From Curmudgeon to Conservationist, a Natural Progression

David Wolfe

David is EDF's director of Conservation Strategies.  
Published May 3, 2013 in Ecosystems

Texas Hill Country

Small Boy/flickr

In the eyes of many, Ben Spivey (not his real name) is one cantankerous old man. Closing in on 80, Ben made his mark in Dallas as a hardnosed businessman. He knows what he thinks and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. At 5’ 7”, he makes up in attitude what he lacks in stature.

I first met Ben in 2000 on his 1,000-acre ranch in the Texas Hill Country. Recently retired, he had invited me for a visit because one of my Environmental Defense Fund colleagues had helped him stop a proposed upstream dam that threatened the ranch’s water supply.

I was eager to see Ben’s ranch and, knowing that he likely had habitat for a number of endangered species, including the Golden-cheeked Warbler, Black-capped Vireo and Tobusch Fishhook Cactus, to encourage him to participate in conservation activities that would benefit these species. My hopes were immediately checked when, after introducing himself, Ben’s first words were: “Don’t talk to me about a conservation easement as I ain’t going to do one.” Well, O.K.

Luckily, I am a patient man. More importantly,  I had nature on my side: Ben had retired to an environment that tends to soften the roughest edges. It is simply impossible not to become more appreciative of nature when you are surrounded by pristine springs and creeks, and deep canyons that are heavily shaded with massive oak, walnut and cherry trees.

Over the next 13 years I made many visits to Ben’s ranch. Initially, I carried out bird surveys and habitat assessments as a way to inform him about the biology of his ranch. And as the years went by he became increasingly comfortable with our relationship and with the concept of conservation. He began participating in a number of management activities, such as prescribed burning, which were designed to enhance and restore habitat for the endangered species on his land.

Then, in the spring of 2007, he surprised me by asking me to help him get a look at a Golden-cheeked Warbler. We went out the next morning and I was able to get him a close-up look at one of these magnificent songbirds. Ben couldn’t stop grinning. He was bursting with pride that his ranch was home to dozens of pairs of Golden-cheeked Warblers.

By 2009 it was evident to me that, despite his advancing age, life on the ranch was making Ben a happier, more affable and more contented person. And while he would never claim to be an environmentalist, he was increasingly comfortable in describing himself as a conservationist.

At dinner one evening he indicated to me that he was thinking about what to do with his ranch after his passing. Ben has children, but he had also developed a deep love for the land and a desire to leave a  natural legacy for future generations. He started asking me questions about conservation easements: How do they work? What organizations can hold the easements? What are the tax implications? I answered his questions, but I didn’t push him. In the weeks that followed I sent him more information on conservation easements, as well as contact information for land trusts.

More years and more visits went by. In 2012, Ben began placing portions of his ranch under conservation easement, to be protected in perpetuity for their biological and scenic values. His transformation from someone with no interest in conservation to committed conservationist was complete. It took many years and, while I would like to think that I played some role in the process, I am convinced that nature itself changed the man.