Noted Naturalist Barton Warnock Dies at 86

Reprinted by permission from the Big Bend Quarterly, Volume XI, Number 4, Summer, 1998

ALPINE - Renowned botanist Barton H. Warnock, 33-year Sul Ross University professor and leading authority on flora of the Trans-Pecos region of Texas, died June 9, 1998 of an apparent heart attack. He was driving alone near Alpine when he swerved off the road through a barbed wire fence.

A prolific collector, Warnock discovered many undescribed plant species, more than a dozen of which were named after him. He taught generations of West Texans, many of whom now manage land there.

Warnock's educational efforts, as well as three popular books on wildflowers, made local residents and visitors alike aware of the region's unique botanical heritage. His pupils often became noted botanists in their own right, including B.L. Turner, director of U.T./Austin's botany research program and herbarium.

A less-known fact: Warnock was a star running back on the Sul Ross football team and in 1976 was inducted into the school's sports hall of honor.

Dr. Warnock had a long history of involvement with Texas Parks and Wildlife. He led state park tours on occasion for lucky visitors and served as an adviser to numerous staff members.

The Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center in Lajitas serves as the eastern entrance to Big Bend Ranch State Park. The center is now being renovated with new exhibits to open this fall. This international project involving experts in Mexico and the U.S. will make the center the primary facility for interpretation and education regarding the Chihuahuan Desert, a fascinating region of West Texas and Northern Mexico that formed the focus for much of Warnock's life and work.

The Warnock Center in Lajitas will also eventually house the late botanist's collection of plant specimens from Big Bend Ranch. Warnock donated some 1,600 dried, pressed plant specimens to TPW. His collections from 1979 through 1989 represent an important inventory of the botanical diversity of the approximately 300,000-acre state park. The Barton Warnock Collection of plant specimens will be accessible to educators and researchers. In addition, the material will be used for educational and interpretive tours and other purposes by the TPW staff and volunteers.

Dr. Barton H. Warnock
by Kirby F. Warnock

If you had to pick a poster boy for the wildflowers of Texas, Dr. Barton Warnock would have been a most unlikely candidate. Dressed in his khaki pants and jacket, a weathered Stetson atop his head and a nose broken from playing football before face guards were required, he looked like he would be more at home in a feed lot than an arboretum. His cowboy dress and independent attitude projected an image that didn't quite fit the "tree hugger" or "nerd" stereotype usually associated with botanists or lovers of wildflowers.

"The first time I met him, he scared me," says Tom Alex, Big Bend National Park Ranger, "he was pretty blunt and gruff, but after you got to know him, he was one of the kindest men you over met."

"He probably knew more about the Big Bend country than anyone else, alive or dead," says long-time student, John Mac Carpenter. "Not just the plants, but the land, its history and its people."

"He's the only man I know who has two buildings in Brewster County named after him," says Desert Sports owner Jim Carrico.

The author of what is considered to be the source book on Big Bend flora (Wildflowers of the Big Bend Country), Dr. Warnock spent his entire life cataloging just about every cactus, wildflower and plant in an area roughly the size of New Jersey. Popular columnist and radio personality Cactus Pryor called him "the Dobie of the desert." Along the way he hiked, drove and climbed over so much of the Big Bend that he was widely sought to locate specific places in this rugged terrain. He discovered dozens of unknown plants, cataloging them for posterity, and even his twelve plants that bear his name, including Echino Cactus Warnocki, or Warnock's Cactus. After heading up the botany department at Sul Ross State University in Alpine for 33 years, the university named the new science building in his honor. Author James Michener sought him out for research help on his novel, Texas, and included Dr. Warnock on the dedication page. A few years late, Big Bend Ranch State Park named its visitor center after him.

"He didn't call a lot of attention to himself," says John Mac Carpenter, "and that's unusual in a field populated with such large egos."

A private man, Dr. Warnock eschewed anything that might have interfered with his time in his beloved Big Bend. When noted Big Bend photographer James Evans tried to shoot Dr. Warnock, he was continually rebuffed in his efforts to get the man to sit for a photo session. In desperation, Evans signed up for one of Warnock's classes and was able to sneak a shot during a field trip.

While Warnock's attitude did not land him on the cover of Neil Sperry's Gardening magazine, he was held in the highest esteem in the circle of learned botanists.

"Of the twelve plant species named for Dr. Warnock, none were discovered by him," says associate John Mac Carpenter, "Most people would be thrilled to have a plant named after them, even a scummy weed, so whenever a botanist names a plant species after another botanist, you know that they truly respect him.

