Sally passed away in 2007, but Taylor persevered in the couple’s dream of bringing their Hill Country land back to a semblance of what it was in the early 1800s. Taylor’s efforts were rewarded when he and partner Suzie Paris received the 2016 Aldo Leopold Conservation Award at the Lone Star Steward Awards dinner in Austin last month.
Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award is conferred each year by Sand County Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to private land conservation, in partnership with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Lone Star Land Steward Awards program.
Six other landowners received a Land Steward Award for outstanding natural resource conservation and management in ecologically diverse regions of the state.
“I get a joy out of seeing nature the way it wants to be,” Richard said “The goal we have for the ranch is simple: we want to increase species diversity and put water in the aquifer. We asked ourselves what could possibly bring back the plants and animals we love to see every day, and we found that back around 1800 was a good period of time because there were a lot more species here.”
The Taylors came to Mason County by way of California, where they owned property in one of the country’s most stunning landscapes, Big Sur. Property rights issues with the state led the couple to look elsewhere, and they looked over most of the western U.S. for seven years before finding what they wanted in the heart of Texas.
The 830-plus acres they named Blue Mountain Peak Ranch — which includes the highest point in Mason County — was little more than a cedar (Ashe juniper) thicket when they found it. They reached out for help from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and also contacted the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for management help and cost-share assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
In a Texas Parks and Wildlife video interview, Richard noted sadly but proudly, “One of (Sally’s) last statements, which turned out to be true, was, ‘I’m not dying until I see the last damn cedar tree cut down.’ And she passed on some four or five months later.”
Richard kept one patch of cedar breaks to remind him what the land looked like when he and Sally bought it. Other than removing the rest of it, fire, in the form of prescribed burns, turned out to be the most useful tool for restoring the land. Richard said he thought the worst after the first burn turned the land into what looked like a moonscape.
“It was gray,” he said. “I thought ‘What have I done?’ What used to be green — at least the Ashe juniper was green — was now gray. But within a month, with a few rains — pop! — everything started up again, which has led to what we have here now.”
Blue Mountain Peak Ranch today has sumac, Spanish oak, redbud trees and native grasses like little bluestem instead of cedar and brush. The increased ground cover improved rainwater retention and infiltration. Springs that once ran dry now flow again, even during a drought. There’s enough quality forage now to run a few cattle.
“There’s more life,” says TPWD wildlife biologist Mitch Lockwood. “There’s more plant life, more wildlife. Of course, all this life depends on water, and there’s a lot more of it now as a result of this management program.”
Taylor and Paris have opened the ranch to the public for hunting, guided nature tours, hiking, bird walking, photography, kayaking and mountain biking. A complete list of activities, fees and schedules is available at bluemountainpeakranch.com.
“If this is work, this is my most favorite job in the world,” Taylor said. “I look forward to going out even when it’s hot out. I consider it to be fun. This is the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Winners of the 2016 Lone Star Land Steward award included the Harkins Ranch, a 36,000 acre cattle operation in the Trans-Pecos region, the Parks Ranch in Goliad County and Pecore Ranch in Fayette County. Other winners include the San Pedro Ranch in Dimmit and Maverick Counties, the Winkler Ranch in Blanco County and the T-Star Ranch in Navarro County.