Tara Wildlife Doing Business as a Sustainable Recreation Destination
By: K Gregg Elliott
Young twin bucks, slender-necked and sporting ten inches of antler, stand motionless in the woods. A hand is raised . . . holding a bow or binoculars? Pointing a finger or a camera? It depends upon the season at this year-round retreat. But it was not always this way at one of the south’s premiere conservation resorts.
A 17,200-acre bayou destination along the lower Mississippi River just 30 minutes north of Vicksburg, Tara Wildlife welcomes hunters and birders equally. Its mission is to “manage its natural resources in an ecologically and economically sustainable manner while promoting conservation awareness” through both consumptive and non-consumptive activities. Open to the public since 1986, Tara Wildlife began as a private hunt club.
Gilbert Rose is a tall, dark haired Aussie with an accent softened by years of steeping in the steamy Mississippi Delta. Rose took over as the second manager of Tara Wildlife in November of 1992. Rose’s goal at that time was to rationalize the mission of Tara, the management of which had strayed from its original roots to include projects such as manufacturing youth archery equipment, building golf courses, and the construction of exits ramps along the Natchez Trace Parkway. Rose took about 12 months to spin off these concerns and slim down the staff payroll from 54 to 18 people.
He approached the job of improving Tara by focusing on the question “What is Tara for and how do we want to be known?” Deciding the answer was relatively easy: conservation, management, and sustainability. Implementing it was not. How Rose and the staff at Tara Wildlife have achieved that vision is a story that begins with Magalen Bryant.
How Tara Got Its Name
Magalen Bryant, named for her Scottish great grandmother, is Maggie to those who know her. Maggie is the driving force behind the evolution of Tara from a family-owned property to what she calls “some of the best white tail bow hunting in the country.”
The original 3600 acres of bottomland hardwoods was purchased by the ancestors of Maggie’s late husband, Herbert Bryant, almost 200 years ago. She’s seen the original deed of sale recorded in pounds and shillings. When they first began visiting the property, Maggie insisted on a place to shower and escape the insects, so Herbert bought her a doublewide trailer with white columns. When she saw it, Maggie laughed and said, “It looks just like Gone With the Wind.” On her first visit, she brought along a sign that said “Tara” and stuck it in the mud near the porch where they sat drinking martinis. A long-ago photo captured the moment, and although the picture has been lost, the name stuck.
Maggie has had a lifelong commitment to conservation, inspired by her father’s love of the land and fox hunting. When she first inherited the property from her late husband in 1983, she asked her appraiser what to do with it. When he suggested hunting, she said “We all fox hunted, so I said we’ll do our own club. Next,” she continues, “through sheer serendipity as with most everything in my life, I met and hired Benny Street as the first manager. Benny is fiercely devoted to wildlife. He is the one who said we have to call it Tara Wildlife Management, since the property would require management.”
When Swampland Became Valuable
Maggie took over Tara at a time when hunting land along the entire Mississippi River corridor, from Memphis south, was increasing in value. In the early 80s Chicago Mill, US Gypsum and other timber companies began divesting their timberlands. Previously, to hunt the bottomlands you had to be born into the system, invited as a guest or willed a membership. At the same time, memberships were incredibly cheap. Lease prices prior to 1983 ran around 27 cents/acre or simply the cost of taxes. Some of the world’s premiere hunting ground was leased to locals for the equivalent of $50 to $150 dollars annually, less than a year’s worth of coffee!
As timber companies were divesting, new LLC ownerships sought to realize more of the recreational value of their newly purchased lands. Whereas locals accustomed to rock-bottom prices refused to pay a premium for access to their traditional hunting grounds, doctors and lawyers from Memphis, Jackson and other cities began coming in and paying up to $10/acre. Suddenly, hunting became more expensive, and access was granted not on the basis of tradition but on the basis of ability to pay.
By 1985 it was clear that the LLCs established to manage newly acquired properties were recognizing a higher value. For the first time, bottomlands went from being swampland to something valuable. If the previous owners had recognized that value early and captured it, they might still be in business.
Run as a hunting club, with limited memberships costing $7000 per year, the management at Tara became very consumptive. At the same time, management was quite restricted due to the high potential for conflicts with activities of the 17 club members, who also would not entertain any suggestion of an increase in fees.
Part-time guides and an emphasis on extraction meant that Tara’s reputation suffered. It was said that at Tara, you could find “a beaten path to the stand.”
From Exclusive and Extractive to Public and Protected
By 1990, Gilbert Rose had joined the board of the family company and begun advocating for improved management at Tara. Rose could see ways to improve the financial position of the company by restructuring investments. In 1992, he assumed the reins of leadership.
After his first year of divesting the enterprise of its superfluous assets, Rose made the decision to close the hunt club and open Tara to the public, allowing hunting on a per diem basis. He also invited Bill Tomlinson, who had previously been associated with Tara’s management team, back into the fold. Tomlinson is a well-respected land management consultant in the area. His ruddy face and sandy hair belie his years of experience managing commercial and private timber lands.
When Rose invited Tomlinson back, they had a “very frank discussion.” Tara’s bookings were low, only about 40% by July. He and Tomlinson agreed that cutting back the number of man days would serve to improve the condition of the property and the deer herd, while simultaneously increasing the desirability of bookings at Tara. The next year bookings increased to 70%.
