, a panel discussion was held. Carter Smith, executive director of Texas Parks and Wildlife, moderated the panel that included Harveson and members of the other participating organizations.
Two major themes were water – availability and management – and stopping the trend of large ranch fragmentation. According to Wilkins, about 36,000 acres of ranchland are lost to residential development annually in the Trans-Pecos.
“Large ranches are necessary and we’re getting chopped up,” said Harveson. “We need large ranches to stay together; they are the best chance for effective conservation.”
Harveson and Gary Joiner, CEO of the Texas Wildlife Association, both expressed the need for funding to assist private landowners in their conservation efforts.
“Trust the landowner and give him the tools to stay on the land,” Joiner said.
“Water, water, water,” said Jon Means, a Fort Davis area rancher and former president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
“We have to look at production agriculture. We do have the resources to feed the world and we have to have the water to do so,” he said. “Ninety-six percent of the people in the world live outside the United States…and we cannot feed these people without water.
“This is a fragile landscape and we need (to implement) practices to better conserve and use water,” Means said.
Representatives of wildlife organizations also stressed the need for water availability and use management, as well as preserving habitat.
Blair Fitzsimons, executive director of the Texas Agricultural Land Trust, said, “the fragmentation issue is facing the Trans-Pecos and landowners everywhere….We need to do a better job of articulating public benefits of private land.”
Finding financial incentives for conservation is necessary Fitzsimons added. “We can’t make conservation expensive.”
Dr. Bonnie Warnock, Sul Ross associate professor of Natural Resource Management, addressed research, particularly in using native plants for restoration projects.
“If you’re buying seed and paying $200-$300 an acre, you want to have success,” she said. “It is necessary to find out what will work.”
Mrs. Bush, again citing the broad consortium of conservation groups active throughout the state, said, “we want you to tell us of successful projects…so we can know what to do, whether (working with) large properties or just a backyard.
“Our goal is to have a very broad reach through existing conservation efforts,” she added.
“Sharing our challenges can bring attention to the rest of Texas,” said Harveson.
Kathryn Armstrong, a Taking Care of Texas board member, praised Mrs. Bush’s involvement.
“The majority of the (conservation) work is driven by love and passion and a sense of duty. (Mrs. Bush) can help us bring attention to this effort and help take the message from country to the city.”
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