June 14, 2012 By Colin Pope
One of Austin’s greatest assets is its green Hill Country with creeks and spring-fed swimming holes tucked between them, and one of the most influential protectors of that asset is a relatively quiet eight-person nonprofit called the Hill Country Conservancy. Its mission is simple: to preserve pristine land — especially around Southwest Austin and over the Edwards Aquifer.
HCC is led by George Cofer, a gregarious, fun-loving lifelong Austinite who has been living and breathing conservation for decades. Those who assume he’s a radical, tree-hugging environmentalist are partly right, according to those who know him. But Cofer is perhaps best known for his keen sense of balance between progress and preservation.
One might assume that Hill Country Conservancy’s mission to preserve land would cause it to butt heads with those who want to build. Is that the case?
Actually, just the opposite. HCC was created in the late 1990s “trial by fire peace talks” between the Real Estate Council of Austin and enviro-leadership. Through many months of hard work, facilitated formally by the Chamber, we came to understand that preserving Austin’s — and the Hill Country’s — creeks, springs and natural areas was a strong common goal. That biz-enviro partnership is even stronger today.
Compared to recent years, Austin real estate is booming. What message do you have for developers — especially the out-of-towners building here?
Consider that an organization like HCC can provide solid, tested guidance on how to add value to your product. HCC’s “Vast Open Spaces” mission focuses on working smart to help create a sustainable built environment and ensuring a healthy green infrastructure, which is always mentioned as one of the main reasons why people move here. Also, consider becoming a corporate sponsor of HCC. People move here because of our beautiful Hill Country setting. By financially supporting HCC, we can continue to conserve that beauty for this and future generations.
Give us an example of how HCC and the business community have worked together recently to preserve Austin’s quality of life.
In 1998, we partnered on a successful ballot measure that resulted in a new convention center and 15,000 acres of aquifer water-quality lands. We have collaborated since then on ballot measures in 2000, 2006 and 2011 that clearly have improved the quality of life in Central Texas. HCC collaborates often with Austin companies that have stepped up to donate funds that HCC leverages with federal grants. These Hill Country Conservation Society founding members include AMD, Bury + Partners, Endeavor, HEB, Heritage Title, Jackson Walker, RECA and Stratus.
What are HCC’s priorities in the coming months?
We are currently working to conserve a 1,200-acre historic ranch in Driftwood — one of the last large parcels remaining in the area. Transactions of this size are costly. Donations of any size matter a great deal to the completion of a project, and the dollars you donate last a lifetime. They protect valuable land forever. We also want to get more people and businesses involved in our membership program and our Emerging Professionals in Conservation, or EPIC program, which is a perfect way for young professionals moving to the Austin area to get acquainted with our mission firsthand in the Hill Country.
Land is often preserved simply through the acquisition of development rights. What are some of the advantages to that?
It’s clearly the most cost-effective tool we have for working with landowners who ask us to help them preserve their land in perpetuity, while providing the community with the benefits of clean water, scenic vistas and preservation of the rural heritage of the Texas Hill Country. It can also be a great estate planning tool for landowners.
Aside from HCC, what other efforts, interests or hobbies take up your time?
I love my work so my time off is spent enjoying the great outdoors; Surfing hurricanes in the fall and winter keeps my blood flowing.
When did you join HCC, and what were you doing before?
I became the founding executive director in 1999. I’m blessed to come from a ranching family, and I owned a high-end remodeling company in the go-go ’80s. Before that, my brother and I ran a little beer joint on Lake Austin for more than a decade — The Pier. So I’ve worn many hats and have experience bringing people with diverse interests together to achieve common goals.
Why is the conservation work HCC does important?
Hill Country Conservancy is the only local organization working every day — with many partners — to preserve the creeks, springs, natural areas and working farms and ranches in the aquifer region and parts of the Hill Country just west of Austin. We simply cannot afford to lose those “open spaces” that are such an important part of our economy, environment and culture. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.