Range War at the Dobie Ranch
A bulldozer's intrusion onto 'enchanted' property uncovers the struggles of UT's historic retreat for writers
The morning after a rainstorm, the sun shines down on a clearing dotted with wildflowers. Red-and-gold Indian blankets and top-heavy Mexican hats bob in the breeze among blackfoot daisies. It would look like any other patch of Hill Country wildland, if it weren't for the conspicuous lack of trees.
Look a little closer, and you can see jagged stumps of cedar and scrub oak jutting up through the wildflowers, some forming clusters almost four feet in diameter. Alongside the clearing, iron fencing has replaced several hundred feet of the gnarled cedar and barbed wire that borders the historic, University of Texas-owned Dobie Paisano Ranch, home to a prestigious fellowship program for Texas writers. On the south side of the black bars lies a razed, treeless patch of land over an acre in size belonging to the ranch; on the other, a smooth, emerald-green lawn in the Spanish Oaks golf course community, crowned with a mansion and hot tub. On the ranch side, bulldozer ruts crisscross the ground, permanently muddied by water dribbling from a drainage pipe near the fence. This water seepage, which no doubt has encouraged the wildflowers to grow, has also, in six short months, already started to erode the field on its downhill path straight into a Barton Creek tributary.
Michael Adams, director of the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program, first saw the damage last Christmas. He points to bulldozer ruts that run between two black iron gates opening directly onto the University's property. The position of the ruts shows that the trespassing and property damage happened after the fence was built, suggesting no confusion over boundary lines; bulldozers had to drive through a gate in order to do the damage. "Devastation," Adams calls it. "We're being encroached upon and violated."
UT Slow to Respond
Almost as disturbing as the initial trespassing has been the slow response time on the part of UT officials, who were first apprised of the damage almost six months ago and have yet to determine how or whether to respond with legal action.
Adams first alerted the UT Campus Real Estate Office (CREO) to the destruction on Jan. 2. In February, when no reports had been filed with the police, no charges pressed, and no survey of the damage made by the university, Adams personally brought the matter to the attention of the UT Office of Legal Affairs. The university finally scheduled a survey to determine the location of the property line for June 1, almost five months to the day after the incident was first reported. When asked why it took that long merely to determine the location of the ranch's property line in order to verify the trespass, a UT spokesperson said, "It's a process that can take time."
For writers who have lived and worked at the ranch, every moment UT delays its response is crucial. Adams soon began to receive a deluge of emails from former Dobie Paisano fellows. "They said things like, 'If somebody tore down the fence at the football field and sawed off their goalpost, if 30 yards of the football stadium were devastated, what would UT have done about it six months later?'"
In mid-June, results from the survey were finally in, confirmed by local surveying group Terra Firma: 1.25 acres of ranch land belonging to the university had been cleared without permission. For Adams, who initially received multiple email apologies from the suspected offender for the intrusion, these results only confirm "what we already knew." Moreover, given that it has taken almost half a year of continuous effort on his part for UT to confirm that the incident even took place, he is not optimistic that the matter will be resolved quickly or in accordance with the best interests of the fellowship program. For the ranch itself, whose fragile ecosystem has taken a serious blow, the damage is done, and with the legal gears just now grinding into action, any assistance in restoring the land will be a long time coming.
A UT spokesperson has stated, "In general, the university first seeks to resolve disputes directly with the other party and then considers other options."
It Used to Be Secluded
The high-end real estate development Spanish Oaks, with its sprawling, cliffside houses and glittering golf course, has been increasing its presence in Central Texas since it was formed by CEO Daniel Porter in 1998. Although the developers took a hit in decreased sales during the mortgage crisis of 2008 and 2009, losing the land in a 2010 foreclosure, Porter was able to recover the property six months later. The development's mission, according to its website, is to "capture and preserve the natural environmental beauty of the land."
Although UT CREO contacted Spanish Oaks Development Manager Scott Michaels in early 2013, Michaels says that an assessment of the property conducted at the time convinced him no damage had been done. Michaels now attributes this to a miscommunication on the part of CREO over the location of the damage. "I went down there and walked the fence and didn't see anything. I thought, they must have told me the wrong piece of land." No follow-up attempts were made by either Spanish Oaks or UT to assess the situation. When contacted by the Chronicle, Porter, who had no prior knowledge of the incident, expressed concern, saying that the damage appears to have been the result of trespassing. "What appears to have happened is totally wrong," he said.
James Lorenz, the property owner whose Spanish Oaks lot abuts Dobie Paisano Ranch at the site of the damage, did not respond to the Chronicle's attempts to contact him. Although he initially acknowledged the intrusion in emails to Adams and offered to cooperate, Lorenz did not respond to UT lawyers who contacted him in March. According to Adams, in their single meeting at the property line, Lorenz joked that he had "done the ranch a favor" by clearing unwanted cedar. Adams, who has personally spent hours carefully clearing cedar as part of an elaborate ranch management plan he commissioned, was not amused. The razed area had been set aside for a trail to be named after Texas preservationist J. David Bamberger, who provided the management plan for the ranch.
