Written by Lorie Woodward Cantu | Photos by Chase A. Fountain, TPWD
While Richard Taylor’s accent can be traced to central Massachusetts where he was reared, his land ethic and respect for private property rights are 100 percent Texan.
“We find this state to be wonderful for private stewardship,” said Taylor, owner of the Blue Mountain Peak Ranch near Mason, which was honored with the 2016 Leopold Conservation Award for Texas. He accepted the award with his partner Suzie Paris. The Impetus Taylor and his late wife Sally began looking for property after a local inspector in Monterey County, California, informed them they couldn’t walk on their 16-acre property near Big Sur because their footprints constituted foot paths, which required a permit. To deliver this news, the inspector had hiked more than 1.5 miles over an adjoining ridgeline to approach the property from the backside to maximize his visit’s surprise. This announcement came after the Taylors finally had completed their 1,600-square-foot home, an ordeal that required 8.5 years to navigate a permitting labyrinth encompassing 14 different agencies and costing more than $1 million in permitting and legal fees.
“I believe in voting with my dollars and my feet,” Taylor said, noting that his maternal ancestors who came to America on the Mayflower had done the same thing when they left Europe to escape oppressive taxes.
The Taylors’ quest to find a suitable property took them seven years and led them to 11 states north and west of Texas as well as Canada and Mexico before they came to Texas. Their search was deliberate and thorough. When they found a property of interest, the couple would spend a week to 10 days in the area interviewing everyone from the sheriff and fire chief to local tax appraisers and natural resource specialists.
“Our experience in California had a big influence on what we asked and what we were aware of,” Taylor said. “In California, the overreaching regulations are a thinly disguised land grab. The government makes the permitting process so onerous that landowners spend all of their money on permitting and legal fees over the course of many years. When landowners are unable or unwilling to pay taxes, the government seizes their property.”
In Texas, the Taylors found what they were looking for: land that had been overused and neglected; property with water or the potential for water; and a place where private landowners are appreciated, respected and helped.
“The private property rights and the support of private land stewardship that is enjoyed in Texas is gone elsewhere,” Taylor said. “It has been regulated out of existence.”
Blue Peak Mountain Ranch, located about 25 miles southwest of Mason, had been on the market for two years when the Taylors and the realtor made their first trip to the 830-acre property. It had been settled in the mid-1800s, grazed hard by sheep, cattle and goats through the years, and over time had become a dense cedar break with distinct browse lines and more rock-strewn, bare ground than grass.
When the Taylors arrived on the ranch, they caught their ranch broker by surprise. They asked him to leave them there for three hours, so they could walk the property. They were the first potential buyers to make that request. Taken aback, the broker asked if he could go along.
“We should’ve left him in the truck,” Taylor said laughing. “Because he was privy to the potential we saw, he showed the property with a different focus afterward and we ended up in a bidding war.”
The Taylors saw evidence of water in the fairly recent past. Although there was only one small active spring, the Taylors spotted calcium deposits that marked water flow.
“We knew if water was there in the past, it could be there again in the future,” Taylor said.
The Taylors did their homework before signing the final papers. The ranch’s namesake, Blue Mountain, at 2,134 feet is Mason County’s highest point. It was also home to a gap-filler radar system in the 1950s.
Although the 1,200-square-foot facility was only operational for a few months, its presence ensured that Blue Mountain was not named on any future map and opened the possibility of contamination. It took a Freedom of Information Act request from a U.S. Congressman to get the Taylors access to the original plans, so they could determine with certainty whether there were underground storage tanks or other issues that would make them responsible for remediating the government’s damage. Their research proved the land was clear.
In 2001, the Taylors closed the deal and moved to Mason, where they learned the fine distinction between a Yankee and a damn Yankee.
“You’re a Yankee if you have a northern accent, but you’re a damn Yankee if you move in,” he said laughing.
The damn Yankee credits his interest in the natural world to time spent on an uncle’s Nova Scotia farm and his parents’ willingness to let him to independently explore the fields and forests around Framingham, Massachusetts, where he grew up.
“I always found nature so much more interesting and varied than a parking lot,” Taylor said.
The Taylors’ first move as land stewards was to educate themselves.
