By Colleen Schreiber
AUSTIN — The old adage that God isn’t making any more land is nowhere truer than in Texas.
Some 168 million acres are encompassed in the state of Texas. Of that total, 142 million acres are held under private ownership. According to the most recent data gathered by the Institute of Renewable Natural Resources, Texas A&M University, over a short period of 10 years, from 1997 through 2007, some 2.1 million acres of farms, ranches and forestlands were converted to other uses.
Experts say the conversion of use is primarily due to staggering growth in the state’s population. From 1997 through 2007, the state grew by 22 percent, an increase of
4.3 million people, and experts predict that the population will grow by another five to 6.5 million by 2020.
A host of land conservation organizations are working to reverse or at least slow the land converting trend. The Land Trust Alliance’s most recent census indicated that total acres conserved by state, local and national land conservation groups grew to 47 million acres, an increase of 10 million acres since 2005. In Texas the 36 state and local land trust groups have now protected more than 375,261 acres, a 55 percent increase since 2005. The Texas Agriculture Land Texas to date has conserved 98,600 acres. This organization, created in 2006 largely by statewide agricultural, wildlife and landowner organizations, promotes the conservation of open space, native wildlife habitats, and natural resources of Texas’ private working lands.
In December TALT hosted a one-day conference to bring to light the public benefits that privately managed lands offer to society in the form of not just the safest and cheapest food in the world, but also drinking water, open space and wildlife habitat, benefits that all of society enjoys.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples kicked off the morning program by first thanking those dedicated to the preservation of private property in Texas, those who understand the value of stewardship and conservation of private lands.
“It all starts and ends with the land,” Staples told listeners. “There is no better steward of the land and its resources than those who have an economic interest in that property,” he stressed. “Look around the globe at different societies and different countries that don’t have that pride and economic interest in that land and what comes from it, and you see a lack of productivity; you see deterioration in many instances.”
Policies, Staple stressed, have a real impact on stewardship.
“Policies tell the rest of the world what your values are.”
He listed several challenges and reasons why it’s important to have policies in place that promote private ownership and stewardship, but the primary one had to do with population growth. He noted that the world population increases by a million people every five days.
“That is a phenomenal statistic when you think about the fact that there are already seven billion people on the globe. How are we going to feed these people, and how we can have peace and security in the world if these people don’t have a full stomach? This is a real challenge.”
The success stories on private lands must be shared, he concluded, and policy makers and conservation-minded organizations must continue to come up with creative and innovative market-oriented solutions to address the challenges facing rural Texas.
Neal Wilkins, director of the Institute of Renewable Natural Resources, provided more statistics on recent trends in land use. The conversion of cropland, ranchland and wildlife/open space lands is typically a permanent loss, as it’s primarily converted to parking lots and subdivisions.
Wilkins also noted that 40 percent of the conversion that occurred from 1997 to 2007 occurred within the top 25 growth counties in the state, the same area which absorbed about 25 percent of the growth in population. Furthermore, for every 1000 new Texas residents from 1997 through 2000, 278 acres were lost. In two of the most crowded metropolitan areas — DFW and Houston — 180 to 190 acres were lost to development for every 1000 residents. In Travis and Bexar counties combined, that loss is 280 acres per 1000 new residents. The most shocking, however, is that in the five highest growth counties surrounding Bexar and Travis counties that figure jumped to a whopping 559 acres lost per 1000 new residents. Similar results showed up in the Tyler and Longview area, 545 acres lost for every 1000 new residents.
Over the last decade a little more than two million acres of private land was consolidated, Wilkins said, and about three million acres was fragmented. He also presented data from the Real Estate Center related to tract size, which he told listeners is a critical piece as to why fragmentation matters. The average tract size sold in the hill country in 1980 was 145 acres; in 2010 it was 58 acres. In South Texas tract size was relatively stable from 1980 through 2000, but from 2000 through 2010 the average tract size sold was cut in half. Some of that change, Wilkins acknowledged, might possibly due to the economy and the fact that the smaller parcels were selling while larger ones were languishing on the market. Though not as extreme, a similar trend was noted in the Panhandle, the Rolling Plains, and in the Trans-Pecos.
Wrapping up, Wilkins said that one of the challenges facing policy makers in Texas is coming up with solutions to minimize per capita land use.
“We’re going to get more people, and we have to figure out how not to lose 500 acres every time we get 1000 people,” he reiterated. “We have to efficiently create policy solutions that safeguard the land from high levels of consumption by creating something that competes with the demand for sprawl. We’ve got to figure out how to reverse fragmentation trends.”
Wilkins offered the following suggestions for accomplishing this task. The first was to develop standard measures that reflect the resource outputs from private lands.
“These must be accurate and reliable. We have to be able to depend upon these measures.”
