Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Texas Range Rovers

"Hold on!" yells Rhonda Stelmach as she guns her four-wheeler up a hill on her 300-acre ranch near Boerne, Texas. Limestone rocks fly as the ATV chews up the steep slope. Ahead of her, a pair of African gemsbok antelope are running. At the summit, she pauses to drink in the view--and the silence--while the gemsboks peer at her from behind a live oak. "It was their hill before, but now we all share," she says, pointing out the sable and red lechwe antelope hiding nearby.

The most interesting breed in the area, however, may well be Stelmach herself, a prime example of what George W. Bush calls "windshield ranchers," weekend cowboys more comfortable behind a steering wheel than atop a saddle. In the Texas of old, this would earn you certain ridicule. No more. One big reason is Bush himself, who keeps track of 200 head of cattle from a Chevy Suburban on his 1,600-acre spread near Crawford in central Texas. Bush's very conspicuous retreats to his faux-cowboy haven (which has geothermal heating and other eco-friendly accoutrements) may draw snickers from some Eastern know-it-alls. But he has helped fuel a rush for Texas ranchland by city slickers more interested in recreation than ranching.

Ground zero for ranch mania is the hill country. Since 1994, the rugged, picturesque hills west of Austin and San Antonio have been Texas' hottest destination for retirees and investors alike--in large part because of its temperate climate. Tech millionaires from Dell, Compaq and Microsoft, tobacco-settlement lawyers, oil- and gasmen (back in the money, thanks to the California energy crisis) have all snapped up parcels from 50 acres to 100 acres, replacing ranch houses with mansions, throwing up 10-ft.-high fences to corral herds of exotic animals--and changing a way of life forever. There are traffic jams in the cowboy-cute town of Bandera these days, and the population in the surrounding counties has grown 60% in the past 10 years. Land values are soaring too, from $1,500 an acre for prize land a decade ago to between $4,500 and $8,000 today. "I make blind offers for twice what a ranch is worth, and I still can't get it," wails real estate broker Trip du Perier, who bills himself as the "Texas Land Man." "It's nuts."

In Kerrville, 100 miles due west of Austin, it's easy to catch the fever. At Joe's Jefferson Street Cafe, cell phones of Realtors chirp away during lunch with calls from buyers willing to dole out $3 million to $4 million for hardscrabble land with little productive value. "Cost is not an object," marvels appraiser Billy Snow, cutting into his chicken-fried steak. Architectural firms such as Kerrville's Artisan Group are busy building homes as big as country clubs with private jetports. "People have built castles, actual castles," says Kerr County's chief appraiser, Fourth Coates. "They even change the direction of streams." Take the Stelmachs, for example. Rhonda, a decorator, and her husband Leigh, an executive with Dollar General Store in Tennessee, bought their lavish ranch two years ago, right after it was featured on a glossy Texas Farm & Ranch cover. Since then they have spent millions of dollars more to expand the house (to 8,600 sq. ft.) and the barn (which had six stalls but now has 28, with a covered riding ring). They have already put the ranch back on the market--for $7.5 million, raising a few eyebrows among the locals.

Windshield ranchers have also been busy creating their own personal game preserves. The Army first introduced camels to the area in 1856, and starting in the 1940s the locals began importing other exotic animals--ibex and zebras, nilgai antelope from Pakistan and barasingh deer from India. Veterinarians report a land-office business treating exotic pets. "I had to neuter a coatimundi once, and I didn't even know what species it was," says veterinarian Cuatro Patterson. (It's similar to a raccoon.)

