March 9, 2017
By Colleen Schreiber
SAN ANTONIO — Those attending the recent annual meeting of the Texas Chapter of The Wildlife Society heard from a diverse group of speakers about the value of conservation, the need to manage natural resources from an economic perspective, and the relevance of private lands and those who steward those private lands for the benefit of all.
Dr. Randy DeYoung, president of the state organization and a wildlife molecular geneticist and research associate with the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, opened the plenary session with some introductory remarks about the history of Texas as a private lands state. He cited the state’s longstanding history of independence, of standing alone and not being influenced by outsiders, a history that dates back to before Texas joined the Union. However, he pointed out that Texas almost did not become the private land state that it is today.
“We were so far in debt that we were inclined to join the Union by offering to give up 50 percent of our state lands if the federal government would take over our debt,” DeYoung told listeners. “The government declined, and that is how we wound up with the majority of the land being in private hands.”
It is that kind of proud independence that has long driven lifelong ranchers like James Oliver. Oliver was raised on a family cattle operation just south of San Antonio at Pleasanton. Since graduating from Texas A&M with an ag economics degree, Oliver has been involved in all facets of the cattle business, from cow-calf and stockers to cattle feeding.
Today he and his wife run an integrated family operation on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau. It is a diversified operation, featuring sheep, goats and cattle, but heavy on the sheep. They also incorporate a lease hunting enterprise, and while that piece of the business is secondary and supplementary to the livestock enterprise, Oliver understands and appreciates the value of wildlife to the viability of the overall operation.
In addition to his hands-on ag production experience, Oliver also spent 15 years as a production agriculture lender, the last 10 with a multi-national banking organization where he financed families involved in production agriculture from South Texas to North Dakota. Today, Oliver is the chief operating officer for the Texas Agricultural Land Trust.
He talked about how he came to remove the blinders and change his perception and perspective on some long-held beliefs about conservation easements. He told listeners that he views conservation from a “very pragmatic, business-like perspective,” but holistically Oliver said, it’s about preserving opportunities for the next generation. His presentation was simply entitled “relevancy”, which he defined as “the quality or state of being closely related or appropriate.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, by the virtue of what we do, we have met that definition of relevancy,” said Oliver.
He told a personal story, that basically changed his life and that ultimately impacted his decision to make a career change and to begin, as he said, to take the blinders off.
Between the time when Oliver graduated from Texas A&M and when he started his lending career, he took what the Millennials today might call a “gap year”.
“It was actually a two-year gap year, and instead of traveling abroad like some of my friends, I went to Oklahoma.”
That brought a chuckle from the crowd.
However, it wasn’t just Oklahoma but the Osage, and anyone who has ranched in South Texas, who has sent cattle to grass in the Osage, can appreciate the reason for distinguishing between the two.
“The Osage is a historical legendary grazing region, and I had the opportunity to help ship cattle off a historical, well-known ranch in northeastern Oklahoma,” said Oliver.
Oliver arrived at Pawhuska, in the heart of the Osage, in the dark of night. Early the next morning he met his party in the pasture where they were to gather cattle. He climbed on his horse and trotted to the back end.
“I literally and figuratively was in the dark,” said Oliver. “I hadn’t even seen the faces of the people I was working with; I hadn’t seen the country.”
As the day began to break, he realized he was on a hill in the southeastern corner of the pasture. He distinctly recalls how as the sun came up over the hill it “lit up” the pasture.
“There was not a windmill, there was not a dirt tank, there was not a pump anywhere,” Oliver said.
There was no brush; he could see the cattle. It was August and yet grass was stirrup high.
“It was nirvana. It was for me a piece of heaven, and that image is indelibly etched in my memory. It’s one of the top 10 photographic memories that I have.”
During his “gap years”, some members of the family who owned the “historical” ranching operation where Oliver had been working made the decision to sell the eastern half of the ranch to a land trust.
“They tore out all the interior fences, and they turned out buffalo,” Oliver told listeners. Though he fully understand the reasons behind their decision to sell, he did not see a public benefit.
“I did not see a proliferation of the species. I did not see a water quality issue. What I saw was the removal of an opportunity for someone like me — forever — in perpetuity. Gone. No one would ever again have the opportunity to make or break their fortune right there. No one would ever again be able to chase cattle on that piece of ground.”
At that point, Oliver said, the proverbial blinders closed even more and his focus narrowed even further.
Twenty years later, Oliver came into contact with Blair Fitzsimons, the CEO of the Texas Agricultural Land Trust. The blinders were still on, for sure, but after a year of conversations Oliver had what he described as nothing short of an epiphany.
“I realized that there just may be an organization out there that instead of removing those opportunities like the opportunity in Oklahoma, just maybe it would be able to preserve that opportunity,” Oliver told listeners. “It might give the next generation and the generation after that the opportunity that was taken away in the Osage.”
