“Understanding Soil Health and Watershed Function” is a new teacher’s workbook by Didi Pershouse, now available as a “sneak preview” for educators preparing their fall lessons. The Dixon Water Foundation supported the production of this resource, which was a joint project of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the USDA Southern Plains Climate Hub, The Soil Carbon Coalition, and Redlands Community College.
The state’s top land conservation award typically goes to a private ranch, but this year the honoree is the Dixon Water Foundation, a North Texas-based nonprofit which manages not one, but six different ranches, all of them devoted to demonstrating how good land management using cattle grazing can lead to more and better water for people and wildlife.
Founded in 1994 by the late Roger Dixon, the Dixon Water Foundation promotes healthy watersheds and sequestration of carbon through regenerative land management to ensure that present and future generations of Texans have the water resources they need. In 2005, the foundation acquired the Bear Creek Ranch in Parker County west of Fort Worth. In 2008, they went west to try their approach in drier soils, acquiring the Mimms Ranch near Marfa. Today the foundation operates six ranches totaling 21,960 acres. Each one utilizes a high intensity/low duration holistic grazing system which mimics the natural effect of large herds of bison which used to migrate through Texas.
On May 18, the foundation received $10,000 along with a Leopold Conservation Award crystal at the 22nd Lone Star Land Steward Awards dinner in Austin. This award is given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, and conferred each year by Sand County Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to private land conservation, in partnership with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. In Texas, the Leopold Conservation Award program is sponsored by the Lee and Ramona Bass Foundation.
Since 1996, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has hosted the Lone Star Land Steward Awards to recognize private landowners for habitat management and wildlife conservation. In addition to the statewide Leopold award, multiple eco-region recipients are acknowledged in various parts of the state.
A primary purpose of the award is to elevate outstanding landowners who can serve as a positive example to other ranchers and landowners, and to demonstrate how good land management practices can be both profitable and ecologically sustainable.
“Even though they’re a nonprofit, the Dixon Water Foundation always makes management decisions with the bottom line in mind,” said Justin Dreibelbis, who leads TPWD’s private lands conservation efforts. “If their ranches don’t pay for themselves, the demonstration won’t apply to other landowners.”
And the foundation has demonstrated decades of results, using only one tool: cattle.
“The only tool that we use is cattle, because that’s the tool that’s on the landscape; that’s what most landowners across Texas are using,” said Robert Potts, foundation president. “If you’re ranching for the long-term, this is the way to build the wealth in the land. This is going to be a much more profitable way, we believe, to run a ranch. Because you’re not mining the soil, you’re building the soil. That makes it more resilient during drought, and makes it more productive when you do get rain.”
Alongside its cattle enterprise, the foundation is committed to education, outreach and community service, and its list of these credits goes on and on for pages in the award nomination form. For example, Mimms Ranch serves as an outdoor classroom for K-8 students at Marfa International School. Students study sustainable land management, water quality, soil health, desert plants and animals, and other topics through hands-on activities at the ranch. Similarly, more than 1,200 students from Aledo I.S.D. west of Fort Worth complete field labs at Bear Creek Ranch. From studying how wildlife rebound after drought to pronghorn restoration, the foundation also hosts research projects on its properties in partnership with multiple colleges and universities.
Ultimately, it all comes back to water, which the foundation views as the single most important resource for Texas’ future.
“Lots of people worry about how much rain falls,” Potts said, “but what really matters is how much rain gets in the ground. That’s the rain you can use. The rain that runs off, that creates flash floods, that erodes creek banks, that silts up reservoirs — that doesn’t do you any good.”
“What’s easy to happen in these drier environments is that you lose the ground cover, and when that happens you end up with bare ground, and when you have bare ground it’s like not having skin on the earth,” Potts explained. “So we’ve been really pleased that we’ve been able to bring back a lot of the native cover with low grasses like curly mesquite interspersed with bunch grasses like blue gramma.”
“By owning these ranches and being able to raise and sell cattle and support the economics of the enterprise, we’re also able to build wealth in the soil. We’re able to build micro-life in the soil, sequester carbon in the soil, create healthier forage, and then that pays dividends over a long period of time.”
Kids on the Land returned to Dixon Ranches Leo Unit in April. Kids on the Land outdoor environmental programs teach children about the region where they live, connecting them to the land and a more sustainable future. The foundation’s education partners, like Kids on the Land, frequently visit Dixon Ranches for field days to learn about sustainable land management, watershed health, wildlife, native plants, and other subjects. Learn more about school field programs on this page, and check out the gallery below for glimpses into the fun Kids on the Land brought to the Josey Pavilion this spring.
Texas Wildlife Association L.A.N.D.S. recently held outdoor education programs at Dixon Ranches Leo and Bear Creek units. In December, AP Environmental Science students from Fort Worth Country Day School learned about wildlife tracking, watershed health, and other conservation topics at the Josey Pavilion. McLean Middle School students visited Bear Creek for a field day at the end of November. We are grateful to our education partners like TWA for using our ranches to put young Texans more in touch with their local ecosystem.
