Support for conservation growing in Lone Star State

AUSTIN, TEXAS — AUSTIN, Texas -- "In Texas, private land is considered next to God," says Beryl Armstrong, who manages a 9,300-acre ranch here in the central part of the state known as the Hill Country.

"There's no public land in Texas," Mr. Armstrong says. "It was all given away as scrip."


While Texas does have some public land, 98 percent of the state is privately owned. And Texans hold their land and privacy sacred.

"The Texas mentality is: 'This is my property -- what's above it and below it is mine, and you can't touch it,' " says Tom Arsuffi, assistant professor of biology at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.


Until recently, state law allowed that underground water belonged to the owner of the land.

But when a Texas rancher decided to create a catfish farm several years ago and started using 43 million gallons of water a day, the state took another look at the law.

In the Lone Star State, a new attitude is bubbling up like a crystal-clear Texas spring.

A broad partnership of landowners, public agencies, and developers, among others, is tapping into this growing interest in the environment and has begun working out a new approach to conservation.

Known as the Texas Hill Country Bioreserve Project, it covers more than 18,000 square miles and 26 counties in central Texas.

Within this area, a strategy is taking shape to simultaneously protect natural habitats and preserve economic viability for the region.

The Texas Hill Country, which is the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, