Nature Conservancy announces plan to purchase 87,000 acres for protection of the most pristine river in Texas

The Nature Conservancy
Friday, 11 July 2003

Largest private conservation deal in state will safeguard the headwaters of the Devils River

A ribbon of life-giving water nestled amid the sculpted canyons of arid West Texas, the Devils River is a crucial contributor to water for people and wildlife. On Thursday, The Nature Conservancy announced it has signed a contract to purchase 87,760 acres to protect the Devils River, considered the most pristine river in the state.

Comprising eight historic ranches in Val Verde County, the land surrounds the Devils' headwaters and includes eight miles of the 60-mile-long river. The Conservancy plans to protect the property with conservation easements permanently restricting development and subdivision, and sell it to a buyer or buyers committed to conservation. The deal is believed to be the largest private conservation effort ever undertaken in Texas.

The Devils River provides habitat for fish species found nowhere else on Earth. Its canyons support nesting endangered black-capped vireos and endangered Texas snowbells, and its wooded banks provide critical migration corridors for songbirds, raptors and monarch butterflies.

From its abundant springs, the river contributes more than 22,000 gallons a minute to water for human needs as it flows south to Lake Amistad on the Texas-Mexico border, which provides agricultural irrigation for the region.

"The Devils River is unpolluted and undammed it's the benchmark of clean, natural water systems in the state of Texas," said James King, the Conservancy's West Texas program manager, who is spearheading the land deal. "With this purchase, we're able to help protect not only the watershed for the headwaters of the river and a section of the river itself, but creeks and springs throughout the watershed that contribute to it." Although the land to be acquired surrounds the headwaters of the river, the headwaters itself is located on an adjacent heritage ranch that is not part of the purchase.

The river and the land surrounding it are known by conservationists as a unique mixture of ecological systems that provide habitat for many different animals and plants.

"Situated at the junction of three distinct habitat types, the Devils River and the land surrounding it are rich in the number and variety of species that live there," said Jim Sulentich, state director for The Nature Conservancy's Texas program. "This irreplaceable water resource has been a high priority in the Conservancy's efforts to protect important wildlife habitat for more than a decade."

At the crossroads of the Edward Plateau, the Chihuahuan Desert and the Tamaulipan Thornscrub ecological regions, the Devils River and its environs support diverse species from all three habitat types.

A notable feature of the property is the presence of a massive sinkhole leading to a cave system known as Fern Cave. Because of the way it's sheltered from the elements, the 80- to 100-foot-deep sinkhole provides a micro-climate for plants, including a fern from Central America not found elsewhere in the United States. The site also provides a seasonal maternity cave for more than 1 million Mexican free-tailed bats, which can be seen emerging from the sinkhole in the evenings to feed and returning at dawn each day.

The area also is significant as an archeological record of human activity.

"At the same time we're protecting the river, we're conserving part of Texas' ranching history as well as the region's prehistory," King said. "The river and its surrounding lands are not only a remnant of the Old West, they abound with artifacts of ancient Native American people."

The historic site of several Texas ranches and early settlement efforts including part of the Chihuahua Trail the region also includes numerous pictographs dating back 4,000 to 5,000 years, with other evidence of habitation that may be as much as 10,000 years old. The significance of the rock art of the Devils River area is widely recognized by archeologists.

King added that while 100 or more acres of the land along the river will be retained by The Nature Conservancy as a nature preserve, the organization is actively seeking a buyer or buyers for the remaining land who will be dedicated to keeping it in its natural state. Called "conservation buyers," these individuals must possess a commitment to conservation that is compatible with permanent restrictions on the land designed to maintain its habitat value.

"The Nature Conservancy's conservation buyer program allows us to permanently protect land in partnership with private landowners," said King. "So, rather than having the Conservancy buy and continue to own all the ecologically important land that needs to be conserved, we're able to leverage our conservation dollars by keeping the land in private ownership.

"We use a legal instrument, called a conservation easement, that is similar to a deed restriction in that it creates development restrictions that remain with the land whether it is sold or is passed down through families," King said.

Conservation easements restrict the way the land may be used and whether or how it may be subdivided or developed for the purpose of maintaining the land in a primarily natural state. The easements convey ownership of these development rights to a qualified conservation organization, such as The Nature Conservancy or other land trust or a state conservation agency.

Depending on specific land-protection needs, conservation easements may allow traditional ranching practices, managed hunting and fishing and other recreational activities, and the building of a home site on a part of the land that is not ecologically sensitive. At the same time, easements may prohibit such activities as introduction of invasive exotic species and development that would negatively impact natural resources, and they restrict subdivision of the land.

The purchase announced today of more than 87,000 acres around the upper portion of the Devils River contributes to a mosaic of lands along the river that previously were protected by the Conservancy.

  • In 1991, the conservation organization purchased 18,500 acres farther south along the river that includes the largest continuously flowing waterfall in Texas, Dolan Falls. The Conservancy retained 4,788 acres of that land to create the Centex Homes Dolan Falls Preserve and sold the remainder to a conservation buyer while retaining a conservation easement.
  • Directly adjacent to the Conservancy's preserve is the nearly 20,000-acre Devils River State Natural Area, owned by the state of Texas. The Nature Conservancy holds a conservation easement on the state natural area that ensures the land will remain protected in perpetuity.
  • In 2000, the Conservancy purchased the nearly 22,000-acre Devils River Ranch, a section on the southernmost portion of the river containing more than 13 miles of river frontage, and sold much of that land to a conservation buyer, also retaining a conservation easement. The group also intends to sell the remaining 5,000-plus acres of the Devils River Ranch to a conservation buyer.
  • Altogether, lands conserved by The Nature Conservancy now protect about 25 miles of the Devils River.

    For more information, or to contact The Nature Conservancy, see their website at:

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