The Betty and Clint Josey Pavilion is now officially a certified Living Building, following a year-long rigorous performance evaluation. Lake|Flato architects donated more than 1,500 hours in designing this project. Their work was recognized recently by Public Architecture’s 1+ program, which connects non-profit organizations with pro bono architecture services. Public Architecture published an excellent overview of the pavilion in a new case study.
Our West Texas neighbors at the Circle Ranch have posted a great set of Savory Institute articles and videos about grasslands, why we should care about them, and how we can restore them with sustainable grazing management. The Gill family uses Holistic Management on this 32,000-acre high-desert mountain ranch located in the Sierra Diablo. We’ve added a link to the Circle Ranch website on the resources for landowners page on our website.
Below is one of the Savory Institute videos the Gills shared about grasslands:
Small rodent and grassland bird populations have nearly recovered from the devastating 2011 Rock House Fire and drought, according to recently completed research by Bobby Allcorn with Sul Ross State University‘s Borderlands Research Institute.
For the past two years, Allcorn has been comparing rodent and bird communities on burned areas on Mimms Unit and unburned areas on an adjacent ranch, following the historic fire and drought that burned more than 90% of the foundation’s ranch in Marfa.
Allcorn found that populations of small rodents and grassland birds on Mimms have almost returned to normal, thanks to precipitation in 2013 and 2014, but there were still important differences between burned and unburned areas. The roster of rodent species in burned areas was different and less diverse than in unburned areas. Grassland birds lagged behind in population density in burned areas. These findings may be due to the number of shrubs that were destroyed during the fire, leaving more true grassland habitat in burned areas.
Learn more about this research project in this article in the Big Bend Sentinel, another article from Texas Wildlife, and Allcorn’s thesis-defense presentation, “Small Mammal and Grassland Bird Response to Wildfire on the Marfa Grasslands.” Allcorn’s manuscript will be available on our website soon.
His project was funded by the Dixon Water Foundation and advised by Dr. Bonnie Warnock, the Clint Josey Endowed Chair for Sustainable Ranch Management Professor at Sul Ross.
The Overlook Trail at Dixon Ranches Mimms Unit officially opened September 26, 2015, in conjunction with a grass identification workshop with Dr. Michael Powell of Sul Ross State University. About 45 people attended the workshop, and many of them stayed for a group interpretive hike to the Overlook viewing area, designed by Marfa’s Joey Benton. Local flora and fauna experts from the Texas Master Naturalists Tierra Grande Chapter answered questions along the way.
Powell is Director of the Herbarium at Sul Ross State University, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology, and author of numerous books and journal articles on plants native to the Chihuahuan Desert Region. Dr. Powell was assisted during the workshop with his wife Shirley Powell, a retired science teacher and the president of the board of directors at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute.
The 2.5-mile walking trail at Mimms is open during daylight hours and features exhibits about grazing management and the high-desert environment. The trail ends at the Overlook viewing area, where visitors can sit and appreciate spectacular views of the Marfa grasslands and surrounding mountains.
The foundation’s West Texas office and the trailhead are at the north end of Austin Street in Marfa. Please read and respect the guidelines for trail visitors posted at the entrance to the ranch. Dogs must remain leashed. Bicycles, motorized vehicles, camping, and firearms are not permitted.
Our education partner Kids on the Land was at Dixon Ranches Bear Creek Unit in September. Their outdoor environmental programs teach children about the region where they live, connecting them to the land and a more sustainable future. With support from the foundation, Kids on the Land partnered with Morningside Children’s Partnership to provide this program to third through fifth graders from the Edward J. Briscoe Elementary School, which is a neighborhood in Fort Worth that has suffered high unemployment, violence, substandard health care, and low educational outcomes for years. Check out the photo gallery below and the testimonials to see what an impact this program had.
September 17 is North Texas Giving Day, when matching donors will double any contributions made to this great organization. Visit the North Texas Giving Day website to learn more.
Kids on the Land at Bear Creek
“Being a [volunteer] for KOL is the hardest work I have ever loved. Because of this experience many of these students will never look at their world in quite the same way. It is humbling, awesome and a joy to witness the impact one day in nature can have on a child.”—Karen McGinnis, Kids On the Land volunteer
“Teaching students in the Kids on the Land program connects them to their sense of place and the world they live in. It touches their souls and connects them to real world learning in a meaningful life changing way.” —Kathy Cash, Kids On the Land volunteer
“Best day of school ever!” —Charles, Briscoe 3rd grader
Ian Mitchell-Innes, Holistic Management Educator and mob-grazing expert, held a workshop with Dixon Ranches staff, board of directors, and advisory board members at Mimms Unit in July. The South African rancher discussed grazing strategies, animal performance, and other topics.
You can learn more about many of the principles and practices he covered in this online presentation, Ranching in Sync with Nature: