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Bob Ayres

DATE: November 15, 2018
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
REEL: 3473

[Numbers mark the time codes for the interview.]

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s November 15, 2018. And we’re west of Austin proper and we’re on the Shield Ranch. And we have the good fortune to be visiting with Bob Ayres, who’s had many roles in conservation from helping run the Shield Ranch itself, which has a number of—of environmental initiatives, the Shield Ranch Foundation, which operates a wonderful summer camp called El Ranchito that is involved in environmental education, the Shield-Ayres Foundation, which makes grants in the conservation field, and—and he’s served on a number of—of boards outside of his family operations that have environmental missions as well. So I think that we’ll touch on many of these things but it—before we get into that, I wanted to thank Bob for taking the time to talk to us.

BA: Glad to be talking with you.

DT: All right. Well, Bob, we usually start these interviews with trying to discover if there was some—some set of experiences when you were a young person, a child, some connection with your—your older family members, your siblings, or friends, teachers—something that might have helped form an interest in the out of doors and in conservation in general.

BA: Well I had a lot of influences and experiences as a child that led me to be interested in and passionate about the outdoors. And I would begin with family and with my mom who had a deep love and concern for the natural world. And I can remember as a very young child being—staying here in this house and her taking us out onto the walk at night, turning off the lights inside, and we’d watch the stars together and had a book to help us figure out what the constellations were and reading stories that in Greek mythology about the constellations with her.
I then, especially my Grandfather Shield, who bought the ranch in 1938 and who was a avid outdoorsman and a conservationist and land steward. He loved to hunt and fish and could not wait for me to be old enough as his first grandson and only grandson to—to be able to—to take me outdoors. And a lot of that—those first experiences were on this ranch. And hunting, fishing, horseback riding, driving around in—with him and with his foreman and looking at the ranch and talking about the ranch. And—and that—that relationship—he lived until I was nearly 30.
And so all through my growing up and into my high school years, we spent a tremendous amount of time together doing all those things. And but then I also was a scout—Boy Scout—all the way from the earliest year I could become a scout and then became an Eagle Scout. So lots of time with peers and adult mentors and a great and active Troop 88 in San Antonio. Campouts every month and trips to Philmont Scout Camp in—in New Mexico and even a World Jamboree in Norway one summer.
And so a lot of experiences camping, learning how to cook and be outdoors and—and all things that scouts do as they’re earning merit badges and learning leadership skills and other kinds of skills. And my Grandmother Shield, who I didn’t know because she died when I was just four years old—she actually died fishing on this ranch—but she also was a passionate outdoors person. Loved especially to fish but also to hunt and—and just cared deeply about the environment and—and what was happening and concerned about the negative impacts of—of growing urbanization on wild places.
And that’s something I know from stories that she talked about and cared about deeply. So all those are—are influences that I think led me to—to care about these things and—and spend as much time as I can outside.

DT: I—I’m intrigued by several things that you told me. One thing is you—you mentioned that you went hunting and fishing and—and—and touring I guess you might say here at the ranch with your grandfather. And I was wondering if there are any particular episodes that you can recall about, you know, outings with him.

BA: Well, I mean, one thing that is an indirect answer to your question but maybe just interesting to say is that my—my very first memory of being on this ranch and it would have been in the summer of 1962 shortly after my grandmother Shield died. And there was a very significant wildfire on the ranch and I can remember I think being on my dad’s shoulders and—and watching—watching the fire and just having that—and there were a hun—probably hundred people out here with equipment and fighting the fire and—and just the impression that that made and seeing the—the sky, you know, lit up in flames at night as the sun, you know, was—was going down and—and everyone’s concerned and all the—the activity.
But I also, I mean, of course, my granddad was—was older by the time we—I was old enough to hunt and I have a gr—great memory of sitting in—in the hunting blind with him—very cold, very early in the morning, and very eager to—to get a deer. And he would be sn—snoring away, so—so loudly that I was sure that—that no deer would come within—within range. And so, yeah, it also just—the moments we would have getting ready for bed at night if we were staying on the ranch together.
And just the—the kind of moment of good night and—and clear affection and just the—the knowing his able—ability to just articulate and his willingness to articulate the delight that—that he had in spending those days with me as a kid so that the relational bond to my granddad was all wrapped up in—in the experience of what we were doing together on the land. And I think that made a deep and lasting impression for me.

DT: I—I—I think you also mentioned that while you were very young when your grandmother died, it sounds like there were some stories that she had told maybe your parents or others that got relayed to you. Do—do any of those come back to mind for you?

BA: Well one—and my fa—there are a couple. And my favorite one is that not long after my grandparents bought the ranch and the ranch was pretty much a cedar break then through, you know, periods of overgrazing and—and loss of good soil and through, you know, the early—the sa—years after settlement and ear—early ranching period. And so they spent a lot of time doing very extensive brush clearing. And that was by all methods known—bulldozers and burning and crews with axes.
And, at one point, my—my—one day my granddad and—and—and his foreman, Horace Eckols who was here fifty some odd years, were out and they were going to save a few trees but they were really—most of it was going to go. And they came in for lunch and were talking about what they’d done. And—and then after lunch, they went off to another project and my grandmother said to—to Lola Eckols, Horace’s wife, come on. And they got in the truck themselves and went out and pulled a bunch of flags off the trees so that there would be more trees left at the end of the day than what—than what my granddad and—and Horace had—had intended.
So I kind of thought I like—always enjoyed that story. And then the other story Lola Eckols, the day that we—we put our conservation easement with the Nature Conservancy on the ranch and there was a headline in the top of the—of the Austin Statesmen and Lola Eckols was—Horace had died by then and—and Lola was up in years but she was getting the paper and reading it. And she saw the story and called me up. And she said—she said, “Bobby, I just want you to know I think your grandmother would be really proud about this.”
And she said, “I remember one time she said, ‘One day they’re just going to pave this whole country over’” and I think she saw that our—our desire not to see the ranch paved over was—was something that would have pleased my Grandmother Shield.

DT: I think you also recalled that you—you took scouting all the way through to—to being an Eagle Scout. And—and I was hoping that there might have been some episodes that you can—can sort of troll in maybe scouting trips that—that stand out in your mind.

BA: Well I think—I think the trips that we made to Philmont were perhaps the highlight of my scouting career, in terms of outdoor experience. You know, we were hiking every day with packs. And it was so—something that was—was stretching for—you—just in terms of exertion and—and pu—pushing, you know, me beyond my comfort zone, in terms of the—that—that way, but also just to be in a new and different landscape in the ponderosa pines in—in the mountains of New Mexico and—and the newness and freshness of that.
And—and being in such big, open spaces [inaudible 00:11:04] on our—on our own locomotion. And so that—those were definite highlights, but even just the more month to month camping trips, the—th—th—th—th—times where it would be really wet or really cold and figuring out how to, you know, ge—get through those experiences and—and—and just discovering new places and—and—and learning about the plants and animals and—and what—and what was around.
And—and—and doing that in, you know, in the—in the context of—of—of—of a—of a social group I think was—was a rich experience. Figuring out how to cook. I figured out if I could cook over a—an open fire in the rain, then the kitchen was really no—no—not so challenging.

DT: So I guess as a—as an Eagle Scout, you’re—you’re in your I guess mid-teens perhaps. Is there anything along that—that sort of chapter of your life in high school that might have been formative for interest in the outdoors otherwise?

BA: Well actually you just did trigger a—a memory because in San Antonio where I grew up, my mom and even my—my Grandmother Shield before her, had a long relationship with an Episcopal social service agency called The Good Samaritan Center. And I’m not sure quite how this came about but what I decided to do for my Eagle Scout project was to bring a group of kids served by that organization out to the ranch for a cimp—camping trip. So my, you know, task was to find the kids and to teach them ahead of time how—how to pitch a tent and then to arrange all the logistics for, you know, the overnight out to the ranch.
And we—we did that. It was a successful venture. We camped in a little field not far from the ranch house here on the—on the shores of Barton Creek and we explored the creek and went swimming. And then, for many of these kids, it was their first time out of the city, their first time overnight in a tent. And it’s just interesting because when we launched the El Ranchito Camp on the ranch in 2007, we did so in partnership with an Episcopal organization in Austin, which is called El Buen Samaritano.
So the same name only in Spanish and really looking for a way to provide outdoor nature immersion experiences for that same population of—of young people, many of them first generation immigrant families in the United States from Mexico or other countries in Central Am—in Central America. So there is an interesting sort of tie between that—that scouting experience and then a later programmatic effort here on the ranch.

DT: Do you—do you remember any of the reactions of—of the kids that you led out here as an Eagle Scout candidate and were they shocked, awed, fearful, happy—any—any sort of memory of—of how they reacted?

BA: All I really remember is that they seemed to be having a great time, just really a lot of energy and ex—exuberance and excitement. And that’s about as much as the memory will convey.

