Born with a Passion for Land
Joyce Lucas cares about history and she cares about land. “I have a passion for what people did before me; when people left their home country, they wanted to have land. I think my passion for the land was born in me.”
While Joyce wouldn’t describe herself as a “tree hugger,” she is deeply committed to conservation. “There has to be a balance,” she says thoughtfully. “I would probably consider myself more of a conservationist than anything else, but I think too much of anything makes you crazy. Life is difficult; you always have to make decisions about what is practical, what is reasonable, and what makes the most sense for the greater good.”
For Joyce, the greater good is the future she envisions for her family and heirs. After attending a Texas Wildlife Association landowner workshop in Fredericksburg, Texas and meeting a lawyer specializing in conservation easements in the spring of 2010, Joyce knew she had found her mission: to protect her historic family ranch with a conservation easement.
In late December 2010, the Birk-Sommerfeld Heritage Ranch, a 444-acre working ranch in Llano County, Texas, became an official conservation property, under easement with the Texas Land Conservancy (TLC) and now protected forever from further subdivision and potential degradation. The ranch is a relic of the pioneers who settled central Texas, and Joyce loves to tell the story of how her family discovered their heritage on the banks of the Llano River.
Joyce takes on the role of family historian, to satisfy her own curiosity and for the sake of her large, extended family. Birth and marriage certificates of ancestors hang on the walls of her Universal City, Texas home, she organizes family reunions and she keeps boxes of antique black and white photographs of the ranch and the six generations of Birks who have loved it.
The history of the ranch she now owns begins in the mid 1800s, when her mother’s family, along with many other plucky immigrants seeking land and opportunity, were settling in Texas. Joyce’s great-great grandparents, John and Anna Birk, along with five children, emigrated from Germany around 1845. Relying heavily on each other to create a life in a new environment, the Birks and their fellow pioneers settled in small communities in the Texas Hill Country. As Joyce explains, “When these immigrants had the opportunity for land ownership, before even knowing what it looked like, they jumped at the chance. It was the promise of land that brought them here and they were willing to risk their lives. Many of them didn’t make it, but the desire to own property made it worth it.”
The Birks became part of the Leiningen settlement, on the north side of the Llano River near the present day Castell. Shortly after arriving, John died, leaving Anna and her four remaining children - the fifth died in the move from Germany - to fend for themselves. Despite familial connections with members of the Leiningen community, the Birks were eventually forced to leave. The settlers had their own hardships and mouths to feed.
Shortly after John’s death, the community moved Anna and her children to the south side of the Llano River not far from what is now the family homestead. Since this location was too far from Leiningen for any support, the community believed they would starve to death. As family lore tells the story, the Birks survived because of help from the Comache tribes, who took pity on the young mother and her children, and taught her the skills she needed in exchange for food she cooked.
Several generations of Birks benefited from good relations with the central Texas Comanche. One of Anna’s children Jacob Birk, Joyce’s great-grandfather, learned to swim with the Comanche boys who pushed him into the Llano River. Jacob’s little brother Phillip did not fare as well, drowning in that same river, despite help from those same Comanche boys. Jacob even went to say goodbye to and share a final meal with the last group of Comanche being rounded up in Menard before being driven to a reservation in North Texas. A favorite at family reunions is the story of that last meal, during which Jacob complemented the meat, only to be told that he was enjoying dog. “This story has been passed down and is part of family legend; we remind new people who come to the Birk family reunions about these stories,” reflects Joyce.
The land management skills the Birks learned from the Comanche played a significant role in the success of the family. Jacob Birk began to purchase parcels of land near Castell that would eventually become the 2,000-acre homestead ranch. Joyce theorizes that Jacob chose to purchase land on the south side of the river because of his family’s mistreatment at the hands of the settlers on the north side.
A full-time rancher and a part-time Texas Ranger, Jacob and his wife, Sophie Fuchs, had 11 children who grew up in a house located on the ranch. The house stands today and at one point was simultaneously home to three generations of Birks.
Jacob ranched the property his entire life, supporting a large family in an area with relatively few services. In his will, Jacob divided the original ranch between two of his children, Charlie and Edwin. Charlie and his wife Meta Vasterlin - the Vasterlings were another old Central Texas German family - continued to ranch their 1,000-acre section, eventually passing it on, in two pieces to their children, Louise and Norman.
