SENIOR WRITER SUZANNE FREEMAN
Water, wildlife, topsoil. Property owners who cultivate these three elements on their land help sustain a community’s economy, health, and connection to people and nature. A new, federally funded program, the Hill Country Headwaters Initiative, puts together money and local expertise to promote that ideal in the Sandy Creek and Llano River watersheds.
A second round of grants in 2020 might well include ranch land south of the Colorado River in Burnet County as the initiative continues to focus on land recovery in the middle river basin.
The program aims to help landowners share results of their land management successes as implementation progresses over the next four to five years.
“Everyone benefits if people are better stewards of their land,” said Jill Nokes, who owns 60 acres in southwest Llano County.
She is one of the first recipients of the initiative’s grants with the smallest piece of property. Overall, about 25,000 acres were included in the first round.
“You can’t treat land like a machine that will never break,” Nokes continued. “You’ll have bare ground with runoff, flooding, nothing. The top soil goes with it, into the lakes in Marble Falls, Buchanan, LBJ.”
Managed by the Hill Country Conservancy, the Hill Country Headwaters Initiative gives assistance to private landowners who use scientifically sound, proven, and innovative practices in land management. The application deadline for the first round of grants was May of this year. A second round will open in January 2020 beginning with a series of workshops.
“Many of the applicants use different land management practices in combination in order to have a synergistic effect,” said Frank Davis, chief conservation officer at the Hill Country Conservancy. “Landowners are always going to lead the way.”
As one of the first grant recipients, Nokes knows exactly what she’s going to do to further improve her acreage.
“I’m going to use it to plant native seeds using a piece of equipment I don’t own,” she said.
With the initiative’s help, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will lend her a seed drill. She plans to pay someone to pull it with a tractor to plant grasses so her 60 acres can continue to be part of the system that supplies water for a thirsty Highland Lakes.
“This is the watershed that feeds the Highland Lakes,” Nokes said. “The urban population needs that water. The rural people have a partnership with urban people. Through our taxpayer money, the landowners can decide what best to do to make their land in the watershed area more like a sponge.”
Nokes also clears brush from her land, another practice that helps rainwater percolate into the earth. Armed with a master’s degree in horticulture from Texas A&M University and expert advice gleaned in her quest for more knowledge over the years, Nokes has practiced good land management in the 10 years she has owned her property. She tracks her progress on a blog, which fits perfectly into the initiative’s mission.
“To receive an award from this program, it is key to demonstrate a plan in place to reduce the risk for soil erosion,” Davis said. “It could be prescribed fire, restricting livestock, brush management, or a combination to provide an opportunity for vegetation to fully recover.”
With help from experts and personal knowledge of her land, the 68-year-old Nokes created a seed mix of grasses and wildflowers that work best in her soil. She is methodically removing white brush, cactus, and cedar, clearing acreage for more seeding.
She and her family developed a series of hiking trails on the land, naming landmarks along the way to promote a closer connection to nature. Learning to “read” the landscape familiarizes landowners with their properties and its needs.
“You should know what’s going on with your land,” Nokes said. “Know the capacity the land has to self-repair and become more resilient and more diverse. That’s a sign of health.”
The Hill Country Headwaters Initiative is not the only avenue for aid. Nokes has long sought expert advice from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas A&M Agriculture Extension offices, and the National Resources Conservation Service, which has an office in Llano.
“The Hill Country has a lot of seminars and free field days, nature walks, and lectures you can learn from,” Nokes said. “That’s how you meet people with more experience, people who want to help you.”
For Nokes, owning acreage begets a responsibility to the larger community, especially if grants are involved in improvements. She makes an important distinction, too, between land management and beautification. A healthy ecosystem is often a messy ecosystem, she said.
“If you’re getting public money to improve your land — not beautify it — then you’re obligated to pay it back by sharing what you learn,” Nokes continued.
She chronicles her progress on her blog at jillnokes.com.
As Nokes and other recipients of grants from the Hill Country Headwaters Initiative put their newly funded land management projects to work, the Hill Country Conservancy is gearing up for a new round of grant applications that Davis hopes will include more properties in Burnet and Llano counties.
“These are practices that will enhance native wildlife, promote good economies in hunting, ecotourism, a variety of income sources,” Davis said. “I’m hopeful that, with this initiative, we can talk about the successes and say this worked on this particular tract of land. We’ve modified the land, restricted wildfire, overgrazed. You can’t just walk away and say, ‘Leave it alone.’ We have to invest proactively in land management practices.”
For more information on the Hill Country Conservancy, visit hillcountryconservancy.org.