Yegua Knobbs—Where Life is Always Wild

By Larry Gfeller

Ansel Adams, a luminary conservationist, had a philosophy rooted in his deep belief that nature and beauty, particularly as symbolized by wildness, were essential elements of the human soul.   It is this same belief, 31 years after his death, which guides the stewardship of 302 acres of upland woods near McDade, Texas, protected by Pines and Prairies Land Trust (PPLT).  The property is known as the Yegua Knobbs Preserve (YKP).

The Yegua Creek forms in Lee County (named by the Spanish, Yegua means “mare” ) and is the primary tributary forming Somerville Lake.  The knobbs refers to a small line of seven forested sandstone mesas 1 ½ miles south of Knobbs Spring in northwestern Lee and northeastern Bastrop Counties that run between the Colorado and Brazos river drainages. The preserve contains some of these mesas (this number remains contentious). It sports woods, hills, pastures, a spring-fed bog, rare plants, interesting geology and valuable habitat for the endangered Houston toad.  Today it is a quiet place of serene beauty, but its history is right out of a B-grade Western movie.

Yegua Knobbs was a stronghold for a gang of outlaws known as the “notch-cutters,” who cut notches in their pistol grips after each killing. Why Yegua Knobbs?  It was an immense thicket with plenty of hiding places close to the Williamson, Lee and Bastrop county boundaries—making it easy to evade jurisdictions.  Confederate veterans had little to return to after the war and many were desperate.  Joining an outlaw band was an easy way to support themselves. Cattle pens were built in the nearby town of McDade and buyers and sellers had a connecting railroad.  After four years of war, the area was rich in unbranded cattle, but it was just a matter of time before the notch-cutters began stealing branded stock as well.

They perpetrated cattle rustling, gunfights, brazen murders, and general hell-raising, terrorizing McDade. In 1875, far removed from local county law enforcement, citizens took matters into their own hands and launched a series of vigilante actions that resulted in multiple murders and a string of seemingly unending retaliatory violence for nine long years. A turning point arrived in 1877 when the vigilantes interrupted a city wide dance, took four suspected outlaws out and lynched them.  This slowed the mayhem for awhile, but in November 1883 two men were murdered in Fedor, and in a separate incident a second man was robbed, beaten and left for dead. The notch-cutters were back! The deputy sheriff investigating the matter was soon shot dead in McDade. Four suspects were promptly hung and three more outlaws were executed on Christmas Eve 1883. This led to a showdown gunfight in front of a McDade saloon on Christmas Day.   The ensuing gun battle left three more men dead in the street and put an end to the notch-cutter saga.  Still, unrelated violence and gunfights plagued McDade for nearly another thirty years. It was a rough town.

YKP as we know it today was also born of protracted conflict.  This time the law determined the outcome. In the late 1990’s the Alcoa Aluminum Corporation proposed to expand strip-mining operations into Lee and Bastrop counties.  In 1999 a grass-roots organization, known as Neighbors For Neighbors (NFN), formed in opposition to Alcoa’s strip-mining plans as well as to fight efforts by the city of San Antonio to import ground water from Alcoa’s property in those two counties. Eventually, NFN discovered evidence that Alcoa had been violating the Clean Air Act at its Rockdale coal plants.  In the end, NFN successfully sued Alcoa over those violations, resulting in Alcoa paying several million dollars in fines.  A tidy amount of those fines made their way to the Trust for Public Land and PPLT, with the stipulation it be used to protect land that was forested to support clean air as well as contain toad habitat. In 2004, PPLT purchased what is now YKP from private landowners who sought to preserve their land from intense development.

Together with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service, PPLT began a long process of wildlife habitat restoration on the property. Today, the property is managed as a wildlife preserve. PPLT board member and land steward Travis Brown says, “Our goal is to ensure this unique property remains wild and natural—that it provides the best possible habitat for wildlife.” The preserve has undergone a regimen of prescribed burns, large-scale mulching, brush removal and clearing of understory from the bog and springs.  To date, several hundred feral hogs have been trapped and removed and public dove hunts have been conducted in concert with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's Public Hunt Program.  Deer hunting is not permitted in the preserve.  As part of the wildlife management plan, a twice annual bird census is conducted on field days open to the public. Nest boxes dot the acreage.

YKP is not a public park, nor is it ever intended to be. It’s there to provide a protected home for a rich and varied population of wildlife. This is why it is opened to the public only at specified times of the year, to accommodate carefully-vetted special requests, or to conduct research.  In 2015 Cristin Embree, board member and registered professional archaeologist, began offering cultural resource field days in recognition of the storied history of the land. The public is invited to help assess, research and protect archeological treasures in the preserve. This is a new and untried endeavor for PPLT, although there appears to be ample reason for optimism. Well before the notch-cutters, the area may have been used by a variety of historic and pre-historic cultures, especially as a potential stopping point for travelers on the celebrated El Camino Real trail. YKP is also believed to have been a location for an underground commercial kiln during the 1850’s—one of three possible area sites for the old Knobbs community.  The Knobbs spring, a good source for water, is nearby, as is Marshy Creek.  It is also home to a few species of rare plants, one of which (bladder wort) is carnivorous.

Walking the land is an experience Ansel Adams would have enjoyed!  During early morning or late evening twilight, the place is teeming with animals, free to live their lives without encroachment. Because of the undisturbed nature of the property, it’s a veritable bird sanctuary. Near the wetlands and natural bog, silver and holding sunlight, cat tails and water lilies abound. If you’re quiet, beaver can be spotted swimming near their lodge or making improvements. You can spot Kingfisher, Osprey and Egret as the perch rise to an evening hatch, all rejoicing in their private Eden.  This is ideal unspoiled habitat for the Houston toad. Deer gaze curiously from woodland edges as if they had never before seen a man.  Native plants and trees grow free and unmolested by the avarice of development, a mixture of hardwoods and loblolly pines between islands of wispy waving bluestem, Indian grass and starred with wildflowers—the Post Oak Savannah of a hundred years ago!  From atop the knobbs, you can see for miles, perfect for appreciating nature’s fecundity or—not so long ago—spotting unwanted lawmen and local vigilantes.

Created from a crucible of conflict at the crossroads of competing interests, preservation and protection is the obsession today.  Despite conspicuous progress, threats remain.  Even though the land is protected by PPLT in perpetuity, caring for it properly is a big job.  Sympathetic volunteer groups, local residents and PPLT board members provide most of the brains and muscle behind conservation activity.  “We need more and better land stewards and more volunteers,” Mr. Brown says.  “One problem is the site’s remoteness. . .it’s pretty far out of the way for people to travel to regularly.”  Given the shortage of wild open spaces left in Texas, balancing the demands of a growing population with land protection and conservation is problematic. A nearby coal strip mine continues to grow closer and closer to YKP, devouring massive amounts of groundwater as it impacts aesthetics and air pollution.  Fights over water rights have been a part of life in Texas since the early days and the wars continue to rage today.  Water rights for thousands of acres in Lee and Bastrop Counties have already been bought up, aimed at supplying San Antonio and Austin.

What, then, is the purpose of Yegua Knobbs Preserve today, you ask?  Texas Highways recently reported: 

In a 1905 survey of Texas mammals, only the bison, elk and Caribbean monk seal had disappeared from the state by the end of the 19th century.  During the 20th century, they were joined by the gray wolf, red wolf, grizzly bear, black-footed ferret, jaguar, margay, bighorn sheep and manatee in the list of species gone from Texas.” 

The purpose of YKP is incredibly simple—to hold on to key habitat that supports the web of life.