Few places in Texas have left as indelible a mark on me as Cypress Creek, which flows out of the fabled Jacob’s Well and makes its way through the village of Wimberley before reaching the Blanco River. The water is cold and clear, and majestic cypress trees line the banks like columns in a cathedral. The gnarled roots, called knees, cluster like gnomes around the base of these giants while high above, green foliage shifts in the breeze and dapples the light. I grew up on the muddy brown Brazos, so this crystalline stream seemed magical to me as a boy. I’d swim in it during summers spent in the Hill Country, then dream about it the rest of the year.

Unfortunately, dreams may soon be all that’s left of places like Cypress Creek. Protecting our natural heritage has always been a struggle in Texas, but now the challenge is becoming acute. Two forces are threatening a way of life that provided opportunities for kids like me to swim in the spring-fed waters of the Hill Country: the relentless fragmentation of family lands and a radical shift in demographics. A terrible cycle is under way. Texas’s rural landscape is disintegrating before our eyes, lost forever to development, and the majority of the state’s children are growing up in cities and suburbs without the opportunity to experience our natural heritage—and learn the importance of conserving it.

Sadly, we are not doing much about either problem. Although research proves the societal importance of protecting the landscape and equally compelling statistics demonstrate the need for children to spend time outdoors, our state government’s lack of vision and leadership is putting iconic places increasingly at risk of being lost forever. This is nothing new, of course. The last time the Legislature provided any significant funding for the purchase of parkland was in 1967, when John Connally was governor. Even more striking, it took four decades to spend it all. Though the Legislature in the past few years has been much more generous to state parks, Texas ranks last among all the states in the money available for places like Enchanted Rock, Garner State Park, and the San Jacinto battlefield, according to George Bristol, the president and executive director of the Texas Coalition for Conservation, an organization that has led efforts to increase state park funding.

Polls consistently show that large majorities of Texans support initiatives that would help the state acquire more parkland. But this rarely translates into action at the Capitol. Legislators have turned a deaf ear on efforts by land commissioner Jerry Patterson and others to allocate funds for purchasing the development rights of private landowners, an agreement in which the owners are paid to conserve the property’s ecological value but are still allowed to live on the property, sell it, or pass it down to heirs. “We need to take advantage of the current economic downturn,” said Jeff Francell, the director of land protection for the Nature Conservancy in Texas, one of the state’s most influential conservation organizations. “During the savings and loan crisis of the late eighties, Texas purchased more land for conservation than in its entire history. Our present situation, as bleak as it seems economically, may be our last chance to save the best of Texas for our children and grandchildren.”

A large part of the problem is that Texas is almost entirely owned by private citizens. Because so much public land was sold off to pay for the government during its first 75 years or so of existence, today less than 5 percent of our state is set aside for public use: highways, parks, wildlife areas, and other improvements managed by government at all levels. This means that most of the so-called ecological benefits we receive from the environment—including habitat for wildlife, the sequestration of carbon, and the vital functioning of our watersheds—happens on private property.

But though our tradition of private ownership of land can make conservation more challenging, it does not make it impossible. David Schmidly’s landmark book Texas Natural History: A Century of Change documents the widespread devastation of the state as our timber resources were destroyed and our grasslands, including those in the Hill Country, were horribly overgrazed. Yet Schmidly, a former president of Texas Tech University, notes that the state’s landscape is actually in better condition than it was a hundred years ago. Today, as a result of the actions of private landowners and conservationists, we can celebrate a good deal of progress. White-tailed deer were nearly extinct in parts of Texas at the beginning of the twentieth century; now their numbers are so great they have actually become a problem in many areas. We harvest more wild turkeys each year than existed in all of Texas prior to World War II. In an amazing recovery, the brown pelican, almost extinct a generation ago, was recently removed from the endangered species list.

Still, we now face our greatest challenge to date. Unless the state finds ways to purchase additional public conservation lands and work with private landowners to preserve endangered areas, the fragmentation of family land and the urbanization of our population will inexorably lead to a decline in our natural heritage.

But I’m hopeful. I’ve looked at the problem from different sides—as the director of both the Nature Conservancy and of Texas Parks and Wildlife—and I believe the solutions are there for us to find. In an attempt to show the victories that can be won by passionate individuals, I’ve brought together the stories of three places: the Dahlstrom Ranch, in the Hill Country, a tract critical to the aquifer that supplies drinking water to that booming part of the state; the massive Piney Woods, in East Texas, which have seen the largest transfer of private property in our history; and a surviving patch of the Great Plains, just west of Fort Worth, where an unexpected conservationist is trying to save an unspoiled grassland. As these people and places make clear, it is incumbent on every one of us to push the state toward conservation. Working with private landowners, environmental organizations, and state and local government, we need to create innovative solutions that will ensure that the lands we treasure today will remain intact for our children tomorrow.

