Meet the TxN Board – A Conversation with Katharine Armstrong

Texan by Nature (TxN) was founded in 2011 by former First Lady Laura Bush to advance conservation in Texas. We partner deeply with conservation organizations and businesses, acting as an accelerator for conservation groups and a strategic partner for business.

TxN’s Board of Directors is made up of impressive Texans that are dedicated to TxN’s mission that benefits the health of all Texans, our economic prosperity, and natural resources. Get to know our Board Member, Katharine Armstrong in this blog.

TxN: What led you to founding Texan by Nature?

Katharine: It really is not a very complicated story. Regan and I were with Mrs. Bush and she said something along the lines of, “Wouldn’t it be terrific if we could get every Texan involved in conservation,” and off we went to the races with her as our leader. I can’t think of a better leader than Laura Bush to catalyze Texan by Nature. She was the original catalyst and inspiration for starting Texan by Nature. It really was just one of those moments where we were sitting around talking and Laura just started thinking out loud. And that’s really how it all started.

TxN: Where did you grow up and what is your favorite memory from your childhood?

Katharine: Well, I have to say I don’t think you could have a more idyllic childhood than growing up in Kennedy County in South Texas, right on the coast in the tall grass coastal prairie. All 5 of my brothers and sisters were raised on the Armstrong ranch working cattle, hunting, fishing, riding, all the things that you do on a ranch were the things that we did every day. We went to a one room school house at the ranch, recess breaks were literally behind the school house in the oak motts. We had a very unique upbringing. In essence, it is the same today and we are still doing it on the Armstrong Ranch.

One memory that always pops into my head of my childhood is when there was an amazing rainfall during hurricane Bula and sheets and sheets of water were going all the way across south texas. We went fishing on horseback for about a year after that rain. We would round up our horses and cast out into an open prairie that became a salt flat lake from the rainwater. It was a magical memory of mine, and we had unbelievable fishing for about 2-3 years. It was fun to ride the horses around and make the horses swim.

TxN: Where does your love for natural resources stem from?

Katharine: I had parents that were wildly interested in natural resources. My father had also grown up on the Armstrong ranch, so he had a very deep knowledge of the ecology of the South Texas coastal plains, the wildlife, and all sorts of things. Then he married a woman who had an amazingly curious mind, she was hungry to learn everything there was to learn about the ecology of the south Texas coastal plains. By the time I was really able to focus on it, I had 2 parents and a predator trapper at the ranch (Mr. Hepper), who took us on his rounds, and the cowboys that grew up on the ranch for generations to teach me. I learned an amazing amount of information about where the animals were and what kind of plants certain animals like to eat and so on and so forth. We were just immersed in a world of natural resources, so much so that you almost took it for granted. You just assumed everybody was as steeped in it as you were. But obviously when I got older and went to the big city, I understood that not everyone understood the natural world in the same way. We lived through hurricanes, and fires, and lord only knows what, without thinking about it. You had a deep respect and appreciation for the power of nature. How powerful it is, how dangerous it can be, how beautiful it can be, and all the wonderful pleasures that it provides for us. Growing up down there, it was just in your bones, you never really thought about it, it just was.

TxN: What do you think about the disconnect with nature that we see today with more and more people growing up and living in urban centers? How do you think we work to address that?

Katharine: I think it’s really important. I think one of the things that worries me is that too many people in the past 2-3 generations have become more urban, and therefore do not have the same access to nature that I was fortunate to have. I hope more and more Texans in our cities develop an increased curiosity about the natural world and how it operates. You’ll never learn everything, but you have to learn enough to, 1. Understand what you’re talking about, and 2. Be able to go out and effectively participate in conservation. It is not enough to just say the right sentence or make a particular proclamation, you need to know enough to go out and be an effective conservationist. You don’t have to go out and get a wildlife science degree, there is so much information available, you just have to develop that interest and curiosity to get you started.

The other thing that I hope that Texans do is focus locally. Start in your own county and town, or ecological region, and really develop a meaningful understanding of it, and then go build groups that help your town, county, state, whatever the case may be. I do think the most effective conservation developments are bottom up, organic, and start with people that see a need, and then build a group of interested partners to go out and make the changes that need to be made.

TxN: What is your day-to-day career or role outside of Texan by Nature?

Katharine: I serve on a corporate board and that is very interesting to me because it is a water utility company that is investor-owned. They are based in California, Texas, and New England. It’s an unbelievable learning experience because it is an essential natural resource.  They do water quality and water supply in 3 completely different locations. Talk about a learning curve, you never reach the top of those curves, it is always something new and fascinating.

I also started painting again in the last couple of years and I am doing more landscape painting. The best place to do that is where my husband’s ranch is right there at the entrance to Big Bend National Park. Lots and lots of material to work with.

Recently, something that got me all excited was an arborist that has a real passion for trying to figure out new ways to deal with oak wilt. It is exciting to see a young, bright, arborist who has more than just a passion for pruning. He really gets into the science, and I am trying to help him with that to try and get new applications and techniques to try and get the oak wilt under control. I recently went out to the Boerne area and looked at the different test sites to figure out something new to try and help the landowners and homeowners who are suffering from oak wilt.

TxN: With your work on the water utility have you learned anything that could be applied to water conservation efforts in Texas?

Katharine: They are so different because California’s service area is a desert. It is a very populist state, and how you balance supply with need and environment is really tough in California. In Texas, we have a lot more leeway as we are not as populated, although we are getting there, and we have more generous water resources, so we are going to tackle our future development problems in ways that are different. Coming up with good policy at the political, corporate, and governance level is a fascinating challenge. You go up to Maine and Connecticut, and they have almost all the water that they need as it rains quite a bit. It reminds you just how different our country is from one area to another. Once again, one size fits all does not work very well. I am fascinated with how we are going to grow Texas and stay economically robust while managing our water needs. I am an optimist, I think that we can do that.

