Lone Star Land Steward Award 2023
We have a Winner!
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) announced its 2023 Lone Star Land Steward Ecoregion Award winners on March 31. For the Blackland Prairie region, the Kocurek Farm in Weimar was chosen.
NPAT is happy and honored that another of our prairie landowners has received this award in recognition of the conservation work they have done. Gary and Dianna Kocurek are lifetime members as well as leaders of the Fayette Prairie Chapter of NPAT. Congratulations!
Gary and Dianna bought their 71-acre property near Weimar in 1992. It consisted of an active hay field of Bermuda and Johnson grass and an impenetrable yaupon thicket in an overgrown oak savanna and riparian hardwood forest. They chose this part of Texas because it is their Czech ancestral home. There were lots of summer vacations on relatives’ farms on the Fayette Prairie as they were growing up in Houston. Their Czech ancestors, beginning in 1855, belong to the early group that first plowed up the Fayette Prairie to plant cotton and corn!
The Kocureks lived in Round Rock, north of Austin, when they purchased the land and on weekends built a cabin, 2 wells, a windmill, and had electricity installed. Over a decade, a more permanent house was completed and they moved there in 2006. Gary continued to commute to UT-Austin until he retired in 2017 as a geology professor, and Dianna, an environmental engineer, moved her office to the farm.
“There were many feeble attempts at prairie restoration, all done in ignorance,” Gary said. He finally turned to the TPWD and received funding assistance from the Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture Grassland Restoration Incentive Program and TPWD Pastures for Upland Birds.
Gary credits the TPWD for teaching him restoration. He explained, “Basically, you get serious and aggressive, understanding that halfway measures usually result in failure. Serious restoration began with mechanical mulching of the yaupon thicket in 2016, accompanied by spraying regrowth and lots of chainsaw clearing around big trees and in ravines.” The hay meadow was sprayed and reseeded in natives in 2020. Then spot spraying of invasives began, in addition to yearly adding to the seed bank.
Today their land is about 50% prairie and 50% savanna/forest. Gary observed, “Both ecosystems are still and will forever be a work in progress. These are disturbance-based systems, and without this disturbance and maintenance, it would all convert back to brush fairly quickly in our climate.”
The Kocureks joined Mark Brown and Rory Johnston to launch the NPAT Fayette Chapter, creating a collaboration of some 40 landowners who share restoration ideas, equipment, and burn assistance. They introduced a Smaller Acreage Restoration Program (SARP) last year, offering grants to help other local landowners with restoration expenses.
When asked how he would sum up their experience, Gary said, “Prairie/savanna restoration is as challenging, frustrating, and rewarding as anything I have ever done.”
Launched in 1996, Lone Star Land Steward Awards applaud private landowners in Texas for exemplary contributions to land, water, and wildlife stewardship. Funding generated by the award supports TPWD’s Private Lands Program, helping TPWD field staff and partners strategically apply habitat conservation in partnership with landowners.
“In a state like Texas, where private owners hold 95 percent of the land, landowners play a crucial role in conservation and stewardship efforts,” said TPWD Executive Director David Yoskowitz. “That’s why it’s so important we take this opportunity each year to celebrate those creating a legacy of land stewardship.”
For more information on the Lone Star Land Stewards program and private lands stewardship, visit the TPWD Private Lands and Habitat Program website. tpwd.texas.gov