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Texas Tech System receives 6,000 acres in state’s “Big Empty” region for research, learning labs


Texas Tech System receives 6,000 acres in state’s “Big Empty” region for research, learning labs

Feb 27, 2024 | 11:00 am ET
By Ikram Mohamed
Texas Tech System receives 6,000 acres in state’s “Big Empty” region for research, learning labs
Fred Koch donated 6,000 acres of a vast Texas expanse known as "The Big Empty" to the Texas Tech University System. (Courtesy of the 3 Rivers Foundation)

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In the vast, nearly open space between the Dallas-Fort Worth region and Amarillo known as the "Big Empty," the anesthesiologist Fred Koch put together thousands of acres over the past couple decades and turned them into an observatory for celestial studies.

Students and local groups could come to the 3 Rivers Foundation’s Comanche Springs campus to take advantage of the lack of unnatural light and camp, learn about astronomy or attend “star parties.”

But during the pandemic Koch and his wife moved to Australia, sending them searching for someone to preserve and expand the educational aspect of the property.

On Tuesday, they announced that they’ve found that caretaker. Koch is donating 6,000 acres to the Texas Tech University System.

The donation is the largest piece of real estate that the university system has received. University System Chancellor Tedd Mitchell, said they plan to expand the campus to bring in students and others who might have interests in other areas of science, like agriculture.

Mitchell said that the donation will not only benefit the region, but the whole state.

“In the state of Texas, you can imagine people from Tarleton, West Texas A&M, Texas A&M, other [agriculture] schools around the state, that could do research together with their students, their staff, their faculty and their graduate students on a piece of property like that,” Mitchell said. “The benefit to the state would actually be for these other systems, but it would also go beyond that to other institutions around the country.”

Universities are looking for opportunities to give students hands-on experience in agricultural sciences. Mitchell said the land gives students the opportunity to have a 6000-acre hands-on learning laboratory: Whether it’s organizing wilderness rescue simulations, learning to manage agricultural land, or cedar mitigation, he said, the educational opportunities are almost limitless.

This gift will also allow agricultural scientists within their universities to vastly expand their capacity to research and possibly fill any gaps related to prevalent issues like water and the rapidly declining quail populations.

“One of the biggest issues people are facing is water,” Mitchell said. “From a research perspective we look at things like how water is utilized, how water is utilized by various plants, are there things that we can do to help improve the way that our agricultural folks utilize water?”

Now, he said, the university system has a lab to do experiments on how to best irrigate.

“This type of gift just vastly expands their capacity to research these things and it also expands their capacity to teach these techniques to the next generation of folks coming through that will be agricultural scientists,” he said.

The property being donated includes telescopes, observatories, classrooms, laboratories, a pavilion and lodging for students, faculty and visitors, according to the university system. It also features undeveloped areas. It will be overseen by the Tech system, which will handle operations, collaborations, and the use of the property along with the system's institutions and the local community.

Koch, a native of Quanah near the Texas-Oklahoma border and a distant relative of the politically influential billionaire Koch brothers, graduated from the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in 1975. He said in a press release that he’s excited to help shape “a future of learning where students are encouraged to engage with the world around them.”

“We hope this contribution will spark curiosity within students of the arts and sciences and beyond,” he said.

Disclosure: Texas Tech University, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and Texas Tech University System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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