DT: Well so maybe we should talk about high school or college. Is—is there anything in that, you know, sequence of time that—that you might recall that was relevant to conservation?

BA: I think the other high school experience that would be relevant to mention is, in addition to scouting, was the time I spent working on this ranch in the summers—I’d say three or four summers. In my high school years, I would stay here in the house by myself and have different jobs. The first summer was fairly me—menial labor. I spent the summer painting the picket fence around the—the house and in the company of the white domestic turkey that lived next door. And she would peck at my se—seat—through a tractor seat—stool I sat on and I would paint her bill and nails in—in return.
And that was our—our little relationship we had going. But, as I got older, then I would be part of the ha—hay operation. And those were long, hot days. They were hot days in the field and they were hotter when we got up in the barn on a summer afternoon and stacking bales of hay. But it just, you know, I—I never loved—have never loved swimming in Barton Creek more than at the end of one of those days and I’d often spend the evenings swimming or fishing by myself on the creek and just feeling, you know, the ex—exertion, but then also just the—the—the—having had the place to myself and—and being alone in—in nature, which I think has been important to me always.
As a somewhat introverted kid and—and then sometimes perplexed by all the complexities of—of—of the social conventions. I think to—I found being outside and alone and quiet, paying attention to what was going on around me was restorative. And then I went back [inaudible 00:17:09] to deal with whatever was next. And so I really—I loved the—that time by myself on the ranch when I was that age. And I did—I went to college in Tennessee at the University of the South, Sewanee, which has a, at that time, a ten thousand acre campus. It’s bigger now.
And I spent a lot of time exploring—hiking and running the fire trails and finding, you know, different—different birds and different trees and di—whole different ecosystem than the one I had grown up in and it’s very different being within a forest after you’ve been in the more relatively open spaces of Central Texas and West Texas. And so I fell in love with a, you know, whole ‘nother landscape in that—during my college years.

DT: And were there any professors at Sewanee that—that you felt connected with you or influential for you?

BA: Ye—ye—ye—yes, for—for sure, but really not so much. And because I, you know, I really hadn’t discovered, you know, environmental issues or conversation issues as a, you know, possible career interest or professional interest. I really wasn’t taking classes that now I wish I’d taken. But I was a Spanish literature major and I had a—a couple of my Spanish professors, one of my English lit professors, one of my—and an economics professor, all of who are, you know, important both relationally and in terms of the particular classes they were teaching.
And Sewanee’s wonderful in the way that it encourages and allows close relationships between students and faculty. And that was one of the things I loved most about going to school that part of what attracted me to go to school there.

DT: I think that—that off-camera, you had mentioned that your family has roots in Tennessee. Did you find any sort of resonance when you would talk to your grandparents about your experience in—at Sewanee with their memories, you know, family stories about that part of the world?

BA: Yeah, it’s interesting because there are actually fa—family connections on—on both sides. On my father’s side, some of my [inaudible 00:19:32]Atlee relatives are buried in the cemetery around Athens, Tennessee in East Tennessee. And then my grandfather Shield, the Shield side of his family came to Texas from Cades Cove, the little community that’s now part of the Smoky Moun—Mountains National Park. And one parent’s weekend, my granddad flew up. He had a—with his pilot—he had a twin engine Cessna he used in his oil business and—and we drove up to—to Cades Cove and found the Shield gravestones and the little—and the little church there.
And I think he, you know, it’s—it—that’s rich for me to know because, even as I move around the ranch, so many of the names, you know, place names in the hill country come from Appalachia. So one of my favorite places on the ranch is Chalk Knob Hollow and that word “hollow” which, you know, in other places might be a creek or a draw is, you know, comes straight out of Appalachia. And—and so there are these—these ties, you know, generally and regionally, but then also family tie—connections between the Hill Country and—and the—and the coves and—and—and hollows of—of the Southern Ap—Appalachians.
And so I do feel when I’m back in Sewanee, and—and—and—and my wife, Margy and I, have a home in Sewanee and we—we met there and we still have connections and spend time in that part of the world. And so it does feel like the—the ties are going back and forth. And have a—a beautiful photograph of an old barn in Cades Cove that—black and white photograph—that hangs over my writing desk in Sewanee. So I feel those connections.

DT: You know, I—I—I—it seems like I’m hearing a lot of links and connections between you and the land and, in particular, the ranch here in Travis County. I was hoping that you might be able to describe Shield Ranch, not just here in Travis County, but I think that there are also tracts in-in other Counties, Jeff Davis, Real County, as well. And—and maybe the origins of this—these—these ranch holdings and the operations there—is there a story you could tell about them?

BA: Yeah, so—so my granddad grew up in a—Granddad Shield grew up in a—a hardscrabble cotton farming community in McCulloch County near Brady and—and had an opportunity to—or—or found his way into the oil patch in East Texas in the 1920s, trading leases as—beginning as a land man and then eventually becoming a—a Wild Catter and—and a producer and indep—independent oilman. And as he began to be successful financially, the—the lore is that my Grandmother Shield wa—urged him to start buying land.
I think she was afraid he was going to lose everything he’d made in the—in the—the next—the next venture. And it was the thirties and land prices were depressed. And he had expendable cash. And so this ranch was the first place they bought and they lived in San Antonio but somehow they learned about this property and tracked it I’m sure the—to the feature that—that we still draws us here which is Barton Creek, six and half miles of Barton Creek flowing through the ranch. Initially they purchased 5,400 acres and eventually purchased, you know, the—the rest.
The ranch is 6,800 acr—acres now. We purchased a little bit in recent years but most of it he—he assembled in the thirties and forties. And then—so he was ranching this as a—as a business enterprise but also it was a recreational property. And then in the early days, it was sheep, goats, cattle, registered horses, even a few dairy cows for a while. And a lo—there were hardly any improvements here when he bought the property. So fences to build, wells to drill, barns, corrals, residences. It was a lot going on here for the first, you know, ten or fifteen years that they owned the ranch.
And in 1945, he purchased the ranch in Real County and I think maybe had—knew some friends that owned land. And so here in Travis County, we’re on the very eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country and the Edwards Plateau. The ranch at Camp Wood [inaudible 00:24:20] is on the very es—western edge. And part of what I find fascinating about that ranch is the mixture of—of hill country, South Texas brush country, and then Chihuahuan Desert habitats that overlap and that you find expression in the—in the plants and—and animals that are on that ranch.
So it’s, you know, drier than here but more elevation and little rockier, more goat country than cattle country. Then there were, you know, again, sheeps, goats, and cattle there too for—from—for many years. So that—that ranch is about 7,400 acres now. And then in 1950, again through some fam—actually the same connections that led them to the purchase of the ranch in Real County, he purchased the ranch in Jeff Davis County, which is in the northern part of the Davis Mountains, just a little bit west of the State Park in—in Toyahvale say—say ten miles we-we—we—west and ten miles south.
You can see I10 from the elevation looking north from our property and you can see the obs—McDonald’s Observatory on—a little deeper in to the Davis Mountains looking to the south. And that’s very—that’s a larger ranch. It’s 23,000 acres. It’s up and down rugged canyon country, Chihuahuan Desert mountain—mountainous but interesting in some ways. There’s some ponderosa pines on the ranch and some other interesting, you know, pl—plant species and habitat types that make it different.
And that was mostly cattle ranching through the years and—but not currently. We’re—don’t—we’re not actively ranching that property now.

DT: So do you—do you run any livestock on any of the tracts now?

BA: At this very moment, we do not. The ranch here we’re operated until around 2000 and then we had it leased for a while. And we just removed cattle for a time to let the ranch rest and also to transition from a fairly traditional commercial cow/calf operation. So we’d like to move into a more sustainable grass fed, perhaps organic market where we’re—where the ani—where and we—and so we would buy animals again ourselves and operate that—a smaller herd but with the idea of producing grass fed beef for a local market.
But, additionally, we’re beginning to partner with an—another organization outfit to—to—to do some other more regenerative agricultural practices and we’ll be—they’ll begin on our place with both hogs and—and chickens, again, with the idea of serving a local market and a way of—for us to connect the ranch more deeply to our neighbors and the community and—and also to see if—if they can prove up their theory that there are ways to manage livestock and restore, you know, degraded pasturelands in the process. So we’re going to make a pass at that too.
The ranch at Real County we—we took cattle off and—just a few years ago because we had begun to manage actively for endangered species, both for the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo and came to discover that there might be more money in endangered species mitigation projects than in—in cattle ranching and—and that it would be easier to manage the ranch for the benefit of the species if we weren’t also running cattle in order to—in order to do more active prescribed burning, for example. And so, for the—at—at the moment, there—there are no cattle there.

DT: So is it—is the Real County tract operated as a kind of mitigation bank? Is that…?

