A recent report by the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute, Texas Water Resources Institute and Texas Land Trust Council shows state-funded conservation easements in Texas provide numerous financial and ecological benefits.
The purpose of the 2020 Evaluation Report was to examine the benefits of conservation easements established on privately-owned lands under the Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program, TFRLCP, a state-funded program that purchases development rights from willing and interested landowners.
“Conservation easements are a voluntary agreement between a landowner and a qualified non-governmental organization or government entity,” explained Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute director Roel Lopez, Ph.D., San Antonio. “In this agreement, the landowner still owns the land and remains in charge of its day-to-day management but commits to minimize or avoid certain types of non-agricultural development on their property by selling or donating some property rights. The land trust or public entity holding the easement monitors the property to ensure the terms are upheld in perpetuity.”
Why conservation easements are important
Lopez said Texas has one of the most diverse and ecologically rich landscapes in the U.S., much of which is open space falling under the designation of privately-owned working lands to include farms, ranches and forestlands.
The state has approximately 248,000 farm and ranch operations accounting for more than 141 million acres of land use.
“Currently, more than 82% of the land in Texas is classified as privately-owned working lands, signifying the critical role private landowners play in protecting the state’s valuable resources,” Lopez said. “These lands support agricultural systems, foster healthy environments, and support recreational needs. But despite their importance, they are consistently under the threats of increasing land conversion and fragmentation pressure — much of it due to rapid population growth and rising land market values.”
He said to help safeguard the public benefits derived from private working lands, the Texas Legislature created the TFRLCP in 2005 to fund the establishment of agricultural conservation easements on private lands. Landowners apply for grants from the TFRLCP to create a conservation easement on their property. The program ranks and selects applicants to receive funding based on weighted criteria in various categories, including threat of development or other conversion of productive working lands, cost effectiveness, watershed value, fish and wildlife value, and contribution to a conservation landscape.
Values related to natural resources
“In the report, we put numbers to the ecological and economic values secured through protecting properties by the use of conservation easements,” said Alison Lund, program coordinator for the NRI.
Conservation easements provide an economic value to the state by enhancing the value of the land based on its ability to produce agricultural commodities, Lund said. They also help protect land-water contributions by conserving undeveloped, permeable working lands that can capture rainfall, reduce water runoff, and increase groundwater recharge. Additionally, they provide benefits toward wildlife conservation and land management for the purposes of hunting, ecotourism and other forms of recreation.
Lund said some of the key findings of the annual estimated conservation value were that these conservation easements provided benefits of:
- $2.9 million in agricultural commodities.
- $7.3 million in water replacement costs.
- $170,400 in wildlife consumptive uses.
She said the report also gives examples of working land operations throughout the state that have enacted a conservation easement and shows how they have benefitted. It also demonstrates how these benefits extend to the entire state
“Through this program, a variety of working lands of every type throughout the state are being protected,” Lund said. “Texas has myriad landscapes as well as tremendous biodiversity. This program directly addresses how to make positive changes that will help ensure the long-term future of the state’s most important natural resources and support the diversity of these landscapes that provide so many benefits for residents of the state.”
Financial efficiency of the program
“For the report, we also looked at the economic or financial efficiency of conservation easements,” Lund said.
She said maximizing the state’s investment is a key objective of the TFRLCP, and though not required, it can use state funds as leverage to gain funding support from other sources such as federal conservation programs that often require a cost-share or match.
“Landowners in the program also make financial contributions toward making these conservation easements possible,” she said. “Often, the landowner will take a considerable reduction in property value while some fully donate the conservation easement, and many contribute funds that cover long-term stewardship monitoring of the land.”
Lund said the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, TPWD, which runs the program and participating easement holders, provided the financial datasets including property land market values, grant award amounts, and other financial contributions to help determine the financial leverage and return on investment for the program as a whole.
Analysis of TPWD data from projects finished by the end of September of 2020 showed:
- A 27:1 return on investment.
- A 10:1 leveraging ratio.
- A $148 avg. per acre state investment.
- 86% of projects were leveraged to get funding support beyond landowner contribution.
“This demonstrates the program is also highly cost-effective in addition to being a means to help preserve and protect all the practical — as well as intrinsic — benefits provided by the state’s working lands,” she said. “The program has proven its worth. We hope state residents will continue to see its value and support its continuation and expansion throughout the state in future funding cycles.”