Published in the November 2016 issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine.
For the Love of the Land
Blue Mountain Peak Ranch’s return to the past earns top conservation award.
By Katy Schaffer
It’s the summer of 2001, and Richard and Sally Taylor push their way through thick, scratchy patches of Ashe juniper in the stifling Texas heat. They scramble around knots of weeds and tangles of tree roots. Brilliant patches of wildflowers weave and bob their heads at a sudden, welcome breeze.
They’d already seen the land from above via a small airplane, but they wanted to get a feel for what it really looked like from the ground. The Taylors wanted to touch the land, to experience it with all their senses.
After they finish exploring, the Taylors stop to look out over the gently rolling hills blanketed in green treetops as far as the eye can see. With sweat pouring down their faces, Richard and Sally grin widely at each other. They know they’ve finally found it.
“This is it,” Richard says. “This is what we’ve been searching for.”
Fifteen years later, the Taylors’ Blue Mountain Peak Ranch, that tough-yet-beautiful parcel of land Richard and Sally bought in 2001, has become a showcase of stewardship, earning the 2016 Leopold Conservation Award, the state’s highest honor for private land conservation.
The Taylors weren’t always conservationists. Richard is originally from Boston, where he made a career in information technology. It wasn’t until he and Sally retired that the idea to do something radically different with their lives took hold.
“It’s just my scientific interest and curiosity,” Richard says. “I grew up in urban and suburban settings, but this has always been a love of mine. I just find tremendous enjoyment out of seeing nature go the way it wants to be.”
In search of land, they started in California and spent seven years traversing the western half of the United States, visiting state after state, and county after county, looking for the ideal mix of plentiful rainfall, species diversity and interesting topography.
“After a very bad experience in California trying to be land stewards, we decided we would look elsewhere to try to find a place that was friendly to and supportive of land stewardship,” Richard says. “We started out on the West Coast, but until we got to Texas, we didn’t find anything that quite fit.”
They finally found that combination in perfect harmony in Mason County. Their purchase would eventually become the 830-acre Blue Mountain Peak Ranch, an ecologically sustainable oasis in the heart of Texas.
“We didn’t expect to find heaven in Texas,” Richard jokes, “but now I don’t want to make it any better because I don’t want people from out of town moving in now!”
Once they found the land, Richard and Sally knew their work had just begun.
Historically overgrazed and overworked, the land was in desperate need of restoration. Invasive Ashe Juniper (called “cedar” colloquially) dominated the landscape, choking much of the natural water supply and severely limiting any opportunity for native plant and animal species to thrive.
“When I set foot on this ranch 15 years ago, all I saw was about 830 acres of solid cedar,” says Texas Parks and Wildlife Department big game program director Mitch Lockwood, who worked with the Taylors as a private lands biologist at first. “It was very, very different from the tremendous amount of plant diversity we see today.”
Richard said 80 percent of the land was covered in tree canopy and 20-foot-tall cedar when they purchased it. Their vision was to rehabilitate the land to what it looked like before European settlement in the 1800s, with more live oak savannah uplands, woody plants and natural drainages.
“The goal we have for the ranch is simple: We want to increase species diversity and put water into the aquifer,” Richard says. “We asked ourselves, ‘What could possibly bring back the plants and animals we love to see every day?’ We found that back around 1800 was a good period of time to target because there were a lot more species here.”
In 2007, after six years of managing the land together, Richard said goodbye to his partner of 41 years. Sally lost her battle with cancer.
“One of her sayings that turned out to be true was, ‘I’m not dying until I see the last damn cedar cut down!’ She passed on about four or five months later, after the last one,” Richard says. “That was her thing, because she spent a lot of time cutting it all down.”
After Sally’s death, Richard found a new partner in Suzie Paris, a family friend since 1983. Suzie calls herself Richard’s “sidekick, cowbird dispatcher, rock picker-upper and hummingbird feeder counter.” She has helped Richard manage the ranch for the past nine years, though she’s been involved with the property since the Taylors first purchased it, ranch-sitting for Richard and Sally when they traveled.
The Taylors spent several years working to clear the cedar and allowing the native herbaceous plants to recover. Richard began applying prescribed fires on sections of the ranch every year.
“What we learned is, fundamentally, brush or grass fires are all you really need to continue moving this property back in time to increase the species diversity,” Richard says.
With the exception of a 10-acre plot for educational demonstrations, Richard eradicated all the cedar with his prescribed burning schedule, restoring the potential for the grassland and wildlife to flourish.