The second suggestion was to prioritize the conservation dollars available by looking at return on investment.
“That way, when there are public moneys available, we can ensure the public that the best return on investment is being sought.”
The third suggestion is to establish secure ownership rights over the resources valued from private lands.
“This is controversial, but there are only two alternatives the way I see it,” he opined. “We can either lose those values or we can create a whole new set of command and control regulations. We already know from experience that doesn’t work. That kind of system results in higher fragmentation rates. Instead, we have to create a market-based system. We need to create policies that stimulate investment on private lands, and they have to be investments that go beyond philanthropy and the government taxpayer programs,” he concluded.
Dr. David McIntyre, distinguished visiting fellow with the Homeland Security Studies & Analysis Institute, was the keynote speaker. His presentation focused on the crafting of a strategy for highlighting and promoting the public benefits derived from private lands. The example he offered involved placing emphasis on the importance of private ownership of land as it pertains to national security.
He stressed that early in civilization it was agriculture that built and shaped societies.
“The ability to feed a people has always been the core of a nation’s strength, and military might has been about protecting that or expanding either the area for agriculture or the number of people involved with agriculture,” McIntyre told listeners.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, he noted, the revolution of private ownership came into being. With this revolution came the realization that the person who has an investment in ownership takes better care of that investment than the person who is a tenant.
“There has been a big political movement over the last couple of years to go back to see what the Founding Fathers said. Let’s read the Federalists Papers; let’s read the Constitution. I think it’s just as important to read what the Founding Fathers were reading back then,” commented McIntyre. “They were reading John Locke, the English philosopher who said that the foundation of all rights is private ownership.”
Locke also said that private ownership is more important than the right to vote. Paraphrasing Locke’s philosophy, McIntyre stated, “With private ownership a society is built that allows votes, but if you start with a vote and no private ownership, people will simply vote to take away from people who own something.”
Private ownership, he stressed, became the foundation of agricultural productivity. In the mid-1700s Scottish philosopher Adam Smith penned “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” which talked about how capitalism changes agricultural production by making it more effective and efficient. That idea, McIntyre insisted, led to the industrialization of agriculture a century or so later.
In 1863 the Morrill Act was signed into law establishing institutions of higher learning which specialized in teaching agriculture and engineering. This concept, McIntyre said, was significantly important in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 when Germany, Prussia at the time, was able to field an army and overwhelm France, the greatest military power of the day.
The world took notice, he opined, because Prussia had done three things. First, they had advances in agriculture which allowed them to raise more crops and feed more people; second, they had advances in engineering which allowed them to create better weapons and build better railroads which allowed them to move their troops more rapidly than the French, and third, they approached education of the military as military science. They created the reserves so they didn’t have to have a huge standing army.
“The land grant universities created the modern agricultural world,” McIntyre insisted. “They created the modern military; they created the power of the U.S.”
The most recent revolution, the one we’re living in today, is the information age. The speaker opined that because of the information age, the anti-capitalist wing of the environmental movement is moving much more quickly than those who believe in private ownership and capitalism.
“If you’re going to make the argument that private ownership of land is directly connected to the security of the U.S. you will have to learn or create or assist educational organizations that teach this language,” McIntyre told listeners.
He offered a list of terms in which national security strategists think about the world, and he suggested that it is with these terms that conservationists interested in promoting public goods from private lands must craft their argument if they are to be successful in the future.
National security, McIntyre said, is about projecting and protecting national power to protect national interests. National interests fall into a couple of different categories — survival, important, and vital. Survival, he explained, addresses interests that must be protected or the nation collapses. Energy, for example, is a survival interest for the U.S.
“If you want to argue that food is a survival interest for the U.S., you have to explain to people how it might be threatened or go away,” McIntyre said. “You’ve been so successful the last 150 years that no one gets it about food.”
Important issues are those that rise to public consciousness; they deserve some attention, they deserve some funding, but they’re never going to have anything to do with the destiny of the nation.
Vital issues are those that pertain to survival if something unintended happens.
“You have to figure out which category private ownership of land falls within.”
The next step in developing a plan, the speaker said, is to think about national power in terms of how agriculture might promote diplomacy overseas.
“One of the most successful things that we’ve done as a nation is micro-lending,” McIntyre said. “For example, if we just lend $20 to $50 to a bunch of women in India, they can each buy a sewing machine and start a small business.”
This concept, he said, is now a high priority within the State Department.
“What about agriculture? Take your arguments and place them in the context of diplomacy and expanding American power overseas,” he told listeners.
Homeland security issues, McIntyre went on to explain, are divided into areas identified as critical infrastructure, such as transportation, medicine, delivery of electricity, etc. Water and agriculture are critical infrastructure.
