One family's venture in private land conservation: Investing in Partnerships

Editor's Note: This is the third of a three-part series by the author. To read part one, click here. To read part two, click here.

Landowning families committed to the sound stewardship of their farms and ranches face a growing list of threats and challenges, such as:

  • reduced spring flows and depletion of groundwater supply;
  • water, air, light, and noise pollution related to the surge in oil and gas production;
  • condemnation for regional infrastructure projects (roads, pipelines, transmission lines);
  • impacts of Chronic Wasting Disease on deer and elk herds.   

Texas landowners sometimes pride themselves in a rugged individualism that can result in a tendency to “go it alone.” But working closely with neighbors and diverse stakeholders can be a critical component of protecting family lands and the open space, wildlife habitat, and water resources these lands provide all Texans.

When my grandparents purchased my family’s ranch in Southwest Travis County in 1938, the rural electrification project championed by then-Congressman Lyndon Johnson had not yet reached our area. Located less than twenty miles from the Texas Capitol, the most direct route to Austin was a poorly maintained caliche road. Today, the Shield Ranch is surrounded by subdivisions and other development to support the city’s burgeoning population. At the same time, we are experiencing new threats to our ranchlands in more remote areas of West Texas.

An essential element of our ongoing effort to steward and protect our land has been our partnerships with others. Key aspects of our land stewardship program (rotational grazing, wildlife management, and brush management) are informed by the expertise provided to landowners by agencies including the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas AgriLife Extension, and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department; and by non-profit partners such as The Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund.

A Texas Conservation Crops crew prepares to conduct a selective brush clearing to improve wildlife habitat on the Shield Ranch.

A Texas Conservation Crops crew prepares to conduct a selective brush clearing to improve wildlife habitat on the Shield Ranch.

In collaboration with Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center and El Buen Samaritano Episcopal Mission, we created El Ranchito, a nature immersion summer camp for kids whose families could not otherwise afford to send them to camp. We have partnered with Texas Wildlife Association to host youth hunting, as well as field learning opportunities for students from a local middle school. Boy Scout troops, Capital Area Master Naturalists, and groups from the Sierra Club and Travis Audubon Society enjoy outings on the ranch and in turn volunteer to assist us with trail work, invasive species removal, and bird surveys.

We provide access to professors at area universities to conduct scientific research, and to organizations such as the Texas Archeological Society to advance our understanding of the cultures that predate our brief tenure on the land.

We advocate vigorously on a wide range of local and statewide issues that directly impact the ranch. We participate in stakeholder groups and regional planning initiatives, and we work closely with the City of Austin, Travis County, and the land trust community to support bond referendums and other efforts to increase public awareness and funding for land conservation. When necessary, we also seek legal counsel when dealing with complex issues such as state water policy, or threats of condemnation.

Where we have been useful in addressing critical and even existential threats to the ranch, our success is predictably the result of strong partnerships with near neighbors and regional alliances that seek to balance the benefits of economic growth with the need to protect our environment and preserve our heritage and quality of life. As landowners, we know that our voices are amplified when we join with others to promote a shared vision for land and water conservation. Organizations like Hill Country Alliance and Big Bend Conservation Alliance have proven to be ready sources of reliable information and advice.

Working closely with neighbors, we have twice contested the wastewater permit applications of neighboring developments that threatened water quality in Barton Creek. In one case, we worked with the developing landowner to mutually fund an irrigation study with scientists at Texas A&M University. The study resulted in an innovative plan to irrigate treated wastewater on existing native vegetation, and a settlement agreement that required additional safeguards. In return, we withdrew our protest. The development is mostly built out now, and water quality testing on our ranch downstream has not detected adverse impacts.

With the Hill Country Alliance and local environmental groups, we have successfully advocated for the removal of plans for new roadways that would promote development in areas with limited water resources, or that would adversely impact lands protected by the public for water quality protection and endangered species habitat.

In concert with Travis County, area groundwater districts, and other proponents of groundwater protection, we advocated for years for a groundwater conservation district for Southwestern Travis County. During the last legislative session, a bill was passed and signed into law that will finally create this much-needed district.

Effective partnerships require time, energy, and dedication. Sometimes we succeed in our efforts, and sometimes we fail. Most often we make things better than they would have been otherwise.

Through each collaboration, we get to know our neighbors, build strong alliances, and develop long and lasting friendships with a diverse array of talented people committed to protecting the land and water that sustains us. Together, we work to ensure that future generations will enjoy the farms, ranches, and wide open spaces that make us proud to call Texas home.

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Bob Ayres is the managing partner of the Shield Ranch. He serves as vice president of the Shield Ranch Foundation and treasurer of the Shield-Ayres Foundation. He was a founding board member of the Hill Country Conservancy and has served as a trustee of the Nature Conservancy of Texas. Currently, he serves on the board of the Land Trust Alliance. An honors graduate of the University of the South, Bob holds master’s degrees from Virginia Theological Seminary and the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. 

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Editor's note: The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Can Texas's approach to sustainability inform a path forward for the U.S.?," are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. The foundation works as an engine of change in both policy and practice, supporting high-impact projects at the nexus of environmental protection, social equity, and economic vibrancy. Follow the Mitchell Foundation on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for regular updates from the foundation.  

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