JOHNSON CITY – Longtime Blanco County ranch foreman Kermit Sultemeier knows well the 100 acres he owns just west of Johnson City. Just as importantly, Sultemeier knows the land on the other side of his fence.
|TOP: LCRA's Bobby Humphrey and C.A. Cowsert of the Natural Resources Conservation Services discuss the land conservation project with landowner Patrick Fowlkes. SECOND: Ashe juniper (commonly called cedar) trees frame Fowlkes.
THIRD: Close-up of ashe juniper.
FOURTH: Fowlkes, Bart Larremore, Cowsert and Humphrey discuss the project; Larremore's skid steer loader is in the background.
FIFTH: Fowlkes and Cowsert overlook Tow Head Creek, which has more water after the brush clearing.
When he was a boy, Sultemeier often visited the adjacent property, which was long owned by his great uncle and great aunt. They built up their ranch into a Texas Hill Country showplace. They raised chickens and hogs, sheared sheep and sold eggs. They placed a water fountain out front of their hand-built stone house, cultivated native grasses and planted a flowering cactus garden. Every day, his great aunt swept and raked the yard into a smooth Zen-like space free of footprints, remembers Sultemeier, now 60.
But that was a generation ago. After the couple passed away, a series of absentee landowners traded the property. A subdivision was planned but never materialized. Located along a sometimes dried-up creek, the property turned unproductive, overtaken by cedar trees that crowded out most other native vegetation .
"They'd probably roll over in their graves," Sultemeier says of his late relatives. "There was not a cedar tree on that property. It is unreal what neglect does."
On the other hand, it's quite real the benefits that carefully applied conservation measures can have on a piece of property like this one.
The 483-acre ranch, now known as Tow Head Creek Ranch, is springing back to life under the care of new owners, a ranching family from Marfa.
New life under new owners
Since last December, a contractor and crew have spent more than 400 hours selectively removing dense stands of cedar trees from the property. These cedar trees are now harmlessly stacked in piles, and will be burned when the conditions are right. Areas previously covered with cedar trees are coming alive with more diverse vegetation: Sideoats Gamma, Little Bluestem and Buffalo grasses now are thriving.
"The grass has come back really well, and those oak trees — which the cedars were choking off — look really good, too," landowner Patrick Fowlkes said.
Fowlkes is among the first to take advantage of a new regional program to provide landowners with financial assistance for such land conservation projects.
Tapping Clean Water Act funds
The Lower Colorado River Authority (or LCRA) and local soil and conservation districts are administering the effort by tapping a federal Clean Water Act program designed to control nonpoint-source water pollution caused by rainwater runoff. LCRA received a three-year, $500,000 grant from the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The funding supports LCRA’s Creekside Conservation Program, a 15-year-old effort to help farmers and ranchers in Central Texas reduce soil erosion and keep topsoil from washing into reservoirs and other waterways.
Landowners who participate can receive a 50 percent reimbursement for such land conservation projects. Fowlkes' project cost nearly $20,000, the project maximum.
"This program can make a big difference for smaller landowners who otherwise may not be able to fund extensive restoration efforts,"said Ralph Ebeling Jr., chairman of the Pedernales Soil and Water Conservation District.
To clear the cedar, Fowlkes hired Bart Larremore, a rancher from Llano who has begun a side business to help ranchers with such conservation projects.
"It's the biggest job I've had so far," Larremore said.
Larremore purchased a Caterpillar skid steer loader, a machine with a large scissors-like attachment. Operating a joystick and listening to a country music station on a headset, Larremore spent months selectively cutting out cedar trees. He then followed up by leading a crew to hand trim what remained.
While many folks believe otherwise, cedar trees -- also known as ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei) -- are in fact native Texans. But what isn't natural is how widespread these pesky trees have become in recent years -- as any allergy sufferer can attest.
The density and coverage of cedar trees has increased dramatically in Central Texas in modern times, according to state agricultural experts. Originally limited to rocky outcrops and areas with few wildfires, cedar trees now cover about 6.7 million acres on the Edwards Plateau, according to an estimate from Texas A&M researchers. (The U.S. Forest Service reports 8.6 million acres of ashe juniper throughout Texas.) The trees took over because of overgrazing and the suppression of natural wildfires. Left unchecked, t he trees tend to crowd out other vegetation and create a monoculture of cedar trees in an otherwise bare landscape.
"Old cedar trees are an important habitat for endangered songbirds, such as golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos. But this is less a concern on property like Fowlkes,’ which is predominately regrowth cedars," said Bobby Humphrey, conservation specialist with LCRA.
Fowlkes said he plans to again lease the property to Sultemeier to graze cattle and goats.
"It's a success story in that this land is not being subjected to urban sprawl, and they're making good ranchland out of it," said C.A. Cowsert, conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Services District Office in Johnson City.
Surveying the results of a small dam he has built on Tow Head Creek, Fowlkes said: "Over time it will flow more. Where you have cedar, the rain never reaches the aquifer."
Sultemeier said he is impressed with the job Fowlkes has done. Now, the most glaring job left to tackle is the repair of some fences. Sultemeier, who at one time shod horses for President Lyndon Johnson, said coyotes in the area can pick off animals without better fencing.
And while good fences make good neighbors, so do good land management practices.