“I must admit, though, the first time we lit up a big patch and burned it off, I was scared,” Richard recalls. “I thought, ‘What have we done? We’ve ruined what used to be green. Now there’s nothing but gray!’ Boy, was I wrong! Within a month and a few rains — pop! Everything started growing up again.”
Without the juniper crowding the landscape, more of his property’s unique terrain was revealed. He saw deep ravines and steep cliffs, large caves and solid rock flats.
“As we cut and burned the Ashe juniper, we finally had access to certain areas we couldn’t see before,” Richard says. “The topography you can see and experience now has improved dramatically. It’s a much different visual experience than it used to be.”
The diverse topography allows for greater species diversity as more and more native animals return to newly exposed habitats. Dragonflies and frogs are back in the riparian corridor; black-capped vireos have returned to the trees. Deer roam the savannah grasslands. Under this new management, Blue Mountain Peak Ranch now looks more like it did in the 19th century.
“Richard has come a long way with this property,” says Evan McCoy, a TPWD private lands biologist who consults with the ranch owner. “He started with really a rugged, abused, mismanaged piece of property, and he was able to create habitat for a lot of species that weren’t here before his management. Now it’s abundant with good wildlife.”
In addition to revealing fascinating topography, the Taylors’ prescribed burn plan also rejuvenated the groundwater supply, causing a tremendous restoration of native plant species. By clearing away the invasive cedar, which monopolized much of the groundwater, the Taylors allowed new life to take root. What’s more, their improvements to rainwater catchment and filtration through increased ground cover reduced soil runoff and erosion.
When the water finally came back, the plants came back.
“Today we see very little cedar and a tremendous amount of plant diversity,” Lockwood says. “I’m seeing trees I didn’t realize this site had the potential to produce 15 years ago.”
When the plants came back, the animals came back. Several native animal species, including Texas horned lizards and spot-tailed earless lizards, once again call Blue Mountain Peak Ranch home.
“The roots sprout, and the brush that we have is where you find all these animals nesting,” Richard says. “Living, hiding, feeding, eating.”
The hum of life on the ranch is a far cry from the silence that once blanketed the property, before the Taylors began the long process of taking it back in time to heal.
“The water to me is a gift from Richard because of what he has done to the land,” Suzie says. “Water is life, and it brings a variety of animals to the ranch. I remember walking around here in probably 2003 or 2004, and I could not hear a thing, not one sound. Now you cannot go outdoors here without hearing something — all of the birds, crickets, frogs, coyotes — making a sound.”
To keep the returning animal populations healthy, Richard and Suzie work closely with TPWD, public hunters and conservation authorities. The ranch undergoes an annual deer survey for harvest recommendations and has made significant improvements in buck quality and age structure. To control the feral hog population, Richard uses a combination of trapping and hunting, removing hundreds of hogs over the years.
Slowly, the carefully balanced, historical ecosystem has come back to life at Blue Mountain Peak Ranch.
“This place is freedom,” Suzie says. “It’s the freedom of myself, the freedom of Richard, the freedom of the land, the animals, the wind, the storms — just absolute freedom.”
While Richard and Suzie look to the past to guide their present management techniques, they also look toward the future. They open up the ranch to younger generations, passing on their love of the land and good stewardship practices. The ranch serves as a study site for multiple graduate-level projects by Texas Tech University students about the Texas horned lizard and the effects of prescribed burning.
The two also mentor children from the local school district. Suzie mentors four young women, and Richard mentors two, teaching them about the land and their relationship with it.
“One of the nice things is that we get to bring them out here and educate them, show them what goes on at the ranch,” Richard says. “You can kind of turn them loose and off they go into the wilderness to have the kind of experience I had as a kid. It just makes me feel so good, so grateful to be able to do that.”
Richard and Suzie hope to teach nearby landowners how to care for the land as they have done.
“The views from this place are just incredible, although it saddens me when I look out and see how much of it is choked with Ashe juniper,” Richard says. “But at least this ranch is not.”
Working tirelessly to heal the land, Richard and Suzie live and breathe the land. As the years go by, they have become attuned to the rising and setting sun, the chirping crickets and the rushing waters.
“Living out in the country and having projects that are extremely long-term changes the way you look at time,” Richard says. “I don’t wear a watch anymore. I pay very little attention to time. We tell time by when the hummingbirds return, when the birds nest, when the turkeys come by.”
Richard wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If this is work, this is my favorite job in the world,” Richard says. “I look forward to going out, even when it’s hot. This is the most fun I’ve ever had!”