Spicewood Ranch is a picturesque property located just 45 minutes from downtown Austin, and just north of the burgeoning Highway 71 corridor. The lush property is peppered with woodlands of oak and Ashe juniper, which give way to sweeping grassland prairies and healthy riparian zones. Freshwater springs and creeks course through the land, which, in combination with the plentiful vegetation, provide an oasis of habitat for our abundant Texas wildlife.
Spicewood Ranch is a shining example of a healthy ecosystem. It hasn’t, however, always been this way. The land in this area was once heavily fragmented and had fallen victim to overgrazing and severe erosion. In 1972, Chris Harte and his late wife Kay Wagenknecht Harte showed remarkable foresight by beginning to aggregate disparate parcels of land in the Spicewood area. In 30 separate transactions in as many years, they were able to reconstitute 1,250 acres to comprise what is now Spicewood Ranch. It was Kay’s vision for this land to protect the area’s water quantity and quality, restore its native landscaping, and to conduct ecological research. Today, Chris Harte and his son, Will, continue to execute on Kay’s vision. To incredible success, the Hartes have used innovative stewardship practices such as controlled burns and seed harvesting to restore the previously mismanaged land back to its native form and function. As a measure of their accomplishment, Spicewood Ranch received the prestigious “Lone Star Land Steward Award” from Texas Parks and Wildlife in 2018.
“With over 95% of Texas’ land being privately owned, we are incredibly dependent on the efforts of stewards like the owners of Spicewood Ranch for their care of the region’s water resources, iconic Texas wildlife, and our unique quality of life. The decades-long stewardship of Spicewood Ranch is now assured forever thanks to the commitment of Chris Harte and his son, Will, to preserve the land in perpetuity.” —Frank Davis, Chief Conservation Officer, Hill Country Conservancy
The work the Hartes have put in to restoring the land holds significant benefit for the entire community. As Austin grows, it becomes imperative to protect this ecologically important area. The conservation values on the Hartes’ parcel of land are of particular significance. The ranch boasts three miles of Alligator Creek and its tributaries, which flow directly into Lake Travis—a primary drinking water source for the City of Austin and downstream communities. Other ephemeral streams, springs, and seeps found on the land contribute to the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer, which provides drinking water to an additional 60,000 Central Texans. The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District has named the land an area of high hydrogeological interest. In addition, much of the wildlife found on the ranch has the Texas Parks and Wildlife designation of “Species of Greatest Conservation Need,” including over twenty species of birds such as Wild Turkeys, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, and Red-shouldered Hawks. There are also over 200 acres of habitat suitable for the federally protected Golden-cheeked Warbler.
“I’ve wanted to protect Spicewood Ranch for decades, but only in recent years have we made enough progress with our restoration efforts, and with buying enough of the 15 or so parcels of land in this 561-acre easement to make it possible to protect a reasonable tract of land,” Harte said. “I sincerely appreciate the hard work of Hill Country Conservancy, The Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program that have made this easement possible.”
The Hartes’ decision to place a conservation easement on Spicewood Ranch will safeguard the ranch’s unique ecological features forever. The current agreement between the Hartes and Hill Country Conservancy protects 561 acres and represents the first phase of the owners’ plans to conserve much or all of the 1,253-acre Spicewood Ranch. Protection of this land will contribute to the region’s long-term water security and provide critical habitat for iconic Texas wildlife while preserving scenic views in Spicewood and along Lake Travis. The addition of these 561 acres brings the total amount of acreage protected with conservation easements held by Hill Country Conservancy to almost 14,000 acres.
The conservation easement on Spicewood Ranch would not have been possible without the support of the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, the Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program, and the Damuth Foundation.