Texas Land and Public Policy
Thank you, Robert, and thank you all for including me this afternoon. As I look out across the room, I see in almost every row someone who has helped me along the way, a colleague or a friend or a supporter in our state’s conservation efforts over the last 30 years, and I’m particularly glad to see you today and to be with you.
It is a very great honor for me to be once again in the room with Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson. You know, when I was a college student trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, she was an inspiration to me. She is a heroine of our movement, and it is a great privilege to be here with her.
She would join me in saying that there are other heroes of that movement here as well, like Ed Harte and Terry Hershey, colleagues Pat Noonan and Bill DeBuys, who are at the dais, so thank you all. These last eleven years have been the greatest privilege of my life, and “privilege” is the only way I can describe it.
I hope today that I can share with you at least a few insights that I have gained about this land that we love. Texas has probably the strongest sense of place of any place or population in the world. I don’t know of any other place where there is such a strong sense of heritage and sense of place as in Texas.
I’m sure that each of you knows that heritage is historically unique. As Texas came into America as an independent nation, our forefathers negotiated the retention of all of its public lands and then promptly turned around and sold them to support the government, a process that essentially continues to this day, but a process that has resulted in the statistic that David Schmidly shared with you earlier: about 95 percent of all the land in Texas today is privately owned.
I’m so glad that you got to hear Dr. Schmidly describe his work with Vernon Bailey’s Biological Survey of Texas because it is clearly one of the most monumental nature resource studies to emerge here at the turn of the century. What is striking is that much of the damage to our landscape that we talk about today actually happened prior to 1900. If we recall the photographs of some of the countryside that he showed you, we have to recognize that the landscape of Texas prior to 1900 was horribly overgrazed. Much of the timber in East Texas had already been cut down. As Dr. Schmidly mentioned, many of the species that Vernon Bailey tried to document had already disappeared. This is contrary to what we think about the destruction of our landscape today and what our children hear—that the landscape is endangered as an outcome of modernity. In fact, in many respects, the landscape of Texas is in much better condition today, mostly under private ownership, than it was at the turn of the century. There have been some obvious changes in species distribution and vegetation and other factors. But the fact is that because of the stewardship of private landowners, the landscape of Texas is generally better today than it was 100 years ago.
On the other hand, there have been some tremendous losses. Since European settlement in Texas, we’ve lost about half of our coastal wetlands and we’ve lost probably 60 percent of our terrestrial wetlands. Principally because of the construction of reservoirs and other impacts of that kind, we’ve lost about 63 percent of our bottomland hardwood forests.
The ecosystems, a word that’s been used quite a bit here today, of the blackland prairie and the Lower Rio Grande Valley are among the most endangered in the United States. As you heard today, in its natural state Texas was principally a grassland. When the Europeans first began to settle here, there were virtually no trees all the way to the Rocky Mountains, except in the Cross-Timbers region of the eastern part of our state. Texas was a grassland. And today these are our most endangered ecosystems. There were originally 20 million acres of blackland prairie that had not been plowed in Texas. Less than 5,000 acres of unbroken prairie sod exist today, and this is once again because of the stewardship of private landowners who have kept it that way on purpose. I was thrilled earlier today to see Mary Evelyn Blass Huey, formerly the president of Texas Women’s University, who with her family has maintained one of the last tiny pieces of unbroken prairie sod in our state.
Even so, Texas is in better shape today, from the standpoint of overall system health, than it was prior to the beginning of the 20th century. About 144 million acres in Texas today are in rural ownership, and that provides the resource base for all of our agriculture, forestry industries, and outdoor recreation. Thus, the greatest single threat to the terrestrial environment in Texas today is the ongoing breakup of family lands. As families continue to leave their property, the tract sizes become smaller and smaller, open space disappears, and natural habitat and biodiversity are lost. Between 1982 and 1997, Texas lost about 2.6 million acres of rural lands. Between 1992 and 1997, that rate doubled the rate of the previous ten years. So today 12 percent of all agricultural land that is transferred from rural ownership every year in the United States is located in Texas.