“I’m a learner,” said Taylor, a former electronics factory manager and self-taught engineer who twice worked his way from the production floor to the vice-presidential suite in the computer industry. “I’m the first guy to say ‘I don’t know’—and I sure as hell didn’t know much about managing Texas rangelands when we got started.”
For two years, they took advantage of every educational opportunity they could find including attending TWA seminars and workshops, consulting with Natural Resources Conservation Service personnel and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department biologists, touring facilities such as the Kerr Wildlife Management Area and the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Sonora, and talking to local ranchers.
“The amount of information available and people’s willingness to share their expertise was staggering,” Taylor said. “It was a far cry from our previous experiences when bureaucrats would refuse to answer a question because we didn’t have an appointment to ask it.”
Armed with new knowledge, the couple set a goal. It began as a page. They edited it to a paragraph and eventually condensed it into a single sentence.
“Our goal is ‘increasing species diversity and water into the aquifer,’” he said. “It’s the litmus test that we weigh our decisions against.”
The first steps were picking up the massive amount of trash that littered the ranch and removing the excess Ashe juniper that was choking out the other vegetation. The Taylors, who chose not to use herbicides or pesticides on their land, began with his-and-her chainsaws. They also worked with Keith Blair, a certified burn manager, to learn about and later implement prescribed burns.
“In this area, fire historically was the primary ecological force,” Taylor said. “The grazing herds likely passed through, but stayed at the lower elevations.”
He laughs at the memory of his naiveté.
“We were en route to our first week-long burn school and I actually said, ‘Let me get this straight, we’re going to spend seven days learning how to light a match?’” Taylor recalled. “Obviously, I had no idea of the number of variables involved in the science of fire.”
They held their first prescribed burn in 2003.
“I stood in the midst of the ash and thought, ‘What have we done? We’ve killed it all,’” Taylor said. “Then two days later, tiny green shoots were pushing through. It was an ah-ha moment.”
Work on the ranch was put on hold, when Sally was diagnosed with cancer.
“She told me, ‘I’m not leaving until the last cedar is cut,’” Taylor said. It was and she died in 2007.
Ideally, Taylor and Paris, who has been his partner in life and conservation for the past eight years, would like to burn one-tenth of the ranch each year.
“We see the greatest response after an area has been burned three times,” Taylor said. “The seed bank just seems to be completely reinvigorated by repeated fire.”
Unfortunately, Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate. They’ve had to cancel the last three scheduled burns because conditions haven’t been right. As a result, they have not conducted a large prescribed burn in the past five years.
“We’re betting that conditions will be right this winter and preparing for a major burn,” Taylor said. “We need one to maintain our progress because nature is always in motion.”
While Taylor is the first to admit that the safety brought by proper conditions is paramount, he has noticed a subtle change in the regulatory atmosphere.
“When we started 15 years ago, we could work with our county officials to get a waiver for a burn,” Taylor said. “Now they can’t do that because the state has assumed some control of a local issue.”
In addition to prescribed burning and mechanically controlling cedar, Taylor and Paris also actively manage the deer herd under an MLDP to keep the population in balance with the food supply. When they started their management program, there was a deer to every 3.5 acres, now it is about one deer to every 12 acres. Initially, they had to harvest at least 75 deer per year. These days the annual deer harvest is 25.
Paying hunters are allowed to harvest spikes, three-pointers and older does as the management team works to improve the quality of their mature bucks. Hunters who want the opportunity to shoot a mature buck on the ranch, give Taylor a check for $2,500 in advance. He immediately cashes the check. If the hunter takes what is considered a trophy on Blue Mountain Peak Ranch, Taylor keeps the cash. If the hunter doesn’t harvest a trophy, Taylor gives the money back.
Management whitetails, feral hogs, brown-headed cowbirds and fire ants are the only animals killed on the ranch. Hogs are trapped, and deer hunters are offered a $10 per head bounty for every hog they take.
Paris is in charge of dispatching cowbirds. Last year, she trapped 309. This year she is operating a second trap to further reduce the number of nest-parasitizing cowbirds.
Fire ants are controlled with a mixture of orange oil and molasses called Anti-Fuego Soil Conditioner that improves soil and drives out fire ants by introducing a fungus into their mounds. The ranch is home to increasingly scarce horned lizards, which rely on the harvester ants that are often decimated by the imported fire ants.
