A PLACE OF REFUGE
Few people have devoted as much of their lives to the preservation of nature and to our local conservatory as Carolyn Chipman Evans. As CEO of the Cibolo Nature Center and Farm, Evans has spent the past 30+ years working tirelessly to not only preserve the natural resources we have locally, but also to educating the future generations on the joys that can only be found in nature in the hopes that when the torch is passed to them, they will continue her mission of stewardship.
Evans begins, “I was born in San Antonio but spent as much time on the Herff Ranch as I could. I moved to the ranch when I was 18. The ranch was Ferdinand Herff’s original ranch and I’m the 6th generation to live on it. I still live on part of the original ranch, which is 3 miles east of the high school.”
She characterizes her youth as “being lost at sea as a kid” as she ventured from college to college, but it wasn’t until she moved to the ranch and truly became immersed in the nature that surrounded her that she found her life’s calling. After marrying her husband Brent in 1976, the two sat out to create a life in a town that at that time featured 2500 people and had one stop light in the entire town. Evans continues, “Brent and I were very interested in homesteading, so we had a huge garden and we had a flock of chickens but we weren’t real farmers. We were weekend farmers. Brent had his social work with a private practice in San Antonio and we moved an old house out to the ranch and built it from scratch. We renovated that ourselves and built the huge gardens and the coops and it was such a happy time for us.”
The Evans welcomed their son Jonah in 1979, and daughter Laurel soon followed in ’81. Evans enjoyed the privilege of being a stay at home mom raising their children and simply making memories on the ranch, but her view of the preservation of nature began to become more and more important to her. “As my children got older, I got more and more concerned about the environment. The news was overwhelming. The rainforests were being destroyed, the ozone layer was getting holes, nuclear power was threatening – there are so many concerns. Our skies, land, our waters were being destroyed. I sensed that I should do something about this, but I didn’t now how I could deal with those global problems.”
With a desire to enact change, yet an unclear path, one afternoon down at the Cibolo would send Evans on the path she was intended. She explains, “The CNC, the Farm, the Preserve – they were all part of the original ranch so I had access to all of it as a kid and it was my sanctuary. The City had the foresight to purchase 125 acres from the family in ’64 which is now the CNC and the City Park and it was just wonderful planning. For decades, it was really just ranch land that allowed access to the river for a lot of people. I took Laurel down to the creek for a birthday one afternoon, to our sacred place, and it was very disturbing to find that while the City had bought the land, they didn’t have the resources to care for it. There wasn’t even a Parks department. We got down there and there were beer bottles, cars were driving down there, trash was everywhere and it was just a mess. That day something sparked in me that this was something we can do. We can create the Friends of the Cibolo group and we can start taking care of something in our own backyard, and it’s not going to fix global problems, but we can do THIS.”
In 1988, Evans founded the Friends of the Cibolo and a ragtag group of friends and their children simply began to clean up the area that is now the CNC. Those same kids that had been doing donuts on the property and tossing beer bottles all over the area became great champions for the land and began to take a sense of ownership of the property.
From there, the organization quickly blossomed into a group that is passionate about not only the preservation of the property, but an outreach organization that wanted to educate future generations on nature conservation. Evans continues, “We started with nothing but the pavilion that was already there. In ’92 the Visitor’s Center was donated to us, and it was from the back of Robert’s Drug Store and served as the owner’s home. The owner of the drugstore wanted to tear it down or move it, so he donated it to us. Murray Winn gave us $5000 to pay to move it so that got us the Visitor’s Center. We renovated it with friends and kids and anybody we could get. It was our Camp headquarters, our dinner headquarters, the volunteer headquarters…it was everything for us. We quickly outgrew that. So in 2000 we started a capital campaign that was set up to add on to the facilities and to start raising money to purchase the Farm (the property fronting Herff Rd). We knew back in the ’90s, that no matter how much protection we could give the creek, we were so close to the property line and we could see that the Cypress tree cathedrals and the feeling of being immersed in nature would disappear unless we planned ahead. We started raising money for the Farm, and in 2005 we opened the Learning Center. We were able to buy the Farm in 2007. We paid $2.5m for 60 acres. Was a lot of money because we were still just a handful of friends. In 2016 we were able to pay off the last of that debt and we put a conservation easement on the Farm to protect it forever.”
