AUSTIN – The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department last week announced its 2023 Lone Star Land Steward Ecoregion Award winners, slated for recognition May 25 at the 27th annual Lone Star Land Steward Awards banquet.
Launched in 1996, Lone Star Land Steward Awards applaud private landowners in Texas for exemplary contributions to land, water and wildlife stewardship. Funding generated by the award supports TPWD’s Private Lands Program, helping TPWD field staff and partners strategically apply habitat conservation in partnership with landowners.
“In a state like Texas, where private owners hold 95 percent of the land, landowners play a crucial role in conservation and stewardship efforts,” said TPWD Executive Director David Yoskowitz. “That’s why it’s so important we take this opportunity each year to celebrate those creating a legacy of land stewardship.”
Below are winners by ecological region:
Edwards Plateau: Zesch Family Ranch, Mason
By employing a coordinated suite of practices to help them achieve their land management goals, Hal and Amy Zesch have continued a family tradition on their Hill Country ranch. These certified Texas Master Naturalists have designed a grazing program for their cattle that emulates the movement of bison herds, varying rotations based on rainfall and pasture conditions to help maintain a desirable cover of native grasses regardless of precipitation. They have also built a series of diversion dams to slow water flow and soil loss during heavy rainfall and have worked with TPWD to reintroduce prairie dogs and install burrowing owl nest boxes. Their goal is to restore tall grasses to hold soil and provide cleaner, more plentiful water for their operation.
Special Recognition: Cibolo Center for Conservation, Boerne
Tucked along a rapidly urbanizing stretch of I-10 northwest of San Antonio, Cibolo Center for Conservation offers two campuses encompassing more than 160 acres. The Cibolo Nature Center offers miles of trails through an array of ecosystems while helping preserve the important Cibolo Creek watershed. The historic Herff Farm underscores the region’s cultural and agrarian roots. Cibolo Center for Conservation has set a national standard for nature centers, promoting public concern for conservation (including neighboring landowners who maintain the area’s natural, cultural and historical character), leading to improved habitats, water and quality of life.
Blackland Prairie: Kocurek Farm, Weimar
Assisted by the Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture Grassland Restoration Incentive Program and TPWD Pastures for Upland Birds, Gary and Dianna Kocurek have devoted hundreds of hours mulching yaupon and red cedar to restore live oak, savannah and blackland prairie habitats while protecting unique riparian relict pine forests and cypress-lined creeks. They have hosted and organized multiple field days on their property as well as formed a new chapter of the Native Prairies Association of Texas while raising money for outreach to other small landowners for a small-acreage restoration program.
Rolling Plains: Melton Ranch, Roby
Paul Melton was involved early in identifying and helping to procure funding to establish the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch, where researchers develop science-based best practices for quail management, including prescribed burning methodologies, grazing procedures and predator management.
Melton manages his own property using practices including planned grazing, Conservation Reserve Program contracts to re-establish native vegetation, and innovative brush control techniques. His knowledge of herbicides, grazing effects and quail habitats have made him a leader in the quail conservation community.
Post Oak Savannah: Prairie Rose Ranch, Miller Grove
Previously nominated by the late Texas outdoor writer Ray Sasser for its management of lakes on the property, Prairie Rose Ranch was selected this year for its excellent outreach to new anglers, veterans’ groups and youth, encouraging them to become involved in the outdoors primarily through fishing and fly fishing.
Owner Ronald Gard, 2019 recipient of the Dallas Coastal Conservation Association Sportsman of the Year award, and his family have also undertaken a large brush management project focused on removing eastern red cedar from his woodlands of post oaks. He has also converted more than 80 acres of former improved pasture back to native grasslands in the TPWD Pastures for Upland Birds program. Waterfowl, songbirds and pollinators have benefitted from this management.
Crosstimbers: Quahadi Ranch, Dublin
Owner Stephen Smith engages in active research with Texas Tech University, Tarleton State University and the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch to improve bobwhite habitat and translocate quail to re-establish historic population levels.
The ranch has implemented a management plan put forth by biologists from the Rolling Plains Quail Research Foundation and, in 2019, Smith decided to destock cattle to increase herbaceous cover and bobwhite nesting substrate. This move allowed propagation of native vegetation such as little bluestem, Indiangrass and switchgrass. In the future, rotational livestock grazing will maintain rangeland for bobwhite quail and other native wildlife.
Smith’s management approach, along with his work with universities to distribute research and quail translocation findings, benefits other landowners.