Joyce inherited her mother Louise’s portion of the ranch, the 444-acre section containing the family house and the cemetery, in which generations of Birks are buried, including two Texas Rangers. Great uncle Edwin’s half of the ranch continued to be divided among younger generations over the years, and Joyce speculates that a few pieces of that 1,000 acres have been sold when money got tight. Joyce acknowledges these changes in ownership in the family ranch are typical of multi-generation landowners. Land rich, cash poor ranchers passed on their legacies by giving away that which was most valuable, their land. Thinking about her own legacy led Joyce to ask herself, “If you develop everything, what’s left of the history of how that land was settled to begin with?”
When Joyce inherited her portion of the ranch in 1997, she began to think about what its future might look like given that she has two children and four grandchildren, all who “love the ranch,” she says. “How deep that love is, or what they’re willing to sacrifice for it, I don’t know, but that’s why I put it in the easement. If they ever lose interest or if they ever want to sell it, they have to sell it as a whole and they have to sell it for agriculture. If we keep dividing and dividing the land, then all we would have is a postage stamp, and that doesn’t mean anything to anybody.”
While Charlie and Meta were the last generation to ranch full time, the property provided supplemental income for Joyce’s parents, Louise Birk and Lee Sommerfeld. Even now Joyce continues to lease it for a few cattle and hunting, and while the income she derives is minimal, it’s enough to mend fences and do a few other annual repairs.
“I cannot bear to think that somebody else would get wealthy off something that has been worked on so hard by people trying to own land. Lots of people have encouraged me to sell it because I could make money, but I know what it took my grandparents and my mom to hold onto the land and I know what it cost them. All my life, I’ve been told that if you own land, you have something. My family did what they could and I wanted to respect that.”
In keeping with the spirit of her family, Joyce knew what she was willing to sacrifice in order to ensure that the 444 acres of history - from the rock on the Llano where every generation of Birk has been photographed to Vasterling Creek to the family cemetery - would be permanently protected. Her family had applied for a number of federal land management grants over the years that helped improve the quality of the land itself, but Joyce wanted something that would protect the integrity of the property boundaries.
After hearing a presentation on conservation easements presented by Thomas Hall, a senior attorney with Braun & Associates in Dripping Springs, Texas she knew she had discovered the right tool, but she also knew that the work of writing an easement was going to be a daunting process. The big question was, “How do you make sure you are getting all of the information out of your head and heart onto this piece of paper so someone in the future will be able to interpret your intentions?”
Joyce explains the complex process in relatively simple terms; she calls it “self-encumbrance.” By sacrificing some of her retirement income and the potential future profits from selling her property in small pieces, Joyce helped to ensure the family land maintains its natural and historic integrity. She notes that there are many misconceptions about conservation easements among landowners in Texas, especially the fear of “losing control” of one’s own land. She has heard it time and again from friends and neighbors who say, “It’s my land and nobody, especially the government, is going to tell me what to do with my land.” But, Joyce adds, “If you don’t have some kind of help, or put your land in some kind of trust, what will happen to the land after you’re gone, regardless of how much it meant to you?”
Joyce was careful to maintain total control over the process of drafting her conservation easement - she credits her careful attention to detail to a lifetime career as a civilian administrator with the Air Force. She chose the restrictions and allowances during many conversations with Hall and Mark Steinbach, TLC Executive Director. Joyce knew she would be placing restrictions on what her family could eventually do with the land, but she built some flexibility into the conservation easement, such as the ability to build a second home and continue to bury relatives in the family cemetery.
Joyce knew that the sacrifices she was making were worth it. “It’s really frightening when you think about the what-ifs,” she said, while reflecting on the several-month process. “What if you don’t think of something? This is in perpetuity and what if I don’t get it right? On the other hand, that’s the only way that I can ensure this piece of property with all its history will continue whether it’s with my family or not.”
While she feels good about her role in protecting the family property, Joyce sees her work as just one small solution to a much larger and complicated problem. “I think Texas is behind, very behind in promoting and encouraging good stewardship and conservation. We’re already concerned about fragmentation and the economic situation. Texas will continue to grow - it’s a good place to live - but I don’t know that there’s any government entity that really has a handle on what it will mean to the land. We don’t really see the whole picture. I would like to see a future Texas where we are really responsible in looking at the different regions of Texas and figuring out whether those areas can accommodate [growth], without really harming the natural land there.”
“You know, change is going to happen. You can’t stop change, or population growth. People are coming to our country and people coming to our state. It’s about how development is done smartly, in terms of everything...not just one thing. How do you balance it? I do not know the answer.”
Joyce Lucas does know the answer for 444 acres, half a mile of the Llano River and a historical family legacy: conservation.
Published April 2011
Photo courtesy of Texas Land Conservancy