The rate at which rural property is converted to other uses is greater in Texas than in any other state in the nation. Why is this happening? First, this acceleration is due to demographics, and you’ve seen the data today. When most of us were young, we were lucky enough to have an aunt or an uncle or a grandparent or a friend who had a farm or ranch that we could visit and where we could spend some time. Texas was still basically a rural state. When the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department was formed, for example, 90 percent of all Texans lived on farms or ranches or in very small towns. Within a few short years, 90 percent of all Texans will live in urban areas. Within a few short years, the ethnicity of that population will completely change: by 2030, Texas will have a non-Anglo majority. Because of these factors and others, there has been a tremendous amount of exurban development in recent years. In 1992, there were 181,000 rural landowners in Texas. By 1997, that number had increased to almost 200,000 rural landowners. So more people own land in rural Texas now than they did even a decade ago, but the average size of a tract of land over that same period dropped by 100 acres. As more people move out of the cities and into the first and second tier of counties around our major metropolitan areas, the size of those tracts of land becomes smaller and smaller.
Another great factor leading to fragmentation is the change in the economics of owning rural land. That is to say, the market value of land has been exceeded by its economic productivity. I’ll give you an example. You used to be able to buy a piece of land and make a living on it as a rancher or a farmer. Today that’s very difficult. As a result, most people who buy rural land in Texas today are not doing it for the purpose of making a living. The single greatest motivation for purchasing blocks of land in Texas today is recreation. Thus the value of that property has gone way up while its productive value has gone down, making it impossible for a farmer or rancher to borrow money to buy land and repay it through traditional economic activity.
This shift has brought operational changes to the rural landscape. Most land purchases in the decade of the 1990s were by absentee owners, people who aren’t even there most of the time. They live in other places and go out to the rural landscape to play because they can afford it. The greatest single impact has been taxation. As you have already heard today, when families face estate taxes, all too often the land is sold to pay off those taxes, and that is the greatest single cause of fragmentation in our state. The trends are clear. Although 81 percent of the land is still owned by 23 percent of the people, that is changing as more and more people buy smaller and smaller tracts of land. The smallest tracts of land today are in East Texas, but the pattern is moving westward, constrained only by the lack of water. We think of Texas as the land of wide-open spaces. But if you look at Texas east of I-35, the average size of a tract of land in most of those counties is less than 20 acres. In many counties in Texas, the average size of a tract of land is less than ten acres and that increases as you go farther east.
As I mentioned, recreation is the chief motive for the purchase of land today, and settlement of estates is the chief motive for the sale of land today. So what should we do? Well, there are two approaches. One involves private land and one involves public land, in my view. As I mentioned, our greatest single objective should be to try to keep families on ancestral land. People who live on rural lands love it and have generally been good stewards. They must be helped to stay on that land and to continue to take care of it in the future. I have made what passes for a career out of the purchase of land for public ownership and nonprofit ownership. But if the Legislature gave the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department the state’s entire annual budget to buy land, it would change that ratio of public and private ownership by only one or two percent.
If we’re going to take care of the land in the future in our state, we must enable private landowners to do most of the job. How do we do this? Well, as mentioned earlier, in the middle of the last decade Texas approved a constitutional amendment that allows recreational landowners, or people who manage land simply for its native species and wildlife, to gain the same advantages as agricultural tax valuation. That is, their property taxes are lower than their own land which is held for other purposes. The execution of Proposition 11 is still being worked out. There are arguments about how large a tract should be in order to qualify. Should it be allowed in a subdivision or is it primarily set up for rural ownership? These issues will be resolved, but in Texas today you may gain a property tax advantage by managing your property for ecological purposes, and that should be continued.
We need to look at subsidies both ways. We subsidize fragmentation in Texas. At the risk of offending some in the room, one of the things that we do in our state is provide veterans almost interest-free loans to buy property with. So we’ve got counties today like Lampasas County, which has 200 subdivisions, most of which are financed through the Veterans Land Program. I’m not arguing for it or against it. I’m just telling you that some public policies encourage the fragmentation of property. If we’ve paid over the years subsidies to folks for commodities like sugar and mohair and cotton, why should we not provide financial incentives for landowners to do things like taking noxious brush off the property or reestablishing native habitat, particularly grasses. There is perhaps no greater incentive to help private landowners solve the state’s daunting water problems than to give them the tools and even financial incentive to clear invasive brush off private property. Once again, when I look out there and see Mrs. Johnson, I think of the Texas Hill Country and how the Edwards Plateau, which had been a wonderful savannah of grass that grew as high as the stirrups, disappeared after the Civil War and was completely replaced by cedar – in 30 years. If we could restore a good part of that countryside back to grassland, we would solve a whole lot of the water problems of Central Texas, and that would certainly be worth public subsidy.
