A Walk on the Wild Side: Fenced out of the Davis Mountains

Photo courtesy of Tyler Priest.

This column is part three of a series on public lands in Texas. 

Admittedly it’s easy to wax poetic on the Big Bend, our beloved million-plus acre desert-river-mountain expanse. I could write several more columns recounting my many adventures paddling, cycling, backpacking, hiking and trail running across Texas’ most incredible landscapes in the Big Bend. 

But when it comes to vast swaths of publicly accessible lands in Texas, Big Bend is the exception, not the rule. 

It’s no secret to Texans that our state’s land is more than 95% privately owned. In the second largest state in the Union with a whopping 172 million acres, the federal government owns less than three million acres in Texas, claiming just one percent of the state’s land, with nearly a third of that acreage residing in Big Bend National Park. 

If you’ve ever ventured beyond the borders of Texas into states like New Mexico, our neighbor to the northwest, you’ve probably enjoyed some of their 27-million acres of federal public lands. Yes, that’s nine times what we’ve got in a state that’s more than double the size of New Mexico. And coming home to Texas can be a downer. That sense of freedom and adventure that comes with freely roaming and recreating on federal lands is hard to come by down here. 

While we’re known as “the friendly state,” Texas can be somewhat unfriendly to the wanderers who seek an experience in nature unencumbered by the crowds, required reservations, permits, fees and bureaucratic hurdles of state and national parks, and the lengthy drive times to get to what public lands Texas does have. Don’t hear me wrong. I deeply love what we’ve got here in Texas, but much like the old Gene Autry song, “Don’t Fence Me In,” in a state that would be the 39th largest country in the world, I often dream of having so much more room to roam, especially out here in Far West Texas. The irony is that for all the talk of Texas’ bigness and freedom, it sure can feel fenced in. Or fenced out, as the case may be. 

To better make the case that Big Bend is Texas’ exception, let’s go 100 miles north of there to consider the Davis Mountains, which by acreage is easily Texas’ largest mountain range. One geologist puts it at roughly a 30-by-30 mile area — a conservative estimate at best, but one we’ll use for easy math. Those 900 square miles hold 576,000 acres of a sky island, a high elevation forested mountain range that is isolated by an ocean of desert. 

Beautiful volcanic peaks, a few of which rise over 8,000 feet above sea level, make the Davis range the second highest in the state behind the Guadalupe Mountains 100 miles to the north. Those peaks give way to slopes forested with Texas madrones, piñon and ponderosa pines, a variety of oaks and even a few groves of quaking aspen. Within the range are incredibly lush canyons with towering walls and wild volcanic geology of spires and palisades. The range is surrounded by grassy rolling hills studded with pine, juniper and oak that give way to flat expanses of grasslands in the foothills of the range. Some call it the “Colorado of Texas,” and no doubt it has the feel of high desert landscapes several hundred miles north of here. 

But how much of those 576,000 acres in the Davis range belong to you and me as public lands? The iconic Davis Mountains State Park and Indian Lodge is a very modest 2,800 acres, and despite its name, the park is home to a total of zero named or recognized mountains. Thankfully the park does provide expansive views where actual mountains can be seen in the distance from several vistas in the park. 

And then sharing a property boundary with the state park is Fort Davis National Historic Site, comprising just over 500 acres of public land, dedicated to telling the history of a very well-preserved fort in the Southwest. So in the Davis range, you and I have daily access to 3,300 acres of state and federally managed public lands. And oh how I love those 3,300 acres. I’d wager that in my five years in Fort Davis, no one has put in more trail miles in those two parks than me. 

Now let’s do some math to arrive at the percentage of public lands we have access to in Texas’ largest mountain range. We’ll take the part that’s ours (what’s owned and managed by the federal and state governments), divide that number into the whole (the acreage of the entire Davis range), and multiply that by 100. Our part is 3,300 acres of public lands divided by the whole of 576,000 acres, which comes out to 0.005. Multiply that by 100 and we arrive at a paltry 0.5% of publicly accessible land in the Davis Mountains. That’s it. On any given day, you and I get to legally enjoy half of one percent of the Davis Mountains. 

If the Davis Mountains could be represented as a loaf of bread, and on average there are 20 slices of bread in a loaf, we don’t even get a single slice of the Davis range. All we get is a little bit of the crust and crumbs from just one slice. 

That’s definitely not Texas sized. It sure ain’t Texas toast. 

The reality we’re left with is that most cows in the Davis Mountains have more acreage to roam than most people do. Although often severely overgrazed, the grass tends to be greener on the cow’s side of the fence. Suffice it to say, a visit to the Davis Mountains region can leave many folks feeling, well, fenced out. 

But few seem to remember that in the late 1980s, talk of creating a large national park in the Davis Mountains resurfaced. Of course no such idea ever came to pass. While the mere mention of a proposed “Davis Mountains study” by the National Park Service provoked the ire of a small number of powerful ranching families, a Davis Mountains National Park (or national monument) would have had numerous positive impacts on the landscape and the region. For starters, consider these obvious wins for the region: keeping historic ranchland intact and undivided, better protecting the dark skies around the McDonald Observatory, protecting the return of native species like black bears and mountain lions, restoring severely overgrazed grassland ecosystems, creating jobs and a boom of business and tourism in the local and regional economies, and giving all the rest of us a much bigger slice of Texas’ mile-high paradise. 

Today, we could be enjoying access to not just crumbs of the Davis Mountains, but a bigger slice of the loaf. But a small percentage of influential landowners in the region hastily shut it down. Still, it’s worth revisiting the telling story of the third national park in Far West Texas that could have been, and perhaps should have been, but never came to be. 

Until next time, keep walking on the wild side. 

Based in Fort Davis, Tyler Priest is a former park ranger who plots adventure by day and bartends by night. He can be reached at [email protected]