Capturing Beauty in South Texas

Photographers help landowners celebrate and save the natural riches of the Rio Grande Valley.
Gary Ford
Capturing Beauty in South Texas
The Rio Grande Valley is one of the richest ecological regions in the country.
Allen Rokach

When he hears the menacing buzz of a rattlesnake in the nearby brush, the photographer freezes--and smiles. The warning signals danger, but to the lensman, it also means art, money, and a chance to preserve the South Texas land this reptile slithers across. Here in the Rio Grande Valley, the tangled brush, water, and coastal prairies teem with javelinas, bobcats, kingfishers, and more; The Valley Land Fund (VLF) and its South Texas Shootout contest help preserve these habitats with the clicks of cameras.

The valley, where tropical and temperate climates converge and migratory birds of the Americas mingle, is one of our nation's richest ecological regions. Birders flock here too. It's one of the country's top birding destinations.

In 1987, a group of citizens concerned about human encroachment on the valley's last remnants of natural habitat met at a cafe in Alamo, Texas. There they formed The Valley Land Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving the natural sanctuaries of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

This was no ring of radicals plotting to hold progress hostage. Balancing coffee cups were an attorney, a veterinarian, a university administrator, an accountant, and investment brokers. These founding members then invited business leaders, ranchers, and other landowners onto their board. All believed nature enthusiasts could enrich the economy and help landowners keep their properties in their natural states.

Nature events, such as Harlingen's Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (founded a few years later) amplified The VLF's message. "Once the business community saw that 150,000 birders leave $100 million, The Valley Land Fund became the hit of the area," recalls John Martin, a founding board member along with wife Audrey.

As its major fund-raiser, The VLF created the South Texas Shootout, a biennial contest that pairs photographers with landowners. Every other year, about 100 photographers settle in and shoot February through June with winners receiving $130,000 in prize money. But they don't walk away with all the dough. Half ofthe money goes to the owners of land where the winning images were taken.

In the 2000 and 2002 contests, Larry Ditto of McAllen, Texas, and Greg Lasley of Austin teamed with Bud and Marlee Payne, who co-own Payne Ranch with Bud's brother. Four days a week, generally from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., Larry and Greg trekked across the ranch, sweating, swatting mosquitoes, and stepping on grass burrs to capture moments in the lives of plants and animals.

The two photographers won the grand prize in 2000 and placed third last year, sharing the money with the Paynes. Part of the reward, Larry says, is showing amazed landowners a photographic inventory of the creatures that inhabit their land. "Marlee and I saw things we never dreamed were on our ranch," Bud states.

The VLF is raising such public awareness of the area's plant and animal kingdoms (490 species of birds alone). With eight projects, it has preserved 5,000 acres of natural habitats. And valley residents have come to realize, if only in terms of cold cash, the value of the land and its inhabitants. "We now have landowners who buy land just for photography and who no longer kill rattlesnakes," John says.

Now, because of the fund, the photography contest, and nature festivals, more South Texans understand the benefits of birds in the brush and reptiles below in this outstanding animal kingdom at the toe of Texas.

For more information: The Valley Land Fund, 2400 North 10th Street, Suite A, McAllen, TX 78501, (956) 686-6429 or

Load Up for the Shootout
Registration for the 2004 South Texas Shootout is open through December 1, 2003. Ruth Hoyt, director of the contest, says winning photographers "usually work a minimum of 100 days during the contest, and they should turn in 100 photos to score well." Two other contests include the Small Tract Competition in which photographers shoot on land of 100 acres or less and the Youth Photo Contests for ages 11-19. A book of photos from the 2002 competition will be available by this December. For contest information contact Ruth at (956) 686-6429. Previous winning photos can be viewed at

This article is from the March 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.