The Rio Grande Cutting Through Fresno Ranch
The Nature Conservancy of Texas has purchased the 7,000-acre Fresno Ranch in far West Texas for about $2.6 million and transferred it to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to expand Big Bend Ranch State Park.
The deal culminates 20 years of work to remove the largest remaining in-holding inside Texas’ biggest state park, expands hiking and public access, and protects desert springs, Rio Grande river frontage, diverse wildlife and rich cultural resources.
Acquiring the checkerboard 11-section tract removes in-holdings within the park’s Fresno Canyon, a beautiful natural corridor with cottonwood trees, desert springs, archeological sites, and majestic views. The acquisition means park users will be able to access all of Fresno Canyon. The property comes down to the Rio Grande, so it also now gives the state park 8.5 miles of unbroken public river frontage. Most of Fresno Ranch lies in non-contiguous tracts in Presidio County, with some 200 acres in Brewster County.
“The Nature Conservancy is thrilled to be able to make this important addition to Big Bend Ranch State Park a reality to allow Texas residents and visitors greater opportunities to enjoy this beautiful and fascinating natural resource,” said Laura Huffman, state director of The Nature Conservancy of Texas. “Acquiring this key piece of land means additional opportunities for park visitors, and we believe providing access to this Texas treasure is important.”
“This is the most important land acquisition at Big Bend Ranch since the department bought General Land Office in-holdings in 1991, which included large parts of the current park, including the Solitario,” said Scott Boruff, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department deputy executive director for operations.
“The Fresno Ranch acquisition opens up key areas in the park, places the public couldn’t go before,” Boruff said. “Plus, the mouth of Fresno Creek is the one remaining large tract along the river inside the park that could have been subject to adverse development. So this protects one of the most scenic and important areas at Big Bend Ranch.”
Notable Artist’s Home
The Nature Conservancy purchased the property from the estate of the late Jeanne Norsworthy, granddaughter of prominent Texas newsman George Dealey, founder of the Dallas Morning-News. Norsworthy, of Houston, was a notable artist who lived on Fresno Ranch after she acquired it.
“Jeanne was a great lover of the Big Bend country,” said Andrew Sansom, a member of the Texas State Parks Advisory Committee and former Texas Parks and Wildlife Department executive director, who helped lead state efforts to purchase Big Bend Ranch.
“Jeanne was a very distinguished artist, and she created a beautiful body of art, much of it done there at the Fresno Ranch,” Sansom said. “We first began to speak with her in the late 1980s. I last discussed the acquisition of this property a few months before her death, and she told me she wanted it to become part of the park, so in a very large measure this is fulfilling her vision.”
Norsworthy died in 1998. Her award-winning book, “Healing Landscapes: A Journey from the Big Thicket to the Big Bend,” about her observations of nature and people in the Big Thicket and the Big Bend, was published posthumously by Texas A&M University Press in 2001.
A federal Land and Water Conservation Fund matching grant will help TPWD fund the acquisition, which supports department plans to increase public use of the park. This year, the park is opening more than 50 new backcountry campsites in remote, scenic areas visitors could not get to on their own before, as well as many new miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails and newly accessible dirt roads. While there are a number of campsites accessible by car, most of the new backcountry sites require high-clearance vehicles, and some require four-wheel drive. But for adventurous travelers, the new sites offer uncrowded experiences in pristine settings.
Expanding public access at Big Bend Ranch is made possible by increased funding provided by the legislature, which allowed the park to hire four new employee positions. This includes two new park peace officers to help with everything from search and rescue to leading tours.
Rare Desert Water Resources
John Karges, The Nature Conservancy’s West Texas program manager, said the abundant year-round water resources found on the Fresno Ranch are rare and ecologically important in the arid Big Bend region of the Chihuahuan Desert.
“The ranch protects springs in and around Fresno Creek and its tributary, Arroyo Primero,” Karges said. “The streamside cottonwood and willow gallery woodlands of Fresno Canyon provide important habitat for resident and migratory birds.
“The native habitat here supports a rich variety of other wildlife, including peregrine falcon, Big Bend black-headed snake, Texas horned lizard and a rare reptile, the reticulated gecko, found only in Brewster and Presidio counties,” Karges added.
Archeological and cultural resources on the Fresno Ranch include Native American sites as well as the former Fresno and Whit-Roy cinnabar mines (cinnabar is a source of mercury) and the ruins of wax-rendering operations that used the native candelilla plant.
Big Bend Ranch State Park lies in a rugged, remote and unpopulated region, containing more than 300,000 acres of Chihuahuan Desert wilderness in Brewster and Presidio counties. The park extends 23 miles along the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo from southeast of Presidio to near Lajitas. Embracing some of the most remote and rugged terrain in the Southwest, it encompasses two mountain ranges containing ancient extinct volcanoes, precipitous canyons and waterfalls.
Crossroads of Prehistoric Activity
The area has been a crossroads of human activities for more than 11,000 years, as diverse people and cultures have been drawn by the abundant resources of the river corridor. Prehistoric Native American sites include open campsites, rock shelters, rock art sites and special-use or ritual sites.
Archival documents indicate that Pedro de Rabago y Teran traveled through the area in 1747 during his search for suitable sites to construct presidios. Beginning in the late 1840s, subsequent explorers, surveyors, missionaries, traders and freighters followed the Texas Chihuahua Trail through what is now the northwestern portion of the park. By the 1880s, several area ranches had been established and cattle, goats and sheep became a common sight on the landscape.
Once one of the 10 largest working ranches in Texas, Big Bend Ranch was acquired by TPWD in the late 1980s and opened to the public in 1991 as a state natural area. In 1995, it was re-designated as Big Bend Ranch State Park.
More information about Big Bend Ranch State Park, including hours of operation, fees and other practical details, is on the park Web site, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/big_bend_ranch/.
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In the Lone Star State, The Nature Conservancy of Texas owns more than 30 nature preserves and conservation projects and assists private landowners to conserve their land through more than 100 voluntary land-preservation agreements. The Nature Conservancy of Texas protects some 250,000 acres of wild lands and, with partners, has conserved 750,000 acres for wildlife habitat across the state. Visit The Nature Conservancy of Texas on the Web at nature.org/texas.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.