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Fighting for Independence

The Nature Conservancy, along with a few determined individuals, struggled for years to save this one-of-a-kind desert wetland.

By Joe Nick Patoski

How to make your own desert wetland in five easy steps:

one
Be a visionary conservationist.
two
Identify the most important springs in West Texas, the ones that feed the lower Pecos River, giving it a translucent aquamarine tint.
three
Wait a while, and when some of the land around the springs goes on the market, help the Texas Nature Conservancy buy it, then decide to make your loan a donation to create a preserve, and agree to give it all back to the conservancy upon your death.
four
Wait a while longer and observe how 14 inches of rain in 8 hours can scour the creek and tear out the brushy riparian corridor around it.
five
Notice a pair of beaver move in. Instead of shooting them, sit back and watch their dam-building frenzy.

Eighteen months later, voila! a full-tilt desert wetland.

Actually, it took a whole lot longer and was a lot more complicated. But that’s more or less how Robert McCurdy came to be the steward of Independence Creek Preserve. The aquatic micro-environment — consisting of springs, a nearly eight-mile creek and wetlands — in the desolate flattop canyonlands of southwest Texas is so unique, it could not be replicated if lost.

Located in the transitional zone between the Edwards Plateau and the Chihuahuan Desert, Independence Creek has been a popular watering hole for quite a while actually. Humans have been living around the springs and the creek as far back as 12,000 years ago, evidenced by artifacts, Paleo Indian dwellings, ceremonial cave shelters and middens found on the preserve.

For the past 140 years, the springs and creek supported cattle, sheep and goat ranching operations. The most prominent was the Chandler Ranch, mainly because it was located at the confluence of Independence Creek and the Pecos River and always had water, a precious commodity in the desert scrub. For 40 years in the mid-20th century, the Chandler was a resort destination with manicured grounds and a nine-hole golf course. The ranch’s history is well told in the book On Independence Creek: The Story of a Texas Ranch by Charlena Chandler (Texas Tech University Press), who grew up on the ranch.

In 1991, ranch owner Joe Chandler contacted the Nature Conservancy. He knew his ranch was special — he’d been welcoming biologists to study the land for decades — and he was getting up in years. He told the Conservancy he wanted a conservation easement on the ranch. The Conservancy had targeted the Devils River/Rio Grande/Pecos River complex as a watershed worth saving, and Independence Creek was the major tributary of the Pecos. A deal was struck. The Nature Conservancy placed such a high value on the site that it purchased a 702-acre conservation easement from the Chandlers. The terms included reverting the gold course to prairie and allowing access through the Chandler land for Conservancy personnel and researchers.

Seven years later, the Nature Conservancy became an Independence Creek landowner when the organization bought the Bailey Ranch adjacent to the Chandler Ranch. The Bailey was known habitat for the endangered black-capped vireo and included one mile of the Pecos River. In 2000, the Conservancy acquired the Oasis Ranch and three more miles of creek from the Bill Roden family of Midland, and the neighboring Canon Ranch the following year. In four years, the Nature Conservancy purchased 19,740 acres of land in and around Independence Creek for the express purpose of keeping it natural.

In most cases, the Nature Conservancy of Texas would have sought buyers for the ranches willing to put most of the land in conservation easements where the owner promises to leave the land as is, rather than develop it, and pay lower taxes on the “devalued” land. But the more the Conservancy learned about Independence Creek, the more it became clear this was no ordinary piece of real estate. “Our science committee was very concerned about how you sell this to a buyer and make sure the easement protects the water resource,” says James King, the West Texas program manager for the Nature Conservancy of Texas. “We didn’t realize how exceptional it was. Larry McKinney, the director of the TPWD coastal fisheries division, called it the most important piece of water in West Texas.”

That’s where Robert McCurdy stepped in. He proposed a lifetime conservation lease with recreational rights to the Oasis Ranch. “We had lots of potential buyers,” King says. “Robert was the only one who said, ‘I’m going to give this ranch back to you when I pass away.’ He bought a lifetime lease on the Oasis, a limited lease on the Canon, and made a loan that turned into a significant donation. Most people we work with on easements donate some of their net worth. Robert gave most of his.”

McCurdy is hardly your garden variety conservationist. A tall, dark-haired gentleman with rugged features, he grew up near the river bottoms of the West Fork of the Trinity River in Fort Worth. He learned how tough a conservation fight can be in the 1970s, when he successfully beat back the Nantucket Island Board of Selectmen’s designs on neighboring Esther Island, which remains roadless. He opened the Austin Angler, the first retail shop specializing in fly fishing in Texas. Throughout the 1980s, he headed the Clear Clean Colorado River Association, a citizen group that fought the city of Austin’s practice of dumping partially treated sewage into the Colorado River (and past his home on Hill’s Prairie east of Bastrop) and initiated a public schools program for monitoring water quality.

Independence Creek isn’t his first dance with the Nature Conservancy. He donated over 400 acres of land on the north shore of Caddo Lake in northeast Texas in 1990, which ultimately led to the Conservancy and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department purchasing 7,000 acres for a state wildlife management area on the lake.