The Dahlstrom Ranch The Hill Country

The 2,275-acre Dahlstrom Ranch, located in Hays County, on Onion Creek, near the surging community of Buda, remains one of the largest undivided parcels of land in the eastern Hill Country. It’s a reminder of what the region used to be. The broad meadows and rolling hills overlooking the blacklands to the east are remnants of a vast tallgrass ecosystem that once covered the entire Edwards Plateau. The creek beds are lined with live oak, pecan, and cottonwood galleries that, along with the scenic hilltops, have attracted both wildlife and humans for thousands of years.

It’s precisely that natural beauty that is also bringing unprecedented suburban growth. Today the ranch is threatened by voracious residential and commercial development, which is rapidly swallowing up one of the most treasured landscapes in Texas. By 2030 the population of the Hill Country is expected to jump from 3.1 million to 4.3 million. And Hays is the fastest-growing county in the region. Its population is expected to double by 2030, from nearly 150,000 to 300,000 residents. In the face of that inexorable growth, protecting resources like the Dahlstrom Ranch is more critical than ever—and becoming increasingly difficult.

More so than in any other part of Texas, open spaces in the Hill Country are not only vital for the protection of wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, and spiritual renewal but also absolutely critical to sustainable supplies of water. A unique natural characteristic of the Hill Country is the abundance of karst, the porous limestone from which it is formed. This massive expanse of permeable rock left eons ago by ancient coral reefs is the origin of the huge Edwards and Trinity aquifers, which, along with several smaller underground reserves, are a primary source of water for millions of people. These same remarkable resources also give rise to hundreds of iconic Hill Country springs and rivers, including the Guadalupe, San Marcos, Comal, Llano, Frio, and Medina. They would not exist without the continued recharge of rainfall into the aquifers from open lands throughout the Hill Country.

The Dahlstrom Ranch is such a place. Scattered across its rolling hills and swales are sinkholes that allow rainwater to flow directly into the aquifer. On the Dahlstrom, rainfall pours into numerous openings in the limestone, with names like Hobbit Hole and Possumhaw Sink, and disappears so rapidly that it is reminiscent of water flowing out of a bathtub. These natural drains are uninterrupted conduits to the groundwater resources below and account for 8 million cubic feet of replenishment to the aquifer out of an astonishing total of 72 million cubic feet of water recharged from the Dahlstrom Ranch alone each year.

That’s part of the reason why Gay Dahlstrom faces such a terrible choice. She is a friendly woman with a loud laugh, but her mirth belies the tumult of her years. She has experienced great wealth and privilege as well as hard times, which could now lead to the loss of her family property. She could sell the ranch to developers and use the money to save herself and her family. But if she does, she will lose the land that means so much to her, and the region will suffer an ecological shock if the ground that sits above the aquifer is parceled off and paved over.

There is some irony to this. Gay is the daughter of Cecil Ruby, one of Texas’s great highway contractors and a contemporary of Lyndon Johnson’s. Gay and her husband, Jack, once owned the Dahlstrom Corporation, which at one time was the third-largest heavy-construction company in the United States. As we sat on her porch and drank coffee with her son, Jack Junior, and her daughter, Cecilia Barrentine, Gay looked back on a life that had led her children to forty different schools in ten years as the family moved across the country from job to job, a life that had propelled the Dahlstroms to the pinnacle of their industry, culminating in a construction empire that spread across the United States and included such mammoth projects as Loop 635 around Dallas.

It has also been a life, recalled the trim 79-year-old matriarch between peals of laughter, largely spent picking up the pieces of one business disaster after another, whether brought on by external forces like the Arab oil embargo of the seventies or the ill-considered management decisions that eventually destroyed the company in the late eighties. That catastrophe left her and Jack in a small house trailer on the ranch of her childhood, tending a few sheep and living on credit from the grocery store in Buda until the Social Security check came in at the end of the month. Thankfully, Gay inherited the ranch from her father, and it has remained in her hands. Each morning she walks out into the hills and swears she will never sell out.

To understand how the dilemma that Gay and so many other private landowners are struggling with will affect the rest of the state, it is important to realize the severity of the crisis posed by the continued fragmentation of family property. Texas loses rural and agricultural land to other uses more rapidly than any other state, according to Blair Fitzsimons, of the American Farmland Trust. A study by Texas A&M University, in College Station, confirms that between 1997 and 2007, more than 1.5 million acres of open space across the Lone Star State were lost to development. The stresses of rising property taxes, inheritance taxes, and suburban development have combined to drive landowners from ancestral lands faster than ever before, putting our wildlife, our water supplies, and our very sense of place in jeopardy.