Oliver explained that the Texas Ag Land Trust was founded by landowners for landowners. The three founding organizations are the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, the Texas Farm Bureau, and the Texas Wildlife Association. The mission is “to help Texans conserve their agricultural lands, their wildlife habitat and natural resources and to enhance and sustain long-term stewardship of private lands for the benefit of all Texas.”
One of the tools the land trust employs to help accomplish their mission is conservation easements. The simplest form of a conservation easement, Oliver said, is a negotiated transaction in which the landowner voluntarily donates or sells the development rights on his property to a land trust. That land trust then holds those development rights in perpetuity.
The landowner, he stressed, retains the ability to continue farming and ranching. He has the ability to continue a wildlife management program and habitat restoration on the land and do so without any interference from the ag land trust. In other words, the trust does not dictate how the land is to be managed.
“Our sole duty is to uphold the covenants within that easement document,” he explained.
Oliver told listeners that Texas is losing its ag lands, its rural lands, faster than any other state in the nation. He also noted that less than one percent of the population owns 84 percent of the rural land mass in the state of Texas, and one percent owns 75 percent of the rural land mass in the U.S.
He stressed the relevance of that statistic and the need to educate the remaining 99 percent by borrowing a quote from the “prophet” of conservation, Aldo Leopold. More than 100 years ago Leopold said, “There are two spiritual dangers to not owning a farm. The first danger is supposing that breakfast comes from the grocer. The second is that heat comes from a furnace.”
“We have arrived,” said Oliver. “We’re here in the state of Texas.”
He pointed out that the population of Texas is expected to double by 2050 or perhaps as early as 2040. That means, he said, that there will be still more pressure on the state’s most critical natural resources, particularly water. Texas A&M’s Institute of Renewable Natural Resources, he added, has calculated that 84 percent of the rainfall in the state of Texas falls on private working lands.
“Does that majority understand that responsible land stewardship in Edwards County has a direct impact on the drinking water of Corpus Christi? Do they understand how a salt cedar eradication program in Borden County affects Lady Bird Lake in Austin?”
Oliver opined that the relevance of agricultural land, of all rural land, to the majority, the 99 percent who live in the cities and the suburbs, is at one of its most critical junctures in the history of modern Texas.
“We must relate the relevancy of water quality, of clean air and the benefits of open space to the urban audience,” Oliver stressed. “We must be able to communicate our relevancy to that majority — the relevancy of our work; the relevancy of the people who employ their craft on the land, who understand the hardships and the rewards of responsible land stewardship, who understand the financial burdens of owning and maintaining private working lands.”
He commended those in wildlife conservation, a group which he said has been better at opening their gates and inviting others in, of telling their story. Farmers and ranchers, he opined, have more work to do on this front.
“We tend to lock the gate and hide in the brush until they’re gone,” he quipped.
The urban majority, Oliver stressed, is so critical because they are the ones who ultimately make the decisions for everyone.
“We’re (rural Texas) outnumbered. We need the urban citizens to help us affect public policy.”
In 2015 the Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program, now housed within the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, was appropriated $2 million to protect working lands. The land trust community leveraged that into the protection of just a little under 11,000 acres.
That $2 million wasn’t used to buy fair market value fee title to land, Oliver pointed out. Rather, it was used to purchase the conservation values for the land.
“When you apply the metrics, we protected about $16.7 million worth of land,” Oliver told listeners. “That’s about an eight-to-one leverage ratio.”
Additionally, 8200 acre-feet of water was protected.
“When the metrics were applied to the amount of watershed and water protection it was a six-to-one leverage. So for $2 million we protected $11.7 million worth of watersheds and water resources,” said Oliver.
“It appears this may be the most economical way for us to protect future resources.”
These numbers, he added, have piqued the interest of the legislature, and TPWD is asking for another $5 million.
“We need that urban support for more funding for these programs, for the creation of more programs to protect our natural resources,” he reiterated. “We need their support so that we can sustain the growth of this state without diminishing the quality of life.”
There was a question about a potential $50 million in federal funds to be used nationwide for habitat and sensitive wildlife populations. Oliver was asked to opine on how he would hypothetically use such funding.
“The ag land trust will not target specific areas in which to work,” he told listeners, “That aside, I think we could all agree that water may be the biggest issue that we face in the next 20 years in the state of Texas, so I would probably try to employ those dollars to protect watersheds — I’m talking about the headwaters of the rivers in the state of Texas, the headwaters of the Colorado, the Brazos, the Nueces, the major rivers that we all depend on. And, it might take all $50 million to get there.”
Oliver wrapped up by asking listeners to remove the blinders.
“Please understand that what you do casts a shadow larger than yourself. And, please help us keep communicating with the audience that most needs to hear from us.”
Also on the panel was Terry Anderson, distinguished senior fellow and former president and executive director of the Property and Environment Research Center based in Montana. Anderson is also the John and Jean De Nault Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He talked about the need to apply market principles in the management of natural resources and how a market approach can be both economically sound and environmentally sensitive.
