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Conservation easements like on Cherry Springs Ranch push back against development

Cherry Springs Ranch

The Hill Country Conservancy and the Edwards family of Cherry Springs Ranch in Spicewood announced the signing of a conservation easement on the 1,038-acre property that will protect many of its unique features such as this grotto. The Edwards still own the property and control access to it, but they agreed to certain management practices that conserve and protect it as well. Courtesy photo


“It’s huge,” said Frank Davis, the Hill Country Conservancy’s chief conservation officer.

He’s referring to the recent conservation easement on the 1,038-acre Cherry Springs Ranch in Spicewood.

“Spicewood is right in the path of future development, and Cherry Springs Ranch, it’s pristine Hill Country land,” Davis said. “It’s something hard to find as we keep developing out to the west (of Austin).

Straddling the Burnet-Blanco county line, Cherry Springs Ranch has a range of landscapes, including lush, vegetated grottoes. Seventy-seven unique species of birds and 16 native wildlife species “of greatest conservation need” are found on the property. A species is identified as one of greatest conservation need based on declining populations and alarming rates of habitat loss.

The property even has dinosaur tracks.

Texas historian and folklorist J. Frank Dobie once owned it before selling it to the Edwards family in 1958.

The Edwards family and the Hill Country Conservancy announced the conservation easement on September 24. Under the easement, the family retains the property and can conduct a number of traditional activities on it, but it also protects the property against development like that seen on much of the land between Austin and Marble Falls.

A conservation easement is for perpetuity, staying with the property despite change of ownership. Davis called it a big win not just for the Hill Country Conservancy and the Edwards family but also for the entire community as it protects a pristine piece of land.

Conservation easements, Davis explained, help private landowners protect their property yet ensure they can continue to use it in many ways while staying on it.

One of the challenges of keeping the land pristine, Davis pointed out, is that Texas is 95 percent privately owned lands. Other Western states have large swaths of federally owned lands. The state parks are a good start, but city parks typically don’t protect large enough areas to help with overall conservation efforts.

Private property owners have this ability. Many work hard to conserve their land, Davis said. It’s something that often goes unappreciated.

“The private landowner is there tending the land and taking care of it, and they’re doing it for all of us,” Davis said, “but most of us don’t know or realize it.”

Caring for property, especially large ranches, takes funding. Traditional ways of making money off ranchland includes raising livestock and hunting. As urban areas press farther into rural areas, the pressure mounts on private landowners to develop their properties.

Davis pointed out that some ranches and private lands have also gone through a generation or two of family members, and some of them might not have much interest in ranching or the land.

All of these pressures can make it difficult for private landowners to hold onto their properties.

The Hill Country Conservancy was founded to find ways to protect the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer, but as board members looked west from the Interstate 35 corridor, they saw how development was eating up swaths of land.

So the conservancy began identifying ranches and land out into Burnet, Blanco, Llano, and San Saba counties in addition to Hays and Travis counties. Davis said the group has a conservation plan and strategy in place that works to find properties in Hill Country counties.

Often, the easement process starts with a conversation.

The Cherry Springs Ranch easement work is an example of that. About five or six years ago, a Hill Country Conservancy board member suggested a meeting with the Edwards family, which had already initiated several conservation and wildlife management practices on the property.

“We had a number of conversations — it’s kind of a back-and-forth thing — figuring out what they wanted and what we could do,” Davis said.

There is no one-size-fits-all formula for conservation easements and negotiations. There’s also a big difference in the philosophy behind easements versus more traditional real estate transactions.

“It’s not a typical real estate transaction, if you think about it. In a typical one, it’s ‘How can I get the better deal?’ for either if you’re the one buying or the one selling,” Davis said. “In ours, it’s not about one side getting a better deal but both coming out better for it. We’re actually entering into a contract that’s more like a marriage without an option for divorce.”

A big key is the landowner retains the property.

“When the easement is signed, the property gates don’t fly open,” Davis said.

Based on each property owner’s needs and wants along with the conservancy’s desires, an easement outlines how the land will be protected, used, and managed forever. The easement doesn’t end when the property is sold or ownership is transferred; it stays with the land.

“It’s a great tool because we will know the habitat will be protected, and the landowner will know they will have some traditional uses,” Davis said.

The Cherry Springs Ranch easement is a big step toward protecting land between Austin and Marble Falls.

“Today, we are privileged to celebrate one of our most exciting conservation partners to date,” Davis said in a statement on the signing.

The Edwards family agreed.

“The ranch has functioned as our family’s North Star across three generations,” said Bill Edwards in a statement on the easement. “We are grateful to (the Hill Country Conservancy) and their partners in conservation for the good work they’re doing to preserve the land — ours and beyond in the beautiful Texas Hill Country.”

The Cherry Springs Ranch conservation easement was made possible by the support of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.

Landowners can learn more about conservation easements and other tools to ensure long-term protection of private lands on the Hill Country Conservancy’s website. The conservancy relies on donations, members, and fundraisers for financial support.