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 22,000 acres in partnership with a brother.

His grandsons and a small army of great-grandchildren still embrace the passion for ranching and help out every chance they can.

Walter Miller, the youngest of the Miller boys, is the mayor of Horizon City near El Paso.

The Miller Ranch is adjacent to the Chilicote Ranch owned by El Paso's Tigua Indian Tribe and still maintained as a working cattle ranch.

Albert Miller, the modern version of a cowboy, still tips his hat to the ladies and wears a thick handlebar moustache like an old-time Western gunslinger.

Albert Miller rolled out of Valentine, where he lives, early one morning and drove to his parents' ranch house, secluded in an oasis of pecan trees nourished by an underground spring. He suggested ranchers in far West Texas could use more rain before winter.

"It hasn't been a bad year but it hasn't been good enough," he said. "What we need is a good hurricane on either coast."

He left ranching for a spell, went to college and then spent eight years working for a federal agency before returning home to help out on the ranch where he grew up. He and his wife also work in nearby Valentine to help supplement their income. His two sons work at nearby ranches.

"This ranch has supported several generations but there's only so many resources that a ranch has to provide income for folks," Albert Miller said. "Our costs have gone up and continue to squeeze us. In the old days, my dad bought pickup trucks for $3,500. Now, they're $35,000."

The Miller Ranch, about 50 miles from the nearest major town, has adapted to change over the years. The ranch still has horses but pickup trucks are more convenient for handling day-to-day chores like checking on livestock, repairing broken fences, or making sure that water pumps are working. Most of the ranch's windmills, once an icon of the American cattle ranch, are now obsolete. Some ranchers have switched to solar-powered pumps.

"To run a ranch like this, you have to know so many different things," Miller said. "You have to be a mechanic, an electrician, a plumber, a cowboy a nd a fence builder. Service calls out here are of out of the question."

The stereotypical image of the weathered, veteran cowboy on horseback is gone. Albert Miller spends most of his time on a truck checking on livestock and potential trouble spots. The ranch has around 400 head of Angus-based cows, 35 bulls and 20 horses.

Clay and Jody Miller, both 83, the owners of the Miller Ranch, recently assessed their 60 years of life together on the ranch in a dining room that looks like a hunting lodge filled with paintings, books, a lifetime of mementos, and a string of awards that they have received during the years for being good stewards of the land and its resources.

The ranch routinely attracts biologists and other scientists doing research on birds, snakes or mud turtles.

Clay Miller talked about how his family has been involved in ranching in the region since 1892. He most enjoys the lifestyle, working outdoors, and family gatherings at the ranch wher e he has lived all his life.

"The freedom is sometimes overrated. There's enough problems to go with it, a good deal of work and lots of uncertainties," he said. "It's lovely when it rains, fierce when it doesn't."

During the past 50 years, he has seen the ranch evolve from a mostly horseback operation to a mostly motorized operation.

Clay Miller has seen some area families who lost the ranch to financial difficulties and a few others like Jay Williams who did not produce heirs to take care of the ranch.

"There's still a good many of us left," he said. "I don't have the statistic but the amount of land that is no longer producing livestock in this part of the world is staggering. Land just west of us was subdivided 30 years and sold, site unseen, to folks all over the country."

Nicole Miller, the daughter of Jim Miller - one of Albert Miller's younger brothers - is studying veterinary medicine at Texas Tech University. At 24, she is committed to helping the family continue the ranching tradition. Her father opted to work in the oil fields in the Permian Basin near Midland.

"Ranching has taught me to be strong and to endure, which has helped me with everything that I come across in life," she said. "It keeps us together as a family and will continue to keep us together as it has ... in the past."

Bill Miller, the second oldest Miller son at 57, managed a vineyard, ran a store in Fort Davis, taught school and worked on a ranch north of Van Horn before coming back to help manage the Miller Ranch.

"It's certainly not for the money," he said. "It's the lifestyle, being out in the open all the time. Out here, you never quit learning."

On the way back to town, Albert Miller explained why he never strayed too far from the ranch, why his grandchildren love hanging out at the ranch, and why some families refuse to give up the dream, a dream shared by one generation of Millers and the next.

"Ranching is something we do because we love it," he said. "What's neat is that you do so many different things and face so many different challenges."

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