Ranching Heritage and Private Property Rights, a Coveted Value of the Big Bend Region

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Photo courtsey of Vicki Leblanc.

When people think of West Texas, they might think about hiking through Big Bend National Park or checking out the Marfa Lights. What many might overlook while they visit is the incredible heritage of West Texas ranching families, the spectacular properties they steward, and the private property rights they value. This heritage is the foundation for all that we treasure about the Big Bend region.

Ranching Heritage and Private Property Rights is one of the Respect Big Bend coalition values, identified by the Trans-Pecos Stakeholder Advisory Group. The Stakeholder Advisory Group is at the heart of the Respect Big Bend effort, and members of this group include landowners and community members from the Big Bend region counties of Brewster, Jeff Davis, and Presidio.

While the identified values are not ranked in importance, Stakeholder Advisory Group members agree that the region’s ranching heritage serves as an “umbrella” value that positively impacts almost all other recognized values.

Many privately owned ranches in West Texas are considered intact landscapes, which are relatively unbroken natural landscapes. In most of West Texas, these areas are working lands that provide benefits to communities, wildlife, and society as a whole.

These intact landscapes are extremely important to the area and are the driving factor for the Respect Big Bend coalition effort, as identified by the Stakeholder Advisory Group. Over the years, the amount of available working lands in the tri-county area has decreased, as documented in Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute’s June 2019 Texas Land Trends report. The Natural Resources Institute found that between 1997 and 2017, Jeff Davis County experienced a 7% decrease in available acres of working lands, Presidio County experienced an 8% increase, and Brewster County experienced a 16% decrease. This decrease in available working lands directly impacts the landowners and communities that make this region unique.

Although the intact landscapes have changed over the years, the ranchers who steward these privately owned properties are working hard to keep the ranching heritage alive for all of us.

The greater Big Bend region is home of several of the largest remaining cattle ranches in the United States. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, pioneering cattle ranchers like Alfred S. Gage, Herbert Kokernot Sr., and Lucas Charles Brite found the region’s grasslands to be excellent cow country, and over time, built immense ranching empires.

To this day, many of the heirs of these early pioneers still own and operate their family ranches. Even the properties that have been broken up through generational change are extensive in acreage compared to the rest of the state.

More than 95% of Texas is privately owned. Ranches in West Texas are some of the largest in the state, with some containing 200,000-300,000 acres of contiguous habitat.

These properties are vitally important for the ecosystem services they provide to all of us, including:

– Sustainable habitat for wildlife to live and thrive in.
– Improvement of water quantity and quality in a desert ecosystem.
– Carbon dioxide sequestration through the large amount of vegetation on the landscape, which ultimately provides cleaner air.
– Critical grazing lands for producing food and fiber for the world.
– Dark skies largely devoid of the influence of artificial light.
– Scenic open viewsheds and vistas that serve as a distinctive feature of the region and are incredibly important for tourism.

Although these ranches provide these services for us all, private landowners and ranchers face many challenges with keeping these lands intact, including volatile cattle markets and the burden of managing brush encroachment, all made more difficult in times of drought. In addition, heirs grapple with the financial burden of estate taxes as land is handed down to the next generation.

Holding these critically important working lands together has never been more important. When faced with the financial opportunity that energy development can bring, landowners often have no choice but to consider it.

Through the Respect Big Bend process, the Stakeholder Advisor Group crafted important recommendations, several of which can assist private landowners in stewarding these important intact landscapes. Two recommendations include:

– The establishment of a Center for Land Stewardship and Community Engagement, which will provide technical resources and guidance to landowners presented with the opportunity for energy development.
– Support for voluntary programs that minimizes fragmentation, encourages conservation, and enhances productivity for landowner partners.

Across Far West Texas, there are already many organizations and initiatives that help landowners manage their intact landscapes, including:
Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association
Texas Wildlife Association
Texas Agricultural Land Trust
Trans-Pecos Grazing Lands Coalition
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Partners Program
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s conservation programs
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
Rio Grande Joint Venture
– Local Soil and Water Conservation Districts
Borderlands Research Institute

Read more about the latest Respect Big Bend report here, https://respectbigbend.org/1-introduction

The Respect Big Bend coalition was launched by the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, and is sponsored in part by the Permian Basin Area Foundation, The Meadows Foundation, and the Still Water Foundation. Find out more about the project at RespectBigBend.org.


This photo was taken in the late 1930s of Espy, Clay and Betty Miller holding Hereford cows at the C.E. Miller Ranch headquarters.


Image of a Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raised Association sign, posted on a West Texas landowner’s fence.