Texans may loudly profess love for their wide-open spaces, but about only 2 percent of the state is actually public property. The rest, famously, is privately owned. From an ecological perspective, this is not an entirely bad thing: the fact that there are so many exclusive spreads, such as the King Ranch, has guaranteed certain protections for the wildlife that thrives on them. But that is changing. As our economy skyrockets and our population swells—we’ve grown from 19 million people to 26 million in the past fifteen years—so has our demand for suburbs, office spaces, shopping centers, schools, and parking lots. According to the Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources, in those same fifteen years we lost about 1 million acres of privately owned farms, ranches, and forests to development. In fact, we’re losing more open spaces than any other state—and with them, our natural heritage.
It might be surprising, then, that the sale of one of the state’s most iconic ranches this past summer was hailed as a coup by Texas nature lovers. The Powderhorn Ranch, a 17,351-acre spread in Calhoun County, sold for $37.7 million in late August, and the property, which includes eleven miles of coastline on Matagorda Bay, is the kind of pristine land lusted after by developers of vacation homes. But the land didn’t go to developers. Instead the ranch was sold to a consortium of environmental groups—including the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation—with plans to turn it over to Texas Parks and Wildlife and open it to the public. It is the largest purchase of its kind in Texas history.
The land has a vaunted past. The Karankawa hunted on its grasslands, and René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, lost the ill-fated La Belle to a storm just beyond its shores in 1686. It eventually caught the eye of Leroy G. Denman Sr., a lawyer and close adviser to Bob Kleberg, the grandson of Captain Richard King. Denman bought the Powderhorn Ranch in 1936 and immediately stocked three thousand head of Santa Gertrudis cattle on it; his son, Leroy Denman Jr., later brought in exotic species such as axis deer and nilgai antelope. (The Denmans enjoyed such a close relationship with the Klebergs that Leroy Jr. was the first non–family member to serve as the King Ranch’s chairman of the board.) In the late nineties, after more than sixty years of ownership, the Denmans began selling some of their holdings; in 2008 the ranch was bought by an investment group owned by Tennessee billionaire Brad M. Kelley, the fourth-largest landowner in the U.S., who in turn sold the land to the state and its partners.
Though the Powderhorn dwindled in size over the years (it originally covered 42,000 acres), the ranch remained remarkable for its rich vegetation and plentiful wildlife. Today conservationists like Carter Smith, the executive director of Texas Parks and Wildlife, marvel at how untouched it still is. When I met Smith in November for a tour, setting out along the shore, the waters of Matagorda Bay swirled with tailing redfish and nervous bait. With 3,500 acres of wetlands, 4,000 acres of live oak forest, and 2,700 acres of native grasslands, the Powderhorn offers refuge to an extraordinary number of shorebirds, wading birds, and migratory birds—including the endangered whooping crane—and is home to vast nurseries of marine life, from blue crab and oysters to brown shrimp and spotted sea trout. “The great thing about this place is that it’s not missing anything,” said Smith.
From the water’s edge, he pointed out the spot, sparkling beneath the morning sun, where La Salle’s expedition flagship sunk. In a strange twist, it was yet another wreckage that made the recent Powderhorn purchase possible: the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which killed eleven men and caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history. As part of their plea agreements last year, BP and Transocean paid the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund $2.5 billion to help restore the coast; from the fund came most of the money—$34.5 million—to buy the ranch. (So far, Texas has received $56 million in grants for some fourteen environmental projects, but none nears the scope of the Powderhorn.) That such a disaster is responsible for such a gain is an irony not lost on Smith. “Obviously, we would have preferred that the spill had never happened,” he said. “But we can take real pride in the outcome.”
For the next few years, the Nature Conservancy will conduct an ecological inventory of the ranch (bird counts, migration patterns, species of flora, and so on), so that Texas Parks and Wildlife can determine how and when to make it accessible to all Texans. When the ranch does open, most likely in 2020, Smith hopes it will be as much of a haven for urbanites as it is for the birds that make their way across the Gulf. There will be campsites under the live oaks, paddling trails along Powderhorn Lake and Matagorda Bay, and easy-to-reach fishing in the marshes and oyster reefs. As the state’s open spaces continue to be fragmented and converted, Smith noted, the Powderhorn will be ever more of a sanctuary. “It will be a significant place of repose for future generations,” he said.
After our tour, I was curious what the Powderhorn’s former owners thought of the deal. Though Kelley is known to support environmental endeavors, he is also notoriously press shy, and my efforts to contact him went unheeded. But I did get in touch with Wendel Denman Thuss, the 36-year-old grandson of Leroy Jr., who told me he was proud that the state had found a way to preserve his family’s legacy. A thoroughgoing outdoorsman, Thuss recalled working with his grandfather to collect the last of the Gertrudis herds, and he believed that the old man would have been pleased with the fate of the land. “I’m sure it would make my grandfather smile to know it will be such an incredible public resource,” he said. “It’s completely irreplaceable.”