Written by Courtney Donnell
What do you do when your life derives from a legend? You listen to that legacy. Add in your own flavor. Stand at the top of your own mountain. And, share it with the world. James King, great, great, great grandson of the legendary Captain Richard King, founder of the King Ranch, is doing just that. Together with his wife, Tammy, they have taken a life-long love of the land, an inherent dedication to Texas and a genuine appreciation for people and created something extraordinary. King Land & Water, in Ft. Davis, Texas, at the base of the Davis Mountains, is a Conservation Real Estate Firm, dedicated to pairing exceptional properties with exceptional people.
James, you come from a long line of land merchants and ranchers, yet you started your career off in land preservation and nature conservancy. Now, you run a Conservation Real Estate Firm. What exactly is a “Conservation Real Estate Firm?
The quotable answer
JAMES: “It’s a focus and career that has grown out of a realization that land, people, and our natural world are inextricably linked. Stewardship and conservation of our lands and waters are critical for people, their lively hood, and the great place we call Texas. We used to use the phrase “Working Landscapes” in my Conservation Career which recognizes people are part of the environment.”
The “over-coffee” answer
JAMES: It is just kind of a combination of, you know, heritage, family and a love of Texas. We are descendants of the Richard King family, not my cousins the Kleberg family that own the King Ranch. You see Captain King had a son, Richard King, that’s where I came from. We have always been associated with land, natural resources, and people here in Texas. Our family has been here a long time and we are networked into the older families, the original families of Texas. All of that, combined with the fact I worked with The Nature Conservancy and ran all their land acquisitions for twenty years, an education in rangeland ecology and just a real love of natural resources and the science of land. It all just kind of came together and made sense. We found a real unique niche. We find ourselves working on unique properties, 17,000 acres on the Gulf Coast, to a mountain top here in west Texas, to the Devil’s River in Val Verde County, with unique people who love the land and want to make sure it is taken care of. It is kind of like we are expanding on what I did at The Nature Conservancy, but doing it within the private sector.
TAMMY: When we decided to do this, it was the absolute worst time in our economy. But, James still had this vision that we could cater to that niche of people who cared about the environment, and at the same time, were large land owners. He literally quit his job in September of 2008, right in the middle of the crash. And, I was scared to just narrow it down to that one niche, this conservation niche, but he had a vision. He held to it, and it worked.
So, is that all that you do at King Land and Water?
JAMES: I mean we’ve brokered a couple of hotels over in Alpine, and we will do a house or two, but typically we stay within the conservation model. But, I want people to understand, there isn’t a strict list of criteria to adhere to. We don’t only work with lands that have conservation easements, and we don’t only sell to Texas Parks and Wildlife or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department. We just do what most people would consider a traditional brokerage. But, we find ourselves working with people that have a strong “Land Ethic,” people who want to own it and want to own it with the idea of enhancing it, preserving it, good land management, not sub-dividing, not development. For example, the Rockpile Ranch. We just closed the Rockpile Ranch. It is 54,000 acres, an iconic Texas ranch. We were able to find a very stable family who wanted to buy it and keep it together as a ranch. They have the resources, the desire and the commitment to maintain it. They were the perfect buyer for that property.
Your tagline, “Protecting Clients, Conserving the Land,” explain that to me?
JAMES: Yes, we do all of this conservation work, but at the same time, we are definitely helping people achieve financial success. Out here, in our region, over the last 20 years, what we originally sold for $120 an acre then, we are now selling for $800 an acre. There is tremendous appreciation. So, the whole conservation ideal, it isn’t just from the heart, it is from the wallet too. You can absolutely achieve financial success while maintaining conservation success.
What does Conservation Real Estate mean for a community?
JAMES: Community Based Conservation requires an understanding of the needs, personality and desires of a local community. If you design your efforts within the context of that community, you are more likely to achieve lasting success. For example, using private tools, like conservation easements, works well in rural communities that don’t want to see more government ownership of land such as Refuges, Parks, etc. There are other communities who thrive next to public conservation lands and embrace parks and refuges as part of their economic success.
What are the key factors to examine when considering conservation real estate?
JAMES: All lands have some conservation attributes; it’s a matter of degree. Some stand out as more ecologically unique and important, due to the habitat and natural resources associated with them. In most circumstances, it is a landscape or watershed that is important. One of the main tools used in Texas, is the Conservation Easement, which restricts certain fragmentation activities like subdivision and development, but will allow compatible uses like ranching, hunting, and recreation. When selling a ranch subject to conservation easements, it is very important to fully understand the positive attributes associated with the easement and have the ability to effectively communicate them to potential buyers.
When and how did you get started selling ranches?
