By Nicole Barrios
Ruby Ranch, which spans 747 acres and is a historic property in Hays County, will now remain untouched forever due to conservation measures put in place by the Ruby family, Hill Country Conservancy, the city of Austin and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The 747-acre Ruby Ranch conservation easement is the final piece of conserved property that will make up more than 10,000 acres of contiguous open space in the Hill Country. To purchase the development rights of Ruby Ranch, the city of Austin is paying $2 million and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is paying $2.99 million, with the value of the remaining property being donated by the Ruby family.
The Ruby Ranch conservation easement was completed June 30, said Frank Davis, land conservation director for the Hill Country Conservancy.
“A conservation easement is definitely a novel concept to a lot of people, but it’s not really that novel nationwide,” said Davis. “It’s been a really important tool for conservation for a lot of reasons.”
Hill Country Conservancy is a nonprofit land trust that handled the easement and aims to preserve natural areas and land in Central Texas.
Most of Texas is privately owned with about 90 to 95 percent of land being privately owned, Davis said.
This means that private land owners are caring for the resources of the state, including wildlife, water and clean air, on behalf of all Texas residents, Davis said.
Partnering with private land owners and not trying to take private owners off their land, but instead giving them an option to remain on their land and continue caring for it, is what a conservation easement is all about, Davis said.
“In Texas, these land trusts and conservation easements have resulted in over a million acres of conserved land,” Davis said. “So it’s this very quiet movement that’s happening between non-profits like Hill Country Conservancy.”
The process of completing the conservation easement of Ruby Ranch took about a year and a half, Davis said.
Cecil Ruby, owner of Ruby Ranch, said a number of things made him decide to enter into a conservation easement on the ranch.
Family pressure to do something with and benefit financially from the property and pressure to sell for development were some factors that came into play, Ruby said. An attorney of his suggested they speak with Hill Country Conservancy, which led to further meetings and the decision to complete a conservation easement, he said.
Ruby said he wanted to keep the land and saw that his cousins, the Dahlstroms, did a similar conservation easement on their land next door.
The property could most likely have been sold for twice the value of the development rights if the family had pursed development, Ruby said.
“I think that keeping the property all in one piece, keeping it from being developed is very important,” Ruby said. “It’s where my father died; it’s where my father grew up.”
Ruby said the land means family to him. The Ruby family is from Buda and Cecil Ruby is the fifth generation of the Rubys to have lived in Buda, he said.
“The important thing to note is that the land owners will continue ownership just as they’ve done before,” Davis said. “Almost everything here daily on the ranch will remain just as it was.”
The conservation easement runs with the land and grants the right to ensure the land remains relatively undeveloped forever, Davis said.
“As the land changes hands the conservation easement remains in place, so (the Hill Country Conservancy) remains the holder of that conservation easement,” Davis said. “It’s our duty forever now to watch after the land, and we’re well funded to do that.”
The landowners continue the duty of owning and maintaining the land, Davis said.
The city of Austin’s $2 million for the development rights of Ruby Ranch and the NRCS’s $2.99 million will go to compensate the Ruby family, Davis said.
Austin’s contribution came from the 2012 bond referencing open space, said Kevin Thuesen, environmental conservation program manager for the city of Austin.
The funds contributed by the NRCS were provided under the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP), said Claude Ross, easement program specialist for NRCS Texas.
“Essentially what happens when you put a conservation easement on your property is you’ve reduced the value of your property according to how much you’ve limited its future development potential,” Davis said.
When the value is reduced as a result of putting those voluntary restrictions on the property, the owners are “compensated” in rare cases when funding is found to reward the value lost, Davis said.
Ruby Ranch is home to a multitude of native central Texas wildlife, plant life and a portion of the recharge zone of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer.
The Edwards Aquifer
The ranch sits over a recharge zone of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer, which makes the land extremely sensitive, Davis said. There is porous limestone in certain areas where water collects and then drains into the aquifer with almost no filtration.
“So whatever happens (at Ruby Ranch), directly impacts Barton Springs as well as 40,000 wells within the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer,” Davis said. “So it has a big impact on drinking water, on availability of water for people, how clean water is at Barton Springs as well as the [health of the] Barton Springs Salamander and the Austin Blind Salamander.”
The Rubys could have sold the property to a developer or to a quarry operation because there is limestone on the property suitable for a quarry, Davis said.
Thuesen said the water from the Onion Creek in the Ruby Ranch area is of good quality and has a direct flow path to reach Barton Springs in less than three days.
There are construction standards for how to develop land over the aquifer on unprotected land, or non-conserved land, but in the county rules are less strict than in city limits, he said.
“I think the reason we buy it and the reason we have this program to protect this land for Barton Springs is because what (rule does) exists isn’t enough,” Thuesen said.
Karst features and Sinkholes
A survey of the ranch was done to locate karst features, which include caves, sinkholes and other conduits that flow into the Edwards Aquifer, Davis said. There are 13 sinkholes on Ruby Ranch and 16 documented karst features on the ranch.
“Big Ruby Sink” is one of the large sinkholes on the property that drains an area of approximately 80 acres, Davis said. Rough calculations indicate the sink drains about 14.5 acre-feet or 4,700,000 gallons of water directly into the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer after a large rain. Individual water use in Texas averages about 73,000 gallons per year, he said.
During last year’s Halloween Flood, debris lines showed the water in this sinkhole was five to six feet deep in some places, Davis said.
On the ranch, many cows can be found grazing and drinking from the ranch’s creeks and ponds. Davis said the Rubys lease the grazing rights on the ranch to a neighbor to ensure the ranch is grazed properly.
Two extensive bird surveys were also done on the ranch to identify the wildlife on the ranch, Davis said. More than 50 different bird species were identified. Some notable wildlife such as the bobwhite quail, Rio Grande turkey, bewick’s wren, red-tailed hawk, Carolina chickadee, hermit thrush, ladder-backed woodpecker, lesser goldfinch, monarch butterfly and white-tailed deer call the ranch home.