The greatest drought in the nation's history continued last week to blight the lives of people throughout a vast region in the central and southwestern part of the U.S., bringing withered crops, emaciated cattle, dead or dying trees, waterless streams and the decimation of wildlife. For the rest of the country the proportions of the tragedy have just been emphasized by President Eisenhower's personal inspection of the disaster area.
The President's trip was for the purpose of determining what can be done, beyond the various government programs now in effect, to help drought sufferers over the crisis. But, even if the rains come soon, recovery of the worst-hit sections will take many years, for even 300-year-old live oaks and tough mesquite trees are dead, the ground cover is gone, and thousands of wild animals have perished. The answers to the long-range problem of bringing back and maintaining a healthy, productive environment—for both people and animals—may well lie in research work already started in south Texas by Dr. Clarence Cottam, the director of a new and unique institution called the Rob and Bessie Welder Wildlife Foundation.
Owners of drought-stricken ranches and conservationists the country over are looking to this undertaking with hope. The foundation is national in scope and designed to prove that under wise use of the land a healthy ecology will result in abundant wildlife and better plant cover, yet at the same time provide long-term economic returns as great as, or greater than, those derived through overgrazing and bad farming practices.
Dr. Cottam, former assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, already has proved through experiments in Utah that grazing on a grass-percentage basis results in the production of more cattle. There Dr. Cottam established that when only 60% of the grass is grazed off a healthier and more productive grass cover results. Maintaining this heavier ground cover also cushions the effect of droughts.
January 21, 1957
At present the government owns huge areas in the Dust Bowl on which the grass has been permitted to return. The effect of this, it is agreed, has been to lessen the intensity of dust storms. Dr. Cottam and his research scientists are attacking the problem on a much broader front. They are setting out to prove that healthy woods, waters and wildlife go hand in hand with healthy economic returns.
Although the work of the foundation cannot mitigate the present drought crisis, landowners in Texas and other stricken areas are fortunate to have such an institution as a focal point for learning the lessons of how best to prepare for droughts of the future. Conservationists agree that in few places has overgrazing and poor land use brought deterioration more rapidly than in Texas.
The foundation starts its program at a time when 90% of the state has been declared a disaster area, when drinking water is being bought at prices higher than oil and when 60,000 families have moved from their wrecked farms and ranches to the cities. The institution is the creation of a Texan who saw the need for a wiser treatment of the land.
Rob H. Welder, south Texas cattle baron and oilman, drew up a will that proved to be an unusual document for Texas or, for that matter, any other state. Subsequent to Mr. Welder's death on New Year's Eve of 1953, it was found that his will established a foundation such as America had never had before, an institution designed to have an ultimate impact on conservation practices not just in Texas but in the nation as a whole.
In the basic provisions of his will Welder set aside 7,799.24 acres of land, 32 miles northwest of Corpus Christi, to be used for research in how best to foster wildlife on farms and ranches. Although a large area, the gift of the land was not unique. The legacy became more impressive when it was found to be coupled with oil wells and cattle producing an annual income of more than half a million dollars, all of which is to be used in the furtherance of the purposes of the foundation.
Even this gives but a faint idea of the great scope of the bequest. In his will the Texas cattleman expressed his thoughts in establishing the trust as follows:
"It is my desire and my purpose to further the education of the people of Texas and elsewhere in wildlife conservation, in the knowledge of the breeding and living habits of our wild creatures and in the relationship of wildlife to domesticated livestock on our ranches and farms; to afford students and others interested in wildlife betterment and propagation and in the raising of wildlife along with domesticated animals a place for research and an opportunity for the study thereof; and to develop scientifically methods of increasing the wildlife population of the state and nation for the benefit of future generations...who may not have the opportunity to know and appreciate our wildlife, as I have, unless methods of increasing and conserving our wildlife are scientifically developed. For these purposes I here create a foundation to be known as the 'Rob and Bessie Welder Wildlife Foundation.' "
Even those who were closest to Rob Welder do not know just how or when the idea to establish such a foundation crystallized in his mind. He was a typical successful cattleman whose personal fortune had been increased by the finding of oil and gas on his ranch. He was interested in hunting but only to a modest extent. He was fond of quail shooting but didn't like to hunt deer. In later years his greatest enjoyment seemed to come from taking groups of his friends into the open spaces of his 55,000-acre ranch.
