Written by Lorie Woodward Cantu
Tina Buford doesn’t let her long list of accomplishments overshadow what is most important to her. She is first and foremost, a wife, a mom, a daughter, a sister and a member of a South Texas ranching family that has been taking care of the H. Yturria Family Ranches for six generations.
“It’s about land and family, family and land,” she said. “My passion for everything that I’ve done can be traced back to those two things.”
FAMILY AND FIRSTS
For instance, she was the first student to go to Texas A&M University and the TCU Ranch Management program simultaneously. She did it because she wanted to attend the renowned program alongside her sister, Quita Wittenbach, who had graduated from TCU and was preparing to enter the ranch management program. The program director had to be convinced.
“I explained to him that my sister and I wanted to attend the Ranch Management School together because one day we would be running our family’s ranch together,” Buford said. “We thought it best to learn the same things at the same time, so we’d have the same information and experiences to draw from when it was our time to care for the land.”
Eventually, he was swayed. Buford took a year off from her Rangeland Ecology and Management studies at Texas A&M to attend TCU. She completed her education in 1998.
Buford was also the first female president of the Texas Wildlife Association. She got involved in association work after she realized the way of life she cherished was misunderstood in the world beyond the ranch’s fence lines. The misperception that land management is a “man’s world” didn’t faze her.
“Leadership isn’t gender specific, it is team specific,” Buford said. “I faced the perceived challenge by recognizing that I didn’t have to have all of the answers myself. As president, my job was to create a team of passionate people with knowledge, vision and integrity–and ask them the right questions.”
Her dad and uncle, Richard and Danny Butler, have long been recognized as leaders in agriculture, wildlife and landowner organizations. Other than serving as inspiration, this family history of leadership didn’t give her a head start at TWA. Her first volunteer job at the association? Selling TWA t-shirts.
Today, she serves as: a member of TWA’s Executive Committee and of the Conservation Legacy Committee; president of the Texas Wildlife Association Foundation; vice president of Taking Care of Texas, a conservation initiative co-founded by Laura W. Bush; a member of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association’s Natural Resources and Wildlife committees; a member of the Texas Agricultural Land Trust Advisory Board; and as a director for the Sand County Foundation, a national foundation dedicated to the principles of conservation espoused by Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife management.
In the swirl of advocacy, fundraising, networking, educating and leading that characterizes her life, Buford’s roots keep her grounded.
“I grew up watching my family sacrifice to keep the land together,” Buford said. “Their actions were an unspoken language that the land was important enough to make those choices and those sacrifices, even though the sacrifices took their toll. When you see it and you live it, it becomes part of who you are.”
Buford makes it quite clear she is one member in a family of ranchers who work together. She is part of an ongoing legacy where each generation learns from those who came before in order to be good caretakers in their time. She and her sister are part of a team led by their dad and uncle that manage the land. Each daughter has two sons.
“We have a common love, a common goal,” Buford said. “And we’re working hard to pass it along to the next generation.”
Buford and her husband, Trey, who she started dating in the seventh grade, have two sons, Francisco “Cisco” Buford, 11 and William Buford IV, 8.
“Trey’s support allows me to do the things I do,” Buford said. “And I do the things I do, so our sons can continue to enjoy the privilege of working the land, just like all those family members who came before them.”
SOUTH TEXAS ROOTS
Deep South Texas is known as the Last Great Habitat because sprawling, historic ranches and long-time ranch families have kept huge tracts of rangeland intact. It’s a unique place where cattle and wildlife roam together and where the mixture of culture, history and traditions create a backdrop for life unlike any other.
“Some people say that South Texas begins south of San Antonio,” Buford said. “For me, true South Texas begins south of Corpus Christi.”
Her great-great-great grandfather Francisco Yturria, a successful merchant, banker, and entrepreneur, registered his brand, the “Y” in Cameron County in February 1858. Yturria was a contemporary and colleague of Richard King, Mifflin Kenedy and the others who carved out their legacies in the rough and tumble corridor where Mexico transitioned into Texas.
The headquarters ranch that Yturria built and his descendants run today is named Punta del Monte, which means “point of brush.” It sits where the brush met the famed “sea of grass,” just north of present day Raymondville in Willacy County. The site was originally part of the 584,496-acre Juan de Carricitos Land Grant that was created by the King of Spain in 1790.
“We live with history every day,” Buford said. The family still owns and manages one of the original porciones, which are long, narrow strips of land extending 12 miles north that provide river frontage. They were created to ensure early settlers had access to water.
Of course, it’s the family history that has shaped Buford’s view of the land and its role in their lives. Her great grandmother, Dona Panchita lived on the ranch until her death at 101. Her grandfather, who is 97, lives on the ranch and still goes out daily with his bird dogs in tow to check on the quail that bring him joy. Buford credits her grandmother, Lydia Yturria Butler, with being her initial teacher about the importance of the land and family.
