Mitchell land continues to serve as nature preserve, outdoor classroom

Before the name was given to the master-planned community north of Houston, "The Woodlands" referred to a piece of property that George Mitchell and his wife Cynthia used as a country getaway, a place to spend time in nature with family.

When Mitchell's vision for developing a suburb in the woods became a reality, however, the title of "The Woodlands" transferred to that project.

And the 5,600 family ranch, south of the city of Montgomery in northwest Montgomery County, which the Mitchells purchased in 1964, was re-named "Cook's Branch" after a creek that traverses the land.

Today, the acreage has become a nature preserve as well as a classroom for budding biologists and an outdoor laboratory for research scientists.

Sarah Mitchell, executive director and vice president of Cook's Branch Conservancy, a program of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, said the property's evolution would have made her grandfather proud.

"He was instinctively a naturalist," Mitchell said.

While George Mitchell preserved the old trees on the property, surrounding ranches were clear-cut, she added.

"Overnight, it became an island," she said. "My grandfather loved the property, and the kids would run wild. They all fell in love with nature together. Now, 50 years later, we have a really unique property. Some of our forest is 100 years old."

The property has become a sanctuary for the red-cockaded woodpecker, a federally endangered bird, which relies on older trees to survive.

"They are the only woodpecker in the world that nests in living trees," Mitchell said. "Once the family became aware of this endangered species, we switched from protecting the property to restoration of habitat."

She explained that the dense forest that existed on the property is actually artificial - resulting from protecting land from naturally occurring fires.

"The birds were losing their ability to forage and nest," she said. "Their food source and everything had changed and was impaired."

The Mitchell family began working with state and national wildlife protection agencies to get on the right foot. Not only did the organizations offer advice and consulting, but the Mitchells also found government grants to assist in their efforts.

"We thought we were doing such a great job, but the forest was not healthy," Mitchell said. "There was this whole new level of stewardship."

Eventually, Cook's Branch was recognized with the 2012 Leopold Conservation Award, the state of Texas's highest honor for habitat management and wildlife conservation on private land.

"The conservation ethic is in our family," Mitchell said.

She believes the same is true for most land-owners in the state but said that some do not know how to properly preserve their properties.

"It's never a lack of love or passion for the land," she said. "It's whether or not the tools are available."

Mitchell hopes that Cook's Branch can pave the way - becoming a test ground for habitat restoration and a place to develop best practices for land stewardship.

She said the population of red-cockaded woodpeckers has already doubled in the area.

The biggest change has been re-introducing fire to the property. "We have an elaborate fire regime," Mitchell said. "We've been doing it for 15 years now, and that has given us the science to know what we're seeing is right. We're learning some really interesting things."

She also used the property as a resource while doing research for her graduate degree and wanted to open up the land for other scientists.

Scott Solomon, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in Rice University's department of biosciences, jumped when he heard about the opportunity to work with Cook's Branch.

He contacted Sarah Mitchell and started talking about the possibilities for his students.

Solomon explained that his labs feature an outdoor field experience.

"A big part of our curriculum involves getting our students out into nature and giving them a hands-on experience," he said. "Our science classes go outside on campus, but it's better if we can get our classes into a more natural area. Being in Houston, that's not always easy to do."

In November, four students from Solomon's insect biology laboratory course made the 90-minute drive to Cook's Branch to collect insects on the ranch's grasslands and piney wood habitats.

"It was a great learning experience for our students," Solomon said. "They've got prairies that are in far better shape that others you would find near Houston."

He hopes that this is the first of many collaborations between Rice and Cook's Branch.

"I see this as the beginning of a great, long-term relationship," he said. "We're hoping to take students there on a regular basis."

Mitchell said that Cook's Branch also benefits from the data that Solomon's class gathers. Studying whether insects are native or invasive will provide insight into how healthy the habitat is.

"We love getting the data, so everyone wins," she said. "It's also really rewarding to see students out in the field, having a blast. That's pretty magical for us."

Mitchell's vision is for Cook's Branch to serve as a place where world-class research is underway all of the time. She also encourages other landowners to consider taking steps to preserve their property and restore wildlife habitat as well.

"We can come together around still wanting to have forests, to have water to drink, to take a walk on a weekend, to keep a family farm," she said. "It's kind of our duty."

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