Lots of ranchers grew up thinking the only good snake is a dead snake. An enlightened few, though, are beginning to see diamonds in those diamondbacks–as well as money in mice, treasure in turtles, and a bonanza in butterflies.
An innovative competition pairing ranchers and world-class photographers is proving that bugs, buzzards, and bull nettles can create striking images–and a new cash crop–with nature photography.
Just as ranchers lease land for hunting, they also can open their gates to amateur and professional photographers to get more bangs for their bucks with shots fired only through lenses.
Wildlife wins, too, with the budding nature-photography industry that encourages the preservation of habitat.
The driving force behind the concept is the Images for Conservation Fund Pro-Tour of Nature Photography, which conducted its inaugural tournament last spring and awarded $160,000 in prizes, split equally between landowners and photographers.
Seventeen nature photographers, many with credits in the likes of National Geographic, Audubon Magazine, and Smithsonian, teamed up with 17 Hill Country ranches of 500 acres or more in 13 counties–Bandera, Bexar, Blanco, Burnet, Comal, Kendall, Kerr, Kimble, Kinney, Medina, Real, Travis, and Uvalde.
Coming from across Texas and the nation, the photographers worked the 30 days of April, each shooting for a portfolio of 75 images, 15 in each of five categories–reptiles, mammals, birds, invertebrates, and landscapes.
That meant creating more than two stunning images a day, a tough task considering photographers can spend days waiting for one magical intersection of wildlife and light. Making the tournament even more difficult was the stipulation that no more than two images of a single species could be entered.
Images for Conservation Fund is a non-profit organization based in Edinburg that utilizes the Pro-Tour of Nature Photography contest to promote habitat conservation and provide a source of revenue for landowners. The inaugural tournament this year focused on the Hill Country. Next year, it will be conducted along the Coastal Bend.
The following Hill Country ranches, all competitors in the Pro-Tour, are open for photography (call for reservations): Annandale Ranch (Uvalde County), 830/988-2202; Block Creek Natural Area (Kendall County), 830/995-2147, www.blockcreeknaturalarea.com; Estrella Ranch (Uvalde County), 713/495-6551; KKW Game & Cattle (Bandera County), 210/930-7990, www.kkwgameandcattle.com; Knibbe Ranch (Comal County), 830/885-7773, www.knibberanch.com; Northrup Pipe Creek Ranch (Bandera County), 830/535-4024, www.pipecreekranch.com; Peaceful Springs Nature Preserve (Burnet County), 512/355-3111, www.peacefulspringsnp.com; Red Creek Nature Ranch (Kimble County), 325/475-2901, www.redcreeknatureranch.com; Stowers Ranch (Kerr County), 830/238-4345, www.stowersranch.com; and The Petersen Ranch (Kendall County), 830/833-0958, www.thepetersenranch.com.
Some 200 images from the Pro-Tour Contest will be published in a 10" x 10" hardbound, full-color book. Images for Conservation: Book One, Texas Hill Country Edition ($45) will be dedicated to visionary conservationist Lady Bird Johnson in Austin on Oct. 28 at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
To order tickets to the dedication or copies of Images for Conservation: Book One, Texas Hill Country Edition, or for information on next year's contest, call 956/381-1264, or visit www.imagesforconservation.org. Books will be available for purchase at Hill Country H-E-Bs after Oct. 28.
Other nature-oriented photo contests in Texas include the Valley Land Fund Photo Contest (956/686-6429; www.valleylandfund.com) and the Coastal Bend Wildlife Photo Contest (361/881-9316; www.wildlifephotocontest.com).
Fourteen of the 17 teams took home prize money, divided equally between the photographer and landowner. The top three Grand Prize winners were:
1st–$64,000; Rolf Nussbaumer, New Braunfels, TX; Estrella Ranch, Uvalde County
2nd –$32,000; D. Robert Franz, Cody, WY; Knibbe Ranch, Comal County
3rd–$16,000; Cathy Illg, Lakewood, CO; Red Creek Nature Ranch, Kimble County