Category: Uncategorized

22 Years of Restoration

— By David Davidson —

When we bought the 138 acres just west of Kendalia in 1996, we thought restoration would require removal of the juniper barrens caused by at least 50 years of intensive cattle ranching, but at least some soil remained. It took many years to reduce the coverage of juniper, but the biggest problem has been restoration of grasslands from invasive KR bluestem to native grasses and forbs, together with mitigating incursions of Johnson grass, Musk thistles, Chinaberry trees, Malta star thistles, and Axis deer. The carrying capacity is so limited by overpopulation of White-tailed and Axis deer that no domestic cattle have been allowed on the site since the beginning. Hunting has helped control deer, but the supply from the area seems endless. Over he past 22 years, my wife and I have hand-cut about 200,000 next generation Junipers in areas originally cleared. 

To determine what we might plant to increase flowering and berry-setting vegetation to attract pollinators and birds, a half acre exclosure was established surrounded by deer-proof fencing. That area is drip irrigated by a rainwater collection and distribution system. Despite this effort, not many natives that we have tried planting have survived the low temperatures of winter (~ 15 deg F) and long periods of drought. After about 10 years without cows and goats, the oak trees began to regenerate again, and there is general improvement in habitat as observed by increasing bird and butterfly observations. The legacy of prior use has been hard to overcome. Restoration is so slow as to be a generational process. This site has had wildlife exemption since 1996 and is now conservation easement protected as the “Wild Mercury Preserve, ” due to the more than 600 rare Argythamnia aphoroides found there. 

Conversion to native grasses and forbs has been time consuming and expensive. Initial experiments to kill KR using glyphosate in the Spring and Summer were unsuccessful. With Kelly Lyons and Trinity University students, small plots were burned and reseeded until a controlled burn of 90 ac. during KR maximum seed production (October) was accomplished by a Nature Conservancy burn crew trained to federal standards. At least 10 piles of juniper were burned also. This event provided a chance to reseed plots and burn scars with native grasses and forbs. About the same time, we began experimenting with solarization as a means of killing KR prior to reseeding. To date we have solarized and reseeded 8 plots. But were these efforts to restore native grasses successful? Being a scientist, I just had to find a metric for all this effort, and finally I discovered that biodiversity could be measured using PLFA (Phospholipid Fatty Acid) analysis of soils. Measurements have shown that most of the solarized and 15 burn scar plots have been successfully restored, although grass and forb succession will continue for many years, and some KR incursion has occurred in the burn scars not restored until 5-7 years after formation.

Several years ago, Mitch Greer, student at OK State, determined that KR suppressed seed germination and stunted growth of native bluestems. About this time it became possible to use molecular methods, specifically RNA markers, to identify soil bacteria and fungi, and since 2015, we have used this assay on soils from both KR and restored areas and now believe that the the allelopathic characteristic of KR is caused by association with one or more pathogenic fungi (most likely colletotrichum), but this is still a work in progress. Soil heating by pile burning and solarization kills both KR plants and these pathogenic fungi, and that increases the probability that reseeding will be successful if it rains in time to germinate the seeds, and with enough frequency to sustain the tillers. Meanwhile, native grasses appear to be replacing KR in some select sites, but the rate is excruciatingly slow.

In our 22 years of restoration effort, no two years have been alike, and that has required that we adapt and change tactics. For example, when a plot is solarized in June, the expectations are that reseeding would be done in October, but if forecasts are for a dry Autumn and Winter, reseeding is delayed until the Spring – or later – depending on what rainfall is forecast. And as everyone practicing restoration knows, exotic species coming from surrounding areas are ever changing and control requires constant effort. I am looking forward to the time when some definitive methods for grassland restoration from KR bluestem and other Old World bluestems have been developed.

A Conservation Easement at Joshua Creek Ranch

— By Ann Kercheville —

“It was what we learned at the Cibolo Conservancy workshop on March 8, 2003 that put it all in motion.  Before that, we had a skeptical and even negative connotation of conservation easements.

“Since acquiring Joshua Creek Ranch in 1986, the development of the ranch as a wildlife habitat has been our primary objective.  Juniper has been cleared and native grasses restored to pastures.  The more we worked toward this end, the deeper our love became for this beautiful and diverse property.

“It soon became an added goal to somehow preserve the ranch as a wildlife habitat beyond our lifetimes, and keep it in the family at the same time.  We had investigated various avenues to this end, but a conservation easement became the first step after we learned the facts at the Cibolo Conservancy workshop in March, 2003.  We didn’t have to give up any control; in fact, we could establish the parameters for all future development of the ranch, regardless of who owned it.  And the way the valuations work for land in a conservation easement made it more likely the land could remain in our family after our deaths.

“With the help of Art Wilson, Bill Jolly, Rob Hicks, Jim Schwarz, and our tax accountant, we established our first conservation easement on land that includes Guadalupe River frontage and a diverse upland area of dense woods, rolling pastures, and open fields.

“We are thrilled with the idea of preserving this unique property and protecting it from development, thus ensuring that future generations in our family and this community will have the opportunity to enjoy it as we have.

What Does it Mean to Me?

— By Ken Nickel —

What does it mean to me that the Nickel Ranch will be permanently protected from development? Well there is no greater legacy my wife and I could leave on this earth. Why do I feel this way? Well, here are many reasons – here are five of them:

•    Nickel Ranch was a homestead by my great-grandfather in 1870. The following generations sacrificed to keep it together over the years. They did this because the land of always appreciated as part of God’s creation and it was their job to be good stewards and leave it in better than when they became the caretakers. This was the tradition that was handed down to me. 

•    As I grew up – playing, and then tending livestock on the ranch my own deep feeling for the land grew. I was off the ranch for 26 years while in the Air Force but in my heart I was always there. When I came back in 1993 and took over operation of the ranch, I set upon a plan of restoration – elimination of unfavorable vegetation, reseeding, livestock and wildlife management. My cross country running with my dogs was also a way of loving the land. In the back of my mind always was how I could preserve it for the future. I learned about Conservation Easements (not the name I would have chosen!). After sorting out suspicions and misconceptions,  I knew it was the answer. 

•    Our grandchildren (including the one in heaven) enjoy the land the way I did when I was a child – playing, hiking, camping, exploring, hunting and falling in love with the peace, freedom and adventure of the open spaces. As I spend time with them we have great discussions about being stewards, God’s creation and how they will do this with their children and grandchildren – all in the “secret places” I enjoyed when I was a child. My son-in-law (city slicker) says someday Nickel Ranch will be a “Central Park” like the one in NY City.

•    Going beyond the personal, passionate and faith centered reasons I am such a fan of Conservation Easement is the simple fact is that we are running out of green space, water and the country way of life. The government cannot preserve the land, most landowners (or their descendents) submit to the greed of selling the land for the big bucks and here comes another development. We that are fortunate to have land that has preserving qualities are called on to step up preserve what there will never be more of – land.

•    When I go sit on my favorite hill and look out over the land, I think about the generations before me, the current generation and the following generations. I think about how blessed my life has been and I feel an indescribable satisfaction that even IF my descendants do sell the land it will still be undeveloped and preserved.