Wouldn’t it be nice to sit back on the porch with your favorite beverage and watch your land take care of itself? That might be possible in the few places left untouched by humans, but once we move in, we change the natural processes that are taking place and that have taken place over the millennia, and some degree of restoration is needed to return the land to its natural state.
Land restoration is the process of returning a site to a natural landscape and habitat, safe for humans, wildlife, and plant communities. Developing and following a land restoration plan are the means of accomplishing this goal.
Who can develop a land restoration plan? The best person is the landowner, although the use of qualified professionals can be helpful, and is sometimes essential, especially for the new landowner.
The first step in developing your plan is to determine the assets and liabilities of your property. Do an inventory of soil, plant, water, and wildlife resources. You must know what you have in order to manage it effectively.
The soil on your land determines the kind of plants that grow there. Many properties have more than one soil type. To determine your soil type, you can use the Natural Resource Conservation Services’ Web Soil Survey. Knowing the plants, both the current and the potential ones, located on your land is essential for determining the objectives of your restoration plan.
It is important to understand how your management affects the hydrologic cycle. Soils have the capacity to hold moisture when well maintained, and this moisture is the limiting factor for plant growth on your land. Does your management plan help get rain into the ground and aquifers? Are you creating runoff and erosion problems for yourself and your neighbors? Increasing the vigor and coverage of native grasses is one way you can affect the water cycle in a positive way. Water in the ground is like money in the bank.
Identify the problems. There are some that plague almost all Hill Country landowners, such as overgrazing, encroachment of invasive species, brush overgrowth, loss of topsoil, oak wilt, and predators. By “reading the land,” you will be able to determine whether your acreage is on an upward or downward trend in rangeland health. If you have livestock, learn the acceptable stocking rate for current conditions. For example, in a good year, a cow and a calf will require about 18 acres of grazing land, but under drought conditions, they will need anywhere from 30 to 40 acres. If anything, tip the balance in favor of available forage and food reserves. Plan for drought conditions. You may need to remove grazers from your land for a while to let it rest. You are allowed to keep your agricultural exemption during these times.
Establish both long and short term goals. Keep a notebook handy and write down ideas and problems you encounter. Your goals will help you to formulate a restoration plan. Your plan must be specific about what you want and need to do, and how and when to do it. Keep your plan simple, achievable, and sustainable over the long term. Just as you are affected by decisions made by prior owners, your decisions will impact the future generations of humans, plants, and wildlife.
Be flexible. Sometimes climatic conditions will foil the best-laid plan. Trying to restore native grasses in the midst of a drought will be impossible, so do something else that can be productive, like brush control.
Go slowly. Our ecosystem is fragile and immediate gratification is often an invitation to severe problems. Clear cutting slopes of Juniperus ashei (cedar) or removing the understory with a Bobcat can be very damaging to wildlife habitat, might invite top soil loss, and may take generations to heal.
If you live on a creek or river, restoring the native grasses and plants will invite wildlife and reduce damage during most floods. It will also help filter any runoff as it flows into the waterway. Leaving downed trees in place, as long as they are not endangering structures, helps restore the riverbanks after a flood and provides necessary habitat to a variety of creatures.
One good way to determine how well your restoration plan is working is to set up photo points. These are locations where you take the same photo every three months. Over time you will be able to see the changes in the land and modify your plan as needed. Ownership of land in the Hill Country can be challenging, but is also incredibly rewarding.
See the “Links” section for a list of resources available to help you with your restoration plan and your land management decisions.