Llano Springs Ranch

Austin's friendliest upstream neighbor

Llano Springs Ranch
Courtesy of Texas Parks & Wildlife Department

When someone in real estate buys an abandoned ranch, the general wisdom is that you'll soon see a planned community in its place – not so with Austin-based real estate lawyer Tom Vandivier. He and his family have been awarded the prestigious Leopold Conservation Award for using sustainable land-management practices to turn the ruined Llano Springs Ranch in Edwards County, about 140 miles west of Austin, into a viable business and an environmental gem. "When we bought this ranch, I was 40 years old," said Vandiv­ier. "Now I'm 54, and I'll be 57 when we've got the cedar clearance to where we want it. It's a 17-year commitment."

Vandivier – along with his father, Dr. Tom G. Vandivier, and sister Ann – bought the property jointly in 1994, calling it "a focal point for the family and a common project to work on." This wasn't some cowboy fantasy: Llano Springs is a working ranch, with deer hunting and fishing, and home to native nongame species and vegetation. But when the family bought it, it was a wreck. Grasslands and forests had been choked by Ashe juniper, leaving wildlife no grazing; buildings and fences were in ruins. Rather than leveling the land, the whole Vandiv­ier family, with their spouses, children, and grandchildren, spent more than a decade working their regular weekday jobs and then heading out to restore the property together. "If you enjoy this sort of thing, it's a labor of love," said Vandivier. "About halfway out here on the drive, I can feel myself unwinding."

They became eligible for the Leopold, given jointly by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and the Sand County Foundation, after receiving TPWD's 2007 Lone Star Land Steward Ecoregion Award. "It used to be the land stewards got a pat on the back and an 'attaboy,'" said TPWD spokesman Tom Harvey. But at the May 23 award ceremony at the Omni Austin Hotel at Southpark, the Vandiviers got more than that: $10,000 and a Leopold crystal.

Llano Springs' commercial and ecological success, and the reason the Vandiviers won, is that the family follows the lessons of responsible land-management pioneer Aldo Leopold, from his seminal 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac. "He believed there are five basic tools of land management: axe, plough, cow, fire, and gun," said Harvey. The Vandiviers apply his principles, using modern tools like chain saws and ancient techniques like controlled scrub burns. Sometimes they improvise, rotating cattle between pastures to simulate a buffalo migration where their hooves would aerate the soil. TPWD technical guidance biologist Joyce Moore has worked with them since 2004 and has seen how huge a job this is. Their biggest achievement, she said, "was repairing a hundred years of sheep and goat overproduction."

The biggest problem was Ashe juniper: Although a native Texas species, it's so invasive and thirsty that farmers treat it like an alien species. Removing it benefits other wild native plants, like little bluestem bunchgrass, that grow in its place. Sometimes plants need a little extra help, so the Vandiviers have been collecting and planting acorns for two native species of oak – Chinkapin and Lacey – that no longer propagate in the wild because of their low populations. This means more habitats for endangered species: The Golden-cheeked Warbler, a small songbird that only nests in Texas, has been spotted on the ranch, as has the Black-capped Vireo. Again, they've kept that in the family: Tom's daughter, Laura Vandivier Sherrod, graduated from Texas State with a degree in wildlife biology in 2007 and has helped survey the birdlife.

Beyond their property line, the Vandiviers are having an impact on the watershed under the Llano River. The newly cleared land acts like a sponge, soaking up the water that used to be pulled out by Ashe juniper and putting it back into the water table. "Our springs and river are much stronger than they've been," said Vandivier, who has had new springs appear, and Texas State University researchers are using their property to research Guadalupe bass. They're also being good neighbors. The ranch sits on the Llano's headwaters, and flow has increased on the river where it passes by their land. "We feel like we're doing our bit on the upper reaches of the Llano to help people downstream," said Vandivier – people that include Austin, since the Llano flows into the Colorado.

Clearance is an ongoing process. Vandivier estimates 2,800 of the ranch's 5,100 acres have been reclaimed so far, and he hopes to complete that initial task within three years. But Moore has no doubt about the family's permanent commitment. "This family is unlike any other I work with," said Moore. "There's three generations working together to leave this land in a better state than they found it."

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