The Fennessey Ranch, TX: A Private Land Conservation Success Story
Several years ago, I was asked to testify before Congress on private conservation success stories. Among the examples cited at the hearing were Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Sebastiani Wineries, and Skeet Burris’s South Carolina tree farm. The truth is, many landowners see an economic benefit in preserving and enhancing the habitat on their properties instead of plowing them under. Many such stories get little press because no tax dollars are consumed and without a politician attached to the process, such projects remain low profile. These landowners toil in private, but the benefits to wildlife and the general public are significant.
A particularly poignant private conservation success story is that of the Fennessey Ranch in Refugio, Texas. Owned by fifth-generation Texas resident Brien O’Connor Dunn, the 4,000-acre Fennessey utilizes revenues from hunting leases, oil and gas drilling, ranching, and ecotours to finance its conservation efforts. Dunn’s forebears once owned 750,000 acres between Victoria and the Texas Coast. Much of that land is still in the hands of O’Connor heirs. Port O’Connor, Texas is named after Tom O’Connor, who received the original land grant in the 1830s.
Dunn started his project on April Fool’s Day in 1991, an ironic date for someone considered foolish by many of his relatives for undertaking the effort. Dr. James Knoll of Stephen F. Austin University helped him develop the management plan that emphasized hunting; Knoll’s study also suggested that ecotourism might be a great side benefit. “I took that one paragraph and made it my life’s work,” Brien says. “What I’m trying to achieve here is a for-profit renewable resource plan to keep landowners on their land; to bring the urban dollar to the countryside in the form of bird watchers.”
It was in the winter of 1992 that I first visited Fennessey Ranch and became friends with Brien. I was dazzled by the wildlife that made the ranch its home, from javelina to Russian boar, painted buntings and green jays, swallow-tailed kites and whistling ducks, even the endangered Atwater’s Prairie Chicken. More than 400 species of bird have landed on or flown over the Fennessey (only about 700 are found in North America!). And because of the work Brien has done in restoring the habitat for waterfowl, riparian species, upland game birds, and meadow nesting species, the future for all visiting wildlife is greatly enhanced.
The years since we initially met were filled with trials for Brien. All through the 1990s he fought economic challenges, unsympathetic bureaucrats, oil companies, divorce, and several health problems. Despite many setbacks, and with the help of Brien’s friend and ranch manager Sally Crofutt, the Fennessey succeeded in getting the ecotour business going, and gained kudos from Texas Parks and Wildlife for its efforts. New state signage directs visitors to the ranch as part of the Great Texas Birding Trail, and Brien has continued, with Sally’s help, to spread the gospel of private habitat restoration.
The last few years since the turn of the new millennium have been filled with great joy and significant pain. Dunn married again in December of 2002 (to Donna), and within 9 months of the wedding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Much of the time since has been filled with medical tests and a search for the right blend of medications. In the midst of this new fight, however, the Fennessey Ranch continues to gain ground. Brien reports that the spring is high season at the ranch, and several hundred bird watchers, Elderhostel participants, and nature lovers will swarm the Texas coast.
Whether it’s high season or low season, private landowners like Brien fight every day to make conservation pay off economically. It’s our duty to support these efforts vocally and financially whenever possible.
In the interest of funding and finding a cure for multiple sclerosis, BWD Fulfillment Director Susan Hill and I chose to participate in an “MS Walk.”
Saturday, April 16 broke with crisp morning temperatures and sunny skies. Along with a record crowd of walkers (and many MS victims on motorized scooters), Marietta, Ohio’s MS event raised unprecedented amounts of money for research. BWD’s Susan Hill and her husband Dale raised more than $400; I was able to bring in $204 myself. As I walked along Marietta’s new bike path, I heard the strains of warbling vireos and yellow-throated warblers. Spring had arrived, and with it the conviction that someday a cure for MS will be found.