Albert Miller drives an ancient, heavy-duty Ford truck on a bumpy dirt road and talks about how his family tries to overcome a multitude of ranching hardships and still cling to the cowboy culture and what some fear is a fading way of life.

The truck is Miller's official workhorse, a clunker with a broken air conditioner but still handy on the 33,000-acre Miller Ranch as a mobile tool shed.

"The biggest threat to family ranches is the lack of a shared dream," Miller said. "Not everybody wants to ranch anymore."

At 59, Miller, the oldest of four sons, and a younger brother help operate their aging parents' cattle ranch, nine miles west of the tiny town of Valentine and about 2½ hours' drive southeast of El Paso.

"There's not too many big ranches anymore. A lot of them have been sold and belong to absentee owners. Family ranches are fewer and fewer," he said.

Texas is still the top cattle producing state in the nation, with an estimated 13.6 million head of cattle, according to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association in Fort Worth. Texas Agrilife Extension Service at Texas A&M University estimates cattle account for a direct economic impact of $15 billion in Texas.

Some experts suggest that keeping traditional family ranches together is becoming increasingly difficult.

More and more ranchers, faced with escalating costs of doing business, drought in some cases, steep inheritance taxes and other factors, give up sharing the dream and sell out to developers or investors more interested in using ranches for hunting and recreation.

Neal Wilkins, director of the Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources, pointed out that Texas has 142 million acres of private farms, ranches and forest land, almost the size of the entire national forest system, owned by an estimated 250,000 landowners.

"All across the entire half of the state, we' ve had a huge loss over the past decade of large ranches greater than 2,000 acres in size. Those ranches are being subdivided into smaller ownerships," Wilkins said, adding that inheritance taxes are so steep in Texas that ranchers almost have to be independently wealthy to keep a ranch intact.

"It points to needed changes in the tax code. And we're going to have to start rewarding landowners for good land management, good stewardship and good wildlife management. Even though people in El Paso don't see ranch land or experience its scenic beauty, they do experience the benefits of it through clean air, clean water and those sorts of things," Wilkins said.

In mid-July, James H. "Jay" Williams III, a longtime El Paso-area rancher who operated his family's ranch in the Cornudas area for many years, died without leaving any children. His siblings are managing the ranch with the help of a neighboring rancher but they are still debating whether they can keep the ranch i n the family.

Marianne "Bunny" Beard laments it has become tougher to find skilled cowboys who can rope and ride and brand livestock and do all the other ranch-related chores.

Her husband, Rob, a longtime rancher, is helping the Williams family look after the livestock.

"Cowboys are a dying breed," Beard said. "It's kind of a closed community and it's getting smaller, unfortunately."

Beard's nearest neighbor is 15 miles away. She loves the tranquility associated with ranching near Cornudas. "It's being one with nature," she said.

The dream is still intact at the Miller Ranch nestled against the Sierra Vieja mountains in the semi-arid desert of the Trans-Pecos region.

The late Espy Miller bought the original part of the ranch, about 11,000 acres, in 1925, and 10 years later bought another 22,0