Situated off Hamilton Pool Road within Austin’s city limits lies Shield Ranch—6,800 acres of conserved land, flowing creeks and long-standing historical structures. The property is owned by the Shield-Ayres family, who decades ago made the decision to commit the land to the goal of conservation.
The Shield-Ayres family committed 93% of the property to conservation easements in 1998 and 1999, according to Robert “Bob” Ayres, a co-owner of Shield Ranch and president and CEO of the Shield Ranch Foundation. Easements such as those Shield Ranch has with the Nature Conservancy and the city of Austin allow ranchers to preserve ownership while giving over development rights.
“I like to say with the conservation easements we sort of protected the ranch from ourselves,” Ayres said.
The city of Austin has sought easements in order to protect groundwater in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, like on Shield Ranch, where over 6 miles of Barton Creek runs.
This year, Shield Ranch celebrated its 80th anniversary, following the development of a new master plan for programming facilities in 2016. The Shield-Ayres family, including Ayres’ sister, Vera Ayres Bowen; their mother, Patricia Shield Ayres; and several grandchildren, also established a mission dubbed Shield Vision 2020. It focuses on what they want for the ranch’s future—to “educate, inspire and transform.”
“I think the reason for it is we all have such a connection to the place,” said Ayres, who recalls time spent on the ranch as a child when it was owned by his grandparents, who purchased the first 5,400 acres of the property in 1938.
Ayres said conservation of the ranch protects not only land, but also the history found in long-standing agricultural infrastructure and buildings. Additionally, he said the easements protect sensitive species found on the ranch, such as the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.
The education piece of the Shield Ranch vision is exemplified by El Ranchito, a camp hosted at Shield Ranch in partnership with El Buen Samaritano and Westcave Outdoor Learning Center. At El Ranchito, youth campers learn the values of stewardship, sanctuary and community while exploring the ranch. According to Ayres, new facilities are planned for the campground area, which will allow programming to expand.
As a reminder of the values the Shield-Ayreses seek to live out on Shield Ranch, an illustration from the family’s 2016 visioning session sits on the wall of the dining room in the family’s original farmhouse. Scrawled across a rendering of Barton Creek reads, “The ranch nurtures us; we nurture the ranch.”