Sawtooth Mountain: When oil companies buy land to protect it

Sawtooth Mountain in the Davis Mountains of Jeff Davis County, Texas. Jerod Foster for The Nature Conservancy
Sawtooth Mountain in the Davis Mountains of Jeff Davis County, Texas. Jerod Foster for The Nature Conservancy

An unusual consortium has banded together to keep oil and gas drilling away from Sawtooth Mountain, a jagged and iconic peak near West Texas’s Big Bend National Park.

Four oil companies, an energy investment firm, a landowner and a conservation agency announced on Monday that the group had secured funding to protect 2,500 acres around Sawtooth.

The Nature Conservancy, a Washington nonprofit, has worked for four years on the project.

The land is owned by Fort Worth department store heiress Miranda Leonard. The Nature Conservancy paid Leonard $1 million, about $1 million under the appraised value, for the rights to establish a conservation easement on the land, which will permanently restrict its use. This fall, New York private equity firm Warburg Pincus and four of the companies it supports — Austin-based Brigham Resources, Dallas’ Kosmos Energy, Laredo Petroleum in Tulsa, and Houston’s Zenith Energy — donated $1.2 million, which will pay for the easement, an endowment, and associated project costs.

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It’s the third Warburg donation to The Nature Conservancy. In 2012, Warburg gave $2.5 million to protect 400,000 acres of Canadian wilderness in the North Fork of the Flathead River watershed in British Columbia. In 2014 it contributed $1 million to the preservation of nearly 4,000 acres along a seven-mile stretch of the Cheat River in West Virginia.

The company said it’s committed to “making a positive impact” in regions where its companies operate. Two of the four companies that donated to the Sawtooth conservation easement, Brigham and Laredo, operate in West Texas’ Permian Basin, the hub of oil and gas drilling in the U.S.

Sawtooth is a series of crags that reach to 7,686 feet in elevation about 40 miles south of Balmorhea, Texas, and 100 miles north of Big Bend. And it’s a landmark for drivers on the Scenic Loop, the 75-mile stretch of road along Highways 166 and 118 where the Chihuahuan desert meets the “sky islands” of the Davis Mountains. The Nature Conservancy called it one of the most biologically diverse areas in the state, home to black bears, mountain lions and golden eagles.

As Texas continues to develop at “record speed,” said Laura Huffman, Texas state director of The Nature Conservancy, agencies like hers are “in a race to conserve the characteristics of our state that make it so special.”

The Nature Conservancy has protected more than 100,000 acres in the Davis Mountains, including the summit, Mount Livermore, which is part of the 33,000-acre Davis Mountains Preserve.

Sawtooth Mountain is just south of Alpine High, the new oilfield Houston-based Apache Corp. announced earlier this year. Apache said the conservation easement does not, however, abut its holdings and doesn’t affect its oil and gas development plans.

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