On the Podcast, producer Randall Maxwell talks with Tiffany Osburn President of Hill Country Land Trust, as well as Texas Parks and Wildlife's Chris Abernathy, Program Coordinator for the Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program. Both Tiffany and Chris help landowners and conservationists alike to protect some of the most treasured and historic landscapes in Texas.
Season 3 Episode 18
Under the Texas Sky: S3E18—CONSERVATION EASEMENTS
There's no denying the beautiful landscapes and natural resources found in Texas: From the Piney Woods... to the mountains of the Trans-Pecos... from the High Plains ...to the lush Rio Grande Valley...and the flora of the Texas Hill Country in between.
Many early pioneers just stopped searching once they arrived in Texas. Why go any farther? To quote the legendary Davy Crockett from a letter to his children dated January 9, 1826: "I must say as to what I have seen of Texas, it is the garden spot of the world."
I wonder if he changed his mind when August rolled around.
Many Texans continue to agree with Crockett's sentiment—despite summer heat. In fact, Texas attracts a diverse group of people from around the world. They come for employment, the culture, music and perhaps even the barbeque... and to make Texas their home.
Since the early 1990's Texas has been on a growth spurt that hasn't stopped. To meet the demand, land developers stepped up to the plate, yet as new subdivisions created an unprecedented level of urban sprawl, many traditional farms and ranches began losing ground, figuratively and literally.
This not only affected landowners, it also threatened area wildlife and their habitats.
On the podcast, producer Randall Maxwell talks with Tiffany Osburn [Oz-burn], President of Hill Country Land Trust, as well as Texas Parks and Wildlife's Chris Abernathy. Chris is the Program Coordinator for the Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program. Both Tiffany and Chris help landowners and conservationists alike to protect some of the most treasured and historic landscapes in Texas.
Stay with us.
From Texas Parks and Wildlife…this is Under the Texas Sky …a podcast about nature…and people… and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
[Tiffany] Our legacy of passing land from one generation to the next has become more and more difficult in some of our rural areas.
Tiffany Osburn [Oz-burn] is President of Hill Country Land Trust, a non-profit organization that works with private landowners to help them protect what's near and dear to their heart. Their land. Producer Randall Maxwell caught up with Tiffany on-location just outside of Johnson City to find out why she's been such an angel for so many families.
[RANDALL_NARRATION_1] Just a few short years ago, 17 to be exact, I was working on the first of several hour-long water documentaries titled, Texas The State of Water. I remember a startling fact from the script, that by the year 2050, the population of Texas was expected to double. In 2003 it was estimated Texas had a population of 22 million people. Here we are in year 2020 and current research shows we are already nearing 30 million people. Something tells me Texas is sticking to the script.
I grew up in Central Texas and spent my summers and every big holiday at my grandparents 114-acre farm just outside of Clifton, Texas. All my cousins, aunts and uncles would congregate there to share stories, walk the land and make new discoveries. My cousins and I would hunt and fish and go swimming in the creek on the property.
The land was in our family for almost 100 years until no one wanted to till the soil like my grandpa did back in the day on that old John Deere tractor. That thing didn't even have rubber tires. Just metal hoofs on rings for wheels. My dad called it Poppin' Johnny, I imagined because of the sound it made. But I later found out, that’s just what people call ‘em.
That farm was a cherished place that I'll always hold dear.
Since then, I've discovered there are actually quite a few families like mine. They had some kind of connection to a homestead in the country, a farm or ranch that was a true gem representing their family's legacy and heritage. Many of those families are now turning to area land trusts for help. They want to preserve their land and protect it from ever encroaching development that is all in the name of progress.
[TIFFANY] And in this case, these were property boundaries.
[RANDALL_NARRATION] That's Tiffany Osburn, President of Hill Country Land Trust. She's walking a property just outside of Johnson City that has potential for utilizing a conservation easement.
[TIFFANY] A conservation easement is a voluntary contract that is entered into between a landowner and a partnering land trust, where the land is protected for, in perpetuity in accordance to that landowner's wishes and specifically in order to protect some conservation value, whether it be water or open space, or wildlife, or scenic vistas or historic resources.