Born in Christoval, Barton Warnock grew up on the family farm near Fort Stockton. His father, Arch Warnock, was an alfalfa farmer, who irrigated his land with the runoff from Comanche Springs. Barton's earliest recognizable talent lay in athletics, not botany. He was a star running back for the Fort Stockton high school football team and in the words of team mate Herbert Rigsbee, "could run like a deer."

"We were playing McCamey back in 1934, and wanted to win the game pretty badly because we had never beaten them on their home field," recalls Rigsbee. "B.H. and I were the kickoff return men, but in the first half I got doubled over at the bottom of the pile and felt something pop in my back. At halftime, we were tied 0-0. When we went into the locker room I told Barton that I was hurt, and they (McCamey) knew it."

"I told him, 'They are going to kick the ball to me. When I get it, I'm going to start up the field. You run along beside me and when they are about to tackle me, I'm going to pitch the ball to you.' We did this without our coach's knowledge."

"Well, we lined up for the second half kickoff and sure enough, they kicked it right to me. I started lumbering up the field, and just at the last instant I turned and pitched the ball to B.H. He took off like he was shot from a cannon. No one touched him until he reached the end zone. We missed the extra point, but wound up winning the game 6-0."

As unlikely as it seems, it was this football prowess that got Warnock into the field of plants. He was offered a scholarship ("They called them 'work programs' back then," he corrects me.) to attend Sul Ross State Teachers College in Alpine. When asked why he pursued a major in botany in the middle of cowboy country, Warnock's reply is succinct. "I wanted to chase around the desert." His chief instructor and mentor at Sul Ross was Homer Sperry, father of celebrity botanist Neil Sperry. Shortly after Warnock enrolled, the Federal government acquired the property that would become Big Bend National Park. The first thing the Feds wanted to know was, "What did we buy, and what's on it?"

In 1937, Dr. Ross Maxwell, the Park's first superintendent, was sent to catalog every plant, animal and archaeological site on the place. Warnock was selected to catalog the plants.

"Unlike some of my other workers, Barton always knew what he wanted to do," recalled Maxwell in a 1991 interview shortly before his death. "He wanted to collect plants. He would pester me every day to take him to a new spot that no one had seen yet and he would volunteer to drive and change flats if he could come with me."

"I had to collect four samples of each plant," Warnock recalled. "One for me, one for the national archives, one for the park, and one for Dr. Sperry. Every afternoon I came back to the Basin and laid out my plants to dry."

Conditions were spartan at best. Maxwell's group stayed in surplus Army barracks placed in the Chisos Basin by the Civilian Conservation Corps. One night the barracks caught fire and burned to the ground, destroying hundreds of items the group had collected. While there was some money for gasoline for their vehicles, most of the work was done on foot. One day Maxwell's group decided to walk along the top of Santa Elena Canyon from Lajitas. Along the route they ran out of water and had to drink from several potholes in the limestone. The next morning everyone came down with diarrhea and was too sick to report for duty, save for Barton Warnock, "He was one tough cookie," mused Maxwell.

Eventually Big Bend National Park was opened to the public, but Dr. Warnock's association with Big Bend did not end there. He made repeated trips to the Park and the surrounding country as a graduate assistant at Sul Ross.

Dr. Warnock's botany classes became some of the most popular on the campus. Among his students was John Mac Carpenter, who as a fan of the Big Bend had heard of Warnock, "I came here 20 years ago to learn all I could, and I've been here since" he replies. Later he served as Warnock's number one associate, driving him to speaking engagements and helping catalog more discoveries. A veritable who's who of botanists can lay claim to being a former student of Warnock's, including Marshall Johnson, head of biology at U.T. Austin, Mike Powell, head of the biology department at Sul Ross, and assorted border patrolmen, game wardens and park rangers, including Rick LoBello, a naturalist for the National Park Service.

"Dr. Warnock was my number one inspiration," says LoBello. "He was the first person to take me into the Park and taught me to learn to love it. When you know the plants, it's like knowing a person. You know their names, so it's more than just looking at cactus. More visitors to Big Bend are interested in the plants than anything else, because the plants are always there for the visitor to look at. They don't migrate."

In 1972, Warnock teamed up with photographer Peter Kock to write what has become the Big Bend's bible of botany. Wildflowers of the Big Bend Country, was the first attempt to identify and catalog the many plants and cacti of the region for the layman. It was followed up by Wildflowers of the Davis Mountains and Wildflowers of the Guadalupe Mountains. Although out of print, Wildflowers of the Big Bend Country, is still highly sought after by outdoor enthusiasts.

