Harris Kaffie (left) and LCRA land conservation specialist Bobby Humphrey stand in front of a cottonwood tree on Kaffie's newly purchased Burnet County ranch.
MARBLE FALLS – Harris Kaffie knows something about ranching. Growing up, Kaffie spent his summers on one, and his family has owned a spread in South Texas for generations.
All the same, Kaffie will be the first to tell you he doesn't know the Hill Country well.
So, when Kaffie and his wife, Lynda, recently purchased a 360-acre ranch along the Colorado River he sought the assistance of area land management experts to find out how best to care for the property.
"It doesn't take long to understand that this place is special," Kaffie said, as he prepared to lead visitors on a tour of his new property. "We feel we have a clear white canvas, like a sheet of paper, and anything we do is going to have our impact on it."
The Kaffies are among the first landowners in Burnet County to qualify for a new program to provide landowners with financial assistance for conservation projects to reduce soil erosion and keep Hill Country topsoil from washing into reservoirs and other waterways.
The Lower Colorado River Authority (or LCRA) and local soil and water conservation districts are administering the effort by tapping a federal Clean Water Act program designed to control
nonpoint-source water pollution caused by rainwater runoff. LCRA received a three-year, $500,000 grant from the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Bobby Humphrey (left) helped Harris Kaffie develop a detailed conservation plan to selectively remove brush and improve the property.
The Kaffies have developed a detailed land conservation plan to selectively remove cedar trees -- also known as ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei) -- restore native grasses and limit soil erosion. Landowners who participate can receive a 50 percent reimbursement for such land conservation projects, up to a maximum of $20,000.
The estimated cost to clear the heavy cedar stands is $90 an acre. There are 266 acres of the stuff. The plan also calls for leaving natural corridors of old-growth cedar to serve as habitat for wildlife.
A 90-day deferment is recommended during which no cattle will graze on the property. Kaffie also plans to implement a prescribed-burn plan to remove the brush and jump-start the restoration of native vegetation.
New breed of Hill Country owners
In many ways the new owners fit a new breed, city dwellers looking to get away from it all -- not to set up a full-time agricultural operation, said local land experts. Lynda is a professional artist who works in landscapes. The couple moved to Austin several years ago when Lynda enrolled in the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, where she is working toward a degree in pastoral ministry.
Though they still are bouncing around ideas, one possibility is to create a retreat for artists and writers. First, they plan to build a small house where they can stay for extended visits to explore, hike and generally commune with nature.
Importantly, Kaffie wants a place where his 15-year-old son, Morgan, can learn to appreciate ranch life. Kaffie said he picked up invaluable lessons from old ranch hands, the vaqueros on the wide-open spaces of his family's South Texas ranch.
The Kaffies’ rugged property just outside of Marble Falls is rich with diversity. In addition to cedar trees, the property has yucca plants, cottonwood, oak and pecan trees. Wildlife is abundant. Kaffie has spotted deer, turkeys, feral hogs and foxes. He has been told there are old Indian campgrounds on the property. He plans to install new fencing in part to keep out trespassers who have dug up the ground looking for relics.
The old boarded-up homestead has a groundwater well out front; good water is found about 30 feet below. Kaffie plans to retain old structures, some made with hand-cut logs that are more than 100 years old, including a pole barn where cows were once milked and hay was stored.
Kaffie said he expects that a number of springs will begin to flow again when the brush is cleared. He noted that Burnet County Commissioner Ronny Hibler told him that when Hibler was growing up he used to explore the property and found plentiful springs.
"For a guy from South Texas, you don't know how lucky I feel to have a piece of land with water on it," Kaffie said, looking on the Colorado River, just downstream of
Starcke Dam, one of the dams along the river managed by LCRA. The dam is named for Max Starcke, a former general manager of the river authority who spearheaded early soil conservation programs at the organization in the 1940s.
TOP: Harris Kaffie surveys his property along the banks of the upper reaches of Lake Travis, near Starcke Dam.
BOTTOM: Bobby Humphrey (left) walks the property with Kaffie.
Taking advantage of area experts
The financial assistance is only one benefit Kaffie is receiving from the project. Kaffie has come to rely on the expertise of land management officials with LCRA, the local soil and water conservation district and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“We’re partners in this,” said Bobby Humphrey, conservation specialist with LCRA. Humphrey has walked the property with Kaffie, helping him tailor the conservation plan to his land.
Richard Ellis, who has served as district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Services for 30 years, provided Kaffie a published county soil survey, which can help determine best uses for different sections of the property.
Like land throughout the Hill Country, much of Kaffie’s property has shallow, rocky soils. But the land also has rich bottomland soil. “It’s valuable land. When you have water frontage you have good productive land,” Ellis said.
Kaffie has hired the Austin design firm, Bosse & Turner Associates, to evaluate sites for improvements, and to create natural buffers to filter runoff, preserve wildlife habitat and maintain the beauty of the landscape.
Finally, Kaffie is tapping the rich experience of other area landowners. For example, on Sept. 18 he attended an all-day land conservation workshop at the
5,500-acre Selah ranch about five miles south of Johnson City. More than 30 years ago, J. David Bamberger, former chief executive of Church’s Fried Chicken, founded Selah, which has gained national recognition for its best management practices in land conservation. Inspired by the workshop, Kaffie talks about installing a rainwater harvesting system to capture water for use on the property. "Sometimes it seems overwhelming," Kaffie said of all the work to do.
"Brush control is how you get it started. One project at a time," Humphrey advised during a bumpy tour of the property in Kaffie's Ford Explorer.
"Yep, you never run out of things to do on a ranch," Kaffie said.