Will Texans ever see land as a community to which we belong?

Last February, I took Jack Ward Thomas, former Chief of the U.S. Forest Service and my graduate school advisor, on a road trip through the Texas Hill Country. It was his first time to visit that area since working for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in Llano, Texas in the 1960s. As expected, his reaction included both joy at seeing his favorite part of Texas and dismay in regard to how much it has changed. Housing developments had replaced the pasturelands he remembered, with fences and roads now carving up the countryside he once roamed. 

For those of us who have routinely traveled that course, the changes are more difficult to see.  Land fragmentation is like the growth of a child: imperceptible on a day-to-day basis, but drastic over the long run.

Texas is blessed with a robust economy, job growth and favorable cost of living. These factors have helped to attract people from all over the world to Texas. This growth has some economic benefit to all of us; however, we must not ignore the non-economic impacts of this mass migration to Texas, including traffic congestion, water woes, and the quickly vanishing rural landscape.

On the whole, Texas is the fastest growing large state. We have three of the top five fastest-growing cities in the country (Austin, Dallas and Houston), and two of the fastest growing counties in the nation (Hays and Williamson Counties)

These new residents need new homes to buy and apartments to rent, leading developers to covet the farms, ranches, pastures, and open space in proximity to metropolitan areas. With three times more private land than any other state, we have a seemingly endless and affordable supply of land. Unfortunately, we are also leading the nation in the amount of rural land lost annually to development (currently 150,000 acres per year).

The state of Texas has approached land development as if the supply is inexhaustible.  Short-term gains come at the expense of long-term security and sustainability. 

Perhaps one of the best examples of this Texas tragedy of the commons relates to water.  Nearly one-third of residential water use in this state is used not in the home, but poured on thirsty lawns kept green through the worst of droughts.  Though some cities have implemented watering restrictions, they can only go as far as their financial planning allows. 

It’s a vicious cycle. Cities must sell more water to produce more water and attitudes related toward green lawns and home values are not evolving fast enough. Until our community and state leaders take the bold steps required to address this conundrum, the future of our state is in jeopardy.

Even with 1.5 million acres of public land and an additional 1.5 million acres of private land that has been protected through private transactions and conservation easements, less than two percent of Texas landscapes are protected from development.

Thankfully, the rural Texas land ethic is one that prioritizes stewardship and sustainability, and many Texas landowners respect and care for the land to preserve the legacy and heritage of Texas and Texans. Unfortunately, unmitigated rural land development continues to change the Texas landscape. In a state comprised almost entirely of private lands, we must recognize our unique composition of landownership is one that will require innovative approaches if we are to preserve our heritage. 

What are the market opportunities to invigorate conservation? How can we incentivize landowners to conserve land?

One model that has shown great success is the City of San Antonio’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program

By increasing sales tax by 1/8th of a penny, the city has generated revenue to purchase conservation easements from volunteer landowners over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. Conservation easements are voluntary agreements that that permanently limit uses of the land in order to protect conservation values. It allows landowners to continue to own and use their land, as well as sell it or pass it along to heirs.

Since 2000, the city has spent $178 million to protect 123,865 acres of critical aquifer recharge areas and native habitat. At a cost of $1,400 per acre, the price has been a fraction of what it would cost to purchase the land outright. 

Is the rest of the state willing to invest in something we love? Do Texans have the conviction to undertake individual actions that serve the greater good?

In Colorado, the state lottery has funds available to enhance state park buffers and vistas. Similarly, Florida created the Florida Forever fund dedicated to purchasing conservation easements to conserve the state’s natural and cultural heritage. Why aren’t we mitigating for development with offsets of permanently conserved land, as we currently mitigate for damages to wetlands or endangered species?

In the words of Aldo Leopold, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”    


Mark Steinbach, Ph.D., is executive director of the Texas Land Conservancy. He worked previously as a private lands wildlife biologist at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He has a degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences and a master's in Rangeland Ecology and Management from Texas A&M University. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Montana in Missoula's College of Forestry and Conservation. Follow Mark and the Texas Land Conservancy @TexasLands and @TX_Steinbach

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