He offered some remarks similar to Oliver’s with respect to the importance of private property and those who steward those lands and the need to leverage their knowledge through market-based incentive programs.
He, too, recited a quote from Aldo Leopold taken from one of his favorite Leopold essays, the one on conservation economics. Leopold said, “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.”
“Realize that Leopold understood this value chain long before any economist talked about it in the context of conservation and wildlife management,” Anderson told listeners. “Leopold understood that it is the private landowners who really control the best habitat. If we don’t recognize the importance of rewarding the private landowner who conserves that public interest, we are going to lose in a battle for hunting, and I think we’ll also lose in the battle for existence of wildlife.”
Anderson said he’s thought about ways to allocate money for conservation purposes using a competitive bidding process. He used the sage grouse, which is on the “tipping point” of being listed as endangered, as an example.
“Ask ranchers in Montana if they could save the sage grouse and their response is ‘What are you willing to pay?’
“I think if we would devote some funds toward saying ‘What could you provide us? How many leks can you create?’ it would go a long way to solving some of these problems.”
Another program that is already showing such benefits, he said, is one that a decade or so ago Anderson was instrumental in establishing at PERC. It’s called the Enviropreneur Institute. According to the website, graduates of the program learn how to “harness the power of markets to resolve environmental issues or enhance environmental quality.” Furthermore, an “enviropreneur” is defined as an “innovator” and one who “resolves environmental conflicts using contracts, property rights, and markets.”
Anderson was asked his opinion about the talk by some in the Western states who want to see some public lands sold off.
“I think the selloff on any major scale is a non-starter,” Anderson responded. “Congressman Zinke from my home state of Montana now the Secretary of Interior, has said he is not for selling off public lands.”
He clarified his opinion, adding that there could be “real potential for improved management” if some of the management of federal or state lands situated in checkerboard fashion among private lands could be handled on a local level.
“One of Henry David Thoreau’s most memorable quotes is ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world.’”
He talked about how “wildness” does not have to be a large space or in the middle of nowhere. Thoreau found his “wildness”, he pointed out, at Walden Pond, which was not wilderness at all but only 1.4 miles from his house in the center of Concord, Massachusetts.
It was there that he wrote “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Thoreau knew conclusively, Noss said, that nature is good for us. Now there are scores of recent studies showing what Thoreau already knew.
“These studies have found that regular exposure to wild nature increases intelligence in children especially, and improves physical and emotional health for children and adults alike,” he told listeners. “It’s good for us to visit nature regularly. That is something we can maybe help people understand.”
He talked about the need to reform the educational system from kindergarten up through the university level.
“We have so many kids growing up in urban areas who are so far removed from the outdoors,” said Noss. “It’s been going the wrong way for decades, really.”
He added that it’s “really serious” at the college level because so much of what goes on is about money, and these days the big grants are focused in large part on molecular biology and genomics.
“The naturalists are disappearing,” said Noss, “and they’re bringing in all these cell smashers and gene jocks …”
Coming back to the topic of “wildness”, Noss told listeners that numerous studies conducted by ecologists have attempted to quantify the amount of “wildness” or open space necessary to maintain the vital “ecosystem services” that nature provides to people, things such as clean water, clean air, and a diversity of flora and fauna. Some of these studies indicate that about half of the total landscape needs to be maintained in natural areas. Other studies, he said, have found that between 25 and 75 percent of a region is necessary to maintain the “full wealth of life” in a particular region.
He acknowledged that there is a need for a mix of well managed public and private lands to maintain these values. Noss also said that like Texas, Florida is rapidly losing private lands to development. He pointed to one large well-known, well-established working ranch in Florida that recently sold 133,000 acres to a developer who will build half a million new residences. Like previous speakers, Noss pointed to the need to find creative solutions to maintain these private lands as working farms and ranches.
He told listeners that beginning in the early 1970s the State of Florida began spending relatively small amounts, a few million dollars annually, on fee simple land acquisitions for the purpose of conservation. Then beginning in 1990, real estate transfer taxes, some $300 million annually, were supplied to the state for more land acquisitions.
“In the early years it was mostly fee simple, but in the later years it’s been conservation easements,” said Noss.
As a result, both public and private conservation lands in Florida increased from 15 percent in the early 1980s to a little over 30 percent today.
“State funding, however, has totally been cut off, even though citizens voted for an amendment to restore funding from the real estate taxes, which today would give us about $700 million a year,” he told listeners. “Now it’s entirely left up to private land trusts in Florida and local municipalities to raise money for conservation.”
Jonathan Ogren talked about a recent project documenting conservation work done by people who live on the land. The end product is “The Texas Landscape Project: Texas Models for Conservation”, published by Texas A&M Press. With respect to the conservation conversation, Ogren told listeners that some of the terminology needs to be changed.
“Referring to land as private versus public is so polarizing,” said Ogren. “Perhaps we need to refer to it as individually owned versus community owned.”
This article was reprinted with permission from Livestock Weekly and Author, Colleen Schereiber.