This ranch, originally a Spanish grant, has been owned by the Welder family for more than 100 years. Mister Rob, as he was known to his friends, had lived his entire life in south Texas and had seen drastic changes come to that wild, coastal area. He had watched the spread of intensified agriculture until cotton and other row crops reached to infinity with hardly a tree or bush to break the monotonous expanse.
He had seen the extended droughts and the overstocking of grazing lands bring wildlife scarcity. With the development of oil he had seen the silvery towers of refineries rise out of the flat landscape; had seen the night sky sparkle with the lights of new industrial plants; had watched the little towns grow into cities. And as more people sought outdoor recreation he had seen the land become more bleak and barren.
Rob Welder treated his own land well. It is in better shape now than most nearby ranches. But even his closest friends were surprised to learn that he had devoted a large portion of his ranch and his money to help stop the downward trend on a national scale. When his decision was made he did the job thoroughly.
To make his foundation national in scope he stipulated that all the money did not have to be spent on the property or even within the state of Texas. Scholarships may be established or research financed at any university in the country. He also specified that the purposes were "to perform and foster study and scientific research related to wildlife propagation, growth and development both associated with and disassociated from the raising of livestock and domestic animals."
Nor is research to be confined to game species. When he said "wildlife" he meant all parts of the picture. To see that his wishes were carried out he named three trustees: John J. Welder and Patrick Welder, his nephews, and M. Harvey Weil, attorney and family friend. They, in turn, selected as director of the new foundation one Dr. Clarence Cottam. In the opinion of wildlife experts over the country they couldn't have picked a better man.
Dr. Cottam is experienced both in wildlife management and as an executive. He was on the staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 25 years. His hearty friendliness and outspoken devotion to the cause of conservation have brought him the love and respect of other workers in the field. They were all glad when Dr. Cottam got the job.
But he had already decided to leave the Fish and Wildlife Service to become Dean of the Colleges of Biology and Agriculture at Brigham Young University. The Texans agreed to wait, and after a year at the university he reported for duty in south Texas in July 1955. A few months earlier Caleb Glazener had resigned as head of the Wildlife Restoration Division of the Texas Game and Fish Commission to become assistant director.
There was a host of things to be done before the new enterprise could even begin to take shape. When I arrived to visit the foundation, Dr. Cottam was a picture of jubilance tinged with caution. He had been given the means to implement his dreams as a conservationist, yet his training warned him to go slow. Wildlife conservation, a most controversial subject, had been his major life interest. He had long been outspoken on his theories. Now he had to prove them.
Local Texans had given him a ranch-type Stetson. That was a good sign because Texans signify their approval of a man by giving him a hat. Besides this badge of good will he wore a tan jacket, tan work pants and a pair of boots—not cowboy boots but broad-toed woods boots with thick tops to resist rattlesnakes.
Dr. Cottam, always enthusiastic, talked a blue streak as he headed his car out to the property. Eight miles from Sinton we turned off the highway, stopped and opened the big gate leading into the Welder land. There is something satisfying about opening a western ranch gate. It means an unhurried break in the journey, a small but pleasant ritual, and you often see things you might not have noticed without stopping.
This time it was the scissortail, that bizarre member of the flycatcher family sometimes called the Texas bird of paradise. More than a dozen of them sailed in against the wind to perch on the top wire of the fence. They were in migration, and later we were to see flocks of 30 to 40.
Closing the gate, we began what proved to be a three-day exploration of this stretch of flat, sometimes gently rolling country destined to become an outdoor wildlife laboratory. Seven miles long and up to two and a half miles wide, it is bordered on the north by the twisting Aransas River, made salty by the tidal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The southern boundary is marked by a beautiful fence, a four-strand, barbed wire structure with identical creosoted posts standing in an undeviating line seven miles long.
Dr. Cottam said they would replace the two lower strands with barbless wire to protect the deer from injury. Bucks usually leap the fence, but does scramble through, sometimes cutting themselves on the barbs.
Between this fence and the river the country was varied, despite the lack of anything suggesting a mountain. There were wide areas dotted with mesquite and huisache, open, grassy prairies, knolls covered with groves of gnarled live oak trees, shallow depressions which are flooded in times of rain and dense thickets covering the bottom land along the river.
A HEALTHY LOOK
"It has the most varied habitat of any area near here," Dr. Cottam said.
