Here forever: Hill Country Conservancy protects open spaces and ranching heritage

April 10, 2012 By Robyn Ross

That photo of your kid/dog/significant other in the bluebonnets looks a lot better without a mall in the background.

But the number of pristine, photo-worthy fields is shrinking, as are the iconic farms and ranches of the Hill Country. Texas is paving paradise and putting up parking lots at a startling pace. In the 90s alone, more than a million and a half acres of rural and agricultural land in Texas were lost to development.

The Hill Country Conservancy is working to preserve the blue-green hills and swimmable streams that brought many Austinites here in the first place. And it’s doing so not by fighting the market forces that bring development to Central Texas, but by using a tool of the market: it buys development rights to ranches and then dissolves them in an agreement called a conservation easement.

By doing so, HCC keeps the open fields around forever. And it protects them without a battle between environmentalists and developers.

“We were founded on the premise that the environment and economy can and do work hand in hand,” says executive director George Cofer.

The project is a win-win-win: financially strapped landowners get relief without having to sell their ranch. The ecosystem is spared the pressure of additional development, with its attendant loss of wildlife habitat and drain on the aquifer. And Central Texans — rural and urban — can still enjoy the natural beauty that attracted them here.

“If you really want to hold on to your ranch and just keep doing what you’re doing, there’s not a better idea in the world,” second-generation rancher Scott Storm said in a film about HCC made last year. “Basically [the easement] is the only reason why we’re still in one piece instead of a whole bunch of little fragments.”

Formed in 1999, the Hill Country Conservancy is a nonprofit land trust that buys the development rights to rural land with money from government sources, bond elections and private donors. Since 2000, the HCC and its partners have conserved 40,000 acres over the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer.

A dilemma for landowners

It’s a familiar story: the Smith Ranch is sold to a developer, who carves it into hundreds of lots. A sign pops up welcoming buyers to Smith Ranch Estates. In time, the Smith family is forgotten.

Why does the ranch disappear? It’s often a result of heartwrenching decisions based on the bottom line.

It’s nearly impossible to make a living in traditional agriculture in the Hill Country. The amount of grass on most Central Texas ranches isn’t enough for a large cattle operation, particularly in brutal droughts. And grass-fed beef is not yet popular enough to compete with large-scale conventional farms.

At the same time, Central Texas’ popularity has made land values rise even as beef markets have shrunk. Basic expenses and taxes outpace agricultural income. When the owner of the ranch — typically granddad or grandma — dies, the estate taxes may be so large that it’s easiest to sell the family place.

Scott Storm describes the scenario his family faced: “It was finally [either] work yourself to death and lose it to the tax man, or go ahead and sell it, move into the city, and at least survive.” While the Storm ranch is one the HCC ultimately saved, Storm says the tough choice he faced is one that led most of his neighbors to sell their ranches.

How conservation easements work

But a conservation easement can change everything. When a landowner approaches the HCC, the property’s development rights are appraised — “if we WERE going to build 200 homes and a shopping center here, how much would that be worth?” HCC then works with the landowner to determine the development rights that will be retained (such as a rancher’s right to build a road) and those that are forfeited through sale or donation to HCC.

Once the rights are donated or sold, the land’s taxable value decreases because its potential economic value has been reduced. The rancher gets to stay on the land and makes money from the sale of the development rights but knows they won’t ever be used.

It’s a huge relief for multi-generational ranching families who worried about losing their livelihood as well as their heritage. Cofer puts it this way: “People say, ‘Yeah, you saved the ranch, but what you really saved is our family.’”

Environmental benefits, lifestyle benefits

The deals are also saving crucial natural features. The land where HCC focuses its efforts lies over the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, the underground water source southwest of Austin. New development in western Travis and Hays counties adds additional strain to the already tapped aquifer — imagine a glass of water with dozens of drinking straws in it. And roads, roofs and parking lots built over the aquifer mean that the water that does soak back into the ground is often polluted.

When land over the aquifer is conserved, the creeks and streams keep running and stay cleaner. The air quality improves, and habitat is preserved for endangered species like the black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler.

HCC strongly believes in the land as a recharge feature not just for water but also for nature-starved urbanites — easy access to natural features is one attraction that brought many people to Austin. At some HCC properties, public access is part of the deal — the Nalle Bunny Run Wildlife Preserve offers monthly hikes.

The HCC is also gathering funding and partners to build the Violet Crown Trail, a 30-plus-mile trail that will be open to the public and will ultimately wind all the way from Barton Springs Pool into Hays County.

An unusual partnership

Conserving rural land has economic benefits, too. The area’s natural beauty is one reason people and jobs move to Central Texas. Without that beauty — and without adequate water — the economy will suffer.

Rather than fighting all development, “Our stance is that development shapes our community, and you need development — but at the same time there’s a smart way to grow,” says Frank Davis, director of land conservation. The HCC’s board includes both environmentalists and developers.

So does EPIC, the Emerging Professionals in Conservation. The program comprises about 150 Austinites between age 25 and 40 and is meant to build the next generation of leaders in the conservation movement. In return for monthly donations as low as $20, EPIC members can hike, canoe, camp, pick peaches and go caving with HCC.

“It’s a program to get young professionals out on our land to see why we do what we do,” explains Harper Scott, HCC’s director of communications and development.

Young urbanites who’ve never built a fence or ridden a horse forge their own connection with nature and their own reasons to save the Hill Country. And the Hill Country Conservancy ensures that its legacy — as well as the legacy of Texas ranches — will live on.

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