Hunting is what initially attracted many to the hill country. Others have fond memories of childhood summers spent at the area's two dozen-plus camps and see it as a nostalgic family retreat. Tom Fatjo, the multimillionaire founder of Waste Corp. of America, fell in love with the Guadalupe River at age 5. Now he flies in by charter jet from Houston to his 200-acre ranch outside Kerrville and brings along his four kids, ages 3 to 11, to hunt, fish and swim on holidays. Fatjo watches over his herd of 60 axis deer and whitetail deer from the luxury of his truck or golf cart. "It's clearly a dude ranch, not a working ranch," he says. "But it has everything my family wants--moonlight rides, beer drinking by the lake." For that kind of idyll, you can forgive a few problems. When Fatjo couldn't conquer the seaweed in a newly created lake, he tried carp, then chemicals, and finally filled it in with concrete. "People don't know what pain and heartache it was to get to this point," he says.

With more city boys trying to become ranchers, farm agents say, lectures are jammed, even on workdays. Texas A&M University, bombarded with questions by first-time ranchers, just launched an UrbanRancher website to teach the basics from septic tanks to wildlife feeding. "A lot of county agents are getting asked how many cattle they can raise on 10 to 20 acres. The answer is none. It's too small," says Bob Brown, head of A&M's department of wildlife and fisheries sciences. "They want fences 10 feet to 12 feet high to keep wildlife in--or out--but don't understand that isolating a herd causes inbreeding."

The can-do mentality that made them successful businessmen, in fact, may be making them rotten ranchers. "All the time I hear they want to restore to the native habitat with buffalo and bluebonnets," says Neil Wilkins, a wildlife biologist at A&M. "They call and say, 'I've already cleared the brush, now what?'" Of course, they have destroyed the very habitat that attracted wildlife. "These people are used to running corporations, and, by gosh, they want to see some changes fast," says Wilkins. "They make sure some dirt gets pushed around, and more often than not it results in something bad."

Fragmentation of the land is a big concern. Midsize ranches of 500 acres are disappearing, chopped up into 50- and 100-acre ranchettes. The hill country is fragmenting at an "alarming rate," says Wilkins. Newer owners tend to be hobbyists who experiment with the land, one growing Bermuda grass, another hay (worthless for wildlife), another dabbling in pecans and peaches. Almost all have high fences to corral some of the exotic animals that previously roamed free. "It has huge, potentially devastating implications for the wildlife," says Wilkins. Charles Gillaland, research economist at A&M's Real Estate Research Center, chuckles dourly about a rancher who sawed up his land into 25-acre blocks, all with deer blinds for hunters; yet they were so close together that the hunters would have ended up shooting one another.

Some big-ranch owners are trying have it both ways, carving up their land into smaller homesteads while maintaining a common ground for deer and wildlife to flourish. The Schreiner family, owners of the famous Y.O. Ranch that once spanned 600,000 acres (YOUR HOME ON THE RANGE, say the ads), is selling off 43-acre to 80-acre lots but is keeping 40,000 acres open to wildlife for hunting and photo safaris. Fatjo, seeing his friends search without luck for land, plans to start selling two-acre homesites on his ranch for $275,000 to $400,000 apiece this summer; there will be no fences--even on the perimeter--so wildlife can come and go.

Indeed, windshield ranchers sometimes turn out to be better stewards of the land than they are given credit for. Don Carlton, a retired engineering executive from Austin, bought 870 acres near Comfort for his grandchildren to enjoy. He admits that his 3,800-sq.-ft. "bunkhouse" is more like a mansion and that his family treats the two longhorns as pets. "I'm not interested in being a rancher," he says. "Being a real rancher is real work. My objective is to have fun." He does, however, take a songbird census, record deer counts and make sure there is erosion cover and prescribed burns. "Folks like us are taking care of the land," he says.

The influx of new ranchers seems unlikely to slow anytime soon. Most (97%) of Texas, unlike many Western states, is in private hands, and stiff estate taxes are blamed for the continuing breakup of big family ranches. The souring economy may be helping out too; as the stock market slumps, land values here are still a good investment. Then there's the state's eternal Wild West appeal. "We want a part of Texas," says Dana Kirk, a personal-injury lawyer in Houston who now owns a 486-acre ranch outside Kerrville, complete with his own herd of antelope, zebras and elk. "It's almost irresistible."