[RANDALL_NARRATION]I understood from Tiffany that a land trust creates the legal instrument that becomes the conservation easement for the landowner. But is that all they do? No, land trusts have an on-going responsibility.
[TIFFANY & RANDALL]
[TIFFANY] It is our responsibility to ensure the perpetual protection of those properties. So, our responsibility includes once a year—at least— annual monitoring for each one of those properties, and to go on and ensure that when we put that easement document together we created a list of reserved rights and restrictions. For instance, we work with the landowner who tells us where they want to potentially build a house someday, or where they would like their heirs to build a house someday. They will tell us how they feel about cross fencing, how they feel about protecting the riparian areas and how that will be done whether there will be a buffer; all of those sorts of things whether or not any subdivision whatsoever is allowed on the entire track and how many if so in the future. That document becomes a deed restriction and it’s filed into the county dead records and runs with the land so those restrictions that are placed on the land then apply to every future landowner.
[RANDALL] So the land trust partner you’re keeping accountability of all these...
[TIFFANY] Yeah anything that is called out specifically that we might need to go in and monitor just to ensure that the original wishes and the intention of the document are being preserved and that the land is being managed in the appropriate way.
[RANDALL] Is there a bar that must be met for somebody to have a conservation easement?
[TIFFANY] So we get asked that question and awful lot. For instance, under or over 100 acres becomes a rough threshold. But in the hill country the more these smaller tracks are breaking up, and the more subdivision and development moves out into some of our rural portions of the hill country, we are recognizing that you may have a 50-80-acre tract that is just outside of a development, and potentially right near some other conserved lands. Or, this land preserves some sort of wonderful spring feature that it rises absolutely to the level of conservation. So most land trusts I think try to stay away from hard and fast rules on how many acres they might or might not accept as a conservation easement because it truly depends on the values to be conserved.
[RANDALL_NARRATION]Conservation easements have been around a number or years. The Nature Conservancy accepted Montana's first conservation easement in the mid-1970s for 1800 acres in its famous Blackfoot Valley. But in recent years, there's been a dramatic rise in the use of conservation easements.
[TIFFANY] I think that the significant turning point for the use of conservation easements in the US, and in fact in Texas, was when the IRS included them formally in the treasury regs as a charitable contribution. Then their use skyrocketed. So conservation easements are recognized for legal and tax purposes by the state of Texas and the Internal Revenue Service and the recognized as charitable contributions and also for estate tax purposes as well and property taxes for that matter.
[RANDALL_NARRATION] So what are the tax advantages exactly?
[TIFFANY & RANDALL]
[TIFFANY] A tract of land costing hypothetical $500,000, if you take away or you restrict the development potential of that tract, say your then left with a piece of land that has $200,000 worth of value and its restricted form then that $300,000 that is the difference between those two is the appraised conservation value and that in essence is the charitable contribution that folks can receive significant tax benefits from in some case.
[RANDALL] That’s awesome.
[TIFFANY] It is, it’s a very powerful tool and and really it allows families to keep you know their family land together and ease that burden in some cases.
[RANDALL_NARRATION] Having a good relationship between the landowner and the land trust can keep everyone on the same page, especially in the case of any changing needs or features on the landowner's property. That may even include something called a viewshed.
[TIFFANY & RANDALL]
[TIFFANY] Every visit to a conservation easement is not just you know checking the boxes of making sure they didn't violate some term of the easement. But it's an opportunity to visit with the landowner about stewardship and find out whether, you know what they're interests are for the upcoming future and how we can potentially help guide them or provide them with resources if we can and just to further our relationship with them, because obviously it's a long-term relationship.
[RANDALL] Right, right. What are the different things that you have seen in your experience of doing conservation easements? What are some of the features on lands that stick out the most?
[TIFFANY] Yeah, yeah, well first I'll tell you, so Hill Country Land Trust has, just like all of the land trusts in Texas, we have a 19 county area that we focus on. And then we also have three priority interests, and one of those is the viewshed of Enchanted Rock. And of course the park, Enchanted Rock State Park is already conserved land. And so, we have a big interest in being able to buffer previously, or other, conserved lands. To be able to sort of build that mosaic of open space and scenic vistas for the enjoyment and you can go to these areas in the future that won't be necessarily dotted by development.