TxN: What are your other passions?

Katharine: I love to read. I love to spend time with my children. I am so blessed because I have  a wonderful ranch in South Texas, my husband has a beautiful ranch in West Texas, and I have a house in Austin. So a surprisingly large amount of my time is spent driving. I think I have about 90,000 miles on my car and it’s not even 3 years old. I read a lot and I love audible, I love to listen while driving. It’s about a 7 hour drive to my husband’s ranch, so I get to read lots of books on tape. Interestingly enough, I love to read more and more the older I get.

TxN: What is one book that you would recommend that everyone read?

Katharine: I just reread John James Audubon biography by Richard Rhoades. I reread it and I love that book. The author does a really good job relying a lot on Audubon’s letter describing what the United states looked like in the 19th century – the Ohio River, Louisiana, Texas, and I find it magical.

The other book I have read that I think very highly of is Apocalypse Never by Michael Shellenberger. He has an optimistic take on the problems that we have, and I agree with him. He brings a lot of science and reason to the challenges that we have moving forward that our grandchildren are going to have to face.  I appreciate the fact that he takes a very rational approach and is a guy who is obviously a passionate conservationist.

TxN: What is your favorite place in Texas and why?

Katharine: I have to say South Texas because that is where all of my magical and wonderful memories from my childhood are from, and I just love the wildlife in that part of Texas. It is just amazing every time you go down there. It never ceases to inspire me and I am in awe of the cornucopia of wildlife. My second favorite part of Texas is without a doubt the Trans-Pecos. It has such different plants and animals. I had to learn pretty much from scratch when I married Ben. I didn’t know anything about that part of Texas. Over the past 20 years it has been a really wonderful learning experience. Cactus, every kind of thorn that bites you, weird insects, mountain lions, and bears; things that we don’t have in South Texas.

Photo Copyright of Gustav Schmiege

TxN: What are your favorite wildlife species in Texas?

Katharine: I love quail, every kind of quail. I like to shoot quail, but also not shoot quail and just enjoy their funny little world. In West Texas, the mountain lions are pretty darn impressive. Some bugs in West Texas are so bizarre that I started catching them, preserving them, and putting them on my lamp shades. Some of them look like lobster – crazy looking! Quail are my favorite, but there are so many birds that I enjoy. We have green jays in South Texas. There are flocks of them. Every raptor known to man. A lot of the same stuff in West Texas, just different varieties and species of similar birds. They have mule deer instead of white tailed deer, blue quail instead of bob white, that sort of thing. I also love Palo Duro Canyon. I fell in love with it a few years ago. I spent 2 days there during the summer before last and I was absolutely entranced. I didn’t spend a lot of time in that whole area of Texas during my childhood, so it is all new to me. It looks all flat on the surface, but then there are these unbelievable canyons that blow you away. I did some painting at Palo Duro and really enjoyed it.

TxN: What is the one thing that you wish every Texan would know and do?

Katharine: Well, I will tell ya, I wish every Texan would know as much as they could about their local ecology and start there. How do you do that? It is not that complicated. You get in the weeds and identify things. Start by looking for a particular bird or rabbit and go out and try to find one. In that process, you get into the weeds, you see stuff you don’t normally see. If you actually get into the weeds, your whole visual perception changes. The downside of that is that all of a sudden you see things that you really do not want to see, like litter. I have been really disheartened in the past few years with the amount of litter I see. I wish every time Texans took a walk they brought a little bag with them and picked it up. That’s a real easy thing to do and it won’t end up in our rivers and streams.

TxN: What are you most excited about for the future of Texan by Nature?

Katharine: The reason I am so optimistic for the future of TxN is that they got off on exactly the right foot. That this is going to be Texas centered, not a national effort, a statewide effort. Some of our best accomplishments have been those that tackled regional problems. I point to the Dark Skies Initiative a lot. That is a problem out in West Texas, and you have a group of stakeholders from the McDonald Observatory, from the oil and gas business, every day sky gazers, get together and say let’s solve this problem. This brings the talent from very smart engineers from the oil and gas industry and people from a variety of walks of life and expertise to solve that problem. I think that is exactly the right way to do things. Start solving regional and local problems, and then the experience and knowledge that you gain from that will be inevitably picked up by others. If you figure out how to build a new mousetrap that is better, people may want that mousetrap to solve their problems. I promise if you keep doing that you will reach the critical masses. People will start understanding that these problems can be fixed. I love TxN because we take an optimistic approach to address challenges and to work with others. Another great example is the pipeline restoration project with EOG Resources. Using native seed to restore those pipelines is becoming more and more the best business practice, not to mention conservation practice, for gas line companies. We played a role in encouraging those best practices that others will follow. We are an honest broker, where any stakeholder can come to the table and be heard in good faith. We keep it as non-political as possible. TxN is exactly that. Maintaining that integrity and trust is what has made TxN a success.

TxN: What is your biggest hope for the future of conservation in Texas?

Katharine: I am an optimist about this. I believe human beings are incredibly ingenious and adaptable, and wonderful problem solvers. We are going to have problems. New challenges will arise, but the fundamental thing that makes me optimistic, is that without reservation, the countries with the most robust economies also have the cleanest water, the most beautiful parks, lakes, streams, rivers, bays and estuaries. As long as we are not afraid of economic development in Texas, we will see more of conservation in Texas, and the country for that matter, as long as we don’t take our eye off the ball and understand that economic development is a good thing for the environment.

Learn more about Katharine and Texan by Nature’s other Board Members here.