The famed wide-open spaces of Texas are under siege, threatened by ever-expanding suburban development and fragmenting into ever-smaller pieces as people in cities buy up land in the country. The good news is conservation-minded landowners stand as bastions against these trends, places like Llano Springs Ranch south of Junction, which on May 21 received the Leopold Conservation Award for Texas from Sand County Foundation and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, part of the department’s Lone Star Land Steward Awards program.
Every year, TPWD and Sand County Foundation recognize private land stewards in 10 ecological regions across the state, as well as the Leopold Conservation Award winner. For the fourth year, the Lone Star Land Steward Awards benefit from an association with Sand County Foundation, an international non-profit organization devoted to private landowner conservation. Ecoregion award recipients and the wildlife management association recipient receive $1,000 from the foundation, while the Leopold Conservation Award recipient receives $10,000 and the Leopold crystal. The purpose is to recognize outstanding examples of voluntary stewardship.
“I’m proud that we’ve taken a ranch that had been neglected for many years and turned it into something to be proud of, and we’ve done it ourselves,” said Tom M. Vandivier, part of the five-generation farm and ranch family which owns the 5,100-acre spread in Edwards County. He works the first part of the week as an attorney near Austin, then on Thursdays heads to the ranch and works all weekend.
“Whoever dreamed up this idea for land steward awards is right on target with what’s going on in ranching these days,” Vandivier said. “It’s a great motivator. When we learned about this, it got us motivated to do more. We’re thrilled to have won.”
The ranch contains the headwaters of the South Llano River, which flows into the Colorado. Years of work to remove water-sucking cedar and restore water-friendly native grasses are benefiting 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 ranch’s land and water 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 an inner tube.
“Aldo Leopold managed land effectively with five tools: axe, cow, plow, fire, and gun,” said Brent Haglund, Ph.D., Sand County Foundation president. “The Vandiviers clearly utilize these tools to continue the Leopold tradition of responsible land management.”
“It’s all interconnected,” Vandivier said. “It’s all part of good stewardship of the land. If you remove the cedar, plant life diversity increases, water resources improve, wildlife improves. It’s all a stair-step to better and better things. The changes over the years have been slow to occur, but they’re very noticeable to us.”
Others are noticing too. Natural history and environmental education classes from both the University of Texas and Franklin College in Indiana have used Llano Springs Ranch as an outdoor classroom. Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops have camped along the river. Cave explorers have been granted access to probe sinks and cave formations. The ranch has hosted annual youth hunts through the Texas Youth Hunting Program. Most recently, Llano Springs Ranch volunteered to become a Texas State University study site for groundbreaking research to aid the state fish of Texas, the Guadalupe bass, one of the last pure strains of which is located in the South Llano River.
For the Vandiviers, conservation stewardship reaches beyond their ranch boundaries. “The Woods” is a family-owned woodland near Indianapolis, Indiana which has been passed from generation to generation for more than 100 years. The land remains in its natural state except for limited timber harvesting to provide sustainable revenue. Tom and his sister Ann spent childhood summers there with their dad. Later, for about 30 years, the family developed and ran Navidad River Pecan Farm in Lavaca County, Texas.
Today, the entire Vandivier family participates in on-going management at Llano Springs Ranch. Minimal ranch work is done by hired contractors, requiring each family member to participate. This hands-on style has created a strong 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. Tom’s eldest daughter Laura Vandivier Sherrod earned a wildlife biology degree from Texas State University in 2007, then began work with her husband Greg Sherrod at a private environmental consulting firm doing endangered species surveys and wetland mitigation.
Located in an area of Texas historically overstocked with cattle, sheep, and goats for more than 100 years, the Vandivier family initiated efforts to improve the ranch immediately after they bought it in 1994. Livestock were removed and the land was allowed to recover. Additionally, an extensive clearing effort began, targeting regrowth ashe juniper or cedar, which was invading the landscape.
To date, more than 2,700 acres of ashe juniper have been removed from Llano Springs Ranch — approximately half its total surface area. Much of this has been completed through cost-share programs of the U.S.D.A. Natural Resource Conservation Service, including the EQIP program for a period of 6-7 years. Clearing efforts have notably increased the volume of desirable native grasses and woody browse. Native bunchgrasses such as little bluestem and sideoats grama abound, providing habitat for quail and many other birds and wildlife. The diversity and availability of woody browse has also improved through a deer management program designed to control numbers and improve herd age and sex structure.
From a water quality standpoint, the South Llano River ecosystem has benefited significantly as a result of invasive ashe juniper control. Spring flow has increased significantly since cedar-clearing efforts began, including the river headwaters spring and several new springs which recently began flowing.
To increase numbers of endangered songbirds, the ranch began a program to trap cowbirds in 2007. Cowbirds lay eggs in the nests of other birds, who then raise the cowbird chicks as their own. The aggressive cowbird chicks often crowd out chicks of the host bird, so that the host chicks die.
But it hasn’t been an easy road.
“It was a big, scary thing to take on something of this caliber,” 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.”
This year’s 13th annual Lone Star Land Steward Awards recognize and honor private landowners for their accomplishments in habitat management and wildlife conservation. The program is designed to educate landowners and the public and to encourage participation in habitat conservation. TPWD’s primary partner in the awards is Sand County Foundation, with sponsors that include Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, H. Yturria Land and Cattle Company, Texas Wildlife Association, Lower Colorado River Authority, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Texas Farm Bureau and Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
The awards are presented to accomplish three objectives: First, they recognize extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation on the land of exemplary private landowners. Second, they inspire countless other landowners in their own communities through these examples. Finally, they provide a visible forum where leaders from the agriculture community are recognized as conservation leaders to groups outside of agriculture.