“The ranch has been a friend that has enabled the men of my family to pursue their dreams, and it has cared for me and mine by feeding, housing, providing for us, and sending our kids to school,” Gay told me with emotion. Then she looked me in the eye and told me about a plan she hopes may finally provide the relief she needs. Through a partnership with Hays County, the nonprofit Hill Country Conservancy, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the City of Austin, Gay is working on an agreement that she described as a miracle. Because of the importance of the Dahlstrom Ranch to the water supply for so many people in Travis and Hays counties, Gay and her family will sell their development rights to the ranch, protecting not only vital recharge for the aquifer but the heritage of her children and grandchildren, along with their financial well-being. According to David Braun, a Dripping Springs lawyer who has helped orchestrate the deal, Gay and her heirs will continue to own the property and manage it as they always have, subject to the terms of a conservation easement that guarantees its protection from development in perpetuity. “The relevance of unique public-private partnerships like this one,” said Carter Smith, the executive director of Texas Parks and Wildlife, “is that they may be the only way Texas’s last great places can be preserved, not only for our wildlife and recreation but for our future water supplies as well.”

“Let’s take a walk,” Gay said, heading out of the trailer and down the path that she followed each morning after the collapse of her family’s business empire. Her back is still to the wall; she has exhausted nearly all of her money for legal fees and costs associated with the contract that could save her ranch, and she remains unsure if the details can be hammered out in time. If they can’t, she may be forced to sell to developers. She took me to a quiet spot in the woods that, as part of the agreement, she has specified as a public-use area, with 370 acres of accessible parkland. “If you want a good sermon, walk out into this country,” she said. “That is where things come together.”

The Piney Woods East Texas

I took another walk out into the country, this time with Buddy Temple, the patriarch of one of Texas’s best-known timber industry families and an increasingly engaged and eloquent spokesman for conservation in the region. Buddy is a bear of a man who has carried on his family’s tradition of business leadership and public service, having served in the Legislature from 1973 to 1981 and as a Texas railroad commissioner from 1981 to 1986. On a recent day we strolled through some of the most beautiful forested bottomlands in the United States, along the Neches River near Lufkin, lands of tremendous natural significance that are now imperiled as their ownership changes hands.

These were forests Buddy roamed freely as a boy. The 67-year-old entertained me for hours with wonderful tales of a privileged childhood filled with adventures in these rich and lovely woodlands. Today he is caught in the middle of the largest conversion of private property in the history of the state, which has been taking place over the past several years. For many generations in the deep green forest country along the Neches, Angelina, and Sabine rivers, the culture, economy, and environmental quality of the region were sustained by a system in which huge swaths of timberland were owned and managed by a few large logging companies.

Although some of their practices, such as the clear-cutting of forests, were criticized by environmentalists, the companies provided East Texans with a stable way of life for more than a century, employing more than 173,000 workers, setting aside massive forests that provided a spectacular source of outdoor recreation, and contributing $30.6 billion to the state’s economy each year, according to Andy Jones, the director of the Texas office of the Conservation Fund. Now Jones says that system has been blown apart as property taxes, international competition, and the hard-nosed pressures of Wall Street, which place return on shareholder equity above all other values, have brought about the sale of nearly three million acres of prime timberlands. This massive transfer of ownership from lumbering interests to investment groups allows the latter to diversify their portfolios with timber properties, potentially rejecting traditional uses for more profitable ones, such as trailer parks, subdivisions, or shopping centers. In the face of this sea change, organizations such as the Conservation Fund are struggling to find opportunities for conservation and sustainable development.

It wasn’t always this way. Before his family’s company went public, in the late sixties, it had a particular view of the land and the people of the region. Buddy’s father, Arthur, had a deep love for both. He came to the little town of Diboll in the late forties to run the business founded by his grandfather, Southern Pine Lumber Company (which eventually became Temple-Inland). He ended the monopoly of the company store and sold company-owned houses to employees at bargain prices. He arranged for company lands to be leased to average families in the region for hunting and fishing, making them accessible to thousands of people over the years. He loved the forests of East Texas and eschewed the practice of clear-cutting, while business rivals stripped thousands of acres. He personally backed efforts to establish the Big Thicket National Preserve in direct opposition to other lumbermen. It would not exist today without his efforts.

