Texas Agricultural Land Trust Holds Conservation Easement, Protecting Texas’ Rural Heritage.
Emry Birdwell and Deborah Clark are partners in every way. Married since 1991, the two are also joined at the hip when it comes to running their Birdwell and Clark Ranch in Clay County in North Texas.
Birdwell has ranched his entire life. Clark’s family owned a telecom company, and after the family business was sold, Clark was restless to try something else. So, the couple decided to buy a ranch together. Birdwell sold his family land in Palo Pinto County, and Clark used her share of the proceeds of the sale of the telecom business to finance their dream. They bought a more than 14,000-acre ranch in Clay County in 2004.
“We were all in, and I didn’t have a clue what I was getting into,” recalled Clark. “I didn’t know a heifer from a steer back then. But we both saw it as an opportunity of a lifetime for us to come together and work as a couple toward a similar goal.”
Birdwell is a champion of holistic ranch management and the value of rotational grazing. Clark hit the ground running to learn everything she could, and now she loves to share what she’s learned with others.
The ranch is a stocker operation, and about 5,000 head of cattle is moved through the ranch in an intensively managed grazing program. The focus is on improving rangeland conditions, holding water, increasing carbon sequestration, and improving soil health.
The results have been nothing short of spectacular. Native tallgrass prairie has emerged throughout the property, and the monoculture of Little Bluestem has diversified into various grasses, forbs and legumes. Since 2004, bare ground on the ranch has decreased from approximately 25% to 5%. The healthy habitat now supports not only their cattle herd, but also an amazing array of wildlife.
Tallgrass prairies are the most rapidly disappearing ecosystem on earth, and the Birdwell and Clark Ranch protects an immensely productive biologically-diverse prairie. The East Fork of the Little Wichita runs through the west side of the ranch, and seasonal water runs in two creeks. The prairies are gently rolling landscapes that support a variety of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, Rio Grande turkey, dove, bobcats, quail, and hawks.
Anyone who ranches in Texas knows there are good times and bad. A few years ago, Birdwell and Clark experienced one bad cattle year after another, and ended up with a large debt they needed to pay off. They made the incredibly difficult decision to sell off a portion of the ranch to cover the losses.
“It cut us both to the core, and it ranks up there with one of the lowest points in my entire life,” said Clark. “We ended up selling 2,500 acres. It made us realize how important it was to us both not to ever lose another piece of the ranch, and that we would do anything we could to keep it intact.”
That realization, coupled with discussions with their financial advisor about succession planning, led them to begin exploring the idea of a conservation easement in 2021. Birdwell had some negative perceptions about conservation easements, but after meeting with representatives from the Texas Agricultural Land Trust (TALT), those perceptions shifted.
The couple met with their children on Father’s Day 2021 to discuss the idea.
“We wanted them to understand what we were doing and why, and we did our best to convey why the ranch is so important to us and why we want to preserve it after we are gone,” said Clark.
Deborah Clark and Emry Birdwell closed on a conservation easement with TALT in September 2022, forever protecting 11,800 acres. It’s the first conservation easement in Clay County. A grant from Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation’s Buffer Lands Incentive Program provided funding for a stewardship endowment that will help TALT monitor the easement in perpetuity.
“We are so grateful for TALT’s guidance, and the grant from Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation helped us close the deal,” said Clark. “Ranching is Emry’s lifeblood and he has poured every ounce of himself into this ranch to make it better than we found it. We’ve seen the changes and it is living testimony to the benefits of good grazing management and that land can be restored back to health in one’s lifetime. As a couple, we’ve had our share of hard times and disagreements. But in the end, this piece of land personifies the commitment we made to each other and to the land.”
Lydia Saldaña is communications director at Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation and is a communications advisor for the Texas Agricultural Land Trust.