BA: Well we—we are—we—we are in at the very tail end of a long process of creating a mitigation bank. We have not sold any credits out of that bank yet. However, we did sell a mitigation related conservation easement back in 2012. And this was for the LCRA, at that time, was building a major—what they call a CREZ line. It was a—a major electric transmission line to bring wind energy from West Texas into the markets in Central Texas. In the process of building that, they disturbed a fair amount of endangered species habitat.
And under the Endangered Species Act, they had to mitigate that by either purchasing and managing land themselves or paying someone else to manage in—in perpetuity, land for the benefit of that species and for which they would then have to pay. So we submitted a proposal to provide—at that time, you could do that as a private landowner with a conservation partner who would hold the conversation easement on those acres. And so we—the Nature Conservancy agreed to be our partner in that and we were selected by the LCRA but really for—to mitigate fully for both species.
But we ended up losing due to what I would say mitigation bank politics—the golden cheeked warbler portion of that. But we did sell the credits for the vireo habitat that they needed and put an easement on about 1,400 acres of that ranch for that purpose. So we’re actively—continue to actively manage that portion of the ranch for the benefit of—of the black capped vireo.

DT: And—and I think the last portion of the ranching operations out in Jeff Davis—are there some conservation initiatives you have going on there as well?

BA: Well I would say not—not formal in the sense that we don’t have a conservation easement on the Jeff Davis County ranch. But we do—really one of the—the things that we the—done most significantly there is to remove livestock from the ranch. Unlike the other two ranches, that landscape is not one that evolved with large ungulates like bison. And so, in some ways, just allowing those hilltops and those—those streams and—and creeks to revegetate and also to allow natural fire regimens to occur.
There are lightning strike fires in the Davis Mountains are common annually. And we’ve had a number of burns, including most of the ranch burned in the 2011 Rock House Fire that consumed about 300,000 acres in West Texas. It was the largest fire in recorded history at—at—at that time in—in Texas. And so I feel like that’s a place where, I mean, in mo—most—most instances it seems like in Texas in order to really manage for ecological health, you have to do things. And that may be one landscape where you don’t have to do a lot.
And th—and that can be pretty good mana—pretty good management. So that’s—we’re—we’re—we’re not doing very much there. Of course, there’s a lot that has to be done just to keep water systems up and—and—and systems working. But—but we don’t have an—an acti—a agricultural program at the moment.

DT: I’m—I’m curious, after this Rock House Fire swept through the Jeff Davis property, have you seen kind of interesting recovery going on out there of plants coming back that you maybe haven’t seen in locations you weren’t aware of?

BA: Well what I would say is that I think that it has speeded up the recovery of the riparian areas because when it did rain again after the fire, I mean, ev—I mean, it was pretty much bare. Th—it—the fire was really hot and most of the time it burned through. And so it—it looked—a lot of the ranch that had been very grassy or brushy, looked a lot like a Walmart pa—parking lot for a year or two, until it rained. And wh—when it did rain, a lot of that ash and—and—and soil and stuff washed down into the creek beds and provided a really rich soil ad—addition.
And so then—and—and then I think without, you know, the—the grazing impacts, it’s allowed those riparian areas to become—I mean, there’s a lot left ri—ri—lot less mature woodlands along the creeks because of the bigger ash and willows. Many of them burned in the fire. But just in terms of, you know, the kind of vegetation that you would hope to be sees—see growing in a healthy, you know, a—a—a—a riparian situation is very vibrant and I think healthier than it would have been without the—the fire for sure. Other areas you can’t tell there was a fire.
Other areas you’ll be able to come back a hundred years from now and know there was a fire because of the standing skeletons of those alligator juniper trees and piñon trees that are very slow to decompose and those in that area of the climate will—will be there for a long, long time as evidence of that fire.

DT: I’m—I’m struck that—that in both your Travis County tract and in the Real County tract, you’ve used conservation easements? And I was curious how you came across that tool and what use you’ve made of it and what sort of value you see in it?

BA: Sure. Well I first learned about conservation easements when we began doing some long range planning for this ranch and Travis County. And this would have been in the late 1980s. And the way we came to that was that I opened up the Austin paper one day and read an article about plans for an outer loop around Austin. That’s—most of it’s been built now and that’s State Highway 45. But the western, southwestern portion, I—I noticed the location of the roadway looked very simil—very close to the ranch.
And did a little more research and determined that, in fact, it would be crossing Barton Creek on our property. And that was a real wakeup call both to the reality of impinging ur—urbanization on the ranch, but also wh—what is our response to that? Is this a good thing? A bad thing? The family had owned the ranch for fifty years but we hadn’t had any conversations together about what the next fifty years might be like.
And so we gathered here at the house in 1987 just within a week or so the time that my Granddad Shield died and at a time when my sister and I were coming of age and becoming interested and involved in the ranch and family matters and my parents. And we had a facilitator and we, you know, we spent time thinking about what we might want to happen and not happen here. And th—that led us to work for a year with a—a land planner and landscape architect, James Turner, who became for me a significant friend and mentor in the world of—of land planning and—and land conservation.
And James introduced me to the Nature Conservancy. And he said, “You know, I think they—the folks at the Nature Conservancy might be interested in what you’re doing.” Well I’d never heard of the Nature Conservancy but I got a phone number and called the office in San Antonio. And Jeff Weigel, who’s still on the staff of the Nature Conservancy, was then the ac—Interim State Director and Helen Ballew, who’s still deeply involved in conservation work in San Antonio and beyond in the Hill County, came out to the ranch and we did a tour.
And I told them about the ranch and they told me about the work of the Nature Conservancy. And then, as they were leaving, they put in my hands a little pamphlet about conservation easements. And conservation easements were new to Texas. The state legislation that enabled them had only been passed a few years before and there’d only been a couple done. And, for the next ten years, from ’87-8 to ’98, the family talked about whether this might be something we would want to do, whether it would be a good idea, what the pros and cons would be.
And I attended conferences and read books and watched videos and talked to people. And—and that led eventually to the decision in 1998 to put most of the ranch under a conservation easement. And, at the time, there was a need within the family to generate some economic value from the ranch. And, at the time, the City of Austin had just decided to do its first bond in—initiative for purchasing land and conservation easements for water quality protection, including in the Barton Creek watershed.
So there was an opportunity suddenly to sell—to both donate to the Nature Conservancy and sell to the City of Austin conservation easements, which would protect the land permanently, in a way that was important to the family, but still generate a portion of the economic value to the family that was a—a—a—a need of the family’s at the time, without having to sell or develop the land. And that just seemed like a pretty fabulous outcome to all of us. And that’s—we co—accomplished that in 1998.
And we left out a—a few areas of the ranch that were away from the creeks and that we felt like, you know, would be suitable for responsible development down the road if we needed or wanted to do that. And—but I—ni—over ninety percent of the ranch is—is protected by conservation easements, two-thirds of that with the Nature Conservancy and a-third roughly with the City of Austin. And I just say it’s been a great experience for us. We—we have never regretted it. We have good relationships with both of our easement holding partners.
And there are constraints and sometimes that’s, you know, caused us to be creative in how we go about accomplishing things that we want to do, but we’ve always been able to—to get there. And so it’s—for us, the conservation easements have been a great tool and resource as private landowners trying to plan for the future of our land.

DT: I think you—you mentioned in passing when we were talking about easements and your plan for this Travis County tract that—that y’all were considering a—a small grass fed cattle operation, maybe having hogs, chickens. And so it sounds like this—the restrictions of the easement permit that kind of agricultural development. And I was hoping you could talk about that kind of marriage of both sustaining family lands, having some agricultural activities, having some economic returns, but also protecting the—the land’s water quality function.

BA: Right. So I think that’s one of the great things about conservation easements as tools is that they are flexible and each easement is somewhat unique. There are elements that are essential from the point of view of the easement holder and that are in—typically in—in common. But then—but then there are—a—a lot that can be tailored for the needs of the landowner. And—and typically agricultural uses are permitted and sometimes encouraged. Sometimes that’s the purpose of the easement to protect quality farmland, for example.
But yo—yo—yo—but also, there’s usually language the ensures responsible, you know, management so that they’re not adverse impacts to water quality say or to, you know, so—soil erosion. So there are some—some qualifying language in—in our easements. And, in terms of other livestock, there are limit—limits as to amount that we could do. And—but there is still fl—flexibility and—and we did intentionally leave ourselves options, both for economic reasons and also because th—there were other things we knew we wanted to do with the property.
And so our easements also allow us to do some development but for facilities for nonprofit use. And so we can’t do residential subdivisions or commercial development but, in certain areas of the ranch, we are permitted to—to build structures that could be used, you know, to further the mission of certain nonprofits. And so we’re in the process now of beginning to build some—some permanent facilities for El Ranchito Summer Camp Program. And they will be very light on the land.
They’ll be very open air, very—built to really foster the nature immersion experience that is at the core of our program, but it is all—and—and we’ve had to locate those facilities, you know, slightly, you know, away from the creeks do—for—for—as part of the—the easement consideration. But those are the kinds of—of retained development rights that were part of our—our easement.

