March 18, 2006, was a historic moment as 17 Texas Hill country provate landowners drew from a hat the names of carefully vetted, internationally recognized professional nature photographers. The Launch Party for the Inaugural Pro-tour of nature Photography, held at Gallagher Headquarters (a property steeped in early Texas history and located near Helotes), capped a day-long seminar for ranchers and photographers sponsored by Images for Conservation and coordinated by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department Nature Tourism office.
With $160,000 in prize money at stake, paired ranchers and photographers rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Photographers familiarized themselves with local flora and fauna and explored their ranches in serch of prize-winning settings. Ranchers began crash courses in photographic needs: lighting, setting, wildlife habits and habitats. Most teams established specialized photo blinds to attract wildlife – offering bird and animal feeders, water sources and photogenic backdrops.
The 30 days of April were action-packed to produce 75-image porfolios. Each team needed 15 photographs ( a minimum of 8 species for each category): insects and arachnids; plants and landscapes; reptiles and amphibians; birds; mammals. A panel of three internationally acclaimed judges – Rosamund Kidman Cox, Steve Freleigh, and Art Wolfe – spent a week determining the top-ranking rancher/photographer teams. Winners were announced June 17 at a gala Awards Dinner celebrated at the Hangar Hotel in Fredericksburg, the heart of the Texas Hill Country.
1st Grand Prize went to photographer Rolf Nussbaumer and the Estrella Ranch, a ruggedly beautiful property located over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, along the southern edge of the Edwards plateau between Concan and Utopia in Uvalde County, Texas. There craggy hills drop as much as 500 feet into scenic valleys that remain relatively unaltered by human intrusion. A native of Switzerland and relative new-comer to Texas and a 3-time winner of The Valley Land Fund Photo Contest and the Coastal Bend Wildlife Photo Contest, Rolf is building a name for himself as a luminary Nature Photographer.
2nd Grand Prize winner was photographer D. Robert Franz and Knibbe Ranch, a Century Heritage Ranch in Comal County. Pressured from all directions by encroaching development, Knibbe Ranch runs a thriving nature tourism business in partnersship with San Antonio Marriott River Center and Riverwalk Hotels, while maintaining a viable cattle operation.
Photographer Cathy Illg won 3rd Grand Prize with Redcreek Nature Ranch, a 6th-generation ranch located near Junction in Kimble County that has recently converted from a livestock operation into a nature preserve, pursuing economic development through nature tourism.