September 12, 2022 |Callie Easterly | Land

Sabine Ranch: A Conservation Love Story

Sabine Ranch has changed my life in ways I could have never imagined, and I love this wonderous place for so many reasons. Sabine Ranch, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

1. The incredible natural beauty

I love bringing people to Sabine Ranch for the first time. At first glance, it’s not much different than a lot of Texas — a flat open prairie that doesn’t look like much. But as you venture further, you begin to see cheniers (prehistoric sandy ridges), mima mounds (naturally occurring low domes of earth), salt marshes, wetlands and wildlife in every direction. This is about the time that people start to realize there’s more going on here than they could have imagined. I love seeing the expression on visitors’ faces as the beauty shocks them — and me — every single time.

2. The abundance of life that lives here

I grew up near Houston on the Katy Prairie, hunting geese and ducks in flooded rice fields. Since then, a lot has changed. The urban footprint of the city of Houston expanded 63% from 1997 to 2017 and now encompasses much of what was once rural Katy. Much of the Katy Prairie has been drained of critically important wetland habitat, and the area has been transformed by the impervious surfaces of city and suburban life. Sadly, the waterfowl no longer flock to the Katy Prairie area, and it’s been decades since they did. Watching the ducks and geese find wintering grounds at Sabine Ranch is like going back in time to my childhood.

Fun fact about me: my middle name is Teal like the blue-winged and green-winged teal that used to flock to the Katy Prairie. With a name like Teal, I often feel as if I was born to be managing this incredible ranch.

A successful teal hunt.

I love watching the resident mottled ducks swimming in the wetlands and feeding on wild millet and the redfish tailing through the saltwater channels. Sabine Ranch sits directly beneath North America’s Central Flyway. During spring migration, the ranch becomes a stop-over for millions of migratory birds. The sight of so many geese, as if the prairie is covered in snow, leaves me speechless every year, as do the truly miraculous whooping cranes that found refuge here for almost five months.

Snow geese at Sabine Ranch.


3. The ecological resilience of the natural landscape

As I mentioned earlier, Houston’s footprint has grown significantly over the past 25 years, including nearly 400 square miles of new impervious surfaces — buildings, streets, sidewalks, parking lots and more. That land area is equivalent to 186,000 football fields or the cities of Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC combined! Rapid development in the headwaters of the Gulf of Mexico and ever-increasing storm surges from climate change make the ecological services Sabine Ranch provides even more vital and increases my urgency to ensure permanent protection.

I didn’t truly understand the benefits of an intact landscape until Hurricane Harvey hit in August 2017. In anticipation of the storm, we moved cattle to higher ground, every piece of furniture in the lodge that could be lifted was moved upstairs, windows were reinforced with hurricane tape, and we secured everything else the best we could. I was at home in Houston, where the storm stalled, delivering 52 inches of rain.

Moving cattle before a hurricane via horseback and helicopter.

The scale was almost unimaginable, with 3 million homes flooded in Houston. But it was a double whammy for me because after Harvey left us devastated in Houston, it circled back into the Gulf of Mexico before coming to wreak havoc along the Upper Texas Coast, dumping 64 inches of rain on the ranch in three days.

I couldn’t get here right away because of all the flooding and damage. There came a point that I just couldn’t wait anymore. My brain was running wild, and my heart was breaking thinking about scenarios of what I’d find when I could finally head east. When I could finally drive to Sabine a few days later, the closest I could get was about 15 miles away before the roads became impassible. A friend picked me up by airboat on Highway 73 so I could see the damage for myself.

My first thought was I couldn’t believe just how much water the ranch was holding! Fortunately, we didn’t lose any cows, which was the most important thing — they were all happily eating alfalfa on the levee. We did lose power (as did everyone else in the region) and the tin roof of the lodge. But even before I arrived to line up contractors and repairs, the ranch was busy doing what it does best, filtering the storm surge and rainwater and pushing it back out to the Gulf of Mexico.

Only a few weeks later, while we were still cleaning mold and just starting to make repairs to manmade structures, the ranch had already done the hard work. The coastal marshes had absorbed the vast amounts of water, abated the flooding and limited erosion. The native grasses and wetland habitat had cleaned pollutants, restored groundwater levels to normal, and pushed millions, maybe billions, of gallons of clean water back into the Gulf of Mexico. Watching this process take place in real time changed me. I didn’t fully understand the benefits of this landscape and value of protected lands along the Upper Texas Coast until I watched the quiet process of a transformative ecosystem.

Hurricane-related flooding and moving cattle via boats.


4. Sabine Ranch changed me in ways I never expected

In September 2016, I had been working for The Conservation Fund for just one year as a regional fundraising director. I called in to listen to the closing of the Sabine Ranch property while on vacation in a different time zone and maybe not even quite awake. Looking back, I had no understanding of just how much my life was about to change.

