Regional Lone Star Land Steward Awards Honor Texas Conservationists

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AUSTIN – At a time when punishing drought underscores the importance of managing our land and water to help Texas weather the worst, two land owners, two organizations and a mining company are being recognized by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Lone Star Land Steward program for their efforts in rejuvenating native habitat and wildlife across the state.

From the oldest continuously operated family cattle ranch in the Texas Panhandle to a landowner coalition along the South Llano River working to protect the entire watershed, this year’s five regional land stewards show a striking diversity of activity across the state. In almost every case, their work on the land connects with water, such as planting native bunch grasses that catch and hold rain, restoring wetlands or controlling erosion, and sharing with others what they have learned and are doing to help people, fish and wildlife.

The awards will be presented May 21 at the Hyatt Regency in Austin. In addition, the winner of the prestigious Leopold Conservation Award for Texas – to be presented by the Sand County Foundation — will be announced that night.  Featured speaker will be Mrs. Laura Bush, former First Lady of the United States and founder, Taking Care of Texas.

Begun in 1996 by the TPWD Private Lands Advisory Committee, the Lone Star Land Steward Awards program objectives are to recognize private landowners for excellence in habitat management and wildlife conservation on their lands, publicize the best examples of sound natural resource management practices, encourage youth education and participation in promoting responsible habitat management and improved ecosystem health, promote long-term conservation of unique natural and cultural resources, promote ecosystem awareness and acknowledge the best conservation practices in the state’s ecological regions, enhance relationships between private landowners and Texas natural resource agencies, and illustrate the important role of private landowners in the future of Texas natural resources.

TPWD is partnering with the Sand County Foundation, Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation and Taking Care of Texas. Presenting sponsor is Toyota.  Additional sponsors include Karen and Tim Hixon, Plains Capital Bank, Cammack & Strong, P.C., Capital Farm Credit, Dorothy Drummer and Associates, Frost, Gardner Appraisal Group, Inc., Llano Springs Ranch, Ltd., Lower Colorado River Authority, Nature Blinds, Nueces River Authority, Oncor, San Antonio River Authority, Texas A&M Forest Service, Texas Agricultural Land Trust, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, Texas Wildlife Association, and USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Following are summaries of stewardship highlights for each recipient.

Blackland Prairies – Daphne Prairie, Franklin County

Supporting a remnant of the globally rare Silveanus dropseed prairie, Daphne Prairie is one of the most valuable ecological treasures in the state. Owned and operated by B.F. Hicks, the property has been in the Hicks family since 1839 and is one of the last unplowed prairies in northeast Texas.

Ongoing land management goals are continuing with conservation and restoration of 840 acres of native grasslands, including the 120-acre virgin prairie, using prescribed fire and rotational grazing.

A model citizen-scientist and conservationist, Hicks has hosted numerous groups for over 20 years, including researchers and plant ecology experts, university students, birding groups, Audubon and Master Naturalist chapters, as well as state and federal agencies including TPWD, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. As a community leader, Hicks is past president of the Franklin County Historical Association. He also helped nominate more than 10 sites for inclusion in the Prairies and Pineywoods Wildlife Trail.

Cross Timbers and Prairies – Thomsen Foundation, Montague County

Established in 1982 by Mr. and Mrs. C.J. Thomsen of Dallas and operated by Dr. Lisa Bellows, the foundation’s mission is to provide research and education programs, with a focus on place-based environmental education for students as well as educators. College students use the 600-acre property as an outdoor laboratory for classes in botany, zoology, wildlife conservation, environmental science and agriculture.

As a managed land deer permits (MLDP) cooperator, the Thomsen Foundation uses the program to teach students about controlling deer numbers, conducting surveys, and collecting harvest data.

In addition, prescribed burning, selective mowing, and restoration seeding have resulted in high plant diversity on the property, with more than 400 plant species recorded.