DT: If—if I remember right, you—you mentioned that—that the first sort of inkling of this idea that maybe an easement would be helpful or needed was when you read about the extension of—of 45, which would have crossed the ranch, crossed Barton Creek. And I was curious if this easement has been a help in trying to protect against that?

BA: Well, I mean, the things are related but maybe not quite that closely. I think—I think in a—I th—I think the threat of the roadway really prompted us to think seriously as a family about what we wanted for the ranch and then begin to actively plan for that future. And the easements relate to that but they were also a way to, in a way, protect the ranch against ourselves long term, and—and that’s what I like to say is that through the easements, we’ve—we’ve protected the ranch from ourselves.
We’ve effectively zoned the ranch ourselves in an area most—wh—which has no zo—zoning to—by any municipality or county government. And we’ve said these are things that can and cannot happen here. And that’s a way of ensuring that—that those things that we care deeply about will—will carry in to the future, whether it—the ranch is owned by our kids or whether at some time the family even, you know, sells the ranch, the easements will still be there and they’ll still be—those requirements will remain in place.
So that—that was its own objective and there were estate planning considerations there because the easement significantly reduce, you know, the value of the ranch, which would be, you know, the—the tax liability of a ranch this size, you know, in such close proximity to an urban area could be really devastating and im—impact economically to the family. So there was a financial incentive to do the easements as well for that reason. The question about whether the easements may ha—help us or hurt us with respect to the roadway is an interesting one.
Most conservation easements don’t provide any kind of immunity from imminent domain or condemnation. Some perhaps do if there’s a federal interest in the easement, for example, but that’s not the case with ours. And so the advantage is that there are taxpayer dollars invested in a portion of this property for the purpose of conservation. And I would think that that would be a consideration for, you know, any new effort to do a major infrastructure project through the ranch, though there could be ways around that.
It does show that the larger public has a vested interest in—in—in the conservation work we’re doing here and that there’s a benefit to the public from what we’re protecting and how we’re managing the ranch—water quality, air quality, open space. Even recreation, though not required, it’s something we do a fair amount. There’s a fair amount of access—public access—to the ranch. But, then again, wide open spaces, when there are more and more subdivisions all around become attractive magnets for its much easier to condemn or—or plan through one—one property owner than hundreds and hundreds of others.
And so, you know, it’s—it’s sort of a—a two-edged sword really.

DT: Well the—something else that you said earlier kind of caught me and you said that—that y’all were planning to return some livestock operations here but not sort of conventional, industrial agriculture, but—but more I guess locally based, maybe organic, maybe grass fed—what’s—what’s driving your family and what—what is your hope with those kind of ventures?

BA: Well I think—I think part of wh—part of—par—well, first of all, there are family members who just have a keen interest in—in—in local and healthy and sustainably raised food. And so there’s—there’s family energy and—and interest around that, some of that coming from what we call the ne—the next gen, our next generation, which is exciting to see. And I think also that kind of less industrial, commercial, at that scale, agriculture, is perhaps—it’s just more in keeping with our core—core values.
But I think, as many of the programs that we are contemplating for the future, there’s an understanding within the family that if part of our desire is to really protect the land over time, the only way that’s going to happen is if other people beyond our family know and appreciate and care deeply about this place which we feel is, you know, truly unique and—and—and—and special. And so there are a lot of ways, you know, to—to share the ranch with a larger community that creates that understanding and appreciation.
And I think if—if, you know, if—and—and one of the ways to do that is to be providing, you know, healthy, locally sourced food to neighbors and who appreciate the value of having land in sustainable, agriculture in close proximity to where they live and—and work. So those—that’s sort of the—the suite of motivations for moving in that direction.

DT: I think, you know, that’s something else that you described as—as a, you know, early venture and then a continuing venture here is this El Ranchito. I mean, that—that dates back to your days as an Eagle Scout bringing kids from San Antonio out here to camp and—and then I guess in the last ten years or more, doing it through El Ranchito and—and the Shi—Shield Ranch Foundation. And I was hoping that you could talk about the—the course of doing that and—and explain what your goals are there?

BA: Sure. Well I think, I mean, the origin of this El Ranchito Program is pretty simple. When we were around the table here in the ranch house in 1987 talking about what we might want to see happen on the ranch in the future, one of the ideas that came up that we all were enthusiastic about was finding a way to share the ranch with young people and because my mom—because my grandparents bought the ranch when my mom was still a young girl and my sister and I had all had such rich experiences being on the ranch horseback riding, swimming, hiking, hunting, fishing, all of those activities, that it—that we had a desire to—to sh—to share the ranch, particularly with kids who might not, you know, be able otherwise to have those kinds of outdoor experiences.
And so that was an idea that we held onto. But in 2000, we hired as a land steward for the ranch, Terry Siegenthaler who had a deep experience in nature education herself and—and—and part of why we hired her for the job is to give us a—wi—within our staff here at the ranch the—the knowledge and experience to launch a program, some kind of sp—programming in the ed—education and outreach and nature immersion programming. And then the next thing that happened was that Terry was in an environmental book group with some other folks.
And the book—they read Richard Louv’s book—I’m blanking on the name—La—a—Last Child of the Woods, right. And—and sh—Terry was telling me about that. And I was thinking it’s time to get this camp going and whatever we’re going to do. And we had the idea well why not—why not do a camp for kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to do it and—and—and have it be a nature immersion experience, be the focus of the camp.
There are lots of camps that are sports camps, lots of camps that are, you know, adventure camps or that are ropes courses or, you know, a lot of different things, but what’s unique about the ranch is this sort of pristine, natural environment and why not make that ex—experience of the—the place the core of our camp program. And so we realized early on that we would need partners to do this. And how were we to connect, you know, to the kids that we wanted to bring. And we had a relationship as funders through the Shield-Ayres Foundation with El Buen Samaritano, the Episcopal Ch—Mission I mentioned in South Austin.
And so we approached them. I knew the executive director and, at the time, and I—Ed Gomez. And I said, “Ed, is this the kind of program that your families might be interested in?” And he said, “This would be so perfect because part of our goal is to help these first generation immigrant families assimilate, connect, become part of this community. And what better way to do that than to send a kid to camp and what a cl—classical kind of American childhood experience to go to summer camp and for those kids to arrive back in their classrooms having had that experience.
And so we had a partner to help recruit campers and then we talked to our friends at—at then Westcave Preserve, now West Cave Outdoor Learning Center, and said, “We’re thinking about doing this. You all know how to do nature education. Would you be willing to partner with us to develop the programming for our—our camp? And they wanted to be doing more outreach, more outreach to the community we wanted to serve and they had limitations because of the size of their site for any kind of an overnight program.
And so this fit well into their mission and objectives. And so the—the—this is the partnership that’s been at the heart of El Ranchito ever since the be—beginning, still is. And we have many other partners as well. But that’s really the story of how we came to do El Ranchito. We—and I developed a bit of a—of a plan and then we went to—had sort of a focus group with parents at El Buen Samaritano and we said, “This is what we’re thinking about.” I was trying to say all this in Spanish. And then with Ed’s help and, “Wo—would you send your kids here?”
And they said, “Well, n—n—n—n—no.” [laughing] And so we—we said, “Well, what will we need to do to make this appealing?” And they—we talked back and forth and—and—and evolved the—the program a bit to where they felt like that would be something that they would be interested in. And the first year, I believe, we had two sessions of fifth and sixth graders and seventh and eighth graders. And then we picked up the fourth grade and then the kids who were aging out at the other end begged us to keep going.
I wasn’t sure we needed to do high school students on the ranch in the summer, but we created a conservation por—core program for the older kids, for the high school kids. And they actually do work in more high adventure outdoor recreation and we pay them a stipend and they’re getting job readiness skills and learning more about conservation. And then more recently, we created a program for college aged adults, young adults, which has been a—was a—a headwaters to Tidewaters Gulf Coast expedition, a service/learning journey.
And that program is evolving and taking shape maybe a little different direction, but currently we have three distinct sum—pr—programs as part of El Ranchito.

DT: Maybe you can talk about a—a typical day for an El Ranchito camper who comes out here and what he or she might do.

BA: Well, the first thing would be circle time in a—in a field. We hold camp on the banks of Rocky Creek, which is a tributary of Barton Creek on the ranch and in an old alluvial field that had been planted in—in—in settlement times and in kind of a bit of a bowl-shaped area. It feels very secluded, even though we’re not that far from the nearest paved road. And—and so the kids arein tents(?) and they gather in a circle. They’ll do some stretches and do some silly songs and maybe express some gratitude for starting a new day at camp.
And then it’s breakfast and—and we do days by theme. So there’s a—a water—a water day. There’s a land and people day. And there’s a, you know, plants and wildlife, different—different fo—focuses. So on a—on a land and people day, there might be a hike over to settlement era cabin that we restored on the ranch and they would encounter people in period dress, you know, cooking on an open fire or washing their clothes in the creek, or trying to find their lost cattle that had been ru—you know, rustled by a—by somebody else.
And so they—they get to know these characters and—and find out they have their own story. They’re traveling as part of a group and trying to get from place to place and—and get what they need as they go. So these are the kinds of programs that we’ve developed over time that, you know, to—so that it’s fun, it’s exp—experiential, it’s not a classroom situation. And—and—and yet, by the time they leave even after just four or five days, they’ve had a rich exposure to the natural and cultural history of the area.