In March, while waiting for word from the UT lawyers Adams purchased an orange "No Trespassing" sign and hung it on one of the few trees left in the clearing. Lorenz requested that he take the sign down because its reflective glow at night was disrupting the view.
One Man's Dedication
Adams, a 67-year-old professor of English at UT and associate director of the James A. Michener Center for Writers, has won multiple teaching awards in his 30-plus years teaching undergraduates. Growing up in Killeen, he spent much of his childhood fishing and hunting on his grandfather's farm in Copperas Cove. While he looks supremely comfortable hiking up the bluff on Dobie Paisano's rugged, cedar-and-cactus-strewn land, he occasionally walks with a blue aluminum cane. He was carrying the cane when he met me for coffee, having recently mowed the lawn around the Dobie Paisano ranch house. "My hip and back are acting up," he confessed.
When Adams took over as director of the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program six years ago, it was one of the best-kept secrets in the local creative writing scene. The 250-acre ranch, located 20 minutes outside of Austin in the southwest hills, originally belonged to Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie, who used its modest ranch house as a peaceful workplace and retreat. After Dobie's death in 1964, it was rescued from the auction block by Ralph A. Johnston, and a residency program for Texas authors and authors writing about Texas was established there with joint funding from the UT Graduate School and the Texas Institute of Letters. Recipients of the Dobie Paisano Fellowship live in the ranch house for four to six months, receiving a monthly stipend to allow them to work on long projects.
Since its inception in 1967, the fellowship program has hosted a succession of distinguished writers, including Sandra Cisneros, Dagoberto Gilb, and Gary Cartwright. But by 2007, the land had fallen into disrepair. It was overrun by cedar and posed a serious wildfire threat. The two-mile road to the ranch house was crowded with overhanging trees to the point that it was barely passable, and low-water crossings regularly stranded fellows during rains. Moreover, the house itself was in grave disrepair, with fetid furniture, sagging ceilings, and an out-of-control termite problem. "The posts holding up the veranda were rotten and breaking off," Adams says. "The place was literally falling down."
Hired to read applications and administer a fellowship program, Adams soon found himself stepping into the roles of caretaker and fundraiser. With support from Victoria Rodriguez, then dean of the graduate school, Adams began planning a 40th anniversary celebration on the ranch. A safety assessment by UT Project Management and Construction Services resulted in the immediate condemnation and teardown of a shed on the property where former fellows like photographer Alan Pogue and writer Stephen Harrigan had worked, and UT project managers told Adams that the house itself was in bad enough condition to be condemned within a matter of years. Adams began raising money for a renovation. With generous support from recently deceased Texas Book Festival co-founder Mary Margaret Farabee, the ranch house got a full makeover, expanding its footprint, providing a modern, usable kitchen, and restoring interior walls to reveal the house's original, historic log cabin design. Comfortable furniture and artwork donated by past Dobie fellows completed the restoration.
In addition to renovating the ranch house, Adams revamped the structure of the fellowship program, splitting the fellowship into separate grants for early-career and more established authors. Hoping to attract a broad range of high-profile writers to the program, he raised money to increase the stipend for both fellowships. The makeover worked. Recent Dobie Paisano fellows have included ZZ Packer and Philipp Meyer – both listed in the New Yorker's annual "20 under 40" author list – as well as award-winning novelists Stefan Block and Sarah Bird. Last year, applications started coming in from around the globe, and this fall the ranch will be home to Ben Fountain, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for his 2012 debut novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.
Manage, Not Damage
In 2010, Adams commissioned a ranch management plan from Bamberger, whose 5,500-acre Selah Bamberger Ranch Preserve in Johnson City is the largest preservation project on private property in Texas. Bamberger spent a year walking every inch of the Dobie property, meticulously cataloging its plants and wildlife, assessing the soil, and marking out the best places for potential walking trails. Bamberger helped Adams rally the support of the Texas Trail Tamers, a group of wilderness volunteers who donated an estimated $20,000 worth of services clearing trails along the top of the bluff and along the creek to "Philosopher's Rock," one of Frank Dobie's favorite resting places.
The trails blazed over a year ago are getting overgrown, however. While the ranch is serviced by the overworked UT maintenance crews, there are no special provisions for the care and upkeep of trails and country roads. With no one else looking after day-to-day issues on the ranch, Adams improvises solutions. When I visited the ranch with Adams, his SUV was cluttered with lumber and wood chips that he had purchased as a stopgap measure to fill in large ruts that had opened up on the ranch road. After the rainstorm the night before, he was worried about Packer, who currently lives on the ranch with her two sons. "She has to get her car in and out of the ranch every day to drive them to school," he said. "If a tire slipped into one of these gullies, she'd be in trouble." Adams, a man in his sixties, emptied giant bags of wood chips into the deep gashes, laying long boards over the chips. Running out of boards, he stood over them, shaking his head. "I didn't bring enough," he said. "But maybe that will hold for a little while."