[RANDALL] You mentioned the word viewshed, and I'm thinking.. You're talking about the view, from Enchanted Rock.
[TIFFANY] That's right. So, it is one of our priorities to contact and reach and make relationships with landowners. And that is one of our first conservation easements, and several of ours are right there surrounding the Enchanted Rock State Park to protect that scenic vista. That if you climb up on to Enchanted Rock, this is an important place. I mean, this is a place where thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people go every year to be able to hike up there and enjoy that. Not only the view of the rock, but the view from the rock. And that rock was important even into pre-history. So, I mean, think about the generations of people who have done that. And so our goal is preserve as much of that surrounding area as possible.
[RANDALL_NARRATION_7] While there's always a partnership between the land trust and the landowner for conservation easements, sometimes there's an opportunity for a third partner.
[TIFFANY] So most easements are entirely donated in Texas, so where of that development right is being donated to a land trust or government entity that is a qualified easement holder. And those donated easements are the ones that qualified for the charitable tax contribution. In some cases, there is federal or state money out there or the purchase of that development right essentially a purchased conservation easement. When that happens the state of Texas, or the federal government do also share an interest in ensuring that that land is protected and therefore in all of these cases whether it’s a donated conservation easement or whether it's been purchased through grant funding of some sort the landowner is acquiring a partner.
[RANDALL_NARRATION] That's exactly what happened last year to Hill Country Land Trust when they were awarded a contract for purchasing a conservation easement on a 400-acre ranch just North of Uvalde on Montell Creek. Those monies were made available through a grant from The Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program which is administered by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Here's Program Coordinator Chris Abernathy.
[CHRIS] So the main goal is to protect working lands, okay? Working lands are those lands that have a agricultural designation on them. Food and fiber. Developments of cattle ranching, farming and timber are the three primary things that we consider working lands. This program is specifically titled to target working lands to protect them from fragmentation, but we're also taking care of Texas Heritage? Which is based on farming and ranching. So not only are we protecting the property, all the resources, the habitat, the water quality, the fisheries, the watershed, the runoff. All of that is being protected in a perpetual condition. But we're also preserving all of the infrastructure, everything that goes along with that. And we're asking those people to continue to do what they were doing at the baseline condition which is farming and ranching.
[RANDALL_NARRATION] Properties are evaluated on a point system and then put before the Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Council. I asked Chris what made the Montell Creek Ranch so special.
[CHRIS] Well, for this for us, we saw a farming operation. We saw pasture. We saw habitat. We saw water quality. And we had specific criteria that awards points for things like fragmentation, or the threat of development, fisheries, economic value. We award a numeric point system to that. We just saw something that we thought was worth protecting. Especially when it came to the watershed, to the aquifer and to the recharge zone.
[TIFFANY] That piece of property will conserve significant water and spring resources, and a swimming hole that's known to the community, you know it's got typical uplands that are you know, known for that area. It's got some significant springs on the property and it flows down into the Nueces River.
[TIFFANY] You know we've got such a rich legacy and heritage in Texas. Open space and farms and ranches. Being that Texas is such a private property state, and that 95 percent of the land is privately held, it is up to us as land owners to preserve all those qualities of our natural and cultural resources for future generations.
If you'd like more information on conservation easements, land trusts or the Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program, just visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife website. For Under The Texas Sky, I'm Randall Maxwell.
[MUS—TO ORBIT YOUR SOUL]
And so, we come to the end of another podcast. Under the Texas Sky is a production of Texas Parks and Wildlife and is available at UndertheTexasSky.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
We record the podcast at The Block House in Austin, Texas. Joel Block does our sound design.
Susan Griswold and Benjamin Kailing provide distribution and web help. Whitney Bishop does our social media. I’m your producer and host, Cecilia Nasti, reminding you that life’s better outside when you’re Under the Texas Sky.
[TIFFANY] Most land trusts I think try to stay away from hard and fast rules on how many acres they might or might not accept as a conservation easement because it truly depends on the values to be conserved
Join us again next time for Under the Texas Sky.