DT: Yeah, I think you mentioned Richard Louv and—and his book and—and the concerns about environmental education and contact for kids. And—and I was hoping that you could maybe sort of flesh that out. I mean, what—what—what is the—what is the fear or the worry about kids that are growing up in an urban area that may not—not have access to a place like this other than through El Ranchito?

BA: Well I’m sure that there are other people that you’re talking to who are much more knowledge—knowledgeable and articular a—around this. But it—it does seem to me that there’s a growing body of evidence that being outdoors is really good for your physical, emotional, and I would sa—mental, I would say spiritual health and that being in highly urbanized environments inside connected to technology for a large number of the days is really no—not such a healthy thing, whether it’s obesity, whether it’s different forms of, you know, distraction and—and—and learning challenges and just kind of, you know, happiness and—and—and—and generally people—well-adjusted human beings—I think adults need it as much as kids.
And that’s a challenge I think for all of us just in the world that we’re living in. So, you know, we hear the kids. We ask the kids, you know, what would you be doing if you weren’t with us this summer? And we asked their parents and they say what you’d expect them to say, we’d be sitting in front of the TV or, you know, hanging out with friends and, you know, playing videogames. And yo—they don’t have any of that technology available to them while they’re here and they may have a brief withdrawal when they arrive, but they come back year after year.
We had five kids age out of our conservation core program this summer and between the five of them, they’d had 43 years at El Ranchito. And you could just see that wasn’t very many days out of the year each day but the difference that that made as they talked about their experiences and—and what they valued about, you know, their—and the—and the deep connection they felt, you know, to the place and how it felt like home when they got back each summer and—and the friendships and—and—and—and what they learned and what they were taking with them into their adult lives.
So I be—believe it’s—it can be very transformational and—and powerful experience.

DT: I think you mentioned that—that the El Ranchito is—is run by the—the Ranch Foundation. I ga—I gather it’s sort of an operating foundation, is that true?

BA: That’s right. It is. It’s a private operating foundation. We created it for the purpose of—of running El Ranchito as a nonprofit. But we also anticipate that eventually a large part—portion of the ranch will be owned by the foundation. And since we’re about to build permanent facilities for El Ranchito, the first transfer of land out of the family and into the foundation ownership will happen in the next few months. And then, over time, probably I would say as much as sixty percent at least of the ranch will be in the foundation ownership.

DT: Well and—and, as I understand the—your family also has another foundation that—that is involved, instead of an operating—an entity within it—but rather a grant-making effort where you support other nonprofit groups, a number of which are in the conservation field. Is that because the Shield-Ayres Foundation?

BA: Right. So the Shield-Ayres Foundation is a—is a private foundation, a family foundation. And—and it is a grant-making foundation. It was created by my parents, Pat and Bob Ayres, in 1977. It was a vehicle for them to—to do their own philanthropy. It was a way for them to encourage my sister and myself and now our kids to be involved philanthropically. Also, you know, an estate planning tool and—and a way to—to leave a significant part of their estate. And my Grandfather Shield, when he died, ended up leaving a significant part of his estate to the foundation as well.
And so, yeah, we’ve been—b—b—b—been at it for—for that—all those years.

DT: And are there some environmental groups that—that I think y’all have supported and—and feel proud about the—the sort of efforts that they…?

BA: Right. So the foundation was—it one—one thing that—that I really value about the foundation is that it’s—it’s very broad in its mandate of what it can fund. And basically it can fund nonprofit organizations that the family, you know, deems significant to fund. And so our funding areas reflect the individual interests and passions of our family members. So there’s been a lot in the area of—of—of youth and childhood develop—early child development, health and human services, world hunger, and—and relief and development are all areas where we’ve traditionally funded.
And I brought really in the early days, the conservation interest, you know, to the foundation. It’s something that I think everyone would say we—we—we embrace fully together and are pr—proud of. And we fund pretty broadly within that area. We fund mostly in state and—and primarily in areas where we have connections through the ranches. We fund some statewide organizations and programs and we do some funding along the Gulf Coast where we also have ties through my father’s family and an—and an interest. And so that’s education.
It’s advocacy. It’s land and water conservation. It’s policy. It—it really can be any of that. But because of our re—our ranching and landowning and land management interest, we’ve probably—the most dollars in the conservation area have been to land and wa—water conservation and particularly organizations involved in private land conservation.

DT: You know, it’s intriguing to me and I imagine to people who would be seeing this video or hearing about your family’s work is—is that there’s this sort of collaborative consensus building process that—that your family’s gone through again and again about trying to cohere around some kind of core value. And I was wondering if you would feel at liberty to talk about that?

BA: Yeah, I’ll talk both about the—the values and also about the process. And—and we’ve done—you’re right, we’ve done this twice now with respect to this ranch, once in 1988 and then just again, you know, very recently. Starting in 2015, we did a new visioning process and a new master plan, which we’ve just completed in the—in the last few months. And—and then with the Shield-Ayres Foundation, we’ve done strategic planning that’s inclusive of—of all generations, both of these processes have been all generations welcome, and all have participated.
And even the Shield Ranch Foundation, a smaller subset of people that have been working on, you know, sort of the next—next generation of—of plans for El Ranchito. So—and I think values that have emerged have been st—stewardship, both in terms of the land, but also in terms of just the financial resources that, you know, we’ve—feel blessed to—to have and—and feel responsibility around. I think fa—faith is important and really much of our understanding of stewardship comes out of Judeo-Christian tradition and—and our involvement in our communities of faith, where it had a diverse, somewhat eclectic, family in that respect.
And—and then also a deep concern for community and—and the well-being of communities. And I think that guides—and—and also particularly and this, again from our Christian tradition—Judeo-Christian tradition—a deep concern for those who are vulnerable and—and hurting in the world. And so we don’t typically fund organizations that are typically really well funded by people of means. We tend to focus and pro—in areas where, you know, we feel like the needs—not that all of it isn’t good work but where—where the needs are—are the greatest and in alignment most closely with those values that we’ve identified.
On the process side, I think, you know, and I—I think we’ve never taken a vote in the Shield-Ayres Foundation just, you know, in—since 1977—there’s never been a hands up, you know. It’s always—we get there together and we just keep talking until we are on the same page together. And I feel like that’s a—that’s ha—hard work sometimes, but I think it’s important work to do as a family. And I think we’re—we’re not only diverse in our religious expressions, but we’re diverse politically and just in terms of our interests.
And to figure out how to be those ways together as a family and do something together that makes a difference in the world, I think is a—particularly in this politically and culturally divisive moment in which we’re living. It’s just seems like really important work. And we found some ways that enable that. Each family group has ten percent of what we give every year that they can, you know, kind of allocate. So we don’t all have to agree on everything to feel good about what we’re giving.
On the other hand, all the organizations that we fund, even those that come from the ten percent, have to go through the same application process and—and the same review. And—and because our name as a foundation is attached to every grant and no one who gets the grant knows, you know, ho—what portion of the funds it came from, we—we have kind of a rule that if someone just really can’t get there for moral or other reasons and support, you know, some kind of organization that there’s in so—in effect, a veto power that they can exercise.
And it’s not exercised often and with—with care and concern, but it’s a way of—of—of—of not—of trying to be able to do work together without alienating or putting someone in a position that they feel they can’t—can’t participate any longer. And so these are things that we’ve developed, you know, in an effort to hang in there together and—and do things together. And then we’ve relied a lot on the expertise of—of facilitators and folks who are good at helping families d—d—work together because it’s not easy all the time.
And—and as we—most people know who happen to have families. So we—we work at it.

DT: Maybe we should shift gears a little bit. We’ve talked a fair amount about—about your family and about the Shield Ranch, the Shield Ranch Foundation and Shield-Ayres Foundation. And I was hoping that you might tell us a little bit about some of your own personal interests that are, you know, individual efforts that you’ve—you’ve been involved with. I think you’ve been on the board of at least three environmental groups that I know of—of Land Trust Alliance, Nature Conservancy, and the Hill Country Conservancy. And I was curious what—what drew you to those groups and what—what your role might have been there?