“People who didn’t know her wouldn’t suspect she knew anything about the land,” Buford said. “She did. She loved it. We never had a conversation about the importance of keeping the land. We didn’t have to. The land was where I went to be with her. It is still where I go to feel her presence.”
For more than 150 years, the family has run a commercial cattle operation. When her great grandfather grew too old to work the cattle himself, he had bleachers constructed alongside the pens, so he wouldn’t miss a thing. Currently, the family crosses the deep-red Santa Getrudis, a breed that was developed in the Brush Country, with Charolais, a breed that originated in the mountains of France, to produce an F-1 “golden calf,” uniquely suited to the land and the market.
Early on, the family began to incorporate wildlife into their operations. The H. Yturrias were some of the first to offer commercial hunting as a way to diversify income streams and keep the land in production. In fact, they have some lease hunters whose families have been hunting on the property for three generations.
Under the leadership of her uncle Danny Butler and her father Richard Butler, the wildlife operation has been expanded and now includes a variety of exotics such as scimitar oryx, lechwe, addax and gemsbok. The exotics run as free-ranging herds throughout the ranch, giving hunters the opportunity to stalk multiple herds during their adventures.
The exotics were added to the landscape to create a year-round hunting opportunity to maximize the use of the ranch’s infrastructure. Two-day guided deer hunts also have been incorporated to accomplish the same thing.
“My dad and my uncle have always kept their eyes on the future and made adjustments accordingly,” Tina said. “They’ve made it clear to my sister and me that surviving in this business means adapting.”
As a result of the on-going drought, cattle numbers have been cut in half to protect the range. A reduced cattle inventory has a direct effect on the bottom line, causing the family to reassess its business operation.
Instead of viewing the necessary belt tightening as a negative, Buford decided, after 15 years, to take a sabbatical from day-to-day ranch operations and pursue another opportunity. Within the last year, she accepted a position as the Education Project Manager for the East Wildlife Foundation (EWF).
“There are so many things that I’m passionate about and want to see move forward that I’m taking a break from the ranch to focus my attention elsewhere for a little while,” Buford said. “If the time comes to return to the ranch, I’ll be ready to contribute. After all, I’m not losing my experience and skills, but expanding them.”
The EWF is a private operating foundation established by the family of Tom T. East Sr. to support wildlife conservation and other public benefits of ranching and private land stewardship through research, education and outreach. It is a working cattle ranch, encompassing more than 215,000 acres in the heart of deep South Texas, that serves as a natural resource laboratory and conservation education classroom.
“I identify with the EWF because its mission is my mission: conservation, land stewardship, ranching and the public benefits of private land,” Buford said. “We have to help people make the connection between what goes on behind our fences and what goes on in their lives.”
Like on any journey, Buford made her way to conservation education one step at time. She began by hosting hunts on the family ranch through the Texas Youth Hunting Program. She took the next step in association involvement because she felt the hunting heritage could be in jeopardy. She began traveling to the state capitol to advocate on behalf of her fellow landowners for not only hunting, but wildlife, private property rights and natural resources. Underneath the pink granite dome, she had a “light bulb” moment that changed the course of her life.
“Standing with the legislators and their aides, I realized that they didn’t know what I was talking about because it was so far-removed from their personal experiences,” Buford said. “It dawned on me that there were more people like them than like me, and, if we landowners didn’t work to instill an understanding about our natural resources that their existence eventually would be endangered.”
She continued, “People care for things they’re connected to. Without a connection, it’s somebody else’s problem. Unfortunately, that ‘somebody else’ in today’s world is a small proportion of the population.”
This realization feeds her passion for conservation education. Through the years, she has volunteered with many groups, meeting like-minded people, and seeing great programs on the ground. The countless hours in the trenches have taught her the value of partnerships, trust and the human connection.
“The natural resource connection needs to be a human-to-human connection,” Buford said. “When you work with kids and truly engage them, the light bulb goes off for them, too. They understand that they have a stake in the natural world – and they want to help take care of it.”
As the point person for education on the EWF team, Buford will play an important role in conservation education in South Texas. She’s busy creating alliances and developing relationships throughout the region and beyond. As she learned a long time ago, one person can’t do it alone. In this case, the team’s work has implications for the state and the nation.
South Texas is 95 percent Hispanic. Nationally, Hispanics are less engaged in the outdoors than other ethnic groups. Traditionally, in South Texas, Hispanic families had ties to the land. Unfortunately, these ties seem to have frayed in recent years. As a rapidly growing segment of the country’s population, the Hispanic community’s involvement is important for the future of natural resources.
“At the East Foundation, we’re working with our neighbors,” Buford said. “We share a heritage. We share a landscape. Hopefully, together, we’re going to identify the common ground that makes natural resources relevant to everyone. Then, we can take what we’ve learned locally and impact the world beyond the Brush Country.”
She continued, “It’s a challenge, no doubt. But I don’t have to face the challenge alone. It’s just a matter of getting the right people with the right information and asking the right questions so we can create the right plan. When that happens, anything is possible. The possibilities keep me going.”