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Agenda Item No. 7
Presenter: Ted Hollingsworth

 

Briefing

The Working Lands of Texas: their extent, productivity, economic value, the threats they face, and the role of land trusts and conservation easements in protecting working lands.

January 28, 2016

The percentage of private land in Texas is greater than in any other state, with privately-owned farms, ranches and forestlands accounting for 142.4 million acres, about 84% of the state. From coastal rice fields providing Whooping Crane habitat to Panhandle cattle ranches hosting the Lesser Prairie Chicken, these lands are the state's richest source of biodiversity.

Texas, which leads all other states in the loss of rural lands, now runs the risk of losing its heritage of successful private stewardship of natural resources. More than 2.1 million acres of agricultural lands were converted to other uses between 1997 and 2007. This loss has economic, social, and environmental consequences. It threatens Texas' dominant position as a food producer, its sources of drinking water, and the privately-managed habitat upon which a $15.8 billion wildlife-recreation industry depends.

Texas is the second-largest agricultural state in the United States, accounting for about 7 percent of the total U.S. agricultural income. The food, horticulture and fiber industry is the second-largest resource-based industry in the state, generating $100 billion a year for the economy. These dollars have a compounding positive effect for communities by supporting local businesses-like implement dealers, veterinarian services, hardware, and feed stores. Agricultural lands produce food and fiber, host diverse wildlife, and provide clean, abundant water.

The biggest threat to rural lands is fragmentation and conversion. As large properties are divided into smaller parcels, they can no longer support traditional farming, ranching, and forestry and thus no longer support rural economies as they once did. Land fragmentation also leads to loss of open space, decline in wildlife habitat, water quality problems caused by erosion and run-off, and higher demand for county services in rural areas. Between 1997 and 2007, over 2.8 million acres of farms and ranches in the Trans Pecos, Edwards Plateau and South Texas alone were fragmented into mid-sized and smaller ownerships. In 2001, the Governor's Task Force on Conservation concluded that fragmentation of large family-owned farms and ranches is the greatest factor contributing to loss of wildlife habitat. The 2003, Texas A&M/American Farmland Trust Texas Rural Land Trends study concurred that, “Land fragmentation is the single greatest threat to wildlife and the long-term viability of agriculture in Texas.”

A land trust is a local, state, or regional nonprofit conservation organization involved in protecting land for its natural, recreational, scenic, historical, open space, or educational value. These trusts actively work to conserve land through fee-simple acquisition or use of a legal tool called a conservation easement that limits the future development potential on a given property. Today there are dozens of land trusts working throughout Texas to conserve the best of Texas' precious lands and waters. To date, these land trusts have conserved over 1.6 million acres of forests and wetlands, farms and ranches, deserts and coastlines, hills and prairies.

Sources:

Texas A&M/American Farmland Trust, Texas Rural Land Trends, 2009, www.texaslandtrends.org
Texas Comptroller Data, 1997-2007
Texas Department of Agriculture, Press Room Texas Agriculture Facts, January 2009
“The Economic Benefits of Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife Watching in Texas," prepared by Southwick Associates for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Revised November 26, 2007, p v.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, “Natural Agenda” p. 29
American Farmland Trust, Cost of Community Service Studies for Bandera, Bexar and Hays Counties.
Texas Land Trust Council: What is a Land Trust?