In the Spotlight: Dr. Paul and Toni Burns

Paul and Toni Burns

Two seemingly ordinary moments inspired the couple to restore their Brown County ranch, a piece of property that has been in Paul’s family since 1873 to its pre-settlement condition.

The first moment occurred when Paul, who is a retired otolaryngologist more commonly known as an ear, nose, and throat doctor, was examining a patient. The man was the CEO of a major multi-national corporation and had lived around the world. The Burns’ oldest daughter is married to an ExxonMobil executive and they too were professional globetrotters, prompting Paul to ask, “How can I best support my family as they live abroad?”

The CEO paused, giving careful consideration to the question, before replying, “Give them a place to call home, so that no matter where they are, no matter what changes in their lives, they have a place to return to that is constant, unchanging and is part of them.”

Paul returned to the Burns’ Austin home that evening and told Toni that he knew what he wanted to do with the ranch.

The second ordinary, but pivotal moment occurred as the Burns were visiting their daughter and her family in London. On an outing to an exhibition showcasing the poet William Blake, Paul and Toni read the famous opening lines from Auguries of Innocence:

“To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour….”

Toni, who had long been an admirer of Blake’s poetry, considered the familiar words from a completely new perspective and said, “Paul, that’s the ranch.”

Their new interpretation led them to conclude that if they came to understand the smallest things on the ranch, they would understand the larger ecological processes more clearly. They also determined that if they would find the big truths in small things, those truths could be applied in the broader world and have great impact.

“For instance, if we teach our grandchildren to take care of the most vulnerable animals, then they will inherently understand that they must also take care of the most vulnerable people,” Paul said.

From this epiphany, Paul and Toni began their restoration in earnest. The process actually began years earlier, in 1972, when they started rebuilding the ranch to its original size by purchasing neighboring tracts as they became available. The Depression forced Paul’s grandfather and great uncles, like so many other ranchers, to sell off land to keep their family afloat.

“In the early years, our process was disjointed and lacked a clear plan or goal,” Paul said. The family tried all of the traditional means such as rotational grazing and brush removal, but they weren’t seeing noticeable results.

After about 15 years of running in place, Paul decided to stop all of the work on the ranch for a year. During that year, he read as much of the original natural history of Texas as he could find, consuming more than 20 journals of early explorers and pioneers. Plus, he talked to hosts of professionals at natural resources agencies such as Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension and the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

He came away with a lot of information, but no clear goal.

“It took a long time to assimilate it all and then I had to digest it,” Paul said. “I learned that you have to take the information and make it your own.”

Finally, he took a week off from work and family to contemplate his goal for the ranch. When he returned, he knew what he wanted to do.

“I wanted to take the ranch back in time,” he said. “I wanted to restore the land back to pre-settlement condition. We chose to use the year 1773 as our benchmark because it was 100 years before the settlement of the ranch and prior to most of the settlement of Texas.”

Toni suggested renaming the ranch the Colonel Burns Ranch. This not only paid homage to its founder Colonel Simon Pierce Burns, who served the Confederacy, and eventually made his way Brown County, settling about 13 miles north of present day Brownwood, but created an umbrella that would encompass the entire family.

The family, including Paul’s siblings and their spouses, went all in. They vowed to restore not only the land, but all of the ranch’s original structures. Their efforts were a collective tribute to the previous generations of their family, who had committed themselves to hard work and the land, making the best lives possible under difficult circumstances. With a single, shared goal in mind, the current generation set out to achieve it, acutely aware that projects couldn’t succeed in isolation.

“I wrote the goal down and I keep it with me,” Paul said. “I measure every proposed practice against it and ask, ‘Will this help move us toward our goal?’ Having a clear goal has kept us from going off on tangents and wasting money on things that are irrelevant to our desired end result.”

The family has moved toward their shared goal one small step at time over the past 30 years.

“One thing you must have is patience,” said Paul, with a laugh. “It’s not a quick process.”

He continued, “We don’t manage for deer, horses or cattle, but for soil, water and plants – and then we wait to see what happens to the biological diversity of the animals. Our way is not better than anyone else’s, but it’s the way we want to do it, and it appears to be unique.”

Standing in the middle of a prairie surrounded by billowing stands of sideoats grama, big bluestem, little bluesteam, switchgrass and Indiangrass – native grasses that are now on rare on Texas’ ranges —  it’s hard to believe that there once were acres of bare ground.  Listening to the burbling of springs, it’s not easy to imagine that they once were dry. Watching painting buntings and black-capped vireos flit from tree to tree, turtles sun on logs, and deer dash from brush motte to brush motte, it’s difficult to envision a time when the only animals were cattle. Sitting on the front porch of the main ranch house or thumbing through volumes in the Sunday House, which was built in 1898 and now serves as the family library, it’s hard to conceive that these were once ruins.

“I’m 76 years old and I was raised on this ranch,” Paul said. “Today, I’m seeing springs run that have never run before. I’m discovering animals, birds and arthropods that have never been here before. It signals to me that we’re doing something right.” And others agree. In 2012, the Colonel Burns Ranch was recognized by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as a Lone Star Land Steward.

Looking at the prolifically diverse ranch, it is tempting to assume that the transition was easy. It wasn’t. While Paul had ready access to natural resource professionals, he struggled to find other landowners with whom he could discuss his project.  Although he was born and reared on the ranch, Paul’s vocation was medicine. In his career, he served as physician in Vietnam, chief of staff of Austin’s Seton Hospital, and co-founded the Austin Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic. Land management was a brand new endeavor.

“I appreciated the expansive information from the professionals, but I craved the perspective of other people who were on the ground, managing their own land,” Paul said.

He is an advocate for a statewide landowner forum.

“It would be a great service to Texas, if an agency or organization would create an opportunity for landowners to get together and talk about what they’re doing,” he said. “There are a lot of new landowners in Texas, who are smart and want to do the right thing, but aren’t exactly sure what that is. Talking landowner to landowner is a straightforward, non-intimidating way to gather information and strengthen our stewardship network.”

Of course, Paul realizes that landowners can’t go it alone. As a member of the Texas Wildlife Association (TWA), he has seen first-hand the importance of a collective voice, especially when it comes to private property rights.

“I’ve tried to testify and influence the Legislature as an individual, but I didn’t get very far,” he said. “TWA can represent the landowners’ point of view much more professionally, efficiently and effectively than one person standing alone. I hate to think what might happen to Texas’ outdoor spaces and wildlife without TWA standing up on their behalf.”

With that said, Paul values the individuality that private property ownership in Texas affords.

“Strong private property rights ensure that our family can manage the land the way we see fit, unique to our goals and our situation,” Paul said. “Because of that, we’ve been able to create a one-of-a-kind place that generations of our family call home.”

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