“Do you think and talk in those terms? People talk about food security, but I’m talking about something much greater. I’m talking about your connectivity to the community as a whole, your contribution to the existence of water. Cast what you’re doing in terms of the contributions to the nation,” he concluded.
Reed Watson, director of applied programs and a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, told listeners that in finding ways to develop programs that support and promote the public goods derived from private lands, the ideas that come from the landowners themselves have the most traction and the highest success rate.
He also described some principles of what he referred to as free market environmentalism. The first is that any policy or regulation that makes private landowners poor is going to negatively affect the quality of the environment.
“Wealthier is healthier,” Watson insisted.
The second tenet is that prices matter.
“When goods cost a lot, we consume less; when things get cheaper, we consume more. That’s as true a law as gravity,” Watson told listeners.
This is an important tenet, particularly for public goods such as water, Watson said, and particularly in those areas, like Texas, where water is scarce.
“We need to make sure we’re charging cities, municipalities, even individual tap users, the actual cost of treating and delivering the water to them. When people face the actual cost of their behaviors they tend to conserve.”
Finally, “enviropreneurs” matter. He defined enviropreneurs as creative business people who care about conservation.
“Enviropreneurs don’t tolerate externalities; they capture those benefits, they capture those harms, and they also reduce transaction costs.”
The event wrapped up with a panel of men who represent landowners, farmers and ranchers, and various landowner associations. Senator Glenn Hegar, a sixth generation farmer and rancher from the Katy Prairie, led off the panel.
Hegar understands better than many the challenges the state is facing in terms of growth and development and the issues related to such challenges. Where he grew up and where his family continues to farm today, on the farthest western edge of Houston, is expected to be the center of Houston’s population in 15 to 20 years.
He told listeners the conservation community needs to identify and separate private innovative solutions from government solutions because people in general, even his constituents in urban Houston, really want less government.
He talked about the recent defeat of Proposition 8, the tax valuation measure for water conservation. The defeat, he said, came as a surprise to many.
“Why was this defeated when both chambers of the legislature overwhelmingly passed this concept? It’s something we need so desperately, particularly in the backdrop of this year being in one of the worst drouths on record in a single year.”
Hegar said the conservation community needs to package their message in a way that doesn’t make people say, “This is just one more thing I have to deal with.” He also reminded listeners that a solution that works in one region of the state may not work in another region.
Drew DeBerry, an Olton farm boy, is the deputy ag commissioner for Texas Agriculture Commissioner Staples. He echoed Senator Hegar’s comments about government involvement.
“Government has an uncontrollable desire to throw money at a problem, and most of the time it’s a problem the government doesn’t understand.”
He talked about how much has changed in his short tenure of being involved with ag policy issues. At one time standing up for farmers and ranchers, DeBerry said, was like motherhood and apple pie. Today that’s not so much the case. Too many public policy officials, he insisted, see agriculture as a special interest group looking for an exception to an environmental regulation or a special tax consideration. In fact, some see agriculture as a group always looking for a handout.
“When did we lose the ability to communicate our needs under the umbrella of our values? When did we move away from a situation where people appreciated the values that agriculture brings to their life?” Deberry asked.
He reminded listeners that Americans enjoy the safest, most affordable food supply anywhere in the world. American spend less than 10 percent of their disposable income on food, whereas in places like Mexico and China it’s more than 20 percent, and in other parts of the world it’s far more than that.
“Ten percent of our state’s economy that each of our 25 million citizens benefit from comes from agriculture,” he added. “That’s $100 billion a year that comes from agriculture; one out of every seven working Texans works in agriculture.”
The agriculture community, DeBerry said, must find a more effective way to communicate their message. TDA has been working on a new campaign to do just that. The focus is on how agriculture is part of our culture still today.
“We’ve taken agriculture and connected it with something that is a consumer use on the other side,” DeBerry explained.
Some of the accompanying slogans are: “Never wasteful, always careful,” “Our way of life, your way of life,” “Our work, your world,” and DeBerry’s personal favorite, “Going green without the scream.”
“Agriculture was green before it was cool to be green,” he told listeners. “Sure, advocacy and speaking your opinion is important, but putting that advocacy to work is what agriculture is about.”
Wimberley FFA developed its own slogan, which is proudly donned on a T-shirt. On the shirt is a picture of a naked guy. It simply reads, “Agriculture — naked and hungry.”
“That’s an aggressive way to get someone’s attention, but it gets their attention and it makes people think about agriculture in a new way,” DeBerry insisted.
DeBerry concluded by telling listeners that without an effective message, good policy discussions are for naught.
“Until we learn how to define our values and refine our message and get consumers in our tent to understand and appreciate our values, we’re going to lose the battle.”
