Although I am excited about all three of the Conservation Wrangler projects I am managing, it is no secret among the Texan by Nature team that I was most excited to visit El Carmen Land and Conservation Company. This project, nestled between Black Gap Wildlife Management Area and Big Bend National Park, fascinated me from the minute I read their application to the program because I have been in love with the Big Bend area ever since my first visit to the National Park over a year ago!
El Carmen’s mission is to restore the lower desert landscape and protect ecological corridors in a transboundary area located as the connecting link between Texas and Mexico. They are working to restore native wildlife and birds through land restoration, water developments, and habitat enhancement. The 26,000+ acre property’s managers, CEMEX USA employees Bonnie and Billy Pat McKinney, as well as a myriad of conservation organization partners, have done an incredible amount of work on the property already, including:
- Resting lands to allow regeneration of native grasses and forbs, as well as implementing erosion control methods to curtail the loss of topsoil and seed banks.
- Eradication of exotic salt cedar using Tunisia beetles in partnership with the USDA, Texas A&M, and Texas Agricultural Extension Services.
- Habitat enhancement, including riparian floodplain restoration, nest boxes for Elf Owls, the creation of a 207-species bird checklist, a trans-boundary wild sheep initiative, the reintroduction of the Rio Grande Silvery Minnow, the planting of Cottonwood poles, and the installation of water pipeline and 40+ water guzzlers across the property.
- Supplementation of low native wildlife numbers, including Mule Deer, Desert Bighorn Sheep, Gambel’s Quail, and more.
The project is an amazing case study of the impact privately owned land, especially land owned by a corporation, can have on entire ecosystems. In mid-May, loaded down with plenty of snacks, camping gear, and a map, I made the 7.5 hour trip from Austin to the border to get a better look at what this on-the-ground conservation was accomplishing.
Google Maps had no real address for the project, so once I arrived in Marathon, I had to rely on a Post-It full of directions, both because maps were useless and because cell service was non-existent at that point. 39 miles South of Marathon, just before the final stretch of road leading to Big Bend NP, I turned on an FM road leading to Black Gap WMA, trekking another 21 miles through the desert until I finally came upon the iron sign letting me know El Carmen’s headquarters were just 9 miles down a final dirt road. There was a threat of rain (great news for the desert, especially with a raging wildfire high in the mountains on neighboring Black Gap property) so we parked my rental car on the airstrip and I joined Bonnie for the final leg of my journey.
Bonnie and Billy Pat McKinney, former Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists who have been married for over 30 years, have been managing El Carmen since the early 2000s and shared the origin story of the property with me over chips and salsa on the patio of the mainhouse.
Although corporations enter the realm of conservation for many reasons, and always must keep their investment dollar bottom line in mind,
CEMEX USA’s purchase was a truly top-down initiative. Executive leadership expressed interest in saving the ecological integrity of the Carmen Mountains in Mexico superseded all. Bonnie pointed from where we sat at the mountains across the river in Mexico, explaining that CEMEX also owned an even larger property there, encompassing much of the Carmen Mountain range. That piece was the original starting point for CEMEX’s conservation work in the Chihuahuan Desert, and once the El Carmen parcel became available for sale, it made sense to purchase it as well to create a trans-boundary corridor for wildlife habitat. While the two projects are managed separately, the benefits are evident from both sides of the river as the McKinneys record increased numbers of migratory birds, Monarch butterflies, Desert Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer and more.
Our conversation was work-driven and focused for a couple of hours on the porch, but once we moved inside to begin dinner, we switched gears and I enjoyed listening to tales of their biologist days, tracking mountain lions and bears through the mountains of Big Bend and Black Gap. Bonnie and Billy met in the area (a funny story they will gladly share!) and have lived in or around El Carmen for decades. Their ties to the land run deeper than the roots of the Cottonwood trees lining the Rio Grande right outside their doors.
After spending the night in one of the very nice guest cabins, we shared breakfast and then loaded quail supplement blocks into an old Chevy Suburban to take with us on a driving tour of the property. We drove along old rock and sand roads, many really more like trails than driving surfaces, and chatted about the layout of the property, the wildlife they’d seen, and the unique plant ecology of the area. Evidence of the positive impact of their habitat work was right in front of my eyes, as every “quail condo” we approached had plenty of Scaled, Blue, and Gambel’s Quail scurrying for cover, only to poke their heads back out of the brush as soon as we drove away.
Not only did I help re-fill the condos, I also got a close-up demonstration of one of the massive “Nevada-style” water guzzlers, which gathers 1,000 gallons of water on one inch of rainfall. We also drove to a bluff on the edge of the Rio Grande, where they pointed out the native vegetation that had been able to reestablish thanks to purposefully released Tunisia beetles taking out the Saltceder in the area. Native plant and habitat restoration, combined with supplemental feeding and watering have allowed El Carmen to create an oasis corridor for wildlife in a region that suffered for decades from overgrazing and intense resource extraction.
The abundant wildlife was gracious enough to greet me, too! We saw not only the quail, but also a small snake, mule deer, javelina, a coyote, and a huge variety of songbirds, none of which I knew because I am only a birder as far as knowing what is and isn’t legal for hunting. Thankfully, Bonnie is quite an expert!
I searched and searched the landscape for a bear, but my luck in the desert is much lower than my mountain luck, where I’ve seen black and brown bears in abundance. Even so, they are there, and in greater numbers every year. Bonnie showed me a pile of “pulls,” which were fronds of a Spanish Dagger plant laying in a pile along the road. She explained that bears will yank them out and chew the ends, which are rich in nutrients and water, then leave their scraps. It was amazing to learn more about wildlife signs I would otherwise never notice in my exploration of the landscape!
After my tour of El Carmen, I enjoyed lunch with the McKinneys, which thoughtfully included cake, as Bonnie remembered it was my birthday. Then, I made my way over to Big Bend NP for a hike in the Chisos Mountains to celebrate another trip around the sun. I chose to hike the Lost Mines Trail, the hike I had missed on my last visit because we chose the longer Emory Peak hike instead. The out and back hike up the Lost Mines peak was challenging but rewarded me with spectacular views of the whole basin, as well as the lands in Mexico and of course, neighboring El Carmen. My tour of that property gave me a new appreciation for my surroundings and a greater sense of place beyond the park boundaries. Almost everything I could see from the top beyond park borders is owned by CEMEX, and it struck me how amazing it is that a corporation was making that great an impact
on this ecosystem, in a myriad of positive ways.
Putting “positive,” “environment,” and “corporate,” in the same sentence is something many don’t believe is possible, and that is exactly why Texan by Nature chose the El Carmen project. We strongly believe that conservation can be part of enhancing prosperity for businesses and people in Texas, and the work of CEMEX illustrates just how successful that can be.
As I continue my work with El Carmen, our goal is to create a landowner and a corporate guidebook that would assist individual landowners with accessing the resources available to put conservation projects in place on their lands, as well as providing data-supported case studies that show how conservation is not only good for the land but good for a business’s bottom line. Our hope is to bring more landowners and businesses on board, creating a chain of conservation across the Trans-Pecos region and beyond.
It’s hard to call it a work trip when I was able to have so much fun enjoying the outdoors! I look forward to more trips to this gorgeous landscape in the future as we make progress on our goals. I am so thankful I had the opportunity to see the place in person, to build my relationship with the stewards of such a wild and awesome place, and to enjoy so many stunning miles and miles of Texas.
Like learning about our travels? Check out TxN’s trip to Bracken Cave here.