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Redefining the Ranch

Brush control and other strategies reap numerous benefits for wildlife, springs and the city folk who live downstream.

By Tom Harvey

As Texas leaders and planners try to figure out how to provide enough clean water for cities, industry, agriculture and the environment, they might do well to look down. In the earth itself, they may find part of the key.

When Texas soil is rich and dense with the fibrous roots of native grasses, it’s like a giant sponge. The rain that falls on it soaks in and percolates slowly down, replenishing underground aquifers that bubble forth as springs. This is water conservation at the earliest possible point, using the land as a great catchment system to hold and filter water. In some soils, this can help sustain aquifers and springs during droughts, when water is needed most. In every case, it sends cleaner, higher-quality water into streams, rivers and coastal estuaries.

The reverse is also true. When the land is abused, when it’s overgrazed, when unmanaged native or invasive exotic plants suck the life out of it, when it’s bare and rocky, the water runs off quickly, carrying precious topsoil with it, silting up rivers and lakes, quickly flushing everything away, leaving little behind for the dry times.

This is a story about people who are doing things right. It’s a story that shows why people in cities should care what happens in the country.

Ghosts of Ships in the Desert

A great length of anchor chain lies across the arid soil of the 33,000-acre Hammond Ranch southwest of Fort Stockton. A single link weighs 50 pounds and measures 18 inches. In years past, it hoisted anchors for ocean-going vessels. Similar chains stretch across the earth on other ranches nearby.

Although long divorced from the sea, these chains retain a connection with water. Ranchers pull them between bulldozers to scrape away water-sucking creosotebush, tarbush and mesquite.

Sherman Hammond has cleared brush on some 12,000 acres this way. For Hammond, in a region that averages 12 inches of rainfall per year, it’s all about water.

“The problem you have in this part of Texas is when it rains all your water runs off,” Hammond says. “It’s been so abused by overgrazing for the past 100 years.”

Hammond’s wife’s great-grandfather homesteaded the ranch close to a century ago. His wife inherited one-eighth of the property in 1963. Sherman proceeded to buy out the other heirs, and they had the ranch back together by 1980.

“When I got control of this ranch, it had all these ranch roads over it, and they turned into canals when it rained,” Hammond says. “What I’ve been trying to do is get the water out of the road and spread it back out over the rangeland.”

Hammond began digging “potholes” the size of pickups all over the ranch, producing aerial photos that one observer said “look like a bombing range.” The earth from these shallow pits is piled next to them to stop and hold rainwater. He also built long berms or levees off the ranch roads to catch water.

The result is a patchwork of green across the land. Water stays in the soil longer here, and native grasses are coming back.

“We’re seeing bluestem, buffalo grass and sideoats grama,” says Hammond. “Those are the ones we call the “ice cream grasses,” the ones your cattle, deer and wildlife will eat first. We also have more tobosa grass, a native that’s great nesting habitat for quail.”

Research has verified the benefits. Dale Rollins of Texas A&M University in San Angelo conducted a two-year quail study on the ranch.

“Those moist soil sites produced 25 times more vegetation and six times more arthropods [insects],” Rollins says. “By putting those little green spots across the landscape, we’re providing more insects, which are a key factor for quail and other birds.”

Hammond believes there was “live water” on the ranch long ago, because “We’ve got Indian camp grounds indicating that.” But the springs or creeks are gone now.

Still, he has noticed that the underground water table “is as high now as it’s ever been.”

Every time they service a well pump, they measure the water level.

“On one well, the static level has risen 75 feet. I don’t know how much of this you can contribute to this chaining we’re doing, but every time you take out one of these bushes, you’re saving water, and it filters down into the aquifer.”

A Legacy Wells Up on Spicewood Ranch

For 10 years, Kay Harte urged her husband, Chris, to restore the family ranch west of Austin. Through her landscape architecture training at UT and work with David Mahler, an environmental consultant who has guided restoration on the ranch, Kay developed a love for the Hill Country.

Tragically, Kay died of cancer eight years ago. But her vision left a showcase of innovative ranching in a part of Texas that is being consumed by suburban sprawl.

This is the country of the five-acre ranchettes, the front line of landscape fragmentation, where the old ranching families are gradually selling out to developers.

But, for decades, the Spicewood Ranch has gone against the grain, getting bigger, not smaller.

When Chris Harte was at The University of Texas at Austin, getting a Master of Business Administration degree, and his brother Will was at Texas A&M University getting a range science degree, they convinced their father and uncle, Ed and Houston Harte, to buy the ranch.

Over the years, Chris bought out the other family members, and he began to buy adjacent property as it became available, especially environmentally sensitive areas along creeks, costly as this was near Austin. Today, the ranch is about 1,100 acres.

They began to clear cedar that had invaded and shaded out the grasses after people suppressed the natural wildfires that used to keep invasive plants under control.

