50 years on, Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute stakeholders reflect on legacy and impact

The Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, a local nature center complete with interpretive gardens and hiking trails, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

BIG BEND — Nearly a half century after the establishment of the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, what began as a robust research enterprise into an under-studied region has grown into an educational public nature center serving 14,000 guests annually.

CDRI comprises a 507-acre ranch located just southeast of Fort Davis with a botanical garden featuring native plants of the Trans-Pecos, grasslands, a canyon, visitor center, trails, cactus greenhouse and more. This Saturday, the organization will put on its annual barbecue and auction to raise funds for its educational programming for local first- through fifth-grade students.

The Big Bend Sentinel recently spoke with CDRI co-founder Mike Powell, as well as Executive Director Lisa Gordon and Board President Jim Martinez about the 50-year milestone — how the organization got started, how it evolved, and how its continuing its mission to advance public understanding of one of the largest, most ecologically diverse desert ecosystems in the United States.

Early days

CDRI was first established in 1973 by two Sul Ross State University professors, Mike Powell, a botanist, and the late Jim Scudday, a naturalist and vertebrate zoologist. Powell remains in the area, and though officially retired, still acts as the director and curator of the university’s herbarium — the fourth largest in the state complete with 100,000 dried plant specimens — which he took over from founder Barton Warnock in the late ‘70s. His wife, Shirley, who once acted as the president of CDRI’s board of directors, also helps volunteer at the herbarium. 

Mike Powell, co-founder of the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, shows off dried plant specimens housed in the Sul Ross herbarium. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

On a recent visit there, Powell recalled how little was scientifically known about the Chihuahuan Desert back when he and Scudday started CDRI. 

“The Chihuahuan Desert was the least investigated desert in North America, even though it was the largest,” said Powell. 

The absence of information drove CDRI’s mission early on as it developed a board of scientists — 30 to 40 individuals from the states, Mexico and Canada all researching the region — held symposia, published original papers and supported studies that contributed to the understanding of various aspects of the natural environment. 

“Scientific research, that was our main thrust — biological, geological, archaeological, all kinds of natural history [research],” said Powell. 

“These are really high profile geologists and biologists that were associated with CDRI, as founders and as people all along,” he added. 

Operations were held out of the old Centennial School in Alpine — a de facto segregated school for Mexican American students that was not in use at the time but was owned by the university. 

While the original founders thought it would be a natural fit for CDRI to become a part of the university, according to Powell, and many university presidents sat on boards of directors for the organization over the years, the incorporation never came to fruition, and CDRI sought out establishment as an independent nonprofit organization. 

In 1979, six years after its founding, CDRI purchased its first parcel of land from Billie Weston with the idea to turn it into a nature center for the general public. (Another parcel was purchased in 1982, completing today’s 507-acre stretch.) Powell said in addition to scientific research, CDRI’s initial founders and supporters recognized a need to promote awareness of the region’s distinct plants, animals and geological features to a broader audience outside of academia. 

“[Research] was our main interest and focus for doing this, but we were all teachers too and we knew the importance of presenting this information to the public and the significance of it,” said Powell. 

The grounds of CDRI. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

The site of the nature center was originally planned for Terlingua or Lajitas, said Powell, “the heart of the desert vegetation,” but, due to funding, was chosen to be closer to Fort Davis. An oilman, Clayton Williams, who had grown up with Scudday in Fort Stockton, was instrumental in raising the money to purchase the land from Weston, and because he was more deeply connected to funders in Midland who liked to vacation in the Davis Mountains, it was a more feasible site, said Powell. 

An early meeting on the potential CDRI site, in which Williams spoke to a gathered audience about the importance of educating the area’s youth, raised enough money to buy the land in one fell swoop, said Powell, who recalled perching on a rock with a beer that day, and getting scolded by a Sul Ross administrator for drinking before 5 p.m. 

“Buses came out there, I mean, Greyhounds, cars. There was a big gathering. And [Williams] got up on the stage and started talking to all these people and encouraging them to donate money, and they raised enough money to buy that land,” said Powell. 

