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Picture of the cover to the September 2006 magazine

Birth of the Photo Ranch

Wildlife photography promises to become an important new revenue stream for landowners.

By David Sikes

The goal is clear: encourage owners of privately owned wildlife habitat to keep their ranches intact for the sake of conservation rather than parcel it, sell it or develop it. Many ranchers already have a desire to preserve their property for posterity, but the price of satisfying this noble wish is testing their resolve and stretching the boundaries of good economic sense.

And it’s anybody’s guess whether the next generation of landowners would resist the urge to subdivide their inherited responsibility, thereby reducing its natural value and threatening the state’s wildlife heritage. Fragmentation of vast stretches of natural property is one of the most daunting enemies of wild places in a state where upwards of 90 percent of the land is privately owned, according to the Texas Cooperative Extension.

The solution to fragmentation has been elusive and the problem is universal, says Miles Phillips, a nature tourism specialist with the Texas Cooperative Extension. About 70 percent of the United States and 90 percent of the Western Hemisphere is owned by a growing number of people who consider their precious holdings an economic liability.

Ranching can’t pay the bills. The average cattle ranch makes about $10 per acre, Phillips says. Oil and gas revenue helps in some cases, but many landowners don’t own mineral rights on their properties. A growing number of ranchers have opened their gates to hunters to help make ends meet. But the effort and expense of maintaining a marketable game operation is taxing and profits often are less than expected, Phillips says. When ranchers combine cattle and hunting, they could make $15 to $20 per acre on average, according to Joseph Fitzsimons, chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.

Part of the problem with this lies in the fact that managing and maintaining wild game and its habitat is a year-round proposition, while the income from it is seasonal.

Photography, on the other hand, carries a lower overhead and offers the possibility of a regular income stream. John and Audrey Martin of Edinburg, believe they could save the ranch by opening the gates of private properties to nature photographers. The Martins say that, with proper marketing, their plan could turn economic liabilities into economic solutions.

Marketing Texas wildlife to photographers is the primary selling point behind the Martins’ Images for Conservation Pro-Tour of Nature Photography, a marketing tool at the center of a proven business model. John Martin’s background as an investment broker and university marketing instructor has taught him what works and what doesn’t, he says. The Martins have combined the principles of economics, competition, marketing and environmental stewardship into a business model similar to the driving forces behind competitive fishing, golf and auto racing.

In 1968, when Ray Scott organized bass anglers into his Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.), which now boasts more than 500,000 members and countless fans, he launched a marketing juggernaut. In the beginning, Scott elevated the sport mainly through tournaments. In turn, the competitions created angling stars who helped sell products and promote fishing destinations through television shows and magazines. Eventually fishing equipment sales soared with the parallel growth of competitive and amateur fishing. New companies were born and sleepy lakeside communities found new life.

All this sparked a movement in fisheries management that continues to swell. The catch-and-release ethic is a direct result of Scott’s plan to sustain fisheries while preserving rural economies and promoting a conservation image essential to the organization and its future.

This conservation element and marketing success has spilled into saltwater fishing. Big-money redfish tournaments, with their cartoon-colored boats and endorsement-splattered anglers are crisscrossing the nation, providing momentum to the sport and garnering plenty of public attention and corporate sponsorships along the way. The Martins believe many aspects of nature photography make it even better suited for similar success, in a subdued sort of way, even without the help of television. Competitive photography is not a spectator sport.

However, the Martins say they’re not seeking spectators. Better to foster participation and profit motive while nurturing a cooperative culture on both sides of the ranch gate. The retired couple’s confidence in their plan, in part, is founded in a solid target audience of amateur photographers. About 23 million people in the United States photograph wildlife annually, according to the 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation by the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service. This is roughly the number of golfers and anglers in the United States, according to Martin’s research. Martin expects the popularity of digital photography to recruit even more photography wannabes. And he believes that photo operations on private ranches could supply this growing demand in much the same way that golf courses have catered to and capitalized on the popularity of golf. Martin believes golf would not be nearly as popular if not for the Professional Golf Association, the U.S. Golf Association and their tournaments. Eventually, this becomes a self-sustaining machine with built-in growth, Martin says.

Some 9.4 million photographers travel eight days or more each year in pursuit of nature photography, the USFWS survey revealed. Nearly 70 percent of these folks earn at least $50,000 a year, according to the survey. Martin believes a substantial number of these photographers would pay about $100 for a day of wildlife photography at high-profile venues where superstars of his pro-tour shoot. It doesn’t hurt that Texas is the second most biodiverse state next to California. To reach more players, Martin would like to see the hospitality and natural offerings of these ranches and the resulting photos featured in a pro-tour magazine where tournament pros reveal secrets and tips of nature photography and where other photo-ranches would advertise. Just as charter fishing clients are looking to narrow their searches for memorable angling experiences, Martin believes the traveling photographer would pay for an efficient photo shoot at a proven wildlife venue set up just for them.

“They don’t have time to battle the crowds at parks,” John Martin says, adding that social status also could motivate photographers to visit high-profile ranches on the pro tour, similar to the way amateur golfers boast of playing where the pros play.

