Land is valuable. As real property, it has financial value determined by the marketplace. As the source of food, fiber and shelter, it has production value. As home to ecological and biological processes, land has societal value.

“The public benefits of private land are as diverse and expansive as Texas’ land,” said Greg Simons, owner of Wildlife Systems, LLC, and Texas Wildlife Association president. “Some benefits like economic impact, agricultural production and recreational opportunities are easy to see and quantify.  Other things like clean air, clean water and the restorative power of open space land are hard to see, hard to measure, and hard to put a price tag on.”

In the past, these invisible, life-sustaining processes could be taken for granted.

“For 200 years, Texas maintained itself,” said Steve Nelle, a wildlife consultant who worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service for 35 years, said. “The land base, in relation to human population and development, was large enough to keep the natural processes functioning.”

CHANGING TEXAS

It is no secret Texas is changing. In 1990, the population of Texas was 19 million. Today, 26 million people live here. By 2050, some estimates indicate there will be more than 54 million residents.

“From a land perspective, our robust economy is a blessing and a curse,” said Dr. Roel Lopez, director for Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources. “People are coming to Texas seeking jobs and opportunities. More people mean more demands for natural resources, but land is a finite resource.”

The population growth is driving demand for open space land especially in proximity to metro areas. As a result, land values are increasing, exacerbating land conversion and land fragmentation. Land conversion occurs when open space land is developed and taken out of agricultural and/or ecological production, while land fragmentation occurs when larger tracts are broken into smaller parcels, Lopez said. Once land is fragmented or converted, it is unlikely to return to its previous condition, he said.

“Texas is losing rural and agricultural land faster than any other state in the country,” said Dr. Andy Sansom, director for the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. According to the most recent Texas Land Trends study, “No Land, No Water: Tools and Strategies for Conserving Land to Protect Water,” the Lone Star State experienced a net loss of 1.1 million acres of privately owned farms, ranches and forests from 1997 to 2012.

The disappearance of Texas’ legendary wide, open spaces combined with an increasing demand for natural resources has long-term implications for the state’s well-being.

“Land is nature’s ecological infrastructure,” said David K. Langford, vice president emeritus of TWA. “Natural systems don’t function optimally when the land is broken into small pieces and covered with asphalt. Demand for natural resources threatens to outstrip supply, so we can’t take the ‘invisible’ systems for granted any longer.”

THE ROLE OF PRIVATE LANDOWNERS

In law enforcement, a thin blue line represents the police who stand between chaos and order. Private land stewards play a similar role in conservation. They are the thin green line protecting the land’s infrastructure and providing a host of benefits known collectively as ecological services for the rest of society.

Sansom said, “Given that 95 percent of the landscape in Texas is owned by private citizens, the health of all of our watersheds, aquifer recharge areas, wildlife habitat and open space is dependent on their stewardship. The terrestrial environment of Texas is in their hands.”

The voluntary management of land by private landowners falls under the mantle of stewardship. Stewardship implies both a responsibility and an emotional tie to the land.

“Genuine land stewards have a tender conscience toward the land,” Nelle said. “They make land management decisions with the awareness their management not only affects them and their families, but people far beyond their fence lines as well as our collective future. To genuine land stewards, their management efforts reflect a sacred trust.”

THE LAND/WATER CONNECTION

While the ecological infrastructure of open space land provides many societal benefits, the most obvious is clean, plentiful water.

“When it comes to water, Texas is unlike any other state,” Langford said. “Almost all of the water used in Texas originates in Texas as rain that falls on private lands.”

Well-managed rangelands are Mother Nature’s sponge capturing the rain. When the complex, large-scale ecological processes involved in rainfall capture function optimally, floods are reduced, aquifers are replenished, and water is released more slowly and steadily into springs, streams, rivers, lakes and eventually bays and estuaries.

“If the land is healthy, the quality and quantity of water – both surface and groundwater – available to our citizens reflects that condition,” he said.