“We have a Bobcat skid loader with tree shears on the front of it,” says Allen Spelce, who lives on and manages the ranch day to day. “We’ve found that is least damaging to the land because you only disturb the top two inches of soil. It’s a little slower than a bulldozer but the returns are greater in terms of promoting grasses. If you want to plant row crops, you’re probably better off bulldozing, but if you want to restore a native landscape, the Bobcat is better. With the Bobcat, you can leave a stand of persimmon trees, which offers habitat for quail and other birds.”

Prescribed fire has also been used extensively.

“We’ve burned almost every year for about 14 years, mostly in winter,” Spelce says. “That has promoted cool season grasses, forbs in the summer and a diversity of native plants.”

After the burning and clearing, they reseed native grasses like Indiangrass, big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass and big muhly. They also plant forbs, broadleafed plants with flowers, like golden eye and Maximilian sunflower.

The goal, Mahler stresses, is “not to get rid of all the cedar. Our end product will have some prairie, some savannah, live oak woodlands, cedar-elm woodlands, riparian areas, cedar breaks and post oak savannah on some of the sandy soils, so we’re going for the full diversity of plants and wildlife that could be on a property like that.”

A dozen years of careful restoration have paid off in upwelling water.

“We’ve definitely had seeps develop that weren’t there before,” Harte says. “We have more water and more small springs. In cleared areas that might have been thick cedar years ago, you can now see water pooling and seeping up through the soil.”

The quality of Alligator Creek, which flows most of the year, has improved noticeably.

“What I’ve discovered is that restoration takes a long time,” Harte says. “We could go in and bulldoze everything out there, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, but to work with fire and nature is a better way. And in the end, it’s not only more satisfying, but also I think we’ll get better results.”

Amid the Brown, a Spread of Green

In the year 2000, wildlife biologist Jim Lionberger was out collecting deer age and antler data in Kent County, southeast of Lubbock, when he noticed something interesting.

All around him, the landscape was brown, scorched by a decade of drought. But one ranch looked different.

“I saw quite a bit of little bluestem out there,” Lionberger recalls. “There are a lot of folks out here who manage their places well, but his place was greener. You could tell by the vegetation and the diversity that they were doing something right.”

The man behind the green turned out to be Buddy Baldridge, owner of the 36,000-acre Mesquite Grove Ranch. Baldridge’s son B.J. makes the fifth generation of ranch owners. His great-great-grandfather, Nicholas Bilby, started the ranch in 1901.

The reason Buddy’s place stays greener in the dry times starts with cattle grazing.

“We have employed what they call Holistic Manage-ment,” Baldridge says. “Basically, that involves time-controlled, rotational grazing. We have two herds in rotation through about 50 to 60 pastures, so they don’t have to stay any one place too long.”

Like many ranches today, the Mesquite Grove balances the needs of livestock with those of wildlife, since hunting-lease income pays an increasing percentage of the bills.

“Cattle are really good to go with our deer and quail,” Baldridge says. “But we have to be careful to not overgraze, because that can take out all the quail habitat. We’ve got about two-thirds of the place in shinnery oak stands. That’s where we find a lot of the little bluestem and sand sage and ragweed, and that’s good quail habitat.”

Baldridge has controlled brush with federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program dollars, which he says has “opened up a lot of quail country.”

“I think we’re keeping more water and more soil on the pastures because it’s not running off,” Baldridge says. “We’re seeing erosion not only stop, but turn around and actually start filling in with eastern gammagrass — that’s a grass that hasn’t been seen here in a long time.”

Restoring the native landscape has helped creeks and springs flow again here, too. And this is a region where groundwater levels are being watched nervously.

“We have a spring that had been dry for I don’t know how long, and that came back during the drought.”

Baldridge says what matters most to him is having a diverse mix of plants and wildlife coexisting with livestock.

“If you continue to do what you’ve always done, you’ll always have what you’ve always had. If you don’t make some changes, you’re going to keep getting the same result. I feel like we’re going to be able to leave the place in better shape than we found it.”

The Wetland Ranchers

Centuries ago, down along the Guadalupe River just a few miles from where it flows into San Antonio Bay, early settlers couldn’t make money off the trees in the river bottom. So they cleared the trees, built levees to hold back the river and planted crops.

Jess Womack and his son Jesse have worked a magical transformation on their ranch of close to 9,000 acres. When Jess took over this part of the historic McFad din Ranch in 1988, a decision was made to stop farming.

“That decision was partly made by me and partly by Mother Nature,” Jess said, explaining that floods in 1987 broke levees along the Guadalupe in 17 places.

The Womacks sold a conservation easement on their property to the federal Wetland Reserve Program, keeping ownership and control of the land but giving up the rights to develop it in ways that might harm wetlands.

They became “wetland ranchers,” emphasizing light, rotational grazing, controlled burning and restoration of native grasses and forbs. They gave up planting cotton and corn and the fertilizers and pesticides used to grow them.