With the Herff Farm addition, the group has expanded their preservation responsibilities yet increased their workload. Evans explains, “We’re taking an iconic but very run down old homestead and making it a public space carefully so that we can respect the history and teach for the future. It’s a sustainable living demonstration with rain catchment, gardens, land stewardship, protecting our native species, and working to keep the water clean. We’re trying to demonstrate how people can live lightly in the Hill Country.”
The Farm’s offerings and outreach is a large undertaking from the group, yet progress is constantly being made. “Our Farmer’s Market is booming and for the last almost 12 years we’ve had to to do everything to this place, including septic, parking, fencing, renovating the house, renovating the buildings and building additional spaces for gatherings. It’s been a huge effort of infrastructure and we’re right at the cusp of opening it up to our full scale of programming which will include our outdoor classrooms, farm classrooms, summer camps on the farm, preschool programs in the garden, the farmer’s market…we’re really getting ready to expand our programming so that we can get into full swing.”
As much as the group has accomplished, there is still much left to be done. They are currently working to fund the Nature Preschool, finish the barn and amphitheater, and build four new classrooms for the preschool which will enable it to grow from 17 children to 100, and has a waiting list that includes children that aren’t even born yet. This is a particularly important program for Evans. “The kids are a huge deal for me. What we recognize these days, it’s not just inner city kids – it’s ALL kids – they don’t have access to nature. The current reality is that mom and dad both work, the kids go to preschool, come home at 5, do homework, and that’s it. Days and weeks go by without kids getting outside and connecting to nature. It’s proven that kids that get outdoors are happier and healthier and my secret hope is that they develop an appreciation of nature, which becomes a care for nature, which becomes the conservation of nature. I want them to connect to nature in any way possible.”
One must also consider the administrative costs for the people that have devoted their energies to the group. Evans explains, “We have 15 employees and 4 Directors. The earned income certainly helps, but the school field trips aren’t exactly paying the bills. The CNC has been supported by foundations from all over the state, very generous individual donations from people of all sorts, weddings, photo shoots, and more. We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been able to get so much done. That said, we have a huge group of volunteers – probably over 300 volunteers – and it’s amazing cause they help us do this work and pay our bills. We couldn’t pay for that level of service and I am eternally grateful for each and every one of them. It’s such a wonderful place to volunteer because there’s something for everyone.”
To say Evans is busy is an understatement, but she relishes her mission. Actively working within the organization, Evans has no office which is by design. Choosing to meet outdoors if at all possible, Evans stays mobile with a laptop and a cell phone, and works feverishly to sustain the organization and to lead it to new directions of outreach. In a city that is one of the fastest growing in the country, Evans and her team have their work cut out for them, but she is surprisingly optimistic. “I feel optimistic about this town. There’s been an awakening and awareness in the community for protecting these areas. They want to protect green space, they want trails, they want nature and they are far more vocal right now. They are saving things for their children, and there is a large crying out for things in our community. I would like to see the Creek protected from the CNC all the way to the headwaters. Our water for Boerne comes from their headwaters and there are beautiful springs that feed this creek which then fills Boerne lake, and I’ve seen San Antonio protect their watershed and their recharge areas, and it would be an amazing and fore-sighted thing for this region to protect this water.” She continues, “The rate of change is what is so hard these days. For so long it seemed like change happened slowly, but our community is growing so fast that it’s hard to stay in front of things. We’re all nostalgic for the sweet and we’re all hungry for the beauty. It makes it so hard for a conservation organization to purchase land – we’re fortunate to have ONLY paid the millions we paid for our properties and many folks have donated land, put their own conservation easements on it, and voluntarily protected it. We hope to find more people that will do that.”
From one of the vintage couches in the restored Herff Farm homestead, Evans sips her coffee and gazes out the window at the property. With so many projects to be completed and initiatives to be undertaken, one can virtually sense her connection to the property and to the nature around it as she decides what to focus on next. “What’s next for me? I wake up many days thinking about how to keep the CNC relevant and real and meaningful to our community and communities beyond. I’m working on building the best team and the best model for a nature conservancy that we can build that will sustain long beyond Carolyn and Brent and will be a place that our children’s children’s children will be able to find a refuge and a place of peace and joy that continues to inspire care for the planet and our nature.”