A Walk on the Wild Side: The Davis Mountains are preserved

Hikers sign the summit register on Baldy Peak (8378’) in the Davis Mountains Preserve. Photo by Tyler Priest

This column is part five of a series on public lands in Far West Texas. 

When talk of a large national park in the Davis Mountains resurfaced in the late 1980s, in the community of Fort Davis it went over like a lead balloon. An undisclosed group of ranchers, together representing a supposed vast amount of ranchland, were on the verge of selling off their ranches due to, among other factors, rising property taxes. The group approached their U.S. representative, Ron Coleman of El Paso, with a proposal to sell their ranches at market value to the federal government in order to keep the land intact and the sweeping landscapes undeveloped and undisturbed. Ron Coleman then amended a bill so that the Department of Interior would be allocated $100,000 to determine the feasibility of a large national park in the Davis Mountains. This project became known as the “Davis Mountains study.” 

But right around the time that such a study was proposed, the federal government was inadvertently getting off on the wrong foot with some Davis Mountains ranchers. When a Fish and Wildlife biologist discovered an endangered endemic aquatic plant known as Little Aguja pondweed in the northern part of the range, it raised the hackles of local ranchers. Knowing the Davis Mountains hold unique biodiversity, including one-of-a-kind subspecies from snails to pupfish to cottontail rabbits, ranchers interpreted this finding to mean that they’d have to ask the Fish and Wildlife Service for legal clearance to do the simplest of work on their own ranches. That didn’t sit right.

These local sentiments toward the federal government were nothing new. Back in 1961, Fort Davis had already seen local opposition to federal land acquisition when President Kennedy authorized funds for the Department of Interior to purchase and build infrastructure for Fort Davis National Historic Site. The relatively small 460-acre spot was an obvious win for the community on many levels in terms of historic preservation, conservation, recreation, jobs, tourism and positive economic impact. Still, in the Fort Davis region the traditional Texan suspicion of federal land ownership persisted. 

From the beginning, the proposed Davis Mountains study seemed to lack clear objectives, transparency and good faith with the local community. Perhaps for good reason, the names of ranchers interested in selling their lands to the government were never made public. And as word of the study began to spread, suspicions arose and the opposition to the study became heated. 

Some saw the $100,000 study as a waste of taxpayer money. Others thought the federal government was coming for their land through eminent domain whether they wanted to sell it or not. A national park, one school administrator said, would drop their property taxes to a point that education couldn’t be funded. Another argued the government can’t manage the parks they already have. There were concerns that unregulated tourism would bring in vandalism and crime and other problems from big cities in Texas, ruining the peaceful rural character of the surrounding community. And the Davis Mountains, some were afraid, would turn into a Jackson Hole, an Aspen or a Ruidoso. 

I’m still curious as to which of the latter two doomsday scenarios would have played out. Would Davis Mountains National Park have turned Fort Davis into a town ridden with big city crime and vandalism, or would it have become an upscale mountain town overdeveloped with luxurious accommodations? Considering that our region rarely sees enough snow for even a single day of skiing one might find in actual ski resort towns like Jackson Hole, the lattermost concern seems the most far-fetched. 

At a public hearing with NPS representatives on March 9, 1989, a crowd of more than 500 packed into St. Joseph’s Church in Fort Davis, largely to voice their opposition to the study. Given the emotional intensity that had been building in the preceding weeks, those who were open to the idea of a national park study voiced their support less publicly and more quietly. One of the leaders of the study detected “a great deal of distrust of the federal and state government.” And more directly, “Congressman Coleman grossly underestimated the opposition of his constituents regarding federal involvement in Jeff Davis County.” According to NPS archives, a local man told the park service representatives that he would “settle things outside” if the park service did not yield to the community’s desire to halt the study. But in perhaps a truer representation of the character of Fort Davis, a former NPS representative who later retired in the Davis Mountains said, “It was about the nicest, most cordial booting out of town I’d ever experienced.” 

The people, led by the will of powerful ranchers, had loudly spoken. They effectively shut down the Davis Mountains study before it had even begun. That meeting was the nail in the coffin for a potential Davis Mountains National Park. But thankfully it wasn’t the last conservation effort to save the Davis Mountains from the mounting pressures of development. 

Not long after that fateful public meeting, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) of Texas started coming to town. TNC is a global nonprofit with a mission that was then primarily focused on purchasing ecologically unique and important properties around the world, to conserve and protect them for good. With the growing threats of further fragmentation of an otherwise pristine mile high paradise, the Texas office of TNC realized it could do something to save the Davis Mountains. TNC would eventually purchase the U Up U Down Ranch through a complex but strategic land purchase. That ranch property would go on to become the 32,000-acre Davis Mountains Preserve, a property that included the center of the Davis Mountains sky island holding the highest elevations and some of the most biologically sensitive parts of the mountain range, as well as the impressive Madera Canyon draining toward the north. 

It’s hard to measure the positive impact that such a transaction has had on the Davis Mountains, but it’s been nothing short of big. Rather than a planned golf course or a resort or further fractured and developed properties in and around the scenic loop, the Davis Mountains Preserve has kept fragile land intact. It’s allowing black bears to continue their comeback and also providing a mountain lion population protection from unregulated trapping and hunting. It’s protecting the mightiest of ponderosa pines in the state and providing space for replanting efforts. It’s helping keep the stars at night big and bright near the McDonald Observatory. By removing cattle it has lightened the taxing of the water tables, allowing historic springs a fighting chance to recharge so that wildlife can find a drink. It’s allowing biologists and researchers access to study everything from mountain lions to Mexican free-tailed bats. It’s made wildfire responses more efficient. It has provided all kinds of educational opportunities from school groups to university groups. It even allows public recreation (for free!) on a handful of open days and weekends around the year. During those windows, you and I can summit Baldy Peak on Mount Livermore, the fifth highest peak in Texas. We can witness the off-the-charts hummingbird activity in the summers, and we can walk through a grove of golden quaking aspen in the fall. 

It’s not Davis Mountains National Park, but it’s arguably the next best thing. 

Today the Davis Mountains are still 99.5% privately owned. And I still feel like the Davis range is Texas’ “one that got away.” It feels like the missing link between our two existing national parks. I maintain that local efforts to shut down the national park study held back the community of Fort Davis and the surrounding region in significant and profound ways. In running off the NPS from merely conducting a study of the viability of a national park, we lost a massive and perpetual economic boon for Fort Davis, we lost good jobs, we lost abundant access to nature and year round recreational opportunities, and so much more. A Davis Mountains National Park could have been a mile-high ranch open to all of us every single day of the year. 

Nonetheless, the core of this mile-high sky island mountain range has been permanently preserved, and perhaps that’s what matters most. 

For those who wish to take a walk on the wild side in the higher elevations of the Davis Mountains, I highly recommend the Nature Conservancy’s Madera Canyon Trail, a short but beautiful hike that’s open year round at the Lawrence Woods Picnic Area west of the observatory. My last hike there I watched a few elusive Montezuma quail bobbing and trilling across the trail just before sunset. It was a little bit of Davis Mountains magic that you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere in Texas. 

Until next time, keep walking on the wild side. 

Based in Fort Davis, Tyler Priest is a guide with Far West Texas Outfitters who leads adventures by day and bartends by night. He can be reached at [email protected]