State Program Looks to Conserve Texas Ranch and Farmland

The Brazos River passes wide and muddy through the Griffith family ranch.

Floodwaters frequently prompt family members and an armada of cowboys for hire to round up their cows and move them to higher ground. Historic flooding on the Brazos last summer made much of the ranch accessible only by boat for weeks.

"You'd have to be crazy to want to put a subdivision here because of the flooding we get," Wilson Griffith told the Houston Chronicle. "About all the land is good for is ranching, and maybe growing a few pecan trees."

Griffith and his brother, Jamie, have never wanted to sell the land, which their family has owned for more than 100 years. They want to give it to their children someday but worry about the tax implications.

However, thanks to a state program designed to assist landowners who want to conserve working farm and ranch lands, the Griffiths will be able to keep the property in the family in perpetuity, in exchange for promising not to sell it to developers. Keeping the ranch "as is" helps protect surrounding natural resources, such as wetlands that act like a magnet for migratory birds and soak up floodwaters.

The Texas Farms and Ranch Lands Conservation Program, created by the legislature in 2005, was meant to play a vital role in protecting agricultural lands, which are disappearing as a result of the recent population boom. A 2014 Texas A&M study found that the state was losing farm and ranch land at a faster rate than anywhere else in the country.

The program provides state funds to nonprofits -- often land trusts -- to purchase conservation easements. Landowners that sell or donate those easements retain title to their land if they agree not to mine or build a residential subdivision or commercial development on the property.

In most cases, that legal agreement leads to a win-win situation: working farms and ranches stay intact, and natural resources are protected.

"In Texas, the focus has really been on protecting water resources," said Blair Calvert Fitzsimmons, chief executive officer of the Texas Agricultural Land Trust. "When the state is looking at spending $63 billion on a plan that includes pumps and pipelines and desalination plants, you need a strategy to protect the land where the rain falls."

Despite initial enthusiasm for the program, state lawmakers did not fund it until recently, and they initially put it in the hands of the General Land Office.

The GLO secured some federal dollars for coastal work but that limited the scope of projects.

Many in the statewide conservation community thought the GLO was miscast to manage the program: Part of the agency's mission is maximizing revenues through land leases, yet conservation easements actually reduce the land's taxable value.

So in 2015, the program was moved to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and received a $2 million appropriation, its first.

Many land trust leaders say the program is now experiencing a rebirth.

"Clearly, Texas Parks and Wildlife is a much better fit," said Lori Olson, executive director of the Texas Land Trust Council. "Managing lands for conservation is their bailiwick."

Over the past year, the agency has funded seven projects spearheaded by groups like The Texas Agricultural Land Trust, the Hill Country Conservancy, the Nature Conservancy and the Valley Land Fund. In all, those groups have been able to protect about 10,000 acres through conservation easements.

Ted Hollingsworth, land conservation director for Texas Parks and Wildlife, said all the projects conserve land with immense ecological value while maintaining the landowners' ability to utilize the land.

"My own personal bias might be toward wildlife, saving the snakes, lizards, mice and things like that," he said. "But the fact is, like most people, I really like to eat, too, and this is working land. The beauty of this program is that we're helping to ensure that Texas landowners are still producing cattle, still raising crops."

Initial returns on the revived program are good. An evaluation by Texas A&M's Institute of Natural Resources last year found that the funded projects were saving water at a rate that was about six times more cost effective than conventional conservation strategies.

The evaluation also found the program is growing in popularity, among landowners and conservation groups.

Consequently, the department has asked lawmakers for more money, but it's unclear what will happen given current budget constraints.

Mark Steinbach, director of Texas Land Conservancy, said it would be a shame if the program stalled again.

The effort helped provide his group with $1.7 million to secure a conservation easement on the Griffith ranch in Brazoria County. The easement lowered the value of the land, reducing the family's tax burden.

At 3,000 acres, it represents the largest piece of private property being conserved in the Columbia Bottomlands, one of the most ecologically valuable regions in Texas. The vast stretch of hardwood forest serves as a crucial stopover for birds trekking across the Gulf of Mexico. It's also threatened by Houston's population creep.

"I think the most significant thing about this property is just its sheer size," Steinbach said. "This was the kind of opportunity that just doesn't come along all that often in conservation."

The Griffith family always has been conservation minded. Family members love to fish and hunt. Several years ago, they granted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a conservation easement on about 1,400 acres.

They've been interested in working with a conservation group to further protect their land but had some reservations.

Steinbach and the Texas Land Conservancy, however, shared their vision -- allowing the family to control its future while protecting natural assets.

"I think it's going to be a good fit," Griffith said. "We get to continue to enjoy this land and now so do our kids."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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