Land That I Love

Bob Eppenauer and other ranchers in the Davis Mountains want to protect their beloved high country from encroaching subdivisions and golf courses. But the only way to save it may be to give it away.

March 2000By Comments

Bob Eppenauer’s family ranch is a field of dreams, sprawed across tens of thousands of acres of verdant Davis Mountains high country, rife with lush grasslands and stands of oak, piñon, and ponderosa pine, and punctuated by dramatic canyons, flowing creeks and springs, and sweeping uplifts and views that go on forever. It just might be the most scenic ranch in Texas. When Bob says, “It’s God’s country,” you know exactly what he’s talking about.

Look a little closer, though, and the Eppenauer Ranch is very much fenced in by economic reality. As operations go, it’s nothing fancy: a couple of stone columns and a swinging gate for an entrance, a tidy three-bedroom house that has sufficed as its headquarters ever since the old guesthouse burned to the ground in 1988, and Bob as boss man and sole hand. His sunburned, creased face makes him look older than his actual age of 47, and his close-cropped sandy hair, rumpled denim shirt, pressed jeans, work boots, and battered eighties-vintage pickup parked out front make clear he’s a working rancher, not just a ranch owner.

This is an increasingly important distinction in these yet-unspoiled but endangered highlands. Ranching is being priced out of the market in all the pretty places in Texas, such as the Davis Mountains, the Hill Country, and the Katy Prairie—wherever refugees from the cities are spilling into rural areas that are scenic but also happen to harbor threatened species of plants and wildlife. The price of land in the Davis range, which extends northwest of Fort Davis for forty or so miles, hovers around $300 an acre, indicating that its recreational value exceeds its ranching value. Prices have been driven up by city folks with money to burn and developers who want to subdivide land, put up some condos or homes, and maybe build a golf course. This makes Bob Eppenauer and the fewer than a thousand residents of the Davis Mountains uncomfortable, to say the least. They worry that the ranching way of life in the mountains will be replaced by vacation homes and unregulated subdivisions, as it already has been in so much of rural Texas.

“My deal is first God, then family, then the ranch,” Eppenauer tells me one evening, with his wife, Sheri, and his 22-year-old daughter, Dolly, at his side. Bob is an old-school gentleman, choosing his words carefully, not wanting to offend but unable to be anything but blunt, and formally polite down to the firm handshakes, yes-sirs, and no-sirs. Despite those qualities, I’m having a hard time believing his priorities, because as much as he obviously loves his family and is clearly a man of deep spirituality, the ranch means everything to Bob Eppenauer. And therein lies his dilemma.

The beauty of the land that Eppenauer works adds to its market value, but it doesn’t do anything to help cattle prices, which have been abysmal. West Texas has endured a seven-year drought only slightly alleviated by rains last summer. He can’t afford to hire local ranch hands, and he can no longer use “wets,” who’ve worked his family’s land for generations, not with the Border Patrol all over the area and all too eager to slap him with a $10,000 fine. Eppenauer is barely getting by; times have been so tough that Sheri, in addition to her regular job as a kindergarten teacher in Marfa, has at times taken on extra work to make ends meet. She lives on the family’s other ranch, south of Marfa, which is managed by Dolly, whose handshake is as firm as her daddy’s. (“I’m real proud of my daughter; she’s a good hand,” says Bob.) Dolly grew up on the ranch with a goat, a dog, a rabbit, and Mexican ranch hands for friends. Her love of the land led her to pursue a degree in natural resource management from Sul Ross University, in Alpine, and she’s thinking about graduate schools. But there’s the prospect of inheritance taxes, ranging as high as 55 percent of the land’s value, to consider, and the future of cattle ranching in drought-prone country. “I’ve put a foot in this lifestyle,” she says, “but I can’t go all the way because I don’t know if it’ll work.”

The Davis Mountains look more like Colorado or New Mexico than Texas. They are the lushest, greenest, wettest, most heavily forested, and most biologically diverse range in the state, and the most accessible. Three state highways offer great views of the peaks, two of which top eight thousand feet. Madera and Limpia canyons are among the most scenic spots in the state. When the highways were being built in the thirties, Madera Canyon, a spectacular crevice that bisects half of the range, was proposed as a state park, but the project fell through when the Legislature refused to approve funding. Today, with the exception of the McDonald Observatory and the pocket-size (less than three square miles) Davis Mountains State Park, the region is privately owned.

