Former First Lady speaks out on land conservation
By RICHARD MARK GLOVER
ALPINE – Former United States and Texas First Lady Laura Bush spoke about land conservation at the Trans Pecos Wildlife Management Conference last Friday in Alpine.
“Our ecological system is fragile and it needs us to take care of it,” said Bush.
Mrs. Bush addressed the invitation-only crowd at the Holland Hotel from her table during a brisket lunch while members of a six-party panel and a crowd of about 75 listened.
“We need to spread our reach all across the state and encourage conservation, encourage growers to grow more native seed as we try to reclaim our lands,” she said.
Mrs. Bush started an organization called Taking Care of Texas last year that promotes big and small conservation projects and hopes to link all state conservation groups by a “very large web site.”
The two-day conference, “Ranching in the Extremes” and sponsored by the Borderlands Research Institute (BRI) at Sul Ross State University, offered a variety of speakers and presentations including Friday’s panel moderated by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Executive Director Carter Smith. The panel included Billy Tarrant, newly appointed TransPecos Regional Director for TPWD; Dr Louis Harveson, BRI Director; Gary Joiner, Chief Executive Officer of the Texas Wildlife Association; Blaire Fitzsimons, Executive Director of the Texas Agricultural Land Trust; Van Horn rancher John Means; and David Wetzel, President of the Texas Big Horn Society.
“The Trans-Pecos is one of my favorite parts of the world, really, and I do see the world,” said the former first lady who reminisced momentarily about her days growing up in Midland, hiking in Big Bend National Park, swimming at Balmorhea State Park, and staying at Indian Lodge.
“At our ranch in Crawford, George and I have worked hard to preserve the prairieland. We reclaimed 150 acres using Round Up on invasive species,” said Bush. “We want to spend our time and money on what we can do to spread the word about preserving habitat for our children and grandchildren so they can enjoy it as we have.”
Bush encouraged the media to report on conservation projects that were big in scope like “J P Bryan’s ranch project in Marathon” and “back yard conservationists.” She mentioned groups like the Mid-Bats, a conservation group her mother belongs to in Midland, as well as the late Lady Bird Johnson’s work in wildflowers.
The panel listed some of the challenges the TransPecos faces, including pressure on water supplies, drought, fire and late freezes, a combination that has contributed to the all-time low pronghorn count, now estimated to be between 2,600 to 2,700 animals, down from 17,000 in 1987. The panel also discussed land fragmentation.
“We need those large ranches to stay together,” said Harveson.
According to statistics offered, 16.3 million acres, or about six islands of Jamaica, are in the hands of private ranchers in the TransPecos, and 90 percent of that is controlled by 600 “large operators.” The overall average ranch size in the TransPecos is 7,500 acres, but that average is trending downward since 2000 by 70 acres per year.
“There are many public benefits of private lands,” said Fitzsimons. “We need to design new incentives to keep big ranches whole.”
“Trust the rancher,” said Joiner. “They make the best decisions for the land. We might not be able to win (conservation) in Dallas-Fort Worth, but we got a chance to win out here.”
“Maintaining contiguous habitat is important for the health of both plants and animals,” said Tarrant.
Bush expressed her support for private land ownership as a vehicle for conservation mentioning that Texas land is 95 percent privately owned, ranking well above the national average of 68 percent.
“Texas did not enter the union in debt as many western states did,” said Bush, summoning 1846 statehood history. “And we are blessed today by many wealthy individuals in this state. And blessed by their generosity.”
Bush also called on the oil companies to do their share in conservation.
“If you fly over Midland you can see the many pads (oil production sites),” Bush said. “Now, while the price of oil is high, is good time for operators to find new ways to drill but also to pay attention to the surface.”
According to Harveson, the TransPecos is the most biologically diverse region in the state, with four species of quail, 16 species of humming birds and 1,200 species of plants.
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