At Davis Mountains Preserve, explore a ‘sky island’

Nature Conservancy property protects threatened habitat, rare species.


Highlights

The Nature Conservancy established the Davis Mountains Preserve to protect a diverse “sky island” in West Texas.

Jane Schweppe and her sister Anne Ashmun of Austin contributed $2 million to buy the property.

Through land acquisitions and easements, the Conservancy now protects more than 100,000 acres in the area.

The preserve also helps keep the skies dark around the nearby McDonald Observatory.

An hour into our climb up Mount Livermore, the swirling white fingers of a cloud bank tighten around us, threatening to swallow us whole.

We consider pushing on, but between the cold and the damp, we decide to take Mother Nature’s hint and retrace our steps.

I’m disappointed, but the detour will give me a chance to explore other parts of the Davis Mountains Preserve, a 33,075-acre oasis established by the Nature Conservancy to protect a biologically diverse “sky island” that rises above the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas.

Besides, I’ve hiked Livermore twice before, taking in the view from the top of the highest peak in the Davis Mountains and the fifth highest in Texas. Once, I encountered a hatching of ladybugs so thick they coated entire tree trunks like tiny red paving stones. Another time I discovered dozens of baby horned toads the size of thumbnails. Both times my legs got wobbly as I peered over the edge during the final scamper to the summit of Baldy Peak.

This land shimmers with beauty, and it’s open to the public for camping, hiking and other activities a handful of times every year, including dates this March, April and May.

I’m lucky to explore it today, alongside preserve manager Deirdre Hisler. As we hike, she points out towering ponderosa pines, gnarled alligator juniper and pockets of quaking aspen. Rare Mexican spotted owls and black bears make their home here, two migratory bird routes cross the property, and pictographs brighten hidden canyon walls. We stop to chat with a researcher who is studying the preserve’s mountain lion population.

The Nature Conservancy acquired the historic U Up U Down Ranch and established the Davis Mountains Preserve in 1997.

Seventh-generation Texans and Austin residents Jane Schweppe and sister Anne Ashmun, now chair of the Conservancy’s statewide board of trustees, were instrumental in that purchase. The sisters contributed a combined $2 million — the largest donation for land acquisition until that time — to buy the property and build the McIvor Conservation Center there.

They worried that development was encroaching on the area and wanted to help preserve a unique chunk of Texas heritage. Their father had served on the Nature Conservancy’s board of trustees; their mother, Laura Randall Schweppe, died of lung cancer in 1988.

“Anne and I thought, ‘What a great way to honor our mom,’ because she was the one who taught us get out there and love it,” Schweppe says. “We’d go to church on Sundays and then go outside. We couldn’t wait to take our tights off and hop on a horse. I’m not hugely religious, but I’m spiritual — and that was church as well.”

These days, Schweppe loves to hike in the preserve, where she’s climbed to the top of Livermore in snow, rain and hail. “It’s just a magical place,” she says. “I think it’s important to have that for all of us — a big old playground and a lab to learn things.”

Laura Huffman, the state director of the Nature Conservancy in Texas, concurs. “You don’t need an understanding of biodiversity or ecosystems to be struck by how unique the Davis Mountains are when you drive into them,” she says.

A few years after the purchase of that first chunk of preserve land, the Nature Conservancy established the nearly 5,000-acre Madera Canyon Preserve a few miles away. Then, in 2004, it bought the 10,000-acre strip of land that separated the parcels, creating a contiguous preserve of 33,000 acres.

Today, through subsequent land acquisitions and conservation easements, the Conservancy protects more than 100,000 acres of rugged canyonlands in the area. Besides preserving a piece of West Texas’ ranching culture, it helps keep the skies dark around the nearby McDonald Observatory, run by the University of Texas.

“We were concerned about fragmentation and subdivision of ranches,” Huffman says. “That’s a concern that has driven our work around Texas. And we want to make sure the dark skies stay dark. When you’re standing at those telescopes (at McDonald Observatory), most of what you can see has been protected by the Nature Conservancy.”

But it always comes back to Livermore, and Huffman calls the climb to the top of Baldy her favorite hike in Texas.

I have to agree.

“The landscape changes as you walk through it,” Huffman says. “The last little scamper is challenging, especially if it’s windy. There’s some excitement as you crest the top, then you’re rewarded with an incredible view — and ladybugs.”

Curtains of mist and biting cold have thwarted that experience today, but strolling through the lower portions of the preserve alone a few hours later, I feel like I’ve been airdropped into a wilder, woollier Texas of long ago. I wander, quiet in my thoughts, and gaze out over the vista.

It’s one of the places in Texas you can go and hike a few hours and truly feel refreshed. It has a special calming effect,” Huffman says. “It’s magical, almost.”

She’s right. I can practically feel my heart slow. The land feels expansive, and I feel tiny beneath skittering clouds and tree-swaying winds. I want to soak up this feeling and transport it back home with me.

Huffman says the Conservancy hopes to set aside more land here, in a corner of the state where overgrazing and increased pressure on water supplies has threatened the environment.

“We’re not done,” she says. “We continue to look for opportunities to add private property and preserve land, because scale is really important to us. It’s iconic conservation work that resonates with Texans. We’re proud of our natural resources and beautiful places.”



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