Beginning in the late seventies, two subdivisions, the Davis Mountains Resort and Limpia Crossing, sprang up near Fort Davis, causing widespread alarm among ranchers that the high country was in danger of being overrun with everything from million-dollar homes to trailer parks and golf courses. Twelve years ago, then-congressman Ron Coleman of El Paso floated a proposal to dedicate a large part of the mountains as a national park. But the arrogance of federal officials doomed the proposal from the beginning. Local ranchers, most of whom own spreads in the thousands of acres, banded together to fight the park, invoking the sanctity of property rights; they showed up in force at a public hearing in the Catholic church parish hall in Fort Davis. Several ranchers voiced the sentiment that the proposal was nothing but a land grab in disguise, just like what happened to the Big Bend ranchers whose land was purchased over their objections 55 years ago to create the current park. Bob Eppenauer, who describes himself as “a real shy person,” stood up and declared, “I would not want to sell my land for a national park.”

Coleman quietly shelved the proposal, but more houses continued to appear on ridgelines. With the feds gone, the state parks system having neither the finances nor the political will to take on property owners, and local governments having almost no power to regulate rural areas, the Davis Mountains were destined for “highest and best use”—a legal doctrine that allows owners to develop their property in the way that will bring them the most financial reward. At least one golf course was planned for the rugged range. That prospect is what brought James King to the Davis Mountains—and eventually to Bob Eppenauer.

Less than a year after the ranchers chased the park service out of Fort Davis, King started paying visits to Fort Davis on behalf of the Nature Conservancy of Texas, the state chapter of the Nature Conservancy (TNC), a nonprofit land trust whose mission is to preserve wild and open spaces around the world. Don McIvor of the U Up U Down Ranch had called the Conservancy to say he wanted to sell a big chunk of his ranch, which covered about a quarter of the land inside the 75-mile Davis Mountains Scenic Loop and included the highest spot in the range—Mount Livermore, 8,378 feet high, home to quaking aspen, black bear, ten species of hummingbirds, and one known Arizona cypress. As the Conservancy’s state director of land acquisitions, King started talking with McIvor.

At first the ranchers of the Davis Mountains must have viewed King as another tree-hugging interloper, just like the feds, but the word started to get around that his name was the real thing: He is the great-great-great grandson of Richard King, the founder of the King Ranch, and a symbol of the evolution of the old Texas into the new. Eight years and two thousand cups of coffee later, King had arranged for the Conservancy to buy 32,000 acres of the U Up U Down. McIvor got enough out of the deal to build himself a full-blown castle on the slope of Blue Mountain on the remaining portion of his ranch. From the 32,000 acres, TNC created a 17,943-acre preserve that included Mount Livermore, the most biologically diverse and ecologically sensitive region in all of West Texas. To underwrite the deal, the Conservancy sold off 14,000 acres to private buyers, who, as part of the transaction, agreed to donate conservation easements to TNC that effectively will set aside large chunks of their land to remain in its natural state in perpetuity.

In a state like Texas, where 98 percent of the land is privately owned and property rights are defended passionately, conservation easements appear to be the only chance to save places like the Davis Mountains. A conservation easement is a legal contract—a binding promise to set aside green space. A landowner may donate the easement to the Conservancy, or TNC may buy the land and resell it subject to an easement. The advantage to the landowner is that by giving up the opportunity to develop the land for its “highest and best use,” he lowers the value of the land and also benefits from lower income and inheritance taxes—and he and his descendants can go on using the easement for ranching, subject to a grazing and management plan worked out with TNC. The Conservancy has used this tool in New England, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas, at Hooks Woods near Tomball and at Dolan Falls on the Devil’s River, but conservation easements have never been applied on such a large scale as King envisions using them in the Davis Mountains.

You may have heard of the New Urbanism, in which planners and city leaders work with developers to accommodate growth while preserving the integrity of neighborhoods and the values that make a city a desirable place to live. King is the face of the New Ruralism. An exceptionally engaging, sandy-haired man of 42 who can make a stranger feel like an old friend in a matter of minutes, he is championing conservation easements as the tool that will preserve rural character and values. In 1998 he moved his family to Fort Davis, changed his title to director of West Texas operations, and opened up a small office in a storefront near the bank. He has talked to just about every rancher in the range, explaining how his organization wants to help preserve all that is majestic about the Davis Mountains.