McCurdy’s happy with the Independence Creek arrangement. He gets the main ranch house on the Oasis, built in the 1890s, and access to hunt the wetlands for ducks and fish the creek and the ponds. “They told me this place was carpeted with ducks,” McCurdy says, nodding with a wink towards James King as 50 mallards took off behind him. “I said ‘that better be true’.” He also gets great advice. Not for nothing is Independence Creek a wetlands laboratory. Field researchers are frequent guests at the 21-bed bunkhouse. “One of the perks I get from this is less ignorance,” McCurdy says. “I get to hang out with scientists.”

They have educated McCurdy well. He is quick with the facts. The springs are upwelling with hydrostatic pressure from the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer. About 20,000 gallons per minute (44.6 cubic feet per second) of pure, pristine spring water rise to the surface along the first three miles of Independence Creek. The gravity springs effectively double the flow of the Pecos River, and run cool (71 degrees F), swift and clear, cutting total suspended solids in half. The creek is home to two locally abundant, but threatened, aquatic species — the proserpine shiner and the headwaters catfish, found only along the Devils, the Rio Grande and the Pecos rivers. The ranch’s waters also harbor the Rio Grande cichlid, the only native cichlid found in the United States. The area also harbors the westernmost megapopulation of vireo and an extensive array of neotropical migrants, waterfowl and shorebirds. Both belted and ringed kingfisher are found at Independence Creek.

On a drive around the Oasis, the bird spotting started before seat belts were buckled. A vermilion flycatcher was flitting in the trees near the bunkhouse, flashing red. Greenwing teal, pintail and cinnamon teal were seen on the lower lake. A flock of wild turkey rushed from under the huge canopy of an oak tree near the creek. Overhead, a kestrel soared.

While we rode around, project manager Jason Wrinkle, another Fort Worth area native and McCurdy’s sometime foil, pointed out mitigation projects in progress. Irrigated fields of oats and alfalfa were being converted into a native grass seed farm for use on the ranch, for Conservancy partners and for neighboring ranches. Ninety miles of fencing have been removed. Power lines were rerouted. Exotics are being removed from the ponds. The deer herd has been thinned out to near carrying capacity. “When we first came out here, the kidneywood was worn to the nub with very short stems,” Wrinkle explains. “Since that’s a favorite browsing source for deer, we knew there were too many deer on the land.” The ratio has been knocked down to one per 18 acres.

There are plenty of “stay tuned” deals, as McCurdy refers to unanswered questions, such as why they were finding vireos all along the creek, never more than 100 yards from the water, but nowhere else. Wrinkle calls them “be patient” propositions. “Things happen soooo slow around here,” he drawls with a smile.

They haven’t figured out what to do with the walled-in bank by the main springs, two lakes that were impounded, one in the 1930s and the other in the 1980s, or the dam and irrigation channels. McCurdy pointed out the dead trees that have been dragged into the shallows of the lower lake. “Robert’s building fish habitat single-handedly,” Wrinkle says of McCurdy’s determination to add organic material to the lakes. The purity of the springs flowing into the lakes leaves them sterile. “It’s not a drainage, so nothing fertile is coming in,” McCurdy says. Dead trees are a start.

For all the projects discussed, no one anticipated the beaver, whose presence has accelerated wetlands restoration dramatically. “In two seasons of doing this, we’ve had just about every species of duck from the Central Flyway to the Mountain Flyway,” McCurdy says. “Two hundred years ago, this part of Terrell County was beautiful prairie land. Prairie dogs and prairie chickens were everywhere. One of the best things we can do with the water that we’re blessed with is bring back the wetlands. We’ve lost so many prairie potholes, cienegas and springs. We can do a lot of good with this.”

Before first light the next morning, McCurdy had us huddled in waders at the edge of a marsh, where cattail coexist with prickly pear, to watch the morning liftoff. As the darkness gradually faded, the wildlife stirred. In the palest of light, we could make out two beaver or nutria weaving their way through the water into a pile of sticks. “See that fringe of sticks?” McCurdy whispered. “That’s beaver levee work right there.”

As the light improved, the liftoff began. Widgeon, gadwall, and mallard lifted off in flights of threes, fives and tens. Teal and coot joined in. Jason pointed out a snipe that landed at our feet. As the light improved, we spotted a zone-tailed hawk circling above. “OK, it’s a good morning,” McCurdy declared.

“It’s mind-blowing here on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert to see wetlands created by these frontier beaver,” he said. He wasn’t kidding. I saw the trunk of a live oak 10 inches in diameter felled with a very clean cut. These beaver would chew up anything. The beaver arrived after the big flood of July 2004. “It rained 14 inches in 8 hours in this watershed and changed everything,” Jason Wrinkle said. “The [riparian] corridor had been heavily vegetated to the point you couldn’t see the water unless you were right up next to it. The flood scoured the whole thing. That’s how it’s supposed to be — exposed rock banks.” The clearing looked like an opportunity to the beaver moving in, and the humans who owned the land welcomed them. A year and a half later, a desert wetland is in the making.

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