Keeping Texas Big,
Wide and Open
Created by landowners for landowners, TALT's mission is to protect private working lands, thus conserving Texas’ heritage of wide open spaces.
Photo © D.K. Langford
|Range management is important strategy, conservationists say.|
By Asher Price
When Marjorie Reagor inherited the 900-acre ranch two years ago — it has been in her family since the 1870s — it was crowded with cedar trees and, save a creek, largely dry.
Last June, she and her husband, John Reagor , started a partnership with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service to clear the water-sucking cedar, plant native grasses and restore open space. They hope the range management improves cattle production since there will be more grass for livestock to forage.
Already, new draws have appeared, with water coursing through the land. That water flows into the Pedernales River, which eventually contributes to the Highland Lakes, the main drinking source for Central Texas.
In short, as Texans prepare for the next big drought, squeezing as much water from the land as possible is becoming a necessity not only for ranchers, but also for city folk.
As water supplies become more valuable, conservationists say proper range management is an important way to improve them in urban areas, and the conservation service has begun an effort it calls Rural Land-Urban Water to promote the connection to urban audiences.
"We can't make it rain in Texas when and where it's needed," state conservationist Don Gohmert said. "But conservation measures on the state's vast rural lands can increase the amount, and improve the quality, of water available to Texas cities."
In the long run, as cities grow and political power grows farther removed from the soil, the effort is partly a survival measure for the agency itself, which splits the cost of conservation work with landowners.
Staffing in Texas for the conservation service has halved since the 1960s as the economy has shifted away from the land. In 1962, the agency had 1,521 employees in Texas. This year, there are 747.
"Support of our agency comes from all taxpayers, and most of them are not farmers or ranchers," Gohmert said. "Most wonder why they would pay for something on private land. When private land is managed properly, it accrues environmental benefits that urban folks may not understand."
He said proper range management prevents sediment from muddying up waterways, for example, and cuts down on allergens in the air.
The work is not exclusively on private land. The federal agency is teaming with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as well as several river authorities and other agencies to determine how clearance on the Honey Creek State Natural Area north of San Antonio affects watersheds in the Hill Country.
The land belonging to the Reagors, who both worked until recently at Texas A&M University, had been managed long before the federal agency offered help. Marjorie Reagor's great-grandfather settled the land in 1874, and cedar has been chopped down by ax for generations.
But the kind of heavy-duty brush control work that requires heavy machinery was long out of reach for many landowners.
"For poor families, the land had to pay the price," said Kirby Hohenberger, a cowboy-hatted, white-mustachioed man who runs a company doing work on the Reagor land. "Unless a Houston doctor or lawyer lived here, who made money somewhere else, the family doesn't have money to clear the land."
According to figures from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, brush management in Central Texas costs roughly $200 per acre ; native grass planting costs another $120 per acre; fencing, a practice that helps ranchers move livestock in a manner that resembles the grazing patterns of buffalo and elk herds, costs about $2 a foot; pipelines to ship water and promote even livestock distributions can cost $1.75 a foot ; a 2,000 -gallon livestock water trough, which improves water quality in lakes and streams, goes for $1,200; and vegetative buffers along waterways cost $370 per acre.
When a landowner enters into an Environmental Quality Incentives Program contract with the conservation service, he or she is responsible for 40 percent of the cost and the federal government will pay 60 percent, according to the agency. (Landowners still have to pay taxes on the amount the government covers.) The conservation service spent $64 million in Texas on the incentive program in 2009.
"The partnership gets rid of the cedar, which would be impossible to do financially on my own," said John Reagor.
He and his wife are working with C.A. Cowsert , a conservation service soil conservationist based in Johnson City, to do conservation work on 500 of their acres.
The land has to be in agriculture production to qualify for these programs. The contracts are typically from one to three years.
"When conscientious land stewards ably manage their resources, as they do every day, they are ranching water just as surely as they are ranching cattle or wildlife," David Langford , a vice president emeritus with the Texas Wildlife Association, told the state water development board in 2006.