The Nature Conservancy, which was founded 45 years ago by a group of individuals who bought sixty acres in New York State to ensure natural plant and animal diversity, works with corporations and foundations as well as individuals to save threatened land and habitat. It has purchased and protected more than ten million acres of biologically significant sites in the U.S.—half a million acres in 1999 alone. In Texas the Conservancy has been a major behind-the-scenes player in creating the McFaddin, Anahuac, and Brazoria national wildlife refuges in the southeast; the Enchanted Rock and Honey Creek state natural areas and the Eckert James River bat cave in Central Texas (the home of 6 to 8 million bats); the Barton Creek Habitat Preserve west of Austin; the Mad Island and Shamrock Island rookeries on the Gulf Coast; native blackland prairie in North Texas that’s never known a plow; stands of longleaf pine in East Texas; and wildlife corridors in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Many ranchers in the Davis Mountains are not sold on the idea of donating easements to TNC, much less selling their land to the Conservancy, as McIvor did. In Eppenauer’s case, since the 45,000 acres is owned by a bank trust that has fiduciary responsibility to maximize the value of the land, King may be forced to buy an easement at a cost estimated at $4 million to satisfy the trust and the beneficiaries—Bob, his brother, Edwin, cousins Sherry Smith and Mary Bea Howard, and their heirs—and achieve the objective of keeping the land from being developed or subdivided. Still, the conservancy’s plan has found enough favor that more than 81,000 acres in the range are now either part of a dedicated preserve or protected through conservation easements. Even someone as set in his ways as Bob Eppenauer is willing to sit down and listen to what King has to say.

What King hopes to prevent is easily visible from Texas Highway 118. “This land is the Sprouls’,” he says, pointing north of the road and past a row of cottonwoods shading Limpia Creek as he steers an old donated Land Rover out of Fort Davis one crisp morning, headed for the high country. “Mac Sproul didn’t understand the Nature Conservancy. Now we’re working with him to put in a guest lodge that will have little impact on the land, yet provide the family with an income for years to come.” That way, he says, the Sprouls could supplement their ranching operation and give birders and hikers more access to the mountains.

The highway climbs past the Limpia Crossing subdivision, where homes, cabins, and ranchettes are scattered in the valleys and up the hillside. King pulls over a couple of miles later to point south toward a couple of white dots on a ridge west of Blue Mountain, the most visible landmark in the southern flank of the range. “That’s the Davis Mountains Resort, the other subdivision. Homes are crawling up the ridge. That’s what we’re trying to stop.”

Other than the two subdivisions, the Davis range remains wide-open spaces, full of a whole lot of pretty. The question is whether it will stay that way. “We realized for preservation to work here, it would have to take the form of a private land initiative,” King says. “So we have ‘cowboy’ easements—development in concentrated areas only, no subdivisions, no introduction of exotics. We’re not insisting on public access—it’s not written into the contracts. That doesn’t fit in the private-property climate of Texas. That’s a decision left to the landowner.”

Since the sale of the U Up U Down land was completed two years ago, the Eppenauer place has become the key component to saving a sky island, which is how the Davis Mountains Project is being promoted to Conservancy members and corporate and foundation partners. The animals and plants living above the five-thousand-foot elevation in the Davis Mountains are found nowhere else but in other sky islands surrounded by desert, such as the Chiricahuas in southeast Arizona and the Mimbres range in southwestern New Mexico. One thousand rare or endangered species are thought to thrive in this specialized environment, and researchers on the conservancy’s preserve have already sighted a buff-breasted flycatcher never seen before in Texas and a moth not previously known to exist, as well as others never seen before in the United States or Texas. No one knows what else awaits discovery, because before Don McIvor opened his land to biologists, little research had been done in the Davis range. Bob Eppenauer says he used to let a few folks on his family’s land, including Boy Scouts. “But it got to where people would throw trash, leave beer cans, and wouldn’t shut your gates,” he said, and he cut off access. When a biologist found an endangered pondweed on a neighboring ranch, the implication of the Endangered Species Act seemed to be that the owners would be prevented from fixing fences or cutting down cedar or doing anything to their land without permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. So property owners simply denied biologists permission to roam their land.

“They try to say ranchers can’t take care of our land,” Eppenauer complains. “How do you think that endangered plant survived all these years?” King is sympathetic to the ranchers’ point of view. “We’d like to convince Fish and Wildlife that we don’t need to list other species in the Davis Mountains because the mountains are protected by conservation easements.”

What irks Bob Eppenauer is that he has to contemplate any deal at all. He says he’d take great pleasure in laughing at someone offering any amount of money to buy his place. “After the money is gone, the land will still be there,” he says. But that attitude is tempered by the trusts his grandfather created to keep the property whole and avoid inheritance taxes. (Bob’s brother, Edwin, recently moved to Granbury, leaving his son Eddie in charge of part of the land.) But as the recreational value of the land soars, the trustee may regard that it has the fiduciary obligation to sell the land for its full value.

