Commissioner's Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award
Two Rivers Ranch, Inc.
The Two Rivers Ranch, named for the Hillsborough River and Blackwater Creek that converge on the property, is a cow/calf and timber operation. Stretching across Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, the ranch is made up of more than 14,000 acres of improved pasture and planted pines. But the property was far different when Robert Thomas’ grandfather, Wayne Thomas, first began purchasing it in 1932. The ancient flatwoods that once blanketed Florida were clear cut at the turn of the century, leaving behind a barren landscape. To restore the land, Wayne Thomas began a long-term reforestation project on Two Rivers Ranch.
Thomas experimented with planted pine trees as an agricultural crop, as a way to generate revenue to pay for the land and cover expenses. Over time, his pioneering conservation efforts helped to replenish the soil, and reduced surface water runoff. Wildlife, long missing from the property, slowly returned to the new habitat. Pine trees, planted as a crop, helped to improve this once-barren landscape. Nearly 70 years later the ranch is still reaping the benefits of planting for the future.
Innovation has always been a family tradition on Two Rivers Ranch. In the 1970s, Wayne Thomas’ son, Bob, began planting pines around wetlands. His new “contour pine planting” technique allowed the trees to utilize nutrients in the surface water, and helped him attain the prestigious “Tree Farmer of the Year” award. He also developed the concept of planting pines in stages as a visual screen along highways. Third-generation tree farmer Robert Thomas is constantly looking to new ways to improve the land through aesthetic forestry techniques. Instead of clear cutting an area, the ranch leaves 10 to 15 trees to the acre as seed trees for natural regeneration.
Proven land management techniques are used throughout Two Rivers Ranch. To enhance the cow/calf operation, the improved pastures are actively managed through controlled burns and seeding of legumes. The native ranges, however, are less intensively managed, leaving beautiful areas of native grasses with fewer cows than the improved pastures. In addition to requiring less maintenance -- such as fertilization and mowing -- the native ranges provide excellent winter pasture for the cattle. The multiple land-use practice employs rotational grazing of the improved pastures, native ranges and forested lands. The herd size is limited so as not to negatively impact pine production, water quality, vegetation, wetlands or wildlife populations.
Since Wayne Thomas began his conservation program in the late 1930s, Two Rivers Ranch has become home to a diverse wildlife population. Fox squirrels and gopher tortoises now roam the property. Turkey and quail are quite common. Only 15 years ago, the ranch had only one deer for every 250 to 300 acres. Since actively managing specifically for white-tailed deer, the ranch now has one deer for every 30 acres.
Two Rivers Ranch has the largest piece of privately owned undeveloped property in Hillsborough County. From within its quiet confines, it’s hard to imagine that just 20 miles away is the city of Tampa. An estimated 3 million people live within a 50-mile radius of the ranch -- and are moving closer. As Two Rivers Ranch actively works to hold onto its natural beauty, it can feel the pressure of this urban encroachment.
A significant portion of the flow of the Hillsborough River, which feeds Tampa, comes from sources on the ranch. As the population of Tampa increases, so does the demand for water. Much of this water comes from the pristine Crystal Springs, which produces about 40 million gallons a day. In the late 1980s, Crystal Springs Recreational Preserve, Inc., owned by the Thomas family, developed a partnership with Zephyrhills Natural Spring Water Company, turning this natural resource into a valuable crop. The quality of the water has not gone unnoticed; it was sent to the Gulf War to supply the troops of Desert Storm, and has also become the official bottled water of theme parks like EPCOT and Disney World.
The Thomas Family’s longtime commitment to conservation began with its donation of the land for Hillsborough State Park in 1936, followed in 1973 by a donation of an additional 115 acres for the restoration of Fort Foster. Today, the ranch still allows canoe access for those who want to enjoy the pristine setting around the Hillsborough River. -- 1999
- 1999 Agricultural Environmental Leadership Awards Booklet (PDF)
- Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award Nomination (PDF)