It was evident that Rob Welder had not overgrazed this land. The Hereford steers which turned solemn white faces toward us as we drove by were in good flesh, and there was grass despite the drought. It was far from the picture that oldtimers in the region paint of a country of many springs with grass as high as a wagon wheel, but it had a healthier look than most ranchland in south Texas.
"It looks pretty good to me," Dr. Cottam said. "I was born and raised in southwestern Utah, where the cemeteries were about the only places that were not overgrazed."
Occasionally we came upon one of the 27 oil wells which have the unusual role of providing money for wildlife and conservation research. This is an old field, and the derricks have long since been removed. The only indication of the riches flowing from the earth are odd arrangements of pipes and valves called Christmas trees. These are painted aluminum, and around each one is a rectangular fence, also painted aluminum. Everything was neat and tidy; the sludge pits had been covered and the scars of digging had been eradicated. At one hissing well Dr. Cottam said, "That's the cash register for our project."
Climbing a knoll, Dr. Cottam stopped the car in a parklike opening in a grove of live oaks. It is here that workers are about to start construction on the $450,000 headquarters of the foundation, a place foundation officials hope will become the mecca of all those interested in saving Texas woods, waters and wildlife.
Standing in the opening the director described the buildings for which the plans have been completed. A main building, 300 feet long, with a central tower, will contain laboratories, a library, an auditorium and lecture hall, a herbarium and a museum. It will contain offices and a 30-by-40-foot lounge which will be a memorial to Rob Welder.
Besides the main building, a dormitory for scientists and those working on scholarships will include eight rooms, four of them light housekeeping apartments for researchers who bring their wives. Nearby will be a pavilion where conservation organizations, Boy Scouts and other groups will hold meetings. At the edge of the grove will be the residences of the director and assistant director. All buildings will be in modified Spanish style. A large maintenance building has already been built.
Having been a government employee for so many years, Dr. Cottam is accustomed to operating with a sharp eye to the finances. The men with whom he is dealing on this project are used to figuring on the scale of Texas oilmen. There have been some clashes. They wanted to build Dr. Cottam a $50,000 home, but he balked. Finally they talked him into accepting a $35,000 dwelling. He gave in after admitting that was about what he had put into his home in Washington.
When the trustees decided that the memorial lounge should be a room 30 by 40 feet Dr. Cottam remonstrated that it would take a lot of money just to furnish a room that size.
"Why, it wouldn't cost more than about $10,000 to furnish it," they told him.
We had just left the headquarters site when we came upon a flock of some two dozen wild turkeys. A few moments later 15 deer were bounding away through the brush. As we drove about it became common to see 20 to 30-odd deer in a single herd. Dr. Cottam estimates that there are around 1,000 whitetails on the place, an average of one to every seven or eight acres. It was obvious they had not been hunted heavily, for two of them walked right up to the car.
Wherever we drove we encountered examples of the curious flora and fauna of south Texas. At one point, when we stopped to open a gate, a horned toad, that friendly lizard beloved by all Texans, crawled under a clump of prickly pear. As we slowed to watch a covey of quail, an armadillo turned its weak eyes toward us and plowed into a brush pile like an armored pig. By penetrating a thicket near the river Dr. Cottam was able to show me one of his prize birds, Merrill's pauraque, a whippoorwill-like creature and the largest of the goatsucker family in the U.S.
Late afternoon was the best, for then more animals were stirring. Large skunks raised their tails as we approached. A coyote eyed the car and then moved off across the landscape. Cottontails ran into the brush and jack rabbits, ears erect, put considerable real estate between us and them. Dr. Cottam pointed out that they had a black patch at the base of the ears, a peculiarity of the jack rabbits of that section.
As we rode, Dr. Cottam told of sighting a red wolf on the property, a smallish wolf which is becoming rare in south Texas. On three occasions, panthers have been sighted. Some 35 or 40 collared peccaries, speedy wild pigs, live on the place, and Dr. Cottam hopes they will increase.
Whenever we left the car to take a walk we flushed birds of many species. The winter songbird population of this region is probably richer than in any other section of the country, for south Texas is the base of the funnel down which the migrating flocks pour from east and west.
"This place should become a winter attraction for bird watchers," said Dr. Cottam, who already has listed 375 species and races of birds there. "Out of the same brush pile we have flushed the common hermit thrush of the northeast, the one that comes from the western U.S. and a race common in Alaska. You can see two house wrens in one bush, and one will be typical of the east and the other typical of the west."