BA: Well, I think b—b—b—b—maybe a way—a story that—that illustrates m—my interest and engagement in land conservation groups would be—I was telling someone this story last night. I attended for the first time a Land Trust Alliance Rally in Burlington, Vermont. This was in the mid-nineties. And that’s a big educational conference that the Land Trust Alliance puts on each year. The Land Trust Alliance is a national organization that exists to serve member land trusts all across the country.
That’s education. It’s—it’s training in different ways and its advocacy work in Washington around issues that land trusts care about. And I went bec—as a landowner because I was trying to learn more about conservation easements and I knew there would be seminars and people to talk to. And—and I was genuinely, you know, interested and intrigued. But when I walked into the room and—and—and started attending the field trips and going to the sessions, I realized I’d sort of found my tribe. I really liked these people.
I liked the work that they were doing all around the country, and I found that I wanted to be, you know, more a part of it. And I had an opportunity as we got to know the Nature Conservancy better working here at the ranch to serve on the Advisory Board for the Nature Conservancy in—in Austin. And then because I knew we were thinking about doing easements, I declined the out—you know, an invitation to serve on the state board until we were well through the easement negotiations just to—and—and deal just to avoid a—a conflict of interest situation.
But, in the meantime, I had a chance to—to serve on the board—the founding board of the Hill Country Conservancy. So a local land trust just beginning and in Austin, in a rather unique way, an effort to get—because there’d been so much conflict in the late eighties, early nineties in Austin between development interests and—and the environmental interests, endless battles at the—the City Hall and at the state legislature. And eventually a group of—of—of mo—positively minded citizens sat down and said, you know, can’t we just figure something out and what, you know, let’s at least get around a table and talk together.
And in the end, and I wasn’t part of this conversation, but the lore is there was actually a peace pipe circulating at one of the meetings. And the question was well we agreed to—we’re going to disagree on a lot of things, but what can we agree on? And one thing that was agreed upon was that it would be good for everybody to protect a bunch of land around Austin and particularly in the watershed as they contribute to Barton Springs. And I was approached in those early days because, in addition to business and environmental interests, they wanted to have a couple of landowners on the board and we had just done our conservation easements.
And so that’s how I came to serve on the Hill Country All—Allia—on the—on the Hill Country Conservancy Board. And then I also had an opportunity to serve on the state board of the Nature Conservancy and I—and—and then eventually on the—the board of the Land Trust Alliance. And I’ve really—it’s been valuable to me to work very locally, to work at a little larger scale as part of a yo—giant organization being the Nature Conservancy and then work, you know, at the national level as—as part of an organization that’s really trying to support the work of the—of—of land trusts all across the country.
And—and—and I think there are projects that only a large organization can accomplish. There’s a sc—the Nature Conservancy can work at scale that a local land trust could never work. And that seems important to have landscape scale conservation projects in places like the Davis Mountains in West Texas or—or along the—along the co—coastal areas, to name just two—forests in ea—in—in East Texas.
At the same time, there are places that maybe don’t rank high on any national score but that matter deeply to the people of a local community, say Barton Springs and—or even a smaller, you know, parcel and that that’s—that’s the kind of work that a local land trust can do with the support of its community that might not, you know, catch the attention of a national group. And then part of it I think is an opportunity to—I—we wouldn’t have been able to do the protection on this ranch that we’ve done without a land trust to hold that easement.
And so to have a way to—to give back, in a sense, for what we’ve received from the work of the land trust community and to be part of that on the—the other side is—has been re—meaningful to me personally.

DT: So—so we’ve talked a little bit about your—your volunteer service with these nonprofit groups. And—and I was hoping that you could also talk about your forays into the si—co—realm of—of government oversight and—and—and service. I think that you served on the Mayor’s Task Force for the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan and you were also part of a Travis County effort called the Groundwater Stakeholder Committee. And it—it—can you talk a little bit about those two experiences or other related things for local governments?

BA: Yeah, tho—those were both a bit out of my comfort zone pr—perhaps, but they were really rich experiences. The—the Mayor’s Task Force was in the heyday of—of all the contention around endangered species protection and really fierce battles between conservation groups and private landowners and private property rights advocates. So I—I’ve sat in on my share of really heated discussions and hearings and—and the—and the folks on the Task Force and then both of these groups were very diverse by design—trying to figure out, you know, some solution.
In the case of the—of the Mayor’s Task Force, there, you know, there was a federal hammer. There was, you know, a restriction on what areas could be developed because of endangered species. And so something had to be done. And so the eventual resolution of that was to create really a model habitat conservation plan wi—nationally because it was—addressed so many different kinds of species at such a large scale, it drew a lot of attention.
And that became the Balcones Canyonlands Plan. And the Mayor’s Task Force was just a very sm—you know, it was a very, very small piece of that, but it was an opportunity just to see all of that and participate in all of that, you know, which I—which I valued. And, again, I was a bit of an anomaly as a private landowner who was actually interested endangered species protection and thought that endangered species on the ranch was a good thing and not a bad thing. So I was sort of—I was held—I was a little bit suspect from—from—from both sides at times.
And then the Groundwater Task Force—our County Commissioner asked if I would serve on that and I was grateful for her leadership in environmental issues and felt like I wanted to—to be helpful if I could. But this happened to just be in the midst of the drought of 2011, which, as we all know now, turned out to be a drought of record.
But really looking at increasing pressure on groundwater supply due to—to increased demand because of population growth and—and—and then impacts of—of climate over time and trying to balance the needs of the community and the rights of people to develop their land with the desire to have water here for all of us down the road and the quality of it and the quantity of it be something that would sustain our community. So that was really the challenge was to come up with, in effect, an ordinance to—to provide some management of groundwater resources by the county.

DT: Yeah, I’m—I’m intrigued to hear what you might say about—I guess about growth, in general. I mean, you—you bring a really interesting mix of being a private property owner with a conservation bent in a—and within a tie to the community and support for community interests and engagement with the community that is growing really fast. And—and it’s sort of ex—using private property rights to allow that kind of growth, but it challenges a lot of the conservation values that you have. And it seems like you’re—so you’re—got a foot in several kind of camps. And—and I wonder what you think about the—the growth that Austin’s seeing and San Antonio where you grew up and the Hill Country, in general? S—so, Bob, I—I wanted to ask you about growth in the Austin and San Antonio communities and the Hill Country, in general, because you bring so many different angles of engagement here. I mean, on the one hand, you’re a private property owner and, you know, a lo—a lot of this community’s growth is—is basically leveraged on the ability to develop property as you see fit. But then, on the other hand, you’ve worked on a lot of nonprofit efforts, as well as community government efforts, to try to contain that growth and—and channel in ways that, you know, are I guess one with your conservation values. So and—and also I think that through, you know, El Ranchito or other effort you—you’ve tried to support the community and—and, you know, give it some sup—sort of rec—recognition and help. And so I—I’m wondering how you face and deal with the growth that—that we’re seeing here in a number of—in the population and the development out here?

BA: Well I think the—this whole question of balancing growth and—and conservation or development and protection is one that I—I—it is a space I inhabit. And—and I spend a lot of time thinking about it. And—and, to me, I think balance is—is the word I come to. I think and, you know, pa—I mean, I—I’m here working on it because I love this place and I don’t want it to be destroyed. That’s my, you know, starting point in the conversation. And I have seen, you know, I’ve been doing this work for the family fo—this ranch for thirty years.
And the area around us, you know, has changed, you know, radically in that period of time, mostly not for the better from my point of view. And yet I do respect, you know, the—the rights of property owners and—and—and—and the needs of property owners to be able to sell and develop their land. But I also believe that it’s important for communities to be able to plan for growth and to—to—to have regulatory and other authority that en—enables different kinds of protection. And so, to me, there’s back and forth tension.
There is—counties have no zoning authority in Texas. People from other states are stunned to—to learn that. And so in areas like San Antonio and Austin, and many other counties adjoining growing municipalities, there are very few tools available to county governance—governments to manage and—and—and regulate growth. So I—I t—to—to me, it—it’s a balance. I mean, I believe in private property rights but I also believe in private property responsibilities and I don’t hear people talk about the responsibilities that go as private property ownership very much.
That I think would be a healthy conversation, you know, to be having. And—and I—I do think there are—I mean, I just am not—they have never by an—by composition, but by philosophy been an anti-government person. I feel like there is a role for government. I feel like in a capitalist society, there’s a deep need for regulation and it can go too far, but without it, things tend not to turn out very well in—in many areas, from my point of view.
And I think in the environmental area, while I’ve been mostly involved in private land conservation because I’m a private landowner, I really do see the need, you know, for sound public policy around environmental issues and also support. And through the foundation, we support the work of groups who, you know, who—who do that, who—who look for, you know, legislative solution to water problems and—and—and—and protections against, you know, pollution of our waterways and—and to ensure adequate stream flows for our rivers in Texas so that we have healthy bays and estuaries and—and water to drink and—and—and places to recreate.
And so I guess, yeah, it just seems to me that we need places to live and work and—and—and play and—and—but it—what a tragedy to destroy the places that, you know, we love the most because we, you know, and—and whether it’s just ignorance or—or greed, whatever the motivation, it’s not a—it’s not the legacy that I hope we would want to leave for the—the generations that come after us.