What separated Dr. Warnock from other catalogers and experts of the Big Bend was his access to so much private land. Although the Big Bend region is large, nearly 90 percent of it is private ranch land, with owners who refuse to allow outsiders to set foot on their property. The environmental movement has only hardened this attitude, with ranchers fearing that a researcher will discover an endangered species on their place, allowing the dreaded "Federal intervention". Yet Dr. Warnock was allowed on almost all of the large ranches that are off-limits to others, most notably the Brite Ranch, home of Capote Falls. It didn't hurt that he was a "homeboy" who grew up in the region, but it went beyond that.

"He earned their trust and respect," says John Mac Carpenter. "And that is something that is hard to obtain."

Indeed, through his repeated visits to the Brite Ranch owners Jim and Jane Brite White have become learned botanists themselves. John Poindexter commissioned him to perform an inventory of his Cibolo Creek Ranch, cataloging the plants on the place and assembling an arboretum. He also consulted Warnock on the historic restoration of Il Fortin de Cibolo. Although he remained close to the ranchers of the region, Warnock occasionally came down on the side of the environmentalists. He was an early opponent of horseback riding in the Chisos Basin, feeling that horses did more damage to plant life than cattle.

A chance meeting with wealthy Houston real estate magnate Walter Mischer led to Dr. Warnock's biggest honor. Mischer had recently purchased old Diamond A Ranch and was planning a large development called Lajitas on the Rio Grande. The idea was to turn the mountainous desert country along the border into "the Palm Springs of Texas", complete with a golf course and ranch style condominiums. One day as Dr. Warnock was eating his sack lunch at a picnic table in one of the few shady spots in Lajitas, he looked across the table and saw Walter Mischer sitting there. The two men struck up a conversation, the upshot of which was for Dr. Warnock to put together a museum and arboretum of the area. What became known as the Lajitas Desert Museum was constructed just north of the Lajitas resort, featuring an arboretum of native plants in the museum's courtyard, all collected by Dr. Warnock.

When Texas Parks & Wildlife purchased the property from Mischer to create Big Bend Ranch State Natural Area, the museum was renamed the Barton H. Warnock Environmental Education Center. A contingent of luminaries flew in from Austin, including Andrew Sansom, Texas Parks & Wildlife's chief executive. Sansom was unprepared for Dr. Warnock's straight-ahead-cowboy attitude when they met for the first time. Expecting to encounter a typical Austin "what's-in-it-for-me" lobbyist mind set, Sansom posed this question: "If we name this museum after you, what do you want out of it?"

"I just want to go on the property whenever I want," came Warnock's reply, "And I want you to keep people out of my way." Almost immediately after the crowds departed from the museum's dedication ceremony, Warnock was back in the desert, driving the dirt roads, looking for more plants. At age 86, despite prostate cancer and a heart bypass, he had not slowed down much. He was currently hard at work on his next book, Wildflowers of Big Bend National Park.

"He had a zest for life that a lot of people envy," says former Big Bend Ranch superintendent Jim Carrico. "Most people his age were worn out and packing it in, but he was an extremely energetic and lively person who always had that twinkle in his eye."

"Going into the Big Bend with Dr. Warnock was like being with the creator," says guide Sam Richardson. "He not only knew the plants, he knew the country, the history, everything about anyplace that you could go."

"He also had a way of drawing everyone into the experience," recalls Richardson. "One time we were leading a group tour when he paused, turned to me and asked, 'What's the name of that plant Sam?' Now he knew good and well what the answer was, but he was giving me a chance to look good in front of the group."

When his wife, Ruell, passed away two years ago, many people worried that he wouldn't be able to carry on, but he found a new girlfriend and held a New Year's Eve party to introduce her to the community. He had stopped leading the monthly bus tours of Big Bend Ranch State Park, and no longer guided the popular field trips to view the wildflowers in Big Bend each spring, opting to turn those duties over to his number one student, John Mac Carpenter. Although somewhat slowed because of age and medical problems, he was still up early each morning, heading out into the desert country. On Tuesday morning, June 9, he was following his usual routine with an early breakfast, then a drive out into the countryside at sunrise. On this day he was driving back on the Fort Stockton highway. About 18 miles north of Alpine he suffered a heart attack behind the wheel of his car and died. His car rolled to a stop on the shoulder of the road without suffering any damage. They found him there, the engine still running.

It was a pretty clean getaway for a man who lived a full life, doing what he wanted. He died with his boots on, looking at the Davis Mountains.

I can't think of a better way to go.