The effects of the prolonged drought, although not so grim as in some parts of Texas, were evident everywhere. In places there were cracks four inches wide in the thirsty ground. We passed dry, shallow depressions which in normal times would be full of water and supporting geese and ducks in wintertime. But now big flocks of geese were wandering the flat land back of the Texas coast in search of water. For its water needs, wildlife was depending almost entirely on the over flow ponds of the windmills.
Water improvement is first on the list of Dr. Cottam's projects. He showed me nine dams and ponds which had just been built with bulldozers as a start toward holding the vital water on the place. They were raw, gaping holes waiting, like all of Texas, for rain.
(Since this was written I have received a letter from Dr. Cottam which includes the following: "Our area still remains exceedingly dry. In fact, this is the driest year in history for this section of the state. If I did not state it, only three years since 1943 has precipitation in our particular section been up to normal or slightly above. Even so, our area looks infinitely better than do most of the other ranches in south Texas. As you may recall, we have dammed off four arroyos and made fivé additional pits. In the area of three of these we have had little showers so that we have a little water in three of them. Two of them have about six feet in them and the other merely a few inches, but even though the ponds are new, they are used by all forms of wildlife, including a hundred or so Canada geese, sand-hill cranes, doves, snow geese and our endemic forms of wildlife, deer, turkey, quail and tree birds. Yesterday I was surprised to find that conditions apparently have become so dry that even a red-tailed hawk was taking a drink out of one of the ponds.")
Water restoration is one of many programs which will be put into effect. Sitting in the car and looking out over the prairie at dusk, Dr. Cotton outlined his plans for turning the foundation into the influential force it was intended to be. He is firm in his belief that wise land use for wildlife can be a healthy part of agriculture and, in many cases, will increase profits as well. He is also aware that these things cannot be attained overnight.
So that the work which he is starting' may continue, he will set aside much of the income to establish a lasting fund for the foundation. Although the oil field which provides the money is expected to continue production for many years, no oil wells last forever. The income, however, is sufficient to carry out the program and build an endowment fund at the same time.
Within the next few years the foundation will build up a small staff of specialists to carry on research, to act as department heads for the various fields of wildlife study, assist scientists working there and help in the selection and supervision of students on research and scholarships. Dr. Cottam will supervise the entire program and will specialize in waterfowl research. Caleb, Glazener, an expert on upland game, will specialize in turkey and quail. Others will undertake big game management, fresh water fisheries and other branches essential to the project. In time Dr. Cottam will retain a wildlife educational specialist to help spread the lessons they have learned.
Research already has gotten under way. The staff's first job was to find what they had to work with. To this end detailed aerial, contour and soil maps have been made; a soil survey and land capability map showing water development possibilities is almost completed; and a floral and vegetative map is being prepared.
Three research scholarships of $2,400 each and other student grants have been awarded. Graduate students are at work making basic studies of mammals, plant associations and studies of grazing relationships between cattle and wildlife. Next year, when the buildings have been completed, more studies will be set in motion.
These will include studies of non-game species of birds and mammals and investigation of the rich reptile and amphibian fauna of the area. Some collecting is now under way. One day Dr. Cottam collected a 41-inch moccasin to find that it had just swallowed a 49-inch gopher snake. The coyotes that slink across the prairies and the bobcats that prowl through the bottom lands will come under investigation as part of a study of predator-prey relationships.
Under the terms of the will the cattle will play a big part in the study picture. Dr. Cottam told how they will divide the area into pastures of various types, some with varying amounts of grazing and some with none at all. A long strip will be established down the center where things will remain undisturbed. This will serve as a control, to learn how much wildlife uses this area in comparison to the others.
These and many other studies will be undertaken on the property while related research is being financed at distant places. Everything undertaken will have the aim of learning how land can best be managed to add to the aesthetic and recreational, as well as the economic, well-being of its users.
Industry and individuals have supported research in the past. Foundations have been established and organizations formed to help learn the best methods of conservation. The Rob and Bessie Welder Wildlife Foundation is the first of its kind in America and, properly established, will point the way for private income to aid in wildlife conservation. Dr. Cottam is aware of the size of his job.
"It is a big responsibility," he said. "But it is also a challenge."
The eyes of Texas are upon the new foundation born when it is most needed. So are the eyes of conservationists of every other state.