Cook’s Branch Conservancy receives Texas’ highest award for private land conservation

The transformation of a clear-cut, overgrazed working ranch into Cook’s Branch Conservancy a century later has earned a prominent Texas family the 2012 Leopold Conservation Award, the state’s highest honor recognizing habitat management and wildlife conservation on private land.

Operated as a program of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, Cook’s Branch Conservancy is located on 5,650 acres in Montgomery County north of Houston. The property offers a rare glimpse into what a century of regeneration looks like in the Pineywoods region of East Texas.

The Leopold award is conferred each year by Sand County Foundation, an international non-profit organization devoted to private land conservation, in partnership with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) as part of its Lone Star Land Steward Awards program. In Texas, the Leopold award is sponsored by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Silver Eagle Distributors and the Lee and Ramona Bass Foundation.

“The Mitchell family’s commitment to restore and enhance the land, water and wildlife in their care demonstrates that Aldo Leopold’s philosophy of land management is still vibrant in Texas,” said Brent Haglund, PhD, Sand County Foundation president. “Their determined, innovative approach to private lands conservation is exemplary.”

Businessman and philanthropist George P. Mitchell and his family accepted the Leopold crystal award and a check for $10,000 at the annual Lone Star Land Steward Awards dinner in Austin on May 22.

“The Mitchell family made a commitment many years ago to demonstrate that private landowners and federal land management agencies in East Texas can support and grow habitat suitable for use by the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker through the use of sound forest management practices,” said Jeffrey A. Reid of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Such management practices have also increased the habitat suitability for bobwhite quail, eastern wild turkey, white-tailed deer, and myriad migratory bird species.”

The Mitchells acquired the property in 1964 and, in the mid 1990s, started a process to return the area to pre-settlement condition—back to its piney woods roots—through conservation and restoration initiatives. The family continues to expand the conservancy as habitat restoration efforts decades in the making shape the property into one of the state’s best-kept forests.

“Thanks to the vision of the Mitchell family, Cook’s Branch has witnessed astonishing increases in biodiversity, regeneration, and overall ecosystem health,” said Sarah Scott Mitchell, executive director of Cook’s Branch Conservancy.

“My grandparents, Cynthia and George Mitchell, were instinctive naturalists who understood the dynamism of an old growth forest, and always appreciated biodiversity,” Sarah Mitchell continued. “My aunt, Sheridan Mitchell Lorenz, initiated and drove the active restoration process. And, I’m proud that our family unanimously agreed to preserve the property in perpetuity.”

In nominating Cook’s Branch Conservancy, TPWD pointed out that pre-settlement ecology is virtually absent from all southern pine forests, and that Cook’s Branch is an exemplary demonstration of Piney Woods ecology.

“The Mitchell family has taken a piece of degraded land and, using basic principles, with the best available technology, reclaimed a healthy and sustainable example of our natural heritage,” said Dan Jones, the TPWD wildlife biologist who nominated Cook’s Branch for the award.

Jones also noted these accomplishments:

–A continuing commitment to conservation and restoration of a representative tract of the Piney Woods eco-region of Texas.

–Early baseline inventories and research into pre-settlement conditions of the area to focus on restoration of natural processes and implementing appropriate management practices to achieve this desired condition.

–The overall strategic plan for this property that incorporates separate plans for different resource categories.

–Restoration and management of several forest communities present at the conservancy through comprehensive timber inventories used to model regeneration and refine timber management strategies.

–Transitioned away from cattle grazing, hay and timber production; initiated prescribed burnings mimicking the region’s natural fire cycle; and reseeded native grasses and forbs. Practices promote pre-settlement ecological conditions, and motivated the return of species dependent on this clump grass habitat, such as the Bobwhite Quail, numerous sparrows, and migratory species like the Upland Sandpiper.

–Wildlife study, conservation and management practices highlighted by the conservancy’s dedication to providing habitat for the federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker while researching the species.

–Conservation of water resources through establishment of streamside management zones larger than the minimums and planting around 2,000 hardwood seedlings in formerly clear-cut riparian zones, establishing a federal ground water monitoring site and construction and maintenance of impoundments to reduce erosion and provide for wildlife and fisheries habitat.

“We’re thrilled that Cook’s Branch Conservancy has been recognized as an exemplary model of sustainability in Texas, demonstrating that investment in conservation can have an enormous impact on biodiversity,” said Katherine Lorenz, president of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. “The Mitchell foundation will continue to invest in this kind of visionary work to bring sustainable solutions to some of Texas’ most complex problems.”

Photo: Earl Nottingham, Texas Parks & Wildlife

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