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 has earned a 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 nonprofit 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 Dr. Brent Haglund, 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. 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.