Though the legacy of Arthur Temple lives on in his son, Buddy points out that once the company went public, the influence of his family began to decline. He believes that Temple-Inland was a good steward, but when the land was sold two years ago, it represented the end of a way of life in East Texas. His intense feelings for the land remain, but, he said sadly, “It isn’t ours anymore.” More significantly, along with similar transactions by other industry giants, including Champion and International Paper, the huge sell-off has resulted in the impending disintegration of one of Texas’s last remaining large continuous ecosystems, an area approximately the size of Connecticut. These extensive bottomlands flood constantly and contain some of the oldest and most diverse hardwood forests in the South. They have been called the rain forests of Texas and are home to as many as 24 distinct plant communities totaling more than three thousand species. Hundreds of millions of migrating songbirds depend on these woods as resting places each year on their journey to and from Latin America.

The bottomlands of East Texas provide substantial ecological benefits as well. Floodwaters are slowed significantly as they surge through the old-growth forests, which reduce damage from flood crests and catch silt and various pollutants, thus minimizing potential damage downstream. As Buddy and I made our way through the woods, we were struck by the realization that they were also the last vestiges of a rich and unbelievably abundant fish and wildlife resource that has provided many generations of hunters, anglers, birders, and other nature lovers with unmatched enjoyment. To Buddy, the prospect of what may happen to the deep woods he loves so much is depressing.

Although many of the potential buyers of former timber company properties are themselves recreational enthusiasts, their purchases will inevitably require the land to be broken up into smaller parcels, which makes conservation even more difficult. Much of the East Texas timberlands are located within easy driving distance of the metropolitan areas of Houston and Dallas. This proximity exposes them to the effects of explosive growth, where, in some instances, buyers can purchase fifteen- to sixty-acre tracts for the same price as a single developed residential lot in Houston, according to the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M. Thus, fragmentation of the great timberlands of East Texas is proceeding on an unprecedented scale. The strategy of the new investors and owners has little to do with the historical resources and culture of the region but everything to do with targeting the market that will bring the highest return.

Ironically, the coming shift in the economy and culture of the Piney Woods may present Texas conservationists with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to purchase some of the most precious East Texas woodlands for future generations. Certainly Andy Jones and his colleagues at the Conservation Fund think so. They have mounted what they describe as the state’s most ambitious land conservation initiative, designed to protect more than 300,000 acres of the most ecologically valuable of the newly available forestlands with both public and private funding. To date, the Conservation Fund has managed to protect 70,000 acres of valuable bottomlands along the Neches River. But so much more of the lovely East Texas forests are at risk, and they need more champions like Buddy Temple, Andy Jones, and their colleagues.

The Plains North Texas

At one time Texas was mostly an ocean of grass. When the first Anglo settlers came out of the Piney Woods heading west, the only trees on the immense veld stretching all the way to the Rocky Mountains were the Cross Timbers, west of Fort Worth. The grasslands formed the southern tip of the Great Plains and were home to the southern bison herd, which was exterminated little more than a century ago as a military strategy to rid the landscape of the Comanche. The plains ecosystem consisted of a rich mixture of tallgrass and midgrass and hundreds of varieties of wildflowers, more than seven hundred plant species in all. Millions of buffalo shared the thriving meadows with literally hundreds of millions of prairie dogs, which served as the commissary for many kinds of predators, both four-legged and winged.

Today all that is left of this seemingly limitless ecosystem that once covered more than 100,000 square miles are isolated remnants, like the two thousand acres in Tarrant County that Jarid Manos is trying desperately to save. Jarid is an unlikely champion for this piece of land. He’s a 43-year-old self-described vegan athlete who once sold drugs and spent years trying to stay off the streets in New York City. In 1999 he founded the Great Plains Restoration Council, a group that is dedicated to protecting the prairie, and this past year he published a memoir, Ghetto Plainsman, about his incredible journey.

I spent a fascinating day with Jarid in October and came away impressed with his knowledge, passion, and message, which links the devalued lives of inner-city African American children with our society’s chronic undervaluing of the natural landscape, particularly our native prairies. “We are helping the kids in our program to get a grip on their lives by understanding that they, like the grasslands, have great value,” he said. “Caring for the earth is a source of hope for both.”

Jarid was raised in rural Ohio, and he never expected to live beyond the age of thirty. His early years were marked by anger, violence, and despair, and he believed that the world was being destroyed by people who didn’t care about it. He later moved to New York City, where his situation remained just as bleak. He sustained himself with an enduring vision of returning to Texas, the place where he had had his only positive experiences as a boy. Jarid’s father worked in the steel industry, and they had a dysfunctional relationship. But he did take his young son to the Gulf Coast to fish and hunt ducks. Though Jarid has few good things to say about his dad, he fell in love with the outdoors, which made a lasting impression and helped provide direction to a once purposeless life.