We need to increase our technical guidance to landowners. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has a program whereby we provide a kind of extension assistance for wildlife and habitat management on private property. But it takes from six months to a year before one of the biologists will come out to see you because the demand is so great and there aren’t enough of them to do the job.
Landowners are looking for technical assistance in how to manage their property better. We need to look at cooperatives. When I first met Dr. Huey, I was introduced to a place called Mill Creek Bottom, which is east of here toward Houston. It’s a wonderful, fairly large piece of native blackland prairie. It was essentially being managed collectively by a group of German descendants who have been there for 150 years. As a group, they manage property that has separate owners. Across the state more and more cooperatives are forming to manage plants and animals that transcend property lines and political subdivisions. Today in Texas, as our tract sizes get smaller and smaller, one of the most provocative things that is happening to the landscape is for a group of landowners to manage property collectively. Each landowner may own an average of 50 acres, but as a group that collectively owns 250 acres or even 1,000 acres, they can manage that property together so that they can reach common goals and preserve much more land than they would be able to do individually.
We have to keep hammering away at this estate tax issue. I hope the changing economics in our country will not sway the Congress from continuing to look toward a time when estate taxes are gone. If we can’t do that, then we should find ways to provide state tax relief for conservation benefits, such as conservation easements or other long-term preservation commitments to open space and habitat protection on private property.
We must begin in this state a program that allows us to purchase development rights from private landowners. You would be intrigued to hear about a project going on in Gunnison Valley of Colorado where private landowners have been pressed to the wall by economics but essentially do not want to leave their property. These are traditional rural ranching and agricultural interests.
Their children are gone, usually living outside the state, and do not want to manage the property. The remaining families have been able to sell the development rights to their property, stay on the land, and continue to do what they’ve been doing for 150 years—but with the new infusion of income to provide pension funds for themselves or trust funds for their children so they can gain the same economic benefits that people in other business are routinely able to do.
Having said that the future of land conservation is in private hands, do not let me leave the room without emphasizing that we must also continue the public acquisition of land in our state. Texas is 50th among all the states in the amount of parkland that it provides for its citizens. And make no mistake—this is not just an issue of esthetics or natural history. It is an economic issue. If Texas expects to compete in the world economy in the years to come, it must provide the kind of outdoor opportunities that competitive states are routinely providing. Think of all those young engineers we’re trying to attract from Stanford and MIT and other places—they expect to have a place to take their families and spend time outdoors. The last time Texas passed a bond issue for the acquisition of natural and historic properties was when John Connally was governor. The last time Texas passed a bond issue for the acquisition of property for conservation was when John Connally was the governor of our state. We must readdress that issue if we’re going to go forward in the 21st century. Much has been said this morning about regional cooperation, and I believe this should be one of the most important concepts that we take away from here.
“Regional” does not only mean government; it means private cooperation like those cooperatives we talked about. It means cooperation like that of the 39 existing land trusts in Texas that Ms. Hershey talked about this morning. But it also means projects like one along Bray’s Bayou in Harris County where multiple jurisdictions—county, cities, state agencies—are all working together to preserve a linear corridor through the metropolitan area that is probably 22 miles long. It means finding ways for Dallas County and Tarrant County to get together and figure out a way to preserve the remaining riparian habitat along the Trinity River and through those metropolitan areas. We have to find a way to enable regional entities to work together—those conservation problems in urban areas that we’ve talked about so much today are not necessarily the business of the state or the federal government, but they are often beyond the capabilities of individual local governments.
We have to find ways to encourage them to work together. Why do we have such difficulty in Texas in purchasing property? Why is it considered such a bad thing to buy land for our people? Well, there are several legitimate obstacles that we have to overcome. The first is the capital costs. And every the cost of an acre of land in Texas increases, and so this is a formidable obstacle. This morning David Schmidly told you that, according to the recommendation of his report, Texas is going to need another 1.4 million acres of parkland in the next 30 years. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what this is going to cost, and it won’t be cheap. So there is a legitimate and serious cost associated with the capital acquisition of that property.
