CLB Journal

Summer 2013

Library of American Landscape History Visits the Browning Ranch

This past spring, I had the privilege to introduce the Library of American Landscape History to the C.L. Browning Ranch. As we walked through the ranch, we discussed how the landscape has changed over time, the role of plants and what they tell us about the land, and how we are attempting to the to improve the water cycle. It was a joy to discuss these topics with such a knowledgeable audience that had experience in landscape management. Below is a discussion that LALH wrote about their time on the Browning Ranch. To see the article on their page, please visit their website.

In 1942 C. L. Browning, a general contractor in San Antonio, purchased the 977-acre property in the Hill Country of central Texas known today as the Browning Ranch. C. L. Browning’s daughter Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, president of the Foundation for Landscape Studies and a director for LALH, inherited the Ranch in 1992 after the death of her mother. She witnessed a new wave of recreational ranching sweeping the Texas Hill Country, with larger ranches being subdivided and the land increasingly stressed. Both scenic values and natural systems were (and are still) being compromised.

Honeycut Creek is fed by a spring that flows at 15 to 20 gallons per minute and has never gone dry.

In 2001, inspired by the reclamation of the neighboring Bamberger Ranch Preserve as a model of land stewardship and environmental preservation practices, Betsy and her husband, Ted Rogers, decided to develop a similar mission for their ranch. They hired Scott Gardner, an environmental scientist, to manage and they formed affiliations with academic and government institutions with the goal of providing useful data to assist those who have come recently to the responsibility of recreational ranch management.

The Browning Ranch rests inside the 1,240-acre Honeycut Hollow Creek watershed. The watershed drains from the south to the north, directly into the Pedernales River. The highest elevation in this watershed is a hilltop in the southwest corner that rises 1,300 feet above mean sea level. From there the watershed drains down 320 feet in elevation until it meets the Pedernales River at 980 feet above mean sea level.

With a scant 30-32 inches of precipitation a year, the Browning Ranch has a dry climate, and water conservation is a key facet of Scott Gardner’s management plan. Restoring and maintaining the water supply depends on rainfall making its way into porous limestone beneath the soil. Often obstructing that process are vegetation, steep slopes, and scorching summers. Rain that reaches the limestone is temporarily stored in cavities and cracks within the rock, eventually emerging through a seep or spring.

Generous rains in early 2013 have helped Honeycut Creek to flow upstream from the main spring.

To give one example of how Gardner is working to ensure that more rain makes its way into the limestone, he is limiting the spread of two woody species that have overtaken the landscape, Ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei) and escarpment live oak (Quercus fusiformis). The juniper, in particular, absorbs water through its roots, and its dense evergreen leaves allow rain to evaporate before even reaching the ground. The resulting soil erosion lowers the water table, which in turn inhibits the establishment of most herbaceous species, particularly deep-rooted grasses.

In places where Gardner has restored balance in the juniper population, new growth of these grasses and other indicator plants offer a preview of the rich biological diversity indigenous to the Hill Country.

The owners of the Browning Ranch wish to make the property available as a learning laboratory to organizations and academic institutions with programs that coincide with its mission. Visit the C. L. Browning Ranch website for more information.

Wildflower meadow at sunrise