WILLIAMSON COUNTY — More than 50 years ago, Michael Collins and his father bought land north of Liberty Hill, drawn to the river that cut through the property and the old log home that stood there.
They evicted the goats bedding down in the house and renovated it, and the Collins family spent the next five decades building memories at a place they called the Farm at Loafer’s Glory, named for a church where an eclectic group of locals once worshiped. For a time, Michael’s parents lived at the farm; later, it became a place where relatives and friends gathered for holidays and summer vacations.
Now the Collinses — Michael, an architect and chairman of the Gault School of Archaeological Research; his wife, Karen; their children, Charles Collins and Melinda Collins Knowles; and grandchildren, Kaya and Mario De La Isla, Anne O’Brien and Elizabeth Collins, and Eileen Collins — have donated a conservation easement on the 531-acre property to the Texas Nature Conservancy.
Under the agreement, the land, described by the conservancy as one of the largest remaining undeveloped tracts in Williamson County, cannot be subdivided or developed. The family still owns the farm and can continue to use it, build a few small homes on a designated section of it, or even sell the entire parcel, but subdivisions, stores and gas stations will never spring up on its cactus and tree-dotted expanses.
“That’s one of reasons we feel really good under the conservation easement,” Karen Collins said. “It will always be our family place, as long as the family wants to congregate there.”
The family’s decision represents a choice landowners here are more frequently facing: In a region as fast-growing as Central Texas, do you sell your property to the highest bidder for development, or do you protect the landscapes, cultural history and natural resources that make our state iconic?
“Dr. Collins and his partners have chosen the latter, to be generous with their family land,” says Laura Huffman, former regional director of the Texas Nature Conservancy. Huffman was with the conservancy when the Collinses’ gift was going through, but has since left for a job with the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
Closing costs were paid by a grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program, and the Collins family provided a $65,000 endowment to help maintain the property.
Nature Conservancy officials hope their story will encourage other landowners across the state to do the same.
“The memories are many,” Michael Collins said of the farm, where visitors sleep beneath mosquito nets in cots lined up on the front porch of the two-bedroom, non-air conditioned log house.
Michael and Karen brought their children to the farm when Michael’s parents were restoring the cabin. Lessons learned there came in handy years later, when the couple, now both 78, restored their own old log house in Central Austin.
Through research, Karen Collins learned that a man named Uncle Billy Williams built the log home in 1851, then later sold it to Abner Buck, who raised his family there. Buck raised and sold Missouri mules from the property, and reportedly accepted only gold as payment for them. Today the cabin is registered as a Texas historic landmark, and a small cemetery on the property dates to the 1850s.
The donation is significant because about 95% of Texas land is privately held. Conservationists have used easements like this one as a way to preserve nearly 1 million acres of that private land. The Nature Conservancy has helped protect 400,000 of those acres. Such easements, officials say, allow landowners to keep their land, while safeguarding natural resources for the future.
“We can protect almost three times more land with conservation easements than through direct land purchases, all while preserving water supply and supporting farming and ranching — integral components of our state’s heritage, economy and culture,” Huffman said.
Private lands in Texas are fragmenting at a faster clip than that of any other state, and paired with rising land prices, uses outside of development have become less competitive, Huffman says.
“What this means for conservationists is a lot of collaboration and creativity — private landowners are our most critical ally if we aim to achieve our mission at scale. And we do,” Huffman said.
Endangered golden cheek warblers, as well as an assortment of other native and migrating bird species, bobcats, fox and jackrabbits live on the property. After oak wilt killed some of the trees there, the Collinses planted about 100 pecans, cedar elms and burr oaks.
Maintaining that habitat is important, especially as nearby Liberty Hill rapidly develops.
“I want a place where the critters can continue to live,” Karen Collins said. “I’m anxious to keep a green spot for the wildlife.”
It’s not the first time Collins family members have dug deep into their own pockets to contribute to a cause they believed in. Michael Collins has long led research at the Gault archaeological site near Florence, where some of the oldest human artifacts in the Americas — dating back 16,000 to 20,000 years — have been uncovered. When the University of Texas’ lease on the 33-acre site ran out, he bought it and donated it to the nonprofit, New Mexico-based Archaeological Conservancy, which preserves it and regulates research there.
The easement at the Farm at Loafer’s Glory means that Michael and Karen Collins’ great-grandchildren may one day play in the 800-foot, spring-fed pool where their own children grew up splashing, or ride bikes on the miles of trail that Karen hand cut using loppers. It also means that the encroaching development of Liberty Hill will never reach the old cabin, or the mile of land fronting the North Fork of the San Gabriel River.
“What we’ve always said is, ’That’s our farmhouse, but it’s everybody’s history and we want to share that history,” Michael Collins said. “We’re both kind of antiquarians by heart, and we’re just proud to be part of saving that place. To us, it’s a treasure.”