Chris Harte acts like a proud papa as he points out a grove of tiny green, white and red flags sprouting alongside a gravel road cutting through his Hill Country ranch.
The flags mark the locations of post oak, Mexican plum and Eve’s necklace seedlings. To Harte and David Mahler, an ecologist with Environmental Survey Consulting who has directed restoration work at Spicewood Ranch for the past 29 years, they also represent another victory in a quest to restore the property to its state before cattle and goats moved in.
“We had a theory that we should have post oaks here, and if we got the deer population down they’d come back,” Mahler says as the men stride past the tiny new trees. “Up until a few months ago, it was only a theory.”
As other ranches in the Hill Country have shrunk with encroaching development, Spicewood Ranch has expanded, evolving from a traditional cattle operation into a sort of real-world laboratory for research and management of native plant species and habitat. This May, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department honored Harte with the Lone Star Land Steward Award, which recognizes private landowners for excellence in habitat management and wildlife conservation.
“Chris Harte’s achievement is a slam dunk on so many levels,” says Tom Harvey of Texas Parks and Wildlife. “In an era when human development is causing more buildings and roads and fragmenting habitat, Chris is going in the opposite direction.”
About 95 percent of Texas is privately owned. For conservation to work, it needs to start on private land, says Erin Wehland, a wildlife biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
The men hop back in their truck and drive to Alligator Creek, on another part of the ranch. There, limestone cliffs rise 50 feet high alongside a stream of greenish water. Sumacs and rock rose, now uncommon in the Texas Hill Country, cling to canyon crevices. A Texas rat snake slithers out from beneath a ledge.
They’re all signs that the ranch has rebounded since Harte’s father and uncle, Ed and Houston Harte, purchased the first 280-acre tract in 1972.
Harte doesn’t blame the previous owners for the ranch’s worn-out condition. They were subsistence ranchers who ran as many cattle as they could and brought in “improved” non-native grasses in order to make a living. With overgrazing and overbrowsing, though, ash juniper, also known as cedar, took over, and other native plants disappeared. The deer population swelled, and they gobbled down any tender shoots that managed to sprout.
In 1984, Harte bought out other family members and began to buy adjacent property, especially environmentally sensitive areas along creeks, as it became available. At the encouragement of his late wife, Kay Wagenknecht-Harte, a landscape architect and native plant expert who died of cancer in 1997, the restoration effort began in earnest.
Harte has made 35 land transactions over the years and still hopes to add a few more. Today the ranch spans 1,300 acres, a rare chunk of au naturel terrain in the expanse of high development west of Austin.
“We knew the place was hammered,” says Harte, 70, who grew up in San Angelo and Corpus Christi and worked in the family newspaper business most of his life. He retired from Harte Hanks in June and now focuses on managing the ranch and other business investments.
They cut out cedars and opened up the land. Grasses started to come back, and they seeded it with more native grasses, which produced their own seed. They reduced the deer population and put up high fences to keep other deer out.
“When we started, the deer would eat everything,” Harte said.
Slowly, they began adding plant species, starting with plants like plateau goldeneye that were less desirable to deer. Harte jokingly refers to what he calls the spinach-to-ice cream scale. Plants most desirable to deer are “ice cream” plants; the least desirable ones are deemed “spinach.”
As the deer population decreased, pressure on the plants eased, and some started to survive. When four or five species were established, the deer had more options on their salad bar. Then Mahler and Harte started adding plants that tasted even better. Because they had more food options, the deer ate some of the new plants, but not enough to kill them.
“Through habitat restoration, we’re trying to get closer to what it was like before it was overgrazed and overbrowsed,” Mahler says. “We’re trying to get woody plants and edible flowers as well as native grasses back.”
Mahler uses exclosures — fences to keep deer out, rather than livestock in — to protect certain areas where they test plants. If a species can grow inside the enclosures, where deer can’t eat it, they try growing it outside the fenced-off area.
“We know we could plant anything we wanted if we put a cage around it and watered it just like Westlake Hills, but that’s not a good model for restoration of a large acreage,” Mahler says. “It’s not like you go to Wikipedia and learn how to do this.”
“We’re trying to figure out ways to do this easily on large acreage, not in the backyard,” Harte says.
Just a few months ago, Harte and Mahler started seeing post oak seedlings outside exclosures on the ranch.
“Finally we’re starting to reach the goal of getting deer pressure down to a level where these species can finally survive. I was stunned when I came out and saw it,” Mahler said.
Harte and Mahler are sharing what they learn by offering workshops to the public.
“It’s exciting to know we’re helping expand native plants and bring back plants that were here,” Harte says. “I can tell we’re making progress.”
To learn more
Spicewood Ranch shares management techniques and strategies through guided plant tours, prescribed burn demonstrations and other best practices. For information about workshops, go to Environmental Survey Consulting’s website at envirosurvey.com, click on the e-newsletter button and scroll to the bottom of the page.