Adults visit the Thomsen property for programs on sustainable agriculture, habitat management and plant identification, and even star parties, taking advantage of the dark night sky.  With a passion for the education of children, Dr. Bellows holds workshops to introduce place-based teaching concepts to educators. The ranch hosts about 1,200 visitors yearly.

Rolling Plains – JA Ranch, Armstrong and Donley Counties

Established in 1876, the 158,500-acre JA Ranch is the oldest continuously operated family cattle ranch in the Texas Panhandle. From the fading days of the Red River War to 21st century digital mapping of ranch features, wildlife and cattle movements, and management treatments, the JA has seen many changes during its 130 years.

Ranch operations emphasize ecosystem management focusing on the entire plant community. The goal is to benefit both cattle and wildlife by creating healthier habitats ranch-wide.

Owner Andrew Bivins understands the ecological processes that formed the habitat and strives to sustain those processes through rotational grazing, conservative stocking rates, prescribed burning, and brush management.

Because of these practices, the ranch has seen a tremendous increase in plant diversity with plant communities shifting to sideoats and blue gramas, little and big bluestems, and higher forb abundance.

Wildlife Management or Landowner Association – South Llano River Watershed Alliance, Edwards and Kimble Counties

Formed in 2009, the South Llano River Watershed Alliance is an organization of landowners and interested stakeholders whose mission is to preserve and enhance the South Llano River and adjoining watersheds. Current president is Znobia Wooten; Dr. Tom Arsuffi serves as vice president.

By encouraging land and water stewardship through collaboration, education and community participation, the alliance serves as an excellent model of how landowners and stakeholders can work together voluntarily to achieve mutual benefits. The alliance has worked closely with TPWD on restoration of the Guadalupe bass, an effort aimed at ensuring a pure population of the state fish.  In addition, the alliance has assisted TPWD with five watershed-based restoration projects through the Landowner Incentive Program.

To address the concerns of landowners facing challenges related to increasing public use along the river, the alliance organized workshops to educate both users and landowners about river rights and ethics. This began the process of bringing partners together to establish the South Llano River Paddling Trail.

In 2011, following the devastating Oasis Pipeline fire that affected more than 8,000 acres of both upland and riparian habitat along the river, the alliance coordinated a workshop involving many partners to provide information and resources to landowners impacted by the wildfire.

Corporate/Non-Government Organization – Jewett Mine, Texas Westmoreland Coal Co.

Westmoreland Coal and its consultants have played a key role in developing revisions to the TPWD Quail and Grassland Bird Land Use reclamation guidelines. Through the work of Darrell Ezell, the company’s environmental superintendent, Westmoreland also has led the mining industry in developing improved reclamation practices for upland game birds.

The company provided leadership and coordination with the Texas Mining and Reclamation Association (TMRA) to gain support for the modification of the quail land use guidelines. This corporate input was critical in developing land use practices that are practical, realistic and appealing to mining companies across Texas, with a potential to restore thousands of acres for grassland birds.

Jewett was one of the first mines to voluntarily implement the quail land use practices even before these were adopted by the Railroad Commission.

Reclamation accomplishments at the mine include planting 3,500 acres of native bunchgrasses and constructing 700 acres of wetlands. Use of new technologies, software and specialized equipment is helping with stream reclamation that mimics natural processes.

Site-specific seed mixes of both early and late successional native grasses are used at the Jewett mine to provide better establishment and habitat value. Native bottomland grasses such as eastern gamagrass, switchgrass, and bushy bluestem are planted using hydomulching. Bottomland hardwood trees are carefully selected for establishment based on flooding tolerance and mast production.

New erosion control products have been used at the mine to stabilize steep slopes while allowing vegetation establishment within the grid.

Wildlife monitoring at Jewett includes spring call counts for bobwhite quail and annual surveys and protection measures for the Interior Least Tern, an endangered species that nests in the actively mined areas and reclaimed wetlands.

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