Neal Wilkins was also a panelist. He offered a few sage principles. For example, if it pays, it stays; when land is in demand because of its profit potential, that practice competes favorably with fragmentation and conversion, and if that profitability is aligned with water, wildlife and other environmental goods, a stronger immune system is developed and ultimately the landscape again is more resistant to fragmentation.
Jason Skaggs, executive director of government and public affairs for Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, like the Senator and the Commissioner, pointed to the many challenges, particular this year, facing landowners.
“Today landowners are facing record drouth and wildfires that burned three million-plus acres of land and destroyed over 6000 miles of fence. And, now the government wants to regulate stock tanks by redefining the waters of the U.S. They also want to define what rural dust is, and they regulate us through the Endangered Species Act and the list goes on and on,” remarked Skaggs. “What do you expect landowners to do when all they want to do is to continue to farm or ranch and put food on the table? We talk a lot about foreign oil, but what about foreign food?”
He agreed with DeBerry’s assessment that those involved in the ag industry need to do a better job of putting the right face on agriculture.
“Back when I worked for Senator Duncan, we worked on a brush control program for landowners. Today we call it a water supply enhancement program, but it’s still brush control,” Skaggs noted “Now how important is brush control to someone who lives in an urban or suburban setting?”
Landowners, he said, need more tools in the toolbox and more market-based solutions. That is part of the reason TSCRA has partnered with TALT. This group, he said, offers landowners some outside the box ideas and some voluntary measures which landowners can use to help them keep their land in the family.
Jim Sartwelle, director of public policy for the Texas Farm Bureau, voiced concern over the ongoing “super-heated rhetoric” particularly at the national level, and what that means, and what the collateral damage could be to those on the land, particular agriculture producers and those who are working to put programs in place to ensure that this way of life continues.
“One of our biggest problems right now, the big disconnect, is the ‘hell no’ versus the ‘let’s just do it already’ group,” Sartwelle opined, “and, the scariest thing is not knowing where we’re headed.”
He was referring primarily to USDA budget-related issues. Working lands conservation programs like WHIP and GRP, Sartwelle commented, are expected to be collapsed into one or two programs.
David Langford, vice president emeritus of the Texas Wildlife Association, opined that water and conservation easements are the conservationists’ “lynchpins” of outreach for urban and suburban dwellers.
“Everyone understands water, and there’s beginning to be a lot more understanding and acceptance about conservation easements,” he insisted. “I’m not sure how many people who live in the apartments in San Antonio and Austin appreciate the aesthetic value of private land, but I know they understand water.”
Discussions of land stewardship, Langford reminded, have been part of society almost from the very beginning. China’s emperor in 1600 B.C. talked about the importance of protecting the rivers and the mountains. Aldo Leopold in 1941 said, “Soil and water are not two organic systems but one; both are organisms of a single landscape and arrangement in either affects the health of both.” And Langford’s all-time favorite Leopold quote is “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest. It asserts the new premise that if he fails to do so, his neighbors must ultimately pay the bill.”
President Lyndon Johnson also preached conservation. He said, “Saving the water and the soil must start where the first raindrop falls.” Langford was quick to point out that in Texas it falls on private land.
“As we go forward we have to craft those messages that will resonate with the people who live in the apartments in the cities so they will understand at least for their water supply why some of these programs are important,” he concluded.
That led to a question from the audience.
“How do I reconcile the failure of Proposition 8 when what we hear is that all Texans care about water?” the participant asked.
Hegar responded that all Constitutional amendments are hard to explain and often hard to sell to voters. As for this one in particular, he said, some of his constituents didn’t understand or see the collective societal benefits.
“They think just the landowner gets a benefit, which is a significant disconnect to what it does in reality. I think that is, in part, the reason it failed,” he opined.
DeBerry added to the conversation, reiterating some of his earlier points by telling listeners that “We’re paying the price for years of message neglect.”
He talked about how during the legislative interim there was hearing after hearing on the various special tax considerations, including the ag land valuation and the ag sales tax exemption. A Houston legislator asked what he was to say to that superintendent of a public school or to a mother in one of the school districts when they came to him complaining of the costs of all of these special tax considerations. DeBerry, in his testimony to legislators, responded that he was offended that someone would look at an agricultural policy as a cost when we have the safest, most affordable food supply in the world.
“Less than 10 percent of our disposable income is spent on food. That’s the benefit of these policies,” DeBerry said. “We need someone a lot better than me to come up with a way to say that so that it makes that legislator ask the question next time, ‘How do we quantify the gain to my consumer and to my school superintendent?
’ That’s the question we need them asking, not, ‘How do I defend the cost?’ The water exemption is the same thing. This was a water enhancement policy. Maybe that’s what we need to be voting on as opposed to a tax consideration,” he concluded.