Adams is quick to emphasize that the university has not been neglectful – rather, he says, it is unequipped to deal with the special needs of running a ranch. For example, there's the sticker problem. "The lawn around the ranch house is 54,000 square feet of stickers," Adams says, rendering it unusable for residents like Packer and her young children. This year Adams raised $700 to buy corn gluten, which kills stickers. The treated lawn, however, needs frequent mowing and bagging to keep the seed heads at bay. Even if UT could send out a crew to mow the lawn weekly, their riding mowers do not bag the cut grass. So Adams himself mows the lawn with a walking lawnmower.
"It's not that we don't get any support," he says. "But when debris builds up at the low-water crossings, or even when a lightbulb has to be replaced, when the heater breaks – somebody has to get out there with blankets. Every time I have to put in a work order, it could take days to get someone out there." Those work orders can lag even longer during key UT times like graduation, which this year unfortunately coincided with a particularly rainy May, exacerbating the road problems Adams has tried to address with mulch and boards.
While the challenges of regular maintenance might be understandable, the university's response to the recent property damage has also been underwhelming. In a meeting with the CREO in April, the need for a land survey to establish the property line was brought up. The next day, Adams received an email request for $3,800 for the survey, with a follow-up asking for an account number for the transfer. UT has stated that Adams was never asked to pay for the survey with funds he had raised for the program, and Adams concedes that the request may have been the result of administrative confusion over which department oversees the program. Regardless, the survey was not granted at the time, although Adams forwarded the request to the UT Graduate School, which eventually paid for it.
To date, there has been no estimate of the cost of the damage to the university's historic property. Even Bamberger, as an experienced ranch preservationist, is hesitant to assign a dollar amount to the damage. "There's no way to repair it," he says. "Even if you could somehow replant everything, it'd take 50 years to grow back. You can win in court all you want, but it won't bring back a tree."
Bringing the issue to UT Legal Affairs in February 2013 initiated a series of conversations that appeared to result in no real action. Adams became increasingly frustrated, and the talks went sour as he began to feel that advocating for the program he had rebuilt from the ground up made him the enemy.
Adams remembers one meeting shortly after UT Campus lawyers told him that the matter was getting passed to UT System lawyers. Desperate, Adams asked point-blank, "'If we confirm with a survey that it's trespassing, is it still possible that the System lawyers will do nothing?' When they said yes, that was a turning point for me." Although Adams did not want to give details, he admits that his frustration with the lawyers was compounded by past incidents of trespassing and property damage that he felt had not been adequately addressed.
On May 9, Adams handed in his resignation as director of the Dobie Paisano Fellowship program to Graduate School Dean Judith Langlois. Delivering a lecture in his popular "In Search of Meaning" class, Adams had found himself distracted and upset by constant thoughts of the debates he was having with the university lawyers over the ranch. But Langlois, whom Adams calls "very supportive," refused to accept his resignation, instead reassuring him that she supported his efforts and that he would no longer have to be included in the frustrating meetings with lawyers. (Langlois declined to comment, referring the Chronicle instead to UT's public relations representative.)
A Writer's Place
Meanwhile, on the ranch, the writing life goes on. Current resident ZZ Packer, showing me around the house while occasionally running after her two playful children, testified to the importance of the fellowship program for her work. The ability to bring her family to the ranch was crucial for Packer, who is a single mother, but for her, it is only one of the things that separates Dobie from other residential writing programs. Packer points to the program's rootedness in the landscape, and, because of its connection to Frank Dobie, with the history of Texas itself. "You become a part of the place," she said. "You see these panoramic views, the land, the trees and streams. In one weekend, I absolutely fell in love. I've been all over Texas, but the Hill Country to me is some of the prettiest country." Nestled in the midst of this country, the ranch exposes award-winning authors writing about Texas to what Adams calls "the authentic Texas landscape," as opposed to "a magazine view of what they think beautiful Texas should look like."
Philipp Meyer, whose sweeping Texas epic The Son was published May 28, calls the ranch "enchanted," and says it was crucial to his work on the novel. Longtime Texas Monthly writer Stephen Harrigan, a former fellow and recent recipient of the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction, who now sits on the board of the Texas Institute of Letters, agrees. Harrigan remembers his time at the ranch as a life-changing experience, the first time he was able to focus all his attention on his work. "This is an enchanted place," he says. "The more people know about it, the more they'll want to preserve it."
For more information on the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program – including how to contribute to support the Ranch – see the Web page at www.utexas.edu/ogs/Paisano.