Then two months later, we decided to host our first hunting trip at the ranch. I still couldn’t find my way around very well. I spent quite a bit of time lost or stuck in the mud. But the more I learned about the ranch the more difficult it was to go back to the city. I wore down the 90-mile route traveling back and forth to my home in Houston over the next several months.

After Hurricane Harvey, it became apparent that I needed to take the relationship with Sabine Ranch to the next level. My husband Christian and I packed up our belongings and our many pets and moved east to Sabine in March 2018.

Becoming a full-time, onsite ranch manager was not something I had ever expected to do in my lifetime. My background in special education and sign language interpreting didn’t directly prepare me for this role, but it did teach me to seek new ways of listening and understanding. This has been crucial as I’ve worked with partners to develop the long-term management and stewardship plans.

I’ve relied on my passion for conservation, my love of wild places and my willingness to ask questions and learn from mistakes. Living here and managing the ranch has changed me in ways I’m only beginning to understand. But I know I’m more industrious, more innovative and more resilient.

Managing the ranch hasn’t been without incredible challenges. This landscape can be a little high maintenance, often giving me heartburn and headaches. We’re in a constant battle with the Tallow tree and McCartney rose in the upland prairie portions of the ranch, and water hyacinth, salvinia and bullrush in the waterways. I’ve had to learn to operate a marsh master, roller chopper, excavator, numerous tractors, and a swamp devil just to keep up with the many restoration and management needs.

But through it all, my colleagues at The Conservation Fun have encouraged me and others working here to be creative. Like when we installed water gates on the intercoastal waterway to mimic saltwater intrusion — that out-of-the-box thinking has worked well for controlling invasive vegetation. One thing’s for sure, nothing around here stays the same. The ranch changes with every storm and every season, and just when I think I’ve figured it out, it changes and teaches me something new.

5. Sabine is loved by others, too, who are dedicated to its care

I’ve learned a lot from many people around here who love this ranch as much as I do. People like Joel and Kyle, the ranch cowboys who manage 1,800 head of cattle within a sustainable grazing plan that I helped develop and oversee. Jesus and Tio, the ranch hands who can operate and fix anything. Tommy England, the airboat captain whose enthusiasm for the marsh is simply contagious. Douglas Head, Manager of McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), who along with his U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) colleagues brings experience in so many areas, from operating heavy equipment, restoration and management practices, biology, ecology and hydrology. Our hunting guides Terry Harris and Alan Hall, who show up with enthusiasm every time, understand this ecosystem better than anyone and can call in birds like no other.

Together, we have walked, explored, repaired, restored and loved every inch of this ranch. Each one has been my patient teacher and works hard every day to ensure this landscape is well managed and stewarded for the benefit of future generations.

More than 500 guests interested in conservation have come to Sabine Ranch to experience the abundant hunting and fishing grounds since that first hunting trip in November 2016.

Importantly, my husband Christian loves it too! In fact, he has cheered on this somewhat crazy endeavor, even though it meant uprooting his life, relocating to a remote area and often taking a backseat to the needs of the ranch. And finally, all the non-human members of the Easterly family who are happy ranch hands, including several dogs and cats, and maybe even an adorable calf and piglet that lived in the laundry room during a cold front.

Loving Sabine Ranch is a family affair for Callie, Earl Wayne, Ted and Christian Easterly.


6. Sabine Ranch is permanently protected and will be open to the public

Eventually, all 12,376 acres will be transferred to USFWS and become part of McFaddin NWR. While I’m here, The Conservation Fund and USFWS are working together to achieve a variety of goals in terms of water flow, flood reduction, storm surge protection and erosion prevention, as well as prescribed burns and clearing invasive species to make way for the native restoration.

Do I wish that I had reliable broadband and a grocery store closer than 45 minutes away? Of course. But I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. When the entire Sabine Ranch is conveyed to USFWS as part of McFaddin NWR, it will be opened to the public for additional hunting, fishing and recreation opportunities in the region. Sabine Ranch will be ready for the BIG reveal, thanks in part to the sustainable land management while under the care of The Conservation Fund.

I try to picture the day that I lock the gate for the last time and say, “see you around” and I can’t get through the thought without tearing up. I’ll be here until that day comes, and Sabine Ranch’s place in my heart will remain long after.

Written by

Callie Easterly

Callie Easterly is the Regional Director of Fundraising for the Gulf Coast, Southwest, and Mountain West, as well as Ranch Manager for Sabine Ranch. She works with donors to tap into their passion for conservation through visits and tours of the Fund’s projects. Her role includes managing projects that build, strengthen, and engage a base of philanthropic supporters to advance our mission.