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Riverby Ranch 'mitigation' project transforms northeastern Fannin County

To mitigate the loss of habitat caused by the flooding of the Bois d'Arc Creek valley, Riverby Ranch is being made over to include habitat environments typical of undeveloped land.
John Kanelis
To mitigate the loss of habitat caused by the flooding of the Bois d'Arc Creek valley, Riverby Ranch is being made over to include habitat environments typical of undeveloped land.

Federal law requires reservoir builders to do their best to replace the wildlife habitat that new developments destroy.

Riverby Ranch in northeastern Fannin County used to be a place overrun with cattle. No longer. It now is the property of the North Texas Municipal Water District, which is in the middle of a restoration project that aims to keep faith with a permit the district received to create a massive new reservoir in Northeast Texas.

Bois d’Arc Lake is filling with water at this moment. It is slated to become the first reservoir constructed and filled in Texas in 30 years. It will cover roughly 16,000 acres and will provide water for communities served by the municipal water district.

As with all things associated with the government – be it federal, state or local – nothing comes easy. NTMWD is obligated under terms of the permit it received to restore an amount of land roughly equal to the land it intends to put underwater.

Which is where Riverby Ranch comes into the picture. Many of the ranch’s buildings remain on the property, but they are being repurposed as office and meeting space for the crew that is working to restore the sprawling property. The ranch operated over many years under several owners, including the East Texas chicken-processing mogul Bo Pilgrim.

What used to be a working ranch sits a little less than three miles south of the Red River, as the crow flies. The ranch operated under several owners until it was purchased by NTMWD in 2008 for about $33 million, according to Steve Long, a recently retired NTMWD official who now works as a contract employee for the district. Water district officials point out that the ranch was on the market when the district purchased it. There was no eminent domain issue involved with seizing the land, according to NTMWD officials.

Riverby Ranch has about 15,000 acres and is currently undergoing “mitigation” work to restore natural grasslands, trees and efforts to make it habitable for wildlife native to the region.

According to NTMWD, the Bois d’Arc Lake mitigation project involves restoration of 68 miles of streams, 2,477 acres of emergent wetland, 149 acres of scrub wetland, 5,479 acres of forested wetland, 2,581 acres of forested upland and 3,281 acres of native grassland.

NTMWD officials said the district has planted 4.8 million trees on the property. Brandon Hall, a naturalist who works at the ranch site, said the mitigation team “had to gather seeds from Northeast Texas plant life, along with bare roots” to plant along stream beds and other areas throughout the ranch.

Daniel Kampfer, one of Hall’s teammates at the ranch, talked also about the wildlife the district is seeking to attract into the area. It runs the spectrum of fowl and mammals, including bobcats, raccoons and coyotes, along with egrets, hawks and bald eagles.

Hall claims he saw a black bear, “but I couldn’t document the sighting.” He said it was dark when he saw what he is certain is a bear. “It ran into the woods,” he said, “and I wasn’t about to go running into the woods looking for it.”

Water district officials express considerable pride in the work they have done to plant trees along the wetland. During a recent visit to the ranch, they pointed to a pecan tree sapling they hope will begin producing pecans in future years as it survives repeated winter dormancy seasons. The pointed out an oak tree that one of the district team members had “just died, but then came back.” It, too, is sure to get plenty of love from the team working the ranch to ensure complete mitigation.

Is the mitigation process working at Riverby Ranch? “The proof is in the pudding,” said Myron Mess, an Austin-based environmental lawyer who helped negotiate the permit while working with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Like a lot of mitigation projects, you have a concept of restoring habitat,” he said, “but it remains to be seen whether it’s a success.”

Hess said he has spent 30 years working on water-related environmental issues, including a 20-year stint with the National Wildlife Federation. He said Riverby Ranch’s habitat “had been degraded simply in the way it was used. They plowed the land and worked it as a ranch. I am not being critical of the owners of the ranch.”

What about recreation activities within the boundary of the former ranch? Galen Roberts, an assistant deputy director of the NTMWD, said “the day will come when we’ll discuss opening up the land for public use.” That day appears to be a long way off, Roberts suggested. There is much work to be done to refurbish the ranch and restore its natural state, he said.

Hess said he toured the ranch “prior to the restoration work being started,” and said he hopes to return to Fannin County to see the progress the effort has made. “But right now, it’s too early to tell how successful it has been. The jury is still out, although I am optimistic” that the mitigation will produce positive results on the former ranch property.

When will the work be done and how will the water district know when that moment arrives? The answer relies on individuals’ perspectives and the tasks they are performing during the mitigation process.

Brandon Hall said completion will arrive when “the trees reach a certain height and when nature maintains itself.” Daniel Kampfer said he is “wired a little differently. We’ll be done when the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers signs off on it”; the Corps of Engineers is the agency that granted the permit initially. Galen Roberts said completion will occur “when we’ve met or exceeded permit provisions.” Steve Long agrees with Kampfer’s projection, that the Corps will have to sign off before the district can proclaim that its work is finished. Jennifer Stanley, operations manager for NTMWD, said simply, “When it’s back to nature.”

So, the work continues, tree by tree and stream bed by stream bed.