Conservation easement established on Red River in North Texas
The Nature Conservancy in Texas (TNC) has acquired a conservation easement on approximately 1,500 acres, owned by the Bartush Land and Cattle Co. (BLCC) in Cooke County. The property is part of a family-owned ranch founded by Charles F. and Mary J. Bartush in 1982. The Bartush family is dedicated to carrying on their legacy and preserving the unique natural features of the ranch for future generations.
The easement was funded in part by the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and partly through the Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program which is overseen by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). The Bartush family donated a portion of the easement’s value as a charitable contribution.
Located north of Muenster, the land features scenic hilltop vistas, ravines and creeks that flow down into a two-mile corridor of bottomland hardwoods, wetlands, and sand flats on the bank of the Red River. Located where the northernmost reach of the Fort Worth Prairie connects with the Cross Timbers, the landscape contains a mix of woodlands and native grasslands. Hilltop native prairies, cedar brakes, and limestone escarpments harbor a multitude of rare plants found only in undisturbed conditions, including a recently rediscovered coneflower that had not been seen in Texas since the 19th century.
The ranch also features springs, prehistoric fossil beds, and historic land grant witness trees. Native American artifacts found on the property indicate a rich history that began long before Europeans settled the area.
While the Bartush family will continue to own and operate the ranch, the conservation easement details restrictions on development, which the family and any future owners must follow, in order to preserve the natural features of the property and limit human impacts in perpetuity.
Mary Del Olmo, BLCC’s president and a third-generation Bartush family member, says, “As a family, we believe that first and foremost we are stewards of the land. While we may hold the deed, we care for it with future generations in mind. We know we have a responsibility to manage the diversity of the natural resources God has given us to care for so that they are available for those coming after us. Those values guide our mission statement and every decision we make while managing the land, cattle, and wildlife.”
“The Bartush family and the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service share a common vision to protect working agriculture lands in North Texas from future non-agricultural use development,” said Darren Clark, NRCS Easement Program Manager. “The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program is a great opportunity for landowners to preserve traditional farm and ranch values as well as protect the natural resources in areas of Texas with rapidly expanding populations.”
“The Bartush Ranch is a great example of the Texas Farm and Ranch Land Conservation Program’s primary mission. Protecting this property means protecting globally rare prairie species, Oak hardwood forests communities, and reducing runoff into the Red River,” said Chris Abernathy, who manages the TPWD program.
Both the NRCS and TPWD programs are designed to conserve private land, with a focus on productive farms and ranches that are valuable for sustaining native wildlife and the health of the Red River watershed.
TNC holds the easement and will be responsible for monitoring and enforcing the agreement in perpetuity, with scheduled access to the ranch subject to the wishes of the landowners. Sustainability and minimal impact are key to the conservation of the property and its resources.
“The ranch is one of the most diverse properties I’ve seen in North Texas, with scenery ranging from pristine native prairie to rugged breaks and over two miles of Red River bottomland,” says David Bezanson, TNC’s protection and easement manager. “The Bartush family has managed this land as a productive working ranch while sustaining the diversity of its natural resources, and we’re very honored that they chose to work with us to accomplish their lifetime goals.”
One of the first Lone Star Land Steward award winners in 1997, the Bartush Ranch pioneered the development of a wildlife management program that has continuously improved to complement the farm and ranch operation. Staff with TPWD and The Noble Foundation have been close partners in conservation with the family for over 30 years and have supported the Bartush family in taking early advantage of practices such as no-till agriculture, prescribed burning, antlerless deer harvest, and innovative grazing practices.
NRCS has assessed the grasslands on the ranch and will continue to advise optimum grazing and brush management.
“We are constantly trying to make our quality areas better, building on the managers who have come before us and using a diverse mix of management practices,” Del Olmo said. “Livestock are integral to improving soil health and returning vital nutrients to the soil while prescribed fire helps us open up areas that cattle can’t reach. Without these tools, brush encroaches on the prairie and the nutrient cycle is disrupted.”
John D. Bartush, BLCC’s treasurer and senior vice president (and third-generation Bartush family member), explains, “The ranch has to be profitable in order to keep it in the family. That can be a challenge given today’s economic climate. The easement has helped us take a large step toward that goal while we continue to develop our current enterprises in hunting, hospitality, and cattle.”
Around 1998, while initiating a planning process for BLCC directors Virginia Bartush-Farwell, Mary Beth Bartush, and Ann Bartush initially brought up the idea of a conservation easement. The shared vision for conserving the ranch was incorporated into the family’s business strategy in 2005.
“In 2016, we started looking closely at the ACEP,” Del Olmo says. “There had been other organizations dedicated to conservation that we considered before, but as a ‘working lands’ program, it was the right fit for our family and the company.”
“The four-way partnership with USDA, TPWD, TNC, and the landowner makes the whole process beneficial for all parties involved,” she adds.