Selling a conservation easement may be the solution that will let the Eppenauers hold on to what they’ve got and satisfy the trustee. That’s what James King told Bob, and he’s still trying to digest what it means. “James King wants to help me,” he says. “He knows I truly care for this country.”

But Eppenauer admits to having reservations about the Nature Conservancy. “They have so much money, people just can’t turn it down. They know all the right people. They come in, buy the land, maybe build a farmhouse or two, then they quit and don’t put cattle on the land.”

King steers the Land Rover off the highway near the West Texas Utilities’ solar farm, where several acres of shiny solar panels are angled toward the sky. He goes a quarter of a mile up a road to a huge metal-sided building the size of a small Wal-Mart and introduces me to Rocky Beavers, one of the new landowners who bought part of the McIvor ranch from the Conservancy and donated conservation easements as part of the deal.

A friendly man of fifty who dresses cowboy and wears a diamond stud in one earlobe, Beavers is a native of Fort Worth who grew up in Jacksboro and Arlington. He knew the Davis Mountains from previous visits but didn’t become enamored with the place until 1988, when he too attended the ill-fated national park meeting in Fort Davis. He was working for the enemy then, as a representative of the National Park Service’s Denver service office of planning, design, and construction. The encounter with the local ranchers made an impression. He loved the land and he ended up liking the people too. “It was about the nicest, most cordial booting out of town I’d ever experienced.”

Two years ago, Beavers and his wife, Anna Whit Watkins, took early retirement from the park service and, cushioned with a fat stock portfolio and a willingness to invest their retirement money in land, started looking around for a smaller community where they could raise their son, Travis, and where Watkins could board horses and set up operations for her business as a dressage instructor.

The Davis range was good country that had been managed decently, Beavers knew. Watkins could really live anywhere since she flies around Texas and the United States for classes with her students. The Nature Conservancy stitched together a complicated deal involving two other couples, and Beavers and Watkins took possession of four thousand acres of an upswept chuck of open grasslands known as the Observatory Pasture of the old U Up U Down Ranch. Beavers and Watkins donated easements, promised they wouldn’t run goats or sheep, and without being asked, pledged a portion of their land to the Conservancy upon their deaths.

Their headquarters contains their family residence, a barn, a workshop, stables, an 18,000-square-foot indoor riding arena—the first in the region—and grain and equipment garages, all under the same roof. To address Conservancy concerns, the building was erected close to the road and painted a muted beige to blend in with the landscape. On his own, Beavers installed a system to capture and store rainwater, like the old ranches used to do (“I can get seventy gallons when the dew rolls off the roof,” he brags) and an elaborate composting system to recycle horse manure.

“I’m not a rancher,” Beavers explains by way of introduction, but he knows how ranching works. After showing me around, he launches into a long spiel about what he calls “conservation beef,” his idea for marketing natural beef raised on ranches like his own. Now that Watkins’ dressage operation is up and running, Beavers is working with other ranchers to sell Davis Mountains natural beef to consumers at a premium. By cutting out all the middlemen, cattle raisers might actually get a decent price for their product again, while the land remains free of pesticides and consumers get the option of buying beef without hormonal or chemical additives.

“Ranchers may have to manage their land a little differently, but it doesn’t require them to give up control or change their way of life,” he says of the concept. “It’s the way beef was produced before World War Two.” He knows it’s a hard sell to the locals, but maybe he’s onto something. “A lot of people over the fence are watching,” he says.

Leaving Beavers behind, King drives toward the McDonald Observatory, stopping at an overlook to point out other pieces of the U Up U Down that the Conservancy sold to make the core preserve affordable. “Tim and Lynn Crowley bought this beautiful valley,” he says. Tim is a Houston attorney and Lynn owned a prominent art gallery there before the couple moved to Marfa, thirty miles south, a year ago. Tim’s friend, Houston businessman Jeff Fort, and his wife, Marion Barthelme, bought the Limpia tract; Beavers and his wife and two other couples purchased the Observatory tract; and Cina Alexander, a distant cousin of King’s, acquired the Locke’s Gap tract. Since then, Alexander has also purchased the 27,000-acre Caldwell Ranch, which includes portions of Madera Canyon and one of the major concentrations of Indian pictographs in Texas, donating conservation easements on both ranches.

King has a satisfied look on his face. “Those ranches won’t be anything but what they are now: ranches,” he says. He drives past the Eppenauer spread, which includes a portion that used to be the Fisher Ranch— “I tried to sell this when I was a realtor,” he says—and the entrance to the Davis Mountains Preserve that now belongs to the Conservancy. King became a true believer when he walked this land with Don McIvor and climbed Mount Livermore.