Although money was not the motivating factor for these changes, they did have a positive effect on the business’s bottom line. Revenue which had been $130,000 annually shot up to $350,000 in that first year, and it is much higher today. Locals began paying $900 for a three-day hunt. Today a three-day rut hunt is valued at $2200.
“Economically, we’ve stayed at a pretty good scale,” Maggie says. “Hunters keep coming because as Ian Player says, ‘it’s good for the soul.’” Rose confirms that income from Tara’s many seasonal recreation opportunities keeps their operations in the black.
The popularity of Tara’s bow hunting was confirmed in 2009 by a hunter survey conducted cooperatively with Mississippi State. The survey found that out of 19 reasons for coming to Tara, the largely blue collar clientele ranked “to kill something” in the bottom half. Top among their motivations were “being with friends,” “communing with nature,” and “being in a safe and comfortable environment.” (Tara has strict no-stalking hunt policies and emergency procedures.) As Rose points out, Tara meets more than half of their hunting clientele’s expectations before they ever set foot in the woods, through sheer hospitality and attention to detail.
Sustainable Harvest is a High Yield Investment
After returning to Tara, Tomlinson immediately began managing the timber to improve habitat. Having worked for Anderson Tully from 1980 to 1989, he had experience and vision. His harvests consist of very selective cuts, weeding out poor quality trees, tracking reserve stock until it is ready for harvest, and promoting the growth of preferred stock over a 100 year rotation. Preferred species for wildlife include oaks, ash, persimmon, pecan and hackberry.
His emphasis is on foraging value to wildlife. “Hackberry,” Tomlinson says, “produces a tremendous amount of wildlife seed: one ton per acre. It doesn’t matter if some people don’t like its knobby bark!” The shape of the cuts usually follows natural contours along the river. There is also an old growth forest study that will observe two 50-acre plots of permanently unmanaged old growth over the long-term.
Tomlinson also relies on guides’ input for improving the forest for hunting. If there are no deer in one area, it’s usually due to a lack of canopy structure or vegetation on the ground. Based on an initial baseline and 2006 inventory, they found that Tara forests support an average annual growth rate of 6.1%, extremely high for the region. “Where the hell can you get 6.1% appreciation today?” Rose exclaims. “People are starting to realize, if you own property, it’s probably one of the most stable investments you can have.” At Tara, they’re definitely growing more timber than they are removing.
The Dividends of Diversification
Nature based tourism at Tara began in 1993/94. That was a quick way of putting to use the three lodges they already had. But the transition was not easy. Rose says “it took a while to get people who could support activities other than hunting, like birding in other parts of the year.”
They have been holding the Storks & Corks nature weekend for 12 years, and youth camps since 1989. They now have nine week-long camps that make up a big part of the summer. The purpose of the camps is to provide children exposure to the outdoors and to help them learn and appreciate safe and ethical behavior. The kids, ages 9 to 16 get the opportunity to try archery, small bore rifles, skeet shooting, first aid, hunting safety, electro-shocking on fish, and boating. The camps also feature national guard training on wilderness survival and the use of a compass and map. Perhaps one of the most significant activities for children is the annual Catch a Dream hunt that take place in January for a child age 18 or under with a terminal illness.
Even the landscaping has reinforced the mission. By planting high value native species, they have transformed a cleared landscape around the lodge grounds to a shady oasis while at the same time vastly reducing their mowing costs.
In 2000, they completed construction of the Herbert Bryant Conference Center. The 5700-square foot facility accommodates 100 guests, including fully equipped meeting space and meals prepared in the Southern tradition. Tara has hosted everything from spring weddings to EPA workshops on toxic spill response. Their facilities are predictably popular with their many conservation partners, such as the Wild Turkey Federation. Tara is seeking to promote their facilities to larger groups, more in the 45 to 75 person range, since conferences are a significant source of their income.
The Bottom Line for Conservation
Over the years, despite some bumps in the road, Tara has grown in stature. Wildlife enthusiasts can now enjoy Roseate Spoonbills and Black-bellied Tree Ducks, species that were not found here 20 years ago. Partnerships with conservation groups have yielded restoration and improved habitat for black bears, neotropical migratory birds, and nesting bald eagles. The clientele is almost as diverse as its wildlife, including people of Asian, Hispanic, African American, European, and Native American heritage. Maggie, Rose, Tomlinson and others at Tara Wildlife have found that the conservation and consumptive standpoints “mesh.”
“There are probably no other properties in the United States that do all Tara Wildlife does for tourism, although there are plenty that combine timber production with wildlife,” Tomlinson says. Tara is unique for its sustainability objective: economics have never driven management but have always been second to the primary goal of sustainability. Early on, Maggie decided to place her Tara properties under conservation easements, which allow for Tara’s integrated management approach but will forever protect the property from development. In 2001, she deeded Tara to a private foundation, the Purvis Grange Foundation, formalizing Tara’s mission of conservation, education, and sustainable recreation.
Gilbert Rose likens the benefits from sustainable management to owning shares in a company: “if they are solid you stay with them.” With a 70% rate of returning customers during prime hunting season, Tara’s clientele seem to agree.