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.

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

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