“It’s all about striking a balance, so we can move toward a more diverse complement of plants and animals,” Taylor said. “For instance, people ask me why we don’t kill the mountain lions that pass through. From my perspective, if we have a mountain lion eating 25 deer a year that’s 25 deer we don’t have to harvest.”
As a point of reference, Taylor and Paris have kept four acres in its original state. The matted Ashe juniper and bare rocks stand in stark contrast to the open grassland sprinkled with live oaks and just enough brushy plants to provide wildlife habitat.
“During our last prescribed burn, we actually had to fight fire to protect this area,” Taylor said. “We wanted a reference point, so people, including us, can see how far we’ve come.”
Their stewardship is working. Once-dry springs have come back all over the ranch.
“Every year since 2002 when we began, the springs have run farther and longer, regardless of the amount of rain,” Taylor said. “Initially, the water rushed down the ravines after a rain. Now it percolates into the aquifer.”
One of his measures is the primary well that provides water for the ranch. Against the driller’s recommendation, Taylor had it sited at the top of Blue Mountain to allow for a gravity flow system. They hit water at 200 feet and dropped the pump at 250 feet. Today, the water level continues to rise.
“Anecdotally, it tells me that the more grass we get on the land, the more water we’re putting into the aquifer,” he said.
With the water came wildlife. Today, the once-barren ranch is home to white-tailed deer, turkey, dove, quail, raccoons, foxes, owls, birds including a multitude of black-capped vireos, armadillos, possums, horned lizards and the rare spot-tailed earless lizards.
“By nature, I’m a trusting person,” Taylor said. “I have to trust that these rare species we have on our land will be considered an asset in the future and not a liability, creating the opportunity for government interference in what we’re doing or what the next generation of landowners on this property is doing.”
As Taylor and Paris have moved steadily toward their stated goal, they have created a second one for themselves. In addition to diversifying species and putting water in the aquifer, the duo now is working to “grow” soil and influence others.
Their interest in soil was piqued when at the Sand County Foundation’s Innovations on the Land Symposium, a speaker noted there was only one inch of soil covering the entire earth. Because soil is as foundational to environmental health as water, Taylor and Paris are now exploring the possibility of a rotational grazing program to help speed up soil creation.
“Understanding the role that livestock can play in rangeland health, particularly as a substitute for bison, has caused us to consider grazing from another perspective,” Taylor said.
They also realize their contribution is limited by their fence lines unless they engage others, so the pair opens their ranch whenever possible to school groups, youth groups such as the local Youth Range Workshop and special interest groups as diverse as the local book club and the San Antonio Rolls Royce Club. (Taylor is a vintage car collector as well, so the connection is more logical and direct than it appears.)
“People don’t necessarily understand what we’re doing if we just tell them, but they really get it when we show them,” Taylor said.
His favorite example is a neighboring rancher who thought prescribed burning was foolhardy until he witnessed the process and the results. He began managing his ranch in a similar manner. Because of that, the two operations now provide three square miles of grasslands in a critical Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
“The mean average rainfall in Mason County is 26 to 28 inches annually,” Taylor said. “By my calculation that means the combined stewardship on our ranches provides somewhere between 800 million and 1 billion additional gallons of water for the Edwards Aquifer annually.”
While he appreciates the conservation incentive provided by wildlife tax valuation, he also recognizes the incentivizing power of environmental services.
“People in Austin and San Antonio should send us a thank you note,” he said laughing. “Or maybe a check.”
While Taylor and Paris are pleased with the pro-property rights mentality that pervades Texas, he is quick to cite eminent domain abuse and the EPA’s efforts under the Clean Water Act as a reason that private landowners can’t become complacent.
“Despite Texas’s long-standing support of private property rights, this state is not immune to environmental idiocy,” Taylor said. As an example, he cited finding on the Internet “an Austin-based group called, ‘Save the Ashe Juniper Society’ or some such name.” No one responded to his repeated requests for more information about the organization’s purpose and goals.
“The more people who move here from other places, the greater the roar of the crowd who doesn’t understand or value private property rights,” he said. “Unfortunately, government listens to those who yell the loudest whether or not they make sense. It’s crucial that landowners find their collective voice and speak up about the things that matter.”