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Trusting in Land Trusts

Conservation easements help prevent land fragmentation.

By Larry D. Hodge

Texans can be justly proud of their national standing in many areas, but one is troubling: In the 1990s, Texas led the nation in converting rural land into shopping centers, subdivisions and factory sites. Development gobbled up 283 square miles of rural land — an area nearly double the size of Rockwall County — each year.

Landowners wishing to maintain their property’s natural features and economic productivity face rising property taxes, lower agricultural profits and economic pressure to sell. The result has been increasing fragmentation of wildlife habitat, loss of open space and watershed degradation.

Land trusts offer property owners an alternative. “Land trusts enable landowners to preserve their property as they wish and guarantee that their wishes will be legally adhered to in perpetuity,” says TPWD’s Carolyn Vogel, coordinator of the Texas Land Trust Council. “There are now 39 land trusts in Texas protecting nearly a million acres.”

A land trust is a nonprofit conservation organization that protects land for its natural, recreational, scenic, historical or productive value. Land trusts may acquire land or development rights through purchase or donation, but many private landowners prefer to use a conservation easement instead. A conservation easement allows the owner and his or her heirs to own the land and use it for certain purposes while prohibiting others, such as development. (See “Investing in the Future” in the November 2001 issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife.) Conservation easements can reduce estate taxes or provide income tax benefits.

“Landowners inherently have a conservation ethic, a desire to see their family stay on the land, to see the current economic productivity of the land continue or to preserve wildlife habitat,” says Vogel. “When a landowner is faced with some of those issues, perhaps through inheritance, and they start looking for options, land trusts can help them make decisions and achieve their goals.”

While most land protected by land trusts is privately owned, the Montgomery County Preserve north of Houston may point the way to a new era, says Vogel. In the first such transaction in the state, the Legacy Land Trust in Houston received a conservation easement on 71 acres from Montgomery County, the owner of the property. “This preserve is a model for the future,” Vogel says. “It allows public access, unlike most private conservation easements.” Situated along two creeks, the preserve protects a forested wetland that is home to a number of animal and bird species and rare violets. A hiking trail allows access.

On private lands, conservation easements benefit the public by protecting water quality, preserving farmland or conserving historic or archeological sites, Vogel points out.

The Texas Land Trust Council serves as a support association for all the land trusts in Texas. While promoting the efforts of land trusts, the council also provides educational, organizational and technical support to land trusts and acts as a statewide clearinghouse for conservation information. Anyone interested in starting a land trust or landowners seeking information on how to protect their property can contact Vogel at (512) 389-4779 or visit the council’s Web site at <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/conserve/tltc>. The site also provides contact information for the land trusts currently operating within the state.

“Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is unique in providing this service,” Vogel says. “We want people to know what land trust organizations are and what they can do for landowners, and we want landowners to know they do have choices about the long-term conservation and preservation of their property.”

In a state in which 94 percent of the land is privately owned, land trusts offer perhaps the best way to preserve the special qualities that make Texas what it is.

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