Here’s how the pro tour works: The basic plan involves pairing photographers and landowners as teammates in a series of contests hosted by independent organizers at distinct ecological regions of Texas and Mexico. Martin hopes that chambers of commerce and visitors bureaus would play a role in promoting and organizing these events with his guidance. Each photographer and landowner would pay a $1,000 entry fee and, depending on where they place, each team would be eligible to enjoy a share of a $150,000 to $200,000 total purse. First grand prize winnings might total $60,000 to $100,000. But the true payoff for ranchers and camera gear manufacturers would be in the promotional benefits of these events, which Martin hopes would assume a high-profile in the ranching community as well as in the culture of nature photography.

John Martin expects the spirit of competition and conservation would sweeten the profit motive among ranchers in each region, encouraging them to enhance a section of their properties for photography. He expects surrounding ranches would follow as this culture evolves. The effort would include the creation of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of staging areas to attract migratory and native birds, bobcats, reptiles, insects and other native animals. These strategically placed and convenient ground blinds would cater to every level of physical ability and professional skill. The savvy landowner might use a photo-consultant to create an ideal setting for nature photos, complementing the property’s natural contours, flora and fauna. Some ranches might hire guides or wildlife biologists to enhance their enterprise. Others, such as the El Canelo Ranch near Raymondville, might establish bed & breakfast lodging to set themselves apart and to boost profits. The El Canelo is known as much for its hospitality, big game and bird hunting as it is for its population of rare ferruginous pygmy owl, which are coveted by both photographers and birders.

The Cozad Ranch, a 5,000-acre family ranch in deep South Texas’ Wild Horse Desert, sports 15 photo blinds spread within a 2,000-acre section of the property. Johnny Cozad says a combination of profit and conservation motivated him to market his ranch to photographers. The ranch’s income from deer hunting wasn’t enough. Cozad doesn’t expect to make a lot of money with this, but he is hopeful that the expense of owning a ranch could be offset by the income from livestock, hunting and wildlife photography. Making ends meet would mean bringing substantial numbers of photographers to the ranch and Cozad says he’s uncertain whether this level of demand exists. But again, he’s hopeful. Income from the second year of the Cozad Ranch’s photo business doubled compared with the income from its inaugural year. The annual expense on Cozad’s photo operation has run between $2,000 and $5,000.

Martin believes that to create a viable operation, a ranch the size of Cozad’s should host about 10 photographers a day for about 200 days each year. This would bring in about $200,000, gross. Martin’s five-year goal would be for ranchers to make $50 per acre and after 10 years to derive an income closer to $400 per acre.

Like Cozad, a number of Texas ranchers are ahead of the game, thanks to more than a decade of photo contests hosted by organizations such as the Valley Land Fund — the Martins were among seven co-founders of this organization — and more recently by the Coastal Bend Wildlife Photo Contest. The core objective of the Valley Land Fund, one of about 40 such organizations in Texas, is to encourage landowners to maintain part or all of their property in its natural state. These land trusts help facilitate conservation easements, as these protected properties are known. They come with attractive tax incentives in exchange for a legal promise that transcends future generations and prohibits heirs from dividing, developing or otherwise destroying a designated slice of wildlife habitat. Audrey Martin says the Valley Land Fund photo contest, which she and her husband organized in 1994, has resulted in 7,000 acres of conservation easements and six books that celebrate the diversity of South Texas while inviting photographers into the field.

Though a conservation easement is not a requirement of the pro-tour, habitat management is encouraged by the very nature of the contest and its residual benefits. Ranchers who would like to participate in the pro-tour must apply for the opportunity to highlight and profit from the fruits of their management efforts and to promote their operations as a premier destination for wildlife photography. Acceptance into the contest is not guaranteed. For the inaugural Hill Country Pro-Tour of Nature Photography in April 2006, 93 landowners applied for 17 spots.

At some point, imagine a series of lower-tier contests as qualifying tournaments for the annual main events. This would allow additional ranches into the game, further expanding the conservation and marketing possibilities, Martin says. And along with the event’s burgeoning profile and participation, the Martins envision a boost in the popularity of amateur wildlife photography. As with fishing tournaments, this should attract manufacturers of photo equipment and other businesses to support pro-tour events and sponsor its competitors. In doing so, they would be promoting responsible stewardship, raising awareness of wildlife and ultimately helping to save the Texas ranch.

To order a book featuring images from the Pro-Tour, visit <www.imagesforconservation.org>

Photo Lease Contacts By Region

Lower Rio Grande Valley

Ramirez Ranch, Roel Ramirez, Roma Texas, <Ramirezrio@aol.com>, (956) 606-0050

Cozad Ranch, Johnny & Jane Cozad, Edinburg, <cozadranch.com>, (877) 417-5053, (956) 481-3320

South Texas Lens and Land, Willacy, Hidalgo and Starr Counties, <www.lensandland .com>,<lensandland@nolana.net>, (866) 302-LENS

Hill Country

Images for Conservation Fund’s 17 participating ranches, <www.imagesforconservation.org>

Northeast Texas

Arrington Ranch, Debbie Arrington, (806) 323-3019

Canadian Chamber of Commerce, (806) 323-6234

Coastal Bend

Fennessey Ranch, Sally Crofutt, (361) 529-6600

Flint Hills Resources Wildlife Learning Preserve, Lauren Dietz, (361) 242-5221

Welder Wildlife Refuge, Selma Glasscock, (361) 364-2643

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