I have to admit it – my job is pretty sweet. Every job has its ups and downs, but this week has been mostly ups (apart from being without my family). I’ve spent the last several days with about 240 other scientists and conservation staff of The Nature Conservancy here in Austin, Texas. It’s hard not to be inspired and energized when discussing fire, invasives, grazing, ecology, and many other conservation topics with incredibly smart and innovative people.
I wrote earlier this week about the first half of the field trip we took in the Hill Country around Austin. During the second half of that trip, we visited Reimers Ranch Park and Hamilton Pool, the latter of which is an iconic natural feature and recreation site. It is so popular that demand far outstrips the capacity of the parking lot and park, and we were told that and incredible 70% of visitors are turned away. (We visited on a Tuesday afternoon in February and the parking lot looked full.)
Since my post earlier this week on our tour of the Barton Creek Preserve, I’ve gotten considerable feedback, both in person and electronically, about my description of the site. The intent of the post was primarily to explore the idea that land managers often have very different objectives from each other because each deals with unique landscapes and situations. I described the Barton Creek Preserve and its management as it had been presented to me during our field trip there. Well, apparently, there are some very disparate views about the historical conditions at Barton Creek and the surrounding Hill Country. I’ve had a fair amount of feedback from Texas ecologists who disagree with the way I characterized the site.
Most everyone agrees that there was soil loss due to years of heavy grazing, but I’m also hearing that the site may have had pretty shallow soils even before domestic cattle and goats were introduced. Those shallow soils supported (and still support) a diverse flora, including plants that are endemic to the Hill Country. I’ve also gotten to listen to and read competing accounts of whether the pre-European vegetation of the site’s uplands consisted of grasslands, shrublands, savannahs, or open woodlands.
It’s clear that I’ve unwittingly wandered into a discussion in which I am completely unqualified to participate. I am very happy (and eager) to leave further discussion of the historic conditions of Barton Creek Preserve and the Texas Hill Country to others, and I’ve edited my earlier post to reflect a more balanced account of the site’s ecology.
That’s hilarious, Chris! When we read your other post, we thought “Boy hidy, did he step in it!”. Don’t feel bad. Multi-generational Texans in the natural resource field (and those who are not) argue about this all the time, and for most of the last century…lol…
The problem is the scarcity of reliable written natural history down here from the 17th through 19th centuries, and the overwhelming presence of conflicting written “natural history” from hyperbolic and unknowledgeable journalists, adventurers and opportunists. One of the folks you might want to talk to is a board member and co-founder of the PowWow, Ricky Linex. Ricky is the editor of The Reverchon Naturalist (and as such is a student of Texas’ natural history), a career NRCS wildlife biologist, a Texan, and the author of Range Plants of North Central Texas. He’s in the Weatherford office. Ricky has a cautious, balanced view… and he won’t hurt you… lol
Spectacular photos. Have you read “Fire Season”? The author is a lookout in the Gila Mountains. He describes fire – its uses and abuses – from the early days of the Forest Service and the introduction of cattle and sheep that changed the grasslands considerably.
I’ll go back to your earlier Hill Country site.
For an account of the Hill Country at the time of European settlement, you might try Robert Caro, whose biographical volumes on Lyndon Johnson contain in the first book a long description of the shallow, hardground soils that supported grasslands that were promptly chewed down by running cattle, with attendant loss of soil.
As a past field biologist, science teacher, and environmental consultant, it is very true that the current condition of the upland areas of the central Texas hill country have been severely overgrazed, damaged, and mis managed by humans. Much of the state has incurred damage from overgrazing, despite the variety of soils and pro ranching sentiment.
Until we accept the tremendous impact human activities have resulted in on our planet, change will be slow and too long overdue. I appreciated your observations and visit to the Austin area and it is my hope that we all realize our obligation to be better stewards of planet Earth.
The lesson here is that natural history, old fashioned documentation of flora, fauna, soils, etc. is a vital component of ecology.
I think what was historically present is unimportant at this point. The ecosystem has suffered severe damage and will not recover to historical conditions within our lifetime. However, I think it would be fair to say that your previous post did not do the area justice. This is not because of what you wrote. You simply visited at the wrong time. If Death Valley can have its moments of spectacular beauty then I am sure the Hill Country of Texas can also have its spectacular moments.
While his writing might not speak to the Hill Country specifically, John Graves’ work, including “Hard Scrabble” and one of my favorite books right up there with Sand County Almanac “Goodbye to a River” talk a lot about how the landscape has changed by the practices of Texan land owners over the generations. Graves’ prose is worth reading even if you don’t have a dog in this hunt. You have a counterpart with the TNC that lives and works in Austin or San Antonio, John Karges. If you haven’t met him you should. He’s extremely knowledgeable and fun to be around.
Hamilton Pool is an amazing sight! I visited it last December and was awestruck by the topography and bald cypress. The beauty berry also struck a chord. Well done!
Sean James Sent from my iPhone so plese forgive spelling.