JAMES: After A & M, I worked for Kerr and McGee, managing their ranches in the eastern part of Oklahoma, near Gore. I was living in a trailer, at a place called Rabbit Hill, putting tires on the roof to protect me from tornados. I worked there for two years, and I really appreciated the experience, but could not wait to get back to my roots, family and friends in Texas. I moved to Austin in 1983 and got my Texas Real Estate Salesman license. Me, and fellow Aggie, John Schneider, started Schneider King Co. with offices in Austin, Alpine, Menard, Marble Falls and San Antonio, with a focus of brokering ranches statewide. During the late 1980s, we rode the market up, and we rode the market down. I got an opportunity to go work for The Nature Conservancy in 1989 and continued to work with them until 2008, as director of their real estate program. So, I was buying and selling unique lands across the entire state. Places like Dolan Falls Preserve, Davis Mountains Preserve, Caddo Lake WMA, James River Bat Cave, Barton Creek Preserve, Hoskins Mound, South Padre Island, Independence Creek, Balcones Canyons NWR, and Shamrock Island, to name just a few. I never sat down to count, but to date, I suspect it’s over 1.5 Million conservation acres in Texas.
TAMMY: James was working for The Nature Conservancy, and we started looking forward to the future. Living on a non-profit salary, we saw an opportunity to turn it into a for-profit business. So, I got my real estate license, and started a real estate company, called Texas Mountain Realty, which I later sold. The plan was to get my broker’s license and James would come join the business. But, I needed a little experience first and that is how I started.
What is the strangest experience you have had showing a ranch?
JAMES: It was here, in the Davis Mountains. I met a buyer to show him a ranch. The owner, my client, insisted on coming on the tour, so we met him at 10 a.m. at his ranch house. We were in the buyer’s Jeep and the owner, of the ranch (again, my client), showed up stinking drunk with an ice chest of more beer. So I moved to the back seat of the jeep, with the buyer’s dog, and we drove all over the ranch, listening to the seller’s stories as he downed cans of beer. I was totally embarrassed, but the buyer was cool and he wanted the ranch. Turns out the buyer owned six beer distributorships in Texas. The dog, his name was Regalo, got real friendly with me in the back of that Jeep. Every once in a while, we still get a Christmas card from that buyer saying, “Regalo sends his love.”
What have you learned is the most important aspect of selling ranches?
JAMES: Tammy and I are both, “People, People.” This whole thing is about relationships and solving problems and being an asset to the transaction. We nurture these deals all the way to closing, and then after closing. We continue these relationships. We hook people up, tell them where to go buy a tractor, help them find a foreman, sometimes, we even get their mail.
TAMMY: And, that is a two way street. Yesterday, one of our clients came into town from Houston, went out to his ranch, baked a Pot Pie and brought it into our office. Our clients don’t just stay clients, they become our friends.
How has the industry changed over the years?
JAMES: It’s all about technology, excellent photography, digital maps and social networking. You should see the difference between the marketing packages we did in the 80s and the ones we do today. Buyers are smart, and you have to sell smart, at the same time you still have to be able to drink coffee with folks and listen. In our age of information and digital content, you have to be able to develop marketing information that can be emailed and reviewed quickly.
In general, how do you feel about the industry today?
JAMES: I am so optimistic about the ranch market in Texas today, and in the long run. We may have a few blips along the way, but we are going to double the population in Texas from 26 million to over 50 million in 40 years. We have one of the strongest economies in the world. That’s a huge increase in buyers with the same amount of land and lots of money. From a conservation perspective, however, the growing threat of fragmentation and its impacts will be a challenge to wildlife and people. Water is the defining issue in Texas and it’s also one of the most attractive attributes for ranches and recreation properties.
What is your favorite type of deal?
JAMES: We thrive on complexity. It is almost like we are junkies for stress and just really, really complicated transactions. We find ourselves selling some of these heritage ranches that have never been on the market since 1880. There is hair all over them. The survey’s not right. The title’s not right. The cousin doesn’t want to do it. The brother doesn’t want to do it. There are boundary issues. The patents from Texas are missing. So, we find ourselves rushing to solve problems. And, we love it.
If you had to pick another career…. any career… What would you do?
JAMES: I joke with my family that I want to be a shrimper in Port Aransas, but not really. I would probably be a guide, like a hunting and fishing guide, wilderness guide. Truthfully, it is really hard to imagine doing anything other than what I do. I still get really, really excited when I am on a new property. I am where I need to be.
TAMMY: When I was younger, even before I married James, I always wanted to own a summer camp of some sort. Now that I am older, I realize, that is just the epitome of being a grandma. So, for my next career, I am going with summer camp owner, grandma, or just fishing in Port A.
What is your favorite thing about Texas?
JAMES: The best thing about Texas is the diversity, in both the land and the people. You can go to East Texas. You can go to the coast. You can go to the Hill Country. You can go to Dallas. You can go to the Valley. They all identify themselves as Texans. And, then I love all of the natural diversity. Texas is just really unique when you think about all the natural elements that are here. Beach, Mountains, Forest, Rivers, Brushland, Marshes.
TAMMY: When I was in college, my mom lived in Germany for a few years. When I would visit, they would always ask me, “Why do you want to go back to Texas?” My answer was simple. “Living in central Texas, I can go three hours in almost any direction and do everything I want to do. Skiing, fishing, hunting, hiking, river rafting, everything is there.”