DT: You know, we’ve talked over the last little bit about, you know, your experiences and—and work and motives, goals for conservation. And—and I would think that—that another way to describe some of the stuff and—and—and express it would be to hear you read some of your poems that yo—I think come maybe close to—to some of your central concerns. And I was hoping that you might be willing to read and explain some of your poems. Would you be able to help us there?

BA: Well I’d be happy to read some poems. Not sure about the explaining. Hopefully they’ll speak for themselves but the—can be some ways that we can talk about them too.

DT: Okay. That’s great. Thank you.

BA: So several years ago, I published a collection of poems called Shadow of Wings and it’s a—a—a chapbook. And I thought what I might do is would be to read the—the first and the—and the—and the last poem in all—and—and then, in between, a poem from the middle of the collection, since there’s something of a progression or arc in the book from where the—the—the—-the lyric voice or speaker of these poems is—is beginning. The first poem is a winter poem. It’s a—a—it’s a poem that’s asking a question.
It’s a poem that’s addressed to the natural world in a way other poems are addressed to? more conventional deities and—and there’s sort of a movement from—from dark into light, from winter in—into spring. But—but there’s a connection between I think—or th—through the poems in collection, this exploration of the relationship between what it is to be human in—in—in the natural world and in ways in which the na—the natural world—the experience of the natural world can also be a means of exploring interior, emotional la—landscapes as it were.
So maybe that’s the—the prologue or the project. And then I’ll just—I’ll just read the poems. So the first poem in Shadow of Wings is titled “Aspect of Winter”.

Aspect of Winter
Not many sunlight hours
on the north facing slope
Tapers of ice
melt to dingy rivers
meandering downhill.
Cold water, tell me how long will it take
to wash away
this mountain?

And then this poem more from the middle of the collection, a turning—turning in the seasons of the year and then interior turning as well. The title is “Human X”

Human X
I’m flat on my back on the big rock

None of the trees in periphery have budded,
Theyir thousand thin fingers like ancient
diagrams of the body aach reaching
toward its own ending.

I feel a sudden sadness that winter is done,
That the inner order of things must be hidden
by the leafy barrage; orning…clotted with song.

Then a purple martin swoops by
And oddly, I’m satisfied.

And then a poem from the—next to last poem in the collection. And, as with the previous poem, this poem is set here at this ranch.


Had you come with me this morning
walking the pecan bottom along the creek,
then the ridge upstream from where it bends, the sky
scrubbed clean by last night’s unpredicted storm,
You would have seen the turkey hen threading her brood
through patches of bluestem, blooming broomweed
and, perched on the upended cedar stump, a painted bunting
besotted with sunshine and song.”

DT: Are there any other poems that you would care to read to us? I think you had sent me some that were not bound.

BA: Yeah, I don’t have those with me. If you have them with you, I could read one or more. So here are a few more poems that—let me start that over.

BA: So here are three more poems that have to do with, in some way, with my relationship to the natural world and—and the interface between the human and the natural world. And then I’ll close it with one that—that speaks perhaps to this sense of obligation I feel around engaging with—with the natural world. So this first poem, again, the—the—set in the world of my childhood but—but looking back to—to that experience fr—fr—from my adult life.

“Biting the Green Acorn

Biting the green acorn
or the purple one, yellow meat
Indians made into meal;

The boat I made from a half”

—I just messed that up.

So if it’s okay, I’ll just start over for the poem.

DT: Please.

“Biting the Green Acorn

Biting the green acorn
or the purple one, yellow meat
Indians made into meal;

The boat I made from an empty half,
live oak leaf for a sail, afloat
in the fountain under the canopy of trees

Mamoo planted when the house was new;
chunk of bark I loosened
to see who lived inside;

the pair of tanagers chuckling overhead;
Those long afternoons – not knowing
or needing to know

What I would give to be left alone
a whole afternoon, unclaimed
by most of all my own harried self

Only the wind picking up;
Cows calling in the distance
but to their kind.”

This poem takes its title from the shopping mall that was built just down the road in Bee Caves some years back.

“Hill Country Galleria

The kestrel tilting on the wire
surveys the hundred-acre site
That just last winter was the field
that fueled her lilting falcon flight

She watches rock saws slicing trenches
and dozers climbing piles of dirt
three stories high, toppling gigantic
boulders each a buffalo’s girth

The grass is gone
(Flocks of sparrows.)
Soil, gone
(Mice their burrows.)

She’s living on the brink
of locally extinct”

And this last poem is a poem that came out of a dream called “Stone”.


The river I reach through
to lift it out, stone
heavy in my hands.
weight of obligation
I won’t put down

because I need the way it feels
in my life: solid, particular,
and true; because it is old
before my time, old as time;
because it is the heft and price I pay:
compounded, exact;

to drop that stone
would be the same
as standing empty-handed
the river bearing down.”

DT: Thanks, Bob. Maybe we can back up a little bit and—and try to understand more about how you—how you learned to be a poet. I understand that you went to the Warren Wilson Program for writers. And I guess there’s some formal training there but I imagine that, over the years, you’ve read a great deal of poetry and have favorite writers that you admire. And I was just hoping that you could sort of help us parse what your influences might have been to—to the poetry that you—that you write these days.

BA: Well, I came to writing poetry late by the standards of most poets who seemed to be writing poems as children. I didn’t do that. I think the—I first began to feel drawn to wr—write something that looked like a poem that—when I was in college. I was, as I mentioned earlier in our conversation, a Spanish literature major and I spent a semester in Madrid and studying Spanish literature. And I took a—one graduate class then because I’d had quite a lot of Spanish by that time and it was in the poetry of Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo, and especially I enjoyed the—the Neruda part of the class.
And—and found—and I’d been keeping a journal for a while, really more as a spiritual discipline, but I found myself making journal entries that looked a little bit—seemed a little bit to me like a poem on the page. And a little later on, when I was just married and—and living in California, again, in my journal writing, entries that began to—I began to actually play with them on the page as—as poems. And—and I’d always been interested in—in writing at some level, not necessarily poetry. And it just occurred to me, well, okay, this is a craft.
It’s something you can learn how to do. And I think I’d like to learn more about how to do it. And so I took a—an extension class at UCLA when my wife and I were living in California working for the church after my time in seminary. And then when we moved to Austin, I just kept taking classes and workshops and writing and reading. I hadn’t read much American poetry, you know, beyond high school. So I had a—a bit of a deficit there. And it was recommended to read Mary Oliver, who writes deeply about the natural world and I was drawn that way anyway.
And so that gave me the example of a contemporary poet writing in free verse, engaged in things that I was interested in and cared about. And this, you know, I kept pursuing an education and realized that I was kind of taking things as far as I could on mys—on my own or that I would really benefit from more—more mentoring and coaching. And so was someone to—a friend told me about the low-residency program, MFA at—at Warren Wilson, which I—was appealing to me because I could do that without moving someplace.
I could continue to do my work for the ranch and—and do my graduate degree at the same time. And that program is really based on an apprenticeship model where it’s—and it’s truly adult education where I picked the poets I wanted to read and—and worked with a faculty supervisor on—to both a critical reading and—and my—revising my own—my own poems. And—and, of cour—it was really—most of the work was done through correspondence, which for writers works pretty well. And so that—that experience was really important to me.
And then I just kept reading wo—broadly. And I’m drawn to a wide diversity of kinds of poems. I think, in terms of English tra—tradition—the tradition of the English canon, William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins were both poets that I spent a lot of time with and whose work has been important to me and resonates with—with some spiritual and conservation concerns that I have. And so the American Canon—I love both Whitman and Dickinson. Whitman more earlier on. Probably Dickinson more now.
And then just—and—and then—well, in terms of poets connected to the natural world, the journal poems of Charles Wright were really important to me in my MFA era. And then, more recently, the poems with W. S. Merwin I—I re—really find compelling and—and brilliant. And—and then, most recently, I’ve fallen in love with these—I—mountains and rivers poets of Ancient China.

And finding that for all the centuries and geography between us, they seem amazingly contemporary and—and very busy urban people who were constantly trying to get into the wilderness and put themselves back together and—and hanging out in—in Taoist and Chan Buddhist monasteries and—and influenced, you know, by these spiritual traditions, as well as by the natural world. So I feel like, as I said before about the conservation community, I feel like I found sort of my tribe of poets in these ancient Chinese poets.
And the—one of the richnesses of—of—of reading poetry is being able to make these connections from different cultures and different times and feel like these are real living friends and re—and relations and—in? the craft of poetry. So those are some of my influences past and present.