As landscapes are broken into smaller pieces, natural cycles may be disrupted. In the case of water, conversion or fragmentation reduces the overall size of the “sponge.” There is not only less open rangeland to soak up rain, there are more hardscapes such as parking lots, sidewalks, roads and roofs that cause rain to run-off, disrupting the water cycle further.

Additionally, smaller parcels make land management more challenging. Every landowner’s land management goals are different.  For instance, when a thousand-acre ranch with a single owner is divided into 10-acre parcelsand sold to 100 new owners, it becomes much more difficult to apply a comprehensive land management plan that affects the entire landscape, Lopez said.  Applying specific management practices such as prescribed burning can be much more expensive per acre on small tracts, and may be impossible because of the proximity of neighbors, Lopez said.

“Once land is fragmented, it becomes more likely to be converted,” Lopez said. “Over time, the landscape changes forever.”

CHANGING MINDSETS

Texans have migrated from rural areas to urban centers. Today, 86 percent of Texans live in the city. Many have no direct connection to rural land despite the fact that 84 percent of Texas is rural. By 2020, it is estimated that 90 percent of the state’s populace will live in five metropolitan counties. This creates a communication challenge for the landowner and natural resource communities.

“For people who have never experienced nature, it’s easy to assume the water they drink originates in their taps,” Simons said. “Because they don’t understand the connection between the well-managed ranches upstream and their local water supply, the public overlooks the importance of rural land in their lives. Rural land is dismissed as irrelevant when it is essential.”

While educating the majority of the state’s population is daunting, the natural resource community is focusing on reaching policy makers. They are a much smaller group whose actions can directly impact the future of open space land in Texas, particularly if they can create genuine incentives to support the conservation efforts of private landowners.

“Even when you look at the nation as a whole, slightly more than 60 percent of our land is in private hands, including the majority of our most productive range and ag lands,” Simons said. “As Aldo Leopold wrote in 1934, ‘Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public’s interest. It asserts the new premise that if he fails to do so, his neighbors must ultimately pay the bill.

The entry point for meaningful conversation is the cost-effectiveness of private land stewardship. When it comes to water, conserving private lands is less expensive than most engineering solutions.

In the 1990s, New York City was faced with a dilemma. The quality of its water supply, which is derived from the Delaware-Catskills watershed, was deteriorating. One of the causes was non-point source pollution from agriculture and other sources. The engineering solution was a filtration plant that would cost $10 billion to construct and $1 million per day to operate.

Faced with that potential price tag, policy makers began working with local landowners to eliminate non-point source pollution while keeping the lands open and productive. The Watershed Agricultural Council purchased development rights from landowners. As of 2012, the council had spent $30 million in its efforts. The water quality of New York City met all federal standards.

San Antonio has implemented a similar program to protect the rangelands in the aquifer’s recharge zone. Voters have approved $180 million so far. The money provides an additional income stream which helps keep private landowners on the land implementing conservation.

“Private landowners voluntarily bear the cost of conservation on their lands while supporting their local communities and paying taxes,” Langford said. “It’s fiscally sound public policy to help landowners stay on the land protecting the source of our water, our clean air, our food, our clothing, our shelter, and our raw energy.”

Private land stewardship also provides a cost-effective alternative to government ownership.

“We could invest the entire Texas state budget for a year in public land acquisition and only change the percentage of land in public ownership by maybe one percent,” Sansom said. “Then, we’d have to spend tax dollars for the management and care of those acquisitions. While we should continue to invest in public land for parks and other purposes, we can’t purchase enough land in our state to provide the environmental benefits we receive from a well cared for private landscape.”

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  • Lorie A. Woodward has worked as a writer and public relations practitioner exploring the intersection of agriculture, natural resources and public policy for almost 30 years. Her career, which has included stints in the public and private sector, has taken her across the country and around the world, where she has been enthralled by the people of the land and their stories. She is the president of Woodward Communications and co-owner of The Round Top Register, a regional magazine focused on life in the rolling bluebonnet hills of central Texas where country meets city. Woodward was reared on a ranch near Lexington, Texas, but now makes her home in San Angelo with her two children, Kate and Will.