Cook’s Branch Conservancy receives Texas’ highest award for private land conservation.
By Mike Cox
Four generations of a remarkable family, two beloved birds and 5,650 acres of preserved land tell the story of Cook’s Branch Conservancy, the winner of the 2012 Leopold Conservation Award, the state’s highest honor recognizing habitat management and wildlife conservation on private land.
Cook’s Branch is the tiny creek that dribbles onto the property. That little stream is fed by determined springs that, even in drought, sustain it as it traverses north to south, bisecting the property and forming three lakes: Upper, Middle and Lower Kurth.
There’s a 20-foot drop in elevation between the lakes. An old water wheel by the dam at the lowest lake can provide electricity when there’s no worry of drought.
A historical marker honors Sunday House, built in the 1890s and filled with memories of the families who lived on this property before Cynthia and George Mitchell bought it nearly 50 years ago. Marriages and memorials mark the old house and other areas at Cook’s Branch, recalling special memories for the dozens of members of the Mitchell clan who feel a connection to this place.
Sarah Mitchell, granddaughter of Cynthia and George Mitchell and executive director of Cook’s Branch Conservancy, enjoys a morning walk and reminisces about the special times spent at the family land.
“We’ve all grown up here,” says Sarah Scott Mitchell, executive director of Cook’s Branch Conservancy and granddaughter of Cynthia and George, who each year gathered everyone together for Thanksgiving and other events. There were 10 children from that union and eventually a couple dozen grandchildren, and now a new generation is coming on. This year, more than 50 family members voted unanimously to preserve the land in perpetuity.
“We were imprinted here,” Sarah Mitchell says. “We all have this incredible respect for what this place could be. Watching it become that is really rewarding for all of us.”
Humans aren’t the only inhabitants of this bountiful land. The family has inherited a herd of 75 axis deer, handsome exotics, though the focus is on the native whitetails. Once-vanishing wild turkeys now thrive at Cook’s Branch, thanks to the perseverance of George Mitchell. But his passion in recent years is for a smaller bird, the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
“They use the tall timbers to start with, which have to be more than 70 years old,” says Mitchell, a Galveston-born octogenarian of Greek heritage. “They have to drill to the heart of the tree to make their nest. I tell you, sometimes it takes a year to drill that hole. Then they have to find a mate, and they need helpers to bring food to their family. You have to mow to keep about 30 to 40 acres around the nest low so the other birds can find plenty of insects to bring them.”
A biologist uses long ladders to scale tall pines to check on natural and human-created tree cavities that house the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker at the ranch.
When Mitchell started, he counted a dozen woodpecker families, and now there are more than 20. It’s the largest concentration of the birds on private land west of the Mississippi. The beautiful birds mate for life (with their family usually including a helper male) and prefer old-growth pines with red-heart fungus, which softens the wood.
“You take care of the land because making good land for the woodpeckers helps the quail and the dove and deer and many other species,” Mitchell says.
Operated as a program of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, Cook’s Branch Conservancy is located 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, named after author and conservationist Aldo Leopold, is conferred each year by the Sand County Foundation, an international nonprofit organization devoted to private land conservation, in partnership with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department 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,” says Brent Haglund, Sand County Foundation president. “Their determined, innovative approach to private lands conservation is exemplary.”
George 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,” says 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 presettlement condition — back to its Pineywoods 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.
Several pastoral lakes and meadows grace the Cook’s Branch Conservancy landscape.
“My grandparents were instinctive naturalists who understood the dynamism of an old-growth forest, and always appreciated biodiversity,” Sarah Mitchell says. “My aunt, Sheridan Mitchell Lorenz, initiated and drove the active restoration process. I’m proud that our family unanimously agreed to preserve the property in perpetuity.”
In nominating Cook’s Branch Conservancy, TPWD pointed out that Cook’s Branch is an exemplary demonstration of Pineywoods 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,” says Dan Jones, the TPWD wildlife biologist who nominated Cook’s Branch for the award.
Jones also notes these accomplishments:
• A continuing commitment to conservation and restoration of a representative tract of the Pineywoods ecoregion of Texas.
• Early baseline inventories and research into presettlement conditions of the area to focus on restoration of natural processes and implementation of appropriate management practices to achieve this desired condition.
• An overall strategic plan for the property that incorporates separate plans for different resource categories.
• Restoration and management of several forest communities through comprehensive timber inventories used to model regeneration and refine timber management strategies.
• Use of management practices such as prescribed burnings to mimic the region’s natural fire cycle; reseeding of native grasses and forbs; and a transition away from cattle grazing and hay and timber production. Practices promote presettlement ecological conditions and motivate the return of species dependent on 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 establishing streamside management zones larger than the minimums, planting about 2,000 hardwood seedlings in formerly clear-cut riparian zones, establishing a federal groundwater monitoring site and constructing and maintaining 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,” says Katherine Lorenz, president of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation and a granddaughter of the Mitchells. “The Mitchell Foundation will continue to invest in this kind of visionary work to bring sustainable solutions to some of Texas’ most complex problems.”
About the Lone Star Land Steward Awards
The Lone Star Land Steward Awards program reflects the reality that private landowners are the key to effective habitat management in Texas, since more than 95 percent of Texas is privately owned or operated. The awards recognize and honor private landowners for their accomplishments in habitat management and wildlife conservation. The program is designed to educate landowners and the public and to encourage participation in habitat conservation.
Sponsors for the 17th annual Lone Star Land Steward Awards include Gulf States Toyota, Sand County Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, Texas Wildlife Association, Lower Colorado River Authority, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Texas Agricultural Land Trust, Texas Farm Bureau, Llano Springs Ranch Ltd., Bamberger Ranch Preserve, Gardner Appraisal Group and Capital Farm Credit.
For more information about the Lone Star Land Steward Awards, including how to nominate a property, look for the link at www.tpwd.state.tx.us. The deadline for nominations is Nov. 30.
About the Leopold Award
The Leopold Conservation Award honors the legacy of Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), considered the father of wildlife ecology. His collection of essays, A Sand County Almanac, remains one of the world’s best-selling natural history books.
Sponsors for the Leopold Conservation Award in Texas are the Lynde and Harry Bradley Fund for the Environment, Silver Eagle Distributors and the Lee and Ramona Bass Foundation. (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/landwater/land/private/lone_ star_land_steward)