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Lone Star Land Steward 2008

Llano Springs Ranch wins the state's top conservation award.

By Tom Harvey

Dig into the story of any Lone Star Land Steward Award-winning property, and you usually find that family bonds form the conservation bedrock. You also see that land stewardship starts in childhood. That's certainly true with the Vandiviers, whose Llano Springs Ranch is this year's recipient of the Leopold Conservation Award for Texas from Sand County Foundation and TPWD.

When rancher Tom Vandivier was 8 years old, his dad would roust him early on the family's 70-acre farm in Indiana, where the family retreated each summer. The farm had no crops, but was rich with timber along a creek, and the Vandiviers preserved it as woodlands, managing the trees and allowing limited timbering from time to time. "I would shinny up a tree with a saw and cut limbs too high for dad to reach," the Austin-based attorney recalls. "When I'd finish, he'd push the trunk till it leaned over and I'd crawl to the next tree and we'd continue until I was too tired to keep going."

Those early natural experiences inspired Tom and formed attitudes that shaped his life through years in Houston, later helping run a family pecan farm near the Texas coast, and finally buying the ranch near Junction.

"I was always collecting turtles and snakes, wandering the woods with a BB gun," Vandivier said. "Once in the spring, I caught a snake and put it in my coat pocket and forgot about it. Something started to smell in our house all summer. In fall when I put the coat back on, the dead snake was still in my pocket and mother was most upset with me."

Fast-forward several decades, to a time when Tom is now the dad, and his daughter Laura is discovering the natural world.

It is a gross understatement to say that Laura Vandivier Sherrod loves critters. From an early age, she caught snakes, frogs and other living creatures that looked interesting and brought them home. This practice worried her mother, for maternal and practical reasons. Sometimes the snakes got loose. As Laura recalls, "I knew when Mom had found one by the big scream."

Laura knew how to identify and avoid the four venomous snakes of Texas – rattlesnake, copperhead, cottonmouth and coral snake. But she brought home a succession of garter snakes, coachwhips, hog-nosed snakes, all kinds of snakes. Today her passion for reptiles continues as a breeder of Australian carpet pythons, Brazilian rainbow boas and corn snakes. Her biggest is a 7-foot-long carpet python named Maya.

But it wasn't just snakes. Laura loved all animals, wild or domestic. She once dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. But after her family bought Llano Springs Ranch south of Junction in 1994, her passion began turning more and more to native wildlife, although any free-roaming critter could do in a pinch.

Take Barbado sheep, a domestic breed gone wild in parts of Texas. When the Vandiviers first got the ranch, Laura became captivated by its feral Barbados. She asked her dad if she could keep one if she could catch it. Tom assented, presuming there was no way on earth the child could corner one of the wild and woolly Barbados.

One day Laura spotted a baby Barbado and gave chase on horseback. The frightened lamb swam around an oxbow bend of the South Llano River to get away. Laura rode around to the far bank to intercept it. The lamb scrambled ashore and finally she drove it into a fence corner and caught it. She tied her horse and carried the small sheep in her arms up to the house, where she held it for an hour or two, waiting for dad.

"I showed him the baby Barbado and he looked stunned," Laura recalls. "You actually caught one!" Tom marveled. "You can't actually keep that," her dad finally explained. "We have no place for it. You need to let it go back to its momma."

"We named it Lucky," Laura said. "And I saw him later that day back with his mom, and they went down the river. I was probably in fifth grade at the time, around 11 years old."

Fast forward again, to April 2008, and Laura is a young woman with a B.A. in wildlife biology from Texas State University. She has married her college sweetheart, Greg Sherrod, and the two of them have worked for a private consultant surveying ranches for endangered songbirds.

On this April day, Linda Campbell of TPWD's Private Lands Program is conducting a final visit to three Texas ranches. All three sites are outstanding land stewards, but only one will be this year's top property. Also on hand are Tom Vandivier and his sister Ann, TPWD wildlife biologist and current ranch advisor Joyce Moore, and retired TPWD biologist Fielding Harwell, who has worked with the Vandiviers since shortly after their purchase of the ranch and continues to advise them today.

Was it chance, or fate, that led to a rare wildlife sighting on the ranch that day when awards judges just happened to be visiting? The Vandivier family was ultimately recognized for a cumulative variety of many stewardship and outreach practices, and the other two finalists were also homes to rare species, but the timing of this find was uncanny.

"We were walking around a slope and Greg Sherrod heard something, then Laura, and then I heard it," recalls Campbell, who runs the land steward awards. "We all followed the sound and sure enough there was a golden-cheeked warbler perched on an oak tree, posing for us, pretty as you please. They had never seen one on the ranch before." And now they can add one more species to their ever-growing ranch bird list.

"My husband and I had been doing golden-cheeked warbler surveys for his company, and he still had the bird's call on his mobile phone," Laura said. "He actually had that set for our alarm clock because I hated the clock's beeping noise, and so the bird's call got ingrained in my head. When we were showing the biologists some thick cedar and hardwood groves by the river that day, we heard it. Greg and I recognized it instantly."

The big old cedar trees on the ranch support the warbler, which make nests from the peeling bark of mature junipers. But the family has invested many years of work to selectively control the water-sucking, invasive, regrowth cedar and restore water-friendly native grasses. This benefits everything downriver, including thirsty cities like Austin. Land with restored grasses, instead of cedar and rocks, holds rainwater like a giant sponge, releasing it slowly and providing natural filtration. This helps aquifer recharge and prevents erosion, sending cleaner water downstream.

The entire Vandivier family participates in ongoing ranch management. Minimal work is done by hired contractors, requiring each family member to participate. This hands-on style follows the land ethic begun by Dr. Tom G. Vandivier and his wife Laurie and carried out by daughter Ann Vandivier Brodnax and her husband, John W. Brodnax, as well as son Tom M. Vandivier and his wife, Sonja, and their families.

Following the example set by their elders, Vandivier grandchilden John T. Brodnax, Laura Vandivier Sherrod and Jessica Vandivier also help with day-to-day ranch activities and conservation outreach. As a teenager, Ann's son John Brodnax completed his Eagle Scout Project by creating a hiking trail at Pace Bend Park on Lake Travis.

The ranch's restoration work sustains public recreation that helps raise money for conservation. In the fall they host hunters, in the spring birding groups come, and in the summer paddlers and swimmers cool off in the clear-running South Llano. For reasonable fees, anglers can fly fish for trophy bass, birding tour groups can see endangered black-capped vireos, and paddlers can canoe, kayak, or float on an inner tube.

But it hasn't been an easy road.

"It was a big, scary thing to take on something of this caliber," Tom Vandivier said. "It was scary financially; it was a real stretch for us to buy it in the first place. We made a commitment from the start that we would make this ranch support itself, and we've done that. It took years of hard work and some lean times, but now with the livestock, hunting operation and ecotourism, and help with governmental programs for cedar clearing, this place is viable financially and ecologically."

The Lone Star Land Steward Awards recognize and honor private landowners for their accomplishments in habitat management and wildlife conservation. TPWD's primary partner in the awards is Sand County Foundation, which bestows the Leopold Conservation Award honoring the legacy of Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), considered the father of wildlife management.

More information, including how to nominate property owners for awards, is online at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/landsteward. Nominations are accepted June 1 through November 30.

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