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 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,”

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