DT: You know, this might be a time to talk about some of your sort of faith traditions that I think may also be a—a wellspring of—of—of, you know, interest in—in the natural world and—and connection to it. I think that you had gone to a Virginia Theological Seminary a number of years ago, but you’ve also been interested in Taoism and in the Society of Friends and it—it-it seems like you’ve had a journey that’s taken you through many traditions. And I was hoping you might be able to talk about that and how it’s connected with your understanding and—and linked to the greater outdoors.

BA: Yeah. So my—I grew up in the Episcopal Church. That’s my faith tradition of origin. I was in—in church every Sunday but I also attended Episcopal schools really from kindergarten through graduate school, with the exception of two years in public junior high and including an Episcopal military high school, TMI in San Antonio, the University of the South, which I think is the only remaining Episcopal owned university in the states. And then Virginia Theological Seminary is an Episcopal Seminary.
So that—that—that liturgy, morning prayer and the Eu—Eucharist and that Anglican heritage is deep in my psyche and for which I’m—I’ve very, very grateful. And—and the poetry of the Psalms is—is very im—im—important to me in a literary sense and something that I actually spent some time studying and thinking about for a time. And—but in college, in my freshman year in a religion—Introduction to Religion class, I discovered Lao Tzu and—and the Taoist tradition.
And I even brought the—with me—the—I bought a secondhand copy in the bookstore at the—at Sewanee my freshman year and I’ve since—the cover and front and back have come off, but I have—this is Witter Bynner’s translation, which I read over and over again. And I’ve read any other English translation I could get my hands on, but his remains, in many ways, my favorite.
And I think what draws me to Taoism is that—the way in which, especially these poems or passages that—that make up the way of life are—are so—so embedded in the natural world and are—and—and the wisdom and insights are drawn from observations of the natural world. I might just read one brief passage that would give you a—a hint of that. It’s one of my favorites of Lao Tzu. And this, again, is Witter Bynner’s translation.

Can you hold the door of your tent
Wide to the firmament?
Can you, with the simple stature
Of a child, breathing nature
Become, not withstanding,
A man?
Can you continue befriending
With no prejudice, no ban?
Can you, mating with heaven,
Serve as the female part?
Can your learned head take leaven
From the wisdom of your heart?
If you can bear issue and nourish its growing,
If you can guide without claim or strife,
If you can stay in the lead of men without their knowing,
You are at the core of life.

BA: So that’s Taoism. And it’s—and—and what I love about it and—and am drawn to and then, you know, but I’ve also appreciate the—the spiritual sensibilities of—of Native American religious expression is not something I’ve studied in depth, but just a sense of kinship with the natural world, this sense that nature is not something out there that we subdue, but something that we are part of, that we can speak to that these other creatures are really our—our relatives and—and—and have their beings and their own intelligences and their own wisdom and their own things to say to us, their own personalities.
And that, to me, has been influential to my spiritual life and to my poetry as well I think. Buddhism in different forms, you know, I—I’ve read and been influenced by. So—and then I have spent some time worshipping with—with Quakers and admire their deep—the deep commitment of Quaker tradition to social justice and—and to silence. And other contemplative practices I’ve ex—experienced more coming out of the Roman Catholic Church. So I think I—I do have a fairly eclectic spirituality.
I think, you know, some aspects of Judeo Tradition—Chu—Judeo-Christian tradition have created mo—maybe more problems than they’ve helped with respect to the relationship with the natural world. There is I think a—a deep notion of stewardship, which is possib—positive, but sometimes degrees of abstraction and separation that—that I think are—are more a hindrance than a help. And I think it’s—one of the benefits of living in a global community is we can draw on wisdom and insights from all sorts of traditions and—and—and learn individually and collectively together from—from all of that.
So it’s—I guess what I would say in answer to that question.

DT: You know, I—I am struck by your very intimate and long connection to this ranch and to other places. And I was curious if you could describe if there’s any particular place that brings you solace or—or meaning, sense of serenity, it’s just important to you? Is there something like that you could describe?

BA: Yeah, there’s a—there’s a place on this ranch that’s really special to me. It’s not all that far from where we’re are here in the house. And well I love our family swimming hole that’s on Barton Creek just below the house. And that’s a place that, on a hot summer day, I can’t think of anywhere I would rather be and—and just all the memories and connections associated with time spent there fishing and swimming and with family and alone growing up.
But just upstream on one of the tributaries, there’s a—there’s a little sort of classic Hill County grotto feature with a travertine limestone and moss-covered little waterfall when there’s water in the creek and a crystal clear pool, you know, below that. It’s a place that I discovered as a child. I don’t think anyone showed it to me and I just remember the sense of awe and—and just how—how magic—magical it is. And I do—it’s very—and it feels very se—secluded and very pristine. And any time I approach it and—and arrive there, I feel like I’ve been back in, you know, in a wondrous—a wondrous place.
And—and so that is kind of my very special, sacred spot on—on this ranch.

DT: One—one last question that I—I’d like to ask you and I hope that, you know, you might be able to answer it, but also if you have anything to add after that, it’d be very welcome. You have children. You’ve got nieces, nephews, you’re surrounded by kids at El Ranchito, and I was wondering if—if when you had some imaginary perhaps conversation with them about why you’ve done what you’ve done in the conservation realm, and what it’s meant to you and why it might be relevant to their lives and how they might carry it on?

BA: Well I think—I—I think this question of why I’ve done what I’ve done and—and—and wh—wh—what that might say to somebody younger thinking about their own involvement with the natural world or conservation issues, you know, the one hand, I’m—I’m doing it because I’m drawn to do it. I want to do it. I care and I think always to align our time and energy to the degree we can with what we care most deeply about is a good way to go in life, whatever that is.
And it is very rooted in this particular place and just how much I care for this place and my desire that it remain a place of—of beauty and—and solace and biological diversity and productivity. And so those—that care has pushed me into all kinds of places where I might not have otherwise chosen to—to go as I’ve tried to be a land steward and also be an advocate for this place and other places that are threatened in different ways.
And, you know, a couple of things I would say—one of the most fulfilling things that I’ve ever done is, you know, work to restore a habitat that’s been degraded, both by previous landowners and even by the—the less enlightened management, you know, of our family over time as we’ve tried to figure out the fi—how to do things better.
But to—to, you know, knowing that—that in the whole world is a—there are a very limited number of black capped vireos rememb—remaining and that the habitat that we’ve created on our property by our management activities for those species, to see them flourishing wherever there was just a handful of territories when we did our first survey and now a couple hundred or more territories and—and habitat continuing to evolve into the kind of habitat that they need through deer management and livestock management practices that are in—not rocket science, but just take a little intention and money to do.
It’s—that’s a very fulfilling work to be involved in—when so much is going the other way, you know, when species are declining left and right and just to be involved in something that is restorative and healing and regenerative is—is a de—is—is truly meaningful work for me. And the other thing I guess I would say, especially as the next generation faces into the reality of climate change and the just horrific impacts we’re already beginning to see to both natural and human communities through flooding and fires and droughts and famines and disruption of life as we’ve known it at so many different ways, not to mention our other fellow species on the planet is something that really is my take away from my seminary education.
I did my thesis in—and my master’s thesis on the end of history and—and scripture, looking at both apocalyptic teachings in the New Testament but also the prophetic eschatologies in the Old Testament. And, in the end of history, both as hi—hi—an absolute end, but also as end in the—in the Greek sense of Talos or—or fulfillment and I think what I learned is that while there’s truth in both approaches, sometimes in the apocalyptic sense, the end happens to you, but sometimes in the prophetic eschatologies, it’s really the choices that people make individually and collectively that determines the outcomes.
And both are—are real, but I think I’m drawn more to the prophetic eschatologies and the idea that especially for us living in America, in a country of tremendous power and wealth and in a democracy, if we so choose to continue that tradition, that we—we can collectively make a difference. And the—the future is open. There isn’t a prescribed end and even things that go awry can be set aright again. And there is a path back from—from—from ecological destruction to ecological restoration and health and that we can, if we choose, be part of that—that journey.
And I would hope that many people will sign up for that task in whatever way they can. So that would be what I would say to those coming along behind me.

DT: Very helpful. Well I’ve—I’ve used up all my questions and a lot of your time. Is there anything you’d like to add?

BA: Ye—ye—yeah. And you may or may not put this on the tape but I’d just like to express my gratitude for all the work that you’ve done across so many years, not only in this project, which seems really important and to have someone in the state of Texas who’s taken the time to really chronicle the history of the cons—conservation work, but—but also your leadership all those years in—in Texas Environmental Grant Makers Group because there weren’t many people funding conservation when you and—and Ann Hamilton and whoever else that predates my involvement cooked that up.
But it’s been an—an important community to me personally and to a lot of other people. And I think it’s had—a—a lot of probably, you know, longer lasting and more rippling effects than maybe even you knew when you started that. So just gratitude for your role in all of this too.

DT: Thank you. Mutual admiration society. Welcome to the first inaugural meeting. Thanks very much, Bob. It’s been a pleasure.

[End of Interview with Bob Ayres – November 15, 2018]