“We did a portfolio analysis and discovered Livermore was teeming with rare plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. It’s a biological gold mine. If we were going to protect that biodiversity, we had to figure out the ecological borders and political boundaries. So we designed the preserve around the biology.” To pay for it, the Conservancy initially sought to sell seven 40-acre tracts in the high country for $2 million each, giving owners and guests access to a larger commons of almost 20,000 acres. Only one potential buyer came forward. “We found everyone was scared of common ownership,” he says. That idea was scrapped in 1996 in favor of carving up the acreage into three tracts. In 1998 the plan was retooled into six tracts, buyers lined up, and the deal was made.

The Davis Mountains Project is seeking more easements in Madera Canyon by raising money for land acquisition and by partnering with the Buffalo Trail Boy Scout Camp of Midland, which owns a wilderness in the northern hills near Middle Madera Canyon. “The whole deal here is getting in position,” King says. The Meadows Foundation, the Brown Foundation, and Houston Endowment have provided grants. Smaller donors are steered to the Friends of the Davis Mountains, which organizes public events such as last summer’s hummingbird seminar at the preserve and Christmas Tree Day, when area residents are encouraged to cut down young pines in designated areas. Getting everyone involved is part of the plan too.

“The thing about the Davis Mountains is, everyone wants to live here,” King says. “There are a hundred and fifty thousand people coming to McDonald every year, and some of them like what they see so much, they want to relocate here. So we’ve become a land-planning service. We’re looking at ways to accommodate development. I’ve been approached to put together a village plan for Fort Davis.”

Though there are still a number of ranchers who view it all suspiciously, feeding on the perception that the Conservancy is fronting a bunch of rich carpetbaggers who will eventually turn the land over to the National Park Service, King is undaunted. He says more-vocal critics like Lynn Crittendon and his neighbor Ben Gearhart, who run ranches on the southwestern flank of the Davis range, are good guys. “They don’t need us. They’re doing great on their own. They live on the land with their families. I don’t need to talk to them about easements. It’s the land fixing to be sold that we have to work on.”

Cane bluestem grass is coming back in the core preserve surrounding Mount Livermore. So are black bears, which were eradicated by sheep ranchers in the thirties. But Limpia Creek, a year-round stream for most of the past century, went dry during the drought. If plants like cat’s claw and alligator juniper, invasive species that are prodigious water users, can be kept under control, the creek could revive, leading to the reintroduction of Rio Grande cutthroat trout, once native to the Davis range. The Conservancy is also studying managed wildfires as a means to restore the plant ecosystem.

The Davis Mountains Project won’t be doomed if Bob Eppenauer decides not to get on board, but the likelihood of development will increase. The imminent expansion of the McDonald Observatory visitors information center will bring more visitors to the high country, and more visitors mean more people falling in love with the mountains and wanting a piece of them. Eppenauer could put a small lodge on his land within walking distance of the new center, if he wants to exploit the situation. (Of course, he might be able to put in a lodge after the Conservancy acquired a conservation easement, as the Sprouls may do.)

King turns off the ignition of the Land Rover and points out a rise. “There’s Robber’s Roost. This is all the Caldwell Ranch, everything you’re looking at.” Breathtaking vistas unfold wherever my head turns. I see dramatic skyward sweeps of hard rock breaking out of the soil—uplifts, peaks, outcroppings, crevices. Far off in the distance are the jagged lines of Sawtooth Mountain, a sky cathedral if I’ve ever seen one. Fine tall grasslands spiked with cholla and yucca flourish in the folds of the slopes. On the other side of one nearby ridge is Madera Canyon.

King is talking about all the competing interests that he has to deal with, but I don’t hear him. I’m thinking about the relationship between him and Bob Eppenauer that holds the key to the future of the Davis Mountains. They approach the problem of preservation from totally different directions, and yet perhaps they are not so different after all. King comes from a famous ranching family and knows too well the story of how a family ranch became a corporation. Bob Eppenauer too has deep roots in ranching history. His family’s involvement with the land goes back six generations to the Fowlkes family, the founders of the Mountain Springs Ranch, which Bob’s grandfather, a Fort Worth wildcatter, bought in 1937. And although pretty has had nothing to do with the legacy he’s carrying on, pretty may allow Bob Eppenauer to keep the land in the family. Looking out at his vision of God’s country, I marvel that it can move King and Eppenauer, two men who have such different views of what they want for the Davis Mountains, to agree on this one thing: This land is special. So special, you hope they’re both right and their separate visions can be realized, and that the economics of pretty will allow it to stay just the way it is. Wild forever.

Related Content