“We took a very ecologically sensitive ranch that had been somewhat degraded over the years, and have made it into a showplace, and been very successful at both ranching and wildlife,” the elder Womack said with pride. But the Womacks were always in the ranching business to make a profit.

Today, about 60 percent of ranch income comes from cattle, the rest from hunting.

Jess Womack passed away shortly after he was interviewed for this article, but he left his love and passion for Texas woods and waters to his son, Jesse.

Jesse attended Texas Christian University’s ranch management school in Fort Worth, which was “by far the best year of school I’ve ever spent,” he says.

“You abide the law of take half, leave half,” says Jesse. “That way, the good, native grasses can have a competitive advantage over the bad grasses and will eventually multiply, benefiting water, wildlife, soil, everything.”

The Womacks also conduct controlled burns “as much as we possibly can.” And they manage their wildlife populations just as they manage cattle, so they don’t overpopulate and overtax the vegetation.

“The more I’m down here, and the more I’m around wetlands, I’ve become more and more of a conservationist,” Jesse says.

“My biggest pride is to see these wetlands, which were mostly ag fields until 20 years ago, to watch them grow and to see the bird populations.”

Despite his optimism, he’s realistic about the obstacles ahead. At the moment, one of his big concerns is abandoned oil wells. Jesse believes that the neglected wells, on his property and across the state, pose a serious threat to water quality. “I do battle with small-time oil and gas companies around here, because there are way too many loopholes in oil and gas law.”

“What scares me is I feel like it’s a prevalent opinion in the U.S. that if something needs to be protected, like these wetlands out there, they see government ownership as the ans-wer. But I maintain that private stewards continue to be the best stewards. It’s micro management vs. macro management. On the whole, private stewards take pride in managing their land well, and that really gets down to water quality.”

Rocky Creek Flows Again

I park in front of Producer’s Livestock in San Angelo, note the unmistakable smell of a cattle stockyard, and walk upstairs to the office of John Cargile (rhymes with Argyle), who owns the livestock auction company and Rocky Creek Ranch outside of town.

Cargile briskly dons a tan felt hat, looks me in the eye and sticks out his hand. The 80-year-old rancher seems remarkably spry and sharp after decades of toil in the West Texas heat.

“Tell me again what you’re doing?” he asks. Cargile seems a little suspicious of me, maybe because I seem to represent the government and the media, a double whammy of distrusted institutions.

We hop in Cargile’s SUV and pick up Steve Nelle of the Natural Resource Conservation Service on the way to the ranch, which today comprises 24,000 acres.

A few miles before the main gate, we ride over a low-water crossing and I get my first look at Rocky Creek. Stories about how this creek began to flow again after brush clearing have become a minor legend in the insular ranching community — landowners I interviewed for this article 500 miles away had heard of it.

On this topic and others, Cargile is characteristically terse and understated.

“I can’t say that getting rid of the brush made the creek run,” he says. “The creek runs more when it rains more.”

Cargile is a conservation-minded rancher, what wildlife biologists like to call a private land steward. Over the years, he’s participated in government programs that have funded conservation projects, including one, starting in 1962, to clear brush off about 2,000 acres. This helped stimulate grasses to improve cattle forage and quail cover, and it got rid of invasive plants like mesquite, which can suck up to 30 gallons of water per day in summer. More recently, with Nelle’s guidance, he got a grant to build an exclosure fence that will keep cattle out of the riparian zone along Rocky Creek for several years to let grasses come back and prevent erosion.

He is also intensely practical.

“What are you trying to do with your ranch?” I ask, hoping for some juicy quotes about conservation ideals.

“I need to make a living,” Cargile replies.

Some readers may mistakenly think this means it’s all about profit. If ranching families want to pay their taxes and expenses, keep their spreads from getting sold off and chopped into ranchettes, and do some good for the land, they must be able to make a living.

For example, the riparian buffer will prevent erosion and benefit creek water, but it’s not entirely a charity project. It will also improve habitat for many kinds of wildlife, including deer, turkey and quail. And these days, hunting-lease income has grown to rival the cattle business.

We stop at a gate and clamber down to the banks of Rocky Creek.

Nelle suddenly gets excited. The long green shoots around him turn out to be Texas bluegrass, highly desirable but somewhat rare, early proof that the exclosure fence is working.

At the ranch house, the talk turns back to water.

“Proper grazing management where you have good grass cover is important, because I think that helps underground water, and I know it helps stop erosion,” Cargile says. “Obviously, the better care you take of the land, the more it’s going to help your water supply. There’s a relationship there.”

This prompts Nelle to observe, “If they ever subdivided that area west of San Angelo, that creek would be gone so fast, they’d suck it dry.”

“I don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime, but it’ll happen,” Cargile muses. “In 100 years, it’ll all be cut up. When the money gets big enough.”The winds of change are at the door. But on places like Rocky Creek Ranch, tradition and determination still provide a windbreak.

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