Williams continued to support CDRI throughout the years, auctioning off items at his regular bull sales and barbecues that brought big time Western entertainers to the area, said Powell, who recalled the sale of a rock for $25,000 to benefit CDRI that now sits on the property, as well as another ad hoc auction item. 

“[He] sold a shirt off his back once, actually did take it off. Somebody bought it. I don’t remember how much they paid for it, but it was a real hoot every time,” said Powell. 

Thanks to other generous donors and contributions throughout the years, CDRI now benefits from an endowment. Powell said CDRI will continue to function well into the future due to the work of past and present staff, volunteers and board members who maintain interest in the founding concepts. He and Scudday’s interests in presenting native gardens and emphasizing conservation have only become more popular over time, he said, and have proven needed in the face of climate change. 

“Extinctions are not rampant here right now, but there are a lot of species of concern,” said Powell. “There probably are species that would have gone extinct if there hadn’t been this interest in conservation.”

The Powell Visitor Center at CDRI. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

A hub for environmental education 

In 1998 the Powell Visitor Center, so named for Mike and Shirley, was erected as the primary landing pad for guests — an adobe structure with a wrap-around porch with sweeping mountain views, hugged by native vegetation and rainwater catchment systems. Executive Director Lisa Gordon recalls how visitation typically clocked in at around 5,000 people annually before 2015, but has since swelled to 10 to 14 thousand guests a year. 

“We’ve been working really hard to get the word out that we’re here,” said Gordon. “I know we can always still improve on that, but in keeping things changing, keeping things fresh.”

Gordon said people travel from all over the world to visit CDRI’s cactus greenhouse, one of the largest collections anywhere of Chihuahuan Desert cacti, and the annual cactus sale the organization hosts has become very popular over the years, with lines of cars waiting to get onto the property at the start of the sale. CDRI employs a full-time gardener and regularly updates signage and print materials, said Gordon.

Lisa Gordon reviews plans for the new native grasses exhibit at CDRI. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

No ongoing research projects are currently happening at the site, but CDRI still facilitates studies occasionally, said Gordon, who has retooled the organization’s education programs during her tenure to meet state educational requirements and serve up to 120 kids at the site at one time. 

“We teach them about entomophagy. We make chocolate-covered crickets and crispy mealworms so they can taste those, and teach them about poisonous bugs. They go in the garden and look for pollinators,” said Gordon, describing the “bugs day” program the center offers for second- and third-graders in partnership with the Sul Ross Biology Club. 

Board President Jim Martinez, who has been a member of CDRI for 20 years and on the board for seven, said the educational focus of the organization helps spark vital interests in both youth and adults. 

“I’m really big on education, getting people interested in the environment that they live in and all the things that live in the environment that they live in,” said Martinez. “Because most people don’t ever get a chance to see any of that or they may know [only] a little bit about it.” 

Martinez emphasized the importance of CDRI’s botanical gardens, which allow people to see native plants within natural contexts, which he hopes inspires them to create similar setups, “even if it’s a postage stamp size garden,” in their own yards to support natural flora and fauna. 

“The people that do that, they have a lot of birds, a lot of insects, the bees, the butterflies become really important. And all that happens in these little tiny gardens,” said Martinez. 

A newly-revamped grass display garden, a collaboration between Martinez and his partner, Jim Fissel, as well as the Powells and Gordon, complete with around 27 native grasses — there are over 260 that are native to the Chihuahuan Desert — is currently about halfway planted. The exhibit will allow visitors to observe large patches of various native grasses, such as blue grama and deer Muhly, and will promote the concept of grassland conservation.

“I think CDRI is a great asset to all the communities in the area, as well as the region,” said Martinez. “It’s a little gem of a place, it’s tiny, but it does a lot of positive things.” 

Tickets to CDRI’s annual barbecue and auction taking place this Saturday, August 12, must be purchased in advance. Silent and live auctions feature artworks from area artists, among other items. For more information, visit cdri.org/bbq–auction.html