Texas 2023 Brown Ranch La Grange Leopold Conservation Award Recipient

Watch Brown Ranch's Conservation Success Story

Mark and Cheryl Brown looked at land as an investment before they became invested in their land. Restoring native prairie has become a labor of love for the Browns, who purchased 80 acres of worn-out hay fields and over-grazed pastures in 2000.

Located in Fayette County, the restored Blackland Prairie found on Brown Ranch has nearly disappeared in Texas. The ranch is located between Houston, San Antonio, and Austin, where a growing human population leads to shrinking parcel sizes and greater fragmentation of ecosystems.

The Browns saw the opportunity to do something special with their land. Grazing was temporarily ceased to let the pastures rest. They began the long and difficult processes of removing invasive Eastern Red Cedars and reseeding clay soils with native tallgrasses and wildflowers. Deep-rooted warm-season grasses sequester carbon in their root mass, while increasing water infiltration and reducing soil erosion. The flowering forbs provide nectar to butterflies on their annual southern migration.

The Browns periodically till areas to promote forb growth. A prescribed burning program removes undesirable grasses while stimulating growth of native milkweed critical for Monarch butterflies.

Seeing the impact of their stewardship inspired the Browns to buy another 120 acres to protect, restore and enhance the diversity and health of the native plant community. They leased nearby parcels that they were unable to purchase. Surveys conducted by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have documented more than 250 species of native plants on parcels owned by the Browns.

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Brown Ranch became an example of what’s possible in a rapidly fragmenting state when landowners utilize the local, state, and federal tools available to them. Mike and Cheryl’s conservation efforts earned them a Lone Star Land Steward Ecoregion Award (representing the Blackland Prairie ecoregion) in 2017.

Since then, their impact has only grown. They experiment with rotational and patch burn grazing strategies, provide supplemental feed to white-tailed deer, and maintain bluebird houses.

The Browns developed a management plan more than 15 years ago to attract grassland birds whose breeding populations have been declining due to habitat loss. Annual songbird surveys frequently observe birds taking cover in the tallgrass prairie.

While Brown Ranch might have started as a passion project, its owners have stretched their conservation ethic far beyond their ranch gates. The Browns are leaders in the Fayette Prairie Chapter of the Native Prairie Association of Texas and the South Central Texas Prescribed Burn Cooperative.

The diversity of Brown Ranch’s soil types and plant communities is matched by the diversity of outreach events the Browns have helped plan and host. They include webinars and field days on brush control, grazing management, pollinators, prescribed burning techniques, and cost share incentive programs. The Browns realize cooperative efforts among owners of relatively small parcels of land is the key to achieving landscape-scale conservation.

By restoring the native ecosystem on their land, providing technical guidance to their peers, and becoming regional conservation leaders, the Browns are doing their part to protect one of the most imperiled ecosystems, the grasslands of North America. They are achieving all of this with the methods that Aldo Leopold considered the basics of wildlife management: the axe, cow, plow, and fire.

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