Jarid is part of a growing number of conservationists across the country who are increasingly concerned about the disconnect between today’s urban-based children and the outdoors. According to Carter Smith, of Texas Parks and Wildlife, children now spend less time in nature than any other generation in human history. Smith maintains that over the past twenty years, the amount of time children play outside has fallen by 50 percent, while the time spent in front of electronic media has increased to more than six hours every day. “To a great extent, this is a function of the fact that the majority of our kids in Texas are growing up in urban areas without the kind of access to the outdoors at the fingertips of past generations,” Smith said. “What this means is that children are losing many of the documented benefits of learning and playing in nature, such as improved academic achievement, more vigorous and cooperative play, and reduced instances of attention deficit disorders. At the same time, the rate of obesity among children has doubled, due in part to what is increasingly a sedentary indoor lifestyle.”

Yet the problem doesn’t end there. The lack of access to the outdoors may also have a chilling effect on conservation in the future. Historically, the most ardent supporters of our parks and of fish and wildlife conservation have been people who hunt, fish, camp, hike, canoe, and bird-watch. In fact, most of the Parks and Wildlife budget is made up of revenue from hunting and fishing licenses, state park fees, and taxes on sporting goods, and Texans who spend their money on those things have been the strongest voices pushing the Legislature toward conservation. But over the past twenty years, the total number of licensed hunters in Texas has declined by 9.9 percent. There are many other signs of change from a time when more Texans lived in small towns or on farms and children felt comfortable riding a bike to the park or the countryside. Eighty-five percent of us now live in large metropolitan areas, and a child is six times as likely to play a video game than ride a bike.

“This situation is bad for our environment,” says Smith, “because at the very time that we need them the most, we are losing the constituents who have traditionally fought for the conservation of Texas’s rich natural heritage. Without the support of those who love the outdoors, the last, best places on our landscape are at risk.”

Addressing these issues is part of Jarid’s mission. Through a project he calls Plains Youth InterAction, children are exposed to both the joys and the responsibilities of caring for the natural world, where they learn to tackle problems “larger than themselves” and, in the process, become eloquent defenders of the last traces of the Great Plains, Texas’s most endangered ecosystem. The Great Plains Restoration Council, which is supported by private donations, has a goal of reaching 10,000 children over the next five years. But first it is struggling to save a remarkable two-thousand-acre tract of native grassland just twenty miles from the cultural district in downtown Fort Worth. Jarid uses the site as an outdoor classroom and service opportunity for some of the city’s most disadvantaged children. They learn how the prairie works and are directly involved in restoration activities, such as collecting seeds in healthy areas and sowing them elsewhere.

Out in the meadow with me, Jarid described his epiphany. After a binge of drinking and sex in New York, he believed that he had become HIV positive. When his test results came back negative, he broke down and cried. “I found out that I had a future and that I wanted to live,” he said. From that moment on, he dedicated himself to what he calls “a culture of caring.”

Unlike the Dahlstrom Ranch and the forested bottomlands in East Texas, this piece of land already belongs to the people of Texas. However, it was purchased as an investment for the Permanent School Fund in 2005, at the height of the real estate boom. Although land commissioner Patterson has cooperated with Jarid, the property is now worth far less than the state paid for it, and Patterson says he has a fiduciary responsibility to make a reasonable return on the investment, which exceeds $20 million. That is well beyond the current resources of the Texas state park system, which has also expressed interest in the site. Still, Jarid refuses to give up. He insists that a nearby park on Benbrook Lake, which is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, makes a combined recreation area and nature preserve enticing to state park planners. He believes that one way to help save the grasslands is for officials to use funding from the sale of other lands in the Fort Worth area to create a new park.

As I stepped out onto the prairie with Jarid, we were startled by a large covey of bobwhite quail that exploded out of the dense grass at our feet. “This is where God and Earth come together,” he told me. “It is a place where kids facing multiple hard-core challenges are healing their own lives and building value through protecting one of Texas’s rarest ecosystems.” At the end of our walk, a spectacular thunderstorm rolled in over our heads and reminded us of the power of nature and our own insignificance. I felt better about the prospects for this land and inspired by the miracle of a determined group of kids who were fighting so hard to save this lovely place and finding direction for themselves in the process.

Yet I couldn’t help but worry about other places in Texas: our critical watersheds and recharge areas, the few remaining free-flowing rivers and streams, our native prairies and coastal wetlands that remain imperiled. Saving them will also require miracles, but it’s easier to take comfort out here on the prairie knowing that people from all walks of life are working as hard as they can to protect them.