Second, every time the state buys a piece of land in rural Texas, it comes off the property tax rolls in that region, and this causes a burden on those residents, particularly at the county level. Now, it’s true, in almost every case, that when a large and attractive public park is established in a rural area, the economy of that area is improved. But this comes from the increased sales tax, which doesn’t help a county that derives its revenue from property taxes. The Nature Conservancy has done a fabulous job in Texas of understanding that issue and now pays property taxes when it acquires property. The Parks and Wildlife Department, for its last several acquisitions, one of the most important of which Mr. Noonan here at the dais helped us execute, creates endowments that are used to pay the property taxes in those counties. So as long as we are so heavily dependent at the local level on property taxes, we have to be sensitive to the fact that taking property off the tax rolls can have an adverse impact on rural communities.
Finally, when a public entity, whether it’s a county or a city or state government, buys a piece of property, it’s not only a wonderful gift to the future but a management liability as well. It takes people to operate property, as you know if you own a ranch or a farm. So we have to be sensitive to the fact that when we acquire public property, we take on a liability that we have to foresee at the time that we take this action. What are the consequences if we don’t find ways to strengthen private landowners and increase our public acquisitions?
Well, first of all, we’re going to threaten several billion-dollar industries. Hunting in Texas today is a $1 billion industry. And it is entirely dependent on maintaining this wonderful wildlife habitat that we have throughout our state.
Texas is the top bird-watching destination in the world, another $1 billion industry. It is totally dependent on healthy, diverse wildlife habitat. Recreation and tourism in Texas is a $25 billion industry, and it is based on the private properties with have quality habitat that people can visit and the great parks and historic sites across Texas that people love to go see.
If we can’t figure out a way to save the landscape, another consequence is that we’re going to jeopardize the water supply. The largest block of public lands in Texas is owned by the General Land Office. You probably wouldn’t think of it, but the largest block of public land in Texas is the submerged lands of the bays and estuaries along the coast. They are analogous in our state to the federal lands in Nevada, California, Colorado, and Idaho. Our public lands in the bays and estuaries contribute enormously to our economy and our quality of life. Billions and billions of dollars are generated in those estuaries—from commercial fishing, from sport fishing, from outdoor recreation of all kinds—and they are totally dependent on the continued flow of fresh water down along our rivers to those bays and estuaries.
I know that a number of people here today have read Aldo Leopold many times. I encourage you to go back and read the chapter in which Leopold describes canoeing in the northern reaches of the Gulf of California with his brother back in the 1920s. Each day they saw more ducks and geese and muskrats and shorebirds than you could imagine. They caught more fish than they could eat. They had a spectacular hunting experience. It’s a wonderful description of one of nature’s most rich and diverse places, and today it is dead and gone because there is no more fresh water traveling down the Colorado River to the Gulf of California.
We face a similar situation in Texas everywhere below Bay City and we must find a way to provide water for growing industry, for residential use, and for agriculture, but also for our bays and estuaries.
We’re going to see some terrible user conflicts. Today there are fights over our riverbeds between people who want to drive vehicles down our rivers and those who want to use them only for passive recreation. There are so few places left to go that those areas open to the public are becoming battlegrounds between different types of users. But the most important thing we’ll lose is the opportunity for our children to gain that sense of place. About ten years ago we took a group of children from East Austin canoeing on the Lampasas River. Many of these African-American kids had never seen a canoe. Most of them had never been out of East Austin, and when they got into those boats, they were very uncertain. But by the end of the day, you would have thought they had been in those canoes all of their lives. At the end of the trip, we stopped at a sandbar to take the canoes out of the river, and one of the adult leaders began skipping rocks. The children squealed, and it became apparent that none of them had ever seen anyone skip a rock. So we spent the rest of the afternoon teaching them to skip rocks. That night, after we finished up the dishes, the adult leaders gathered around the campfire telling stories, but the children were back down on the river in the pitch-black dark skipping rocks.
It’s good for our economy. It’s good for our quality of life. But it’s absolutely crucial that we give our children the kind of heritage that we have all enjoyed.