Cook's Branch Conservancy
By: Leopold Conservation Award Program
In the spirit of Aldo Leopold, the Mitchells committed themselves to restoring their land back to health. Their desire to return the land to pre-settlement conditions led to the family’s decision to discontinue commercial agricultural operations at Cook’s Branch Conservancy in 2000 to minimize typical human impacts on the landscape. Income derived from resource management activities, including timber harvesting and hay production, is used to offset management and operation costs on the property.
The Mitchells practice adaptive management, changing plans every three years based on monitoring, current environmental conditions, and other factors. This allows for adaptation to changing conditions and provides documented responses to management activities for future reference. Some of the Mitchell family’s conservation practices include continuous timber monitoring, selective thinning to ensure uneven aged pine-dominated upland forest with a healthy representation of sub-dominant tree species, and prescribed burning to rid the property of unwanted growth. These efforts have resulted in a 25% stand composition of old growth pines, which are increasingly rare in the region. Prescribed fire is used to reduce mid-story and small hardwoods/ shrubs while enhancing native ground cover.
Wildlife species are continuously monitored at Cook’s Branch Conservancy. The Mitchells have effectively managed the white-tailed deer population, enhanced habitat for wild turkey and other grassland dependent bird species, and significantly increased the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker population on their land. Water resources at Cook’s Branch Conservancy have been improved through the establishment of Streamside Management Zones, planting approximately 2,000 hardwoods in formerly clear-cut riparian areas, development of a groundwater quality monitoring site, and implementation and maintenance of impoundments to reduce erosion and provide wildlife and fisheries habitat.
“This commitment to forgo financial benefit and dedicate a sizeable tract of private land in one of the fastest growing areas in the state exclusive to habitat and wildlife conservation demonstrates a land ethic seldom seen in twenty-first century Texas,” wrote Dan Jones, wildlife biologist, in his letter of recommendation. “This, I believe, is the embodiment of citizen stewardship as envisioned by Leopold and uniquely qualifies the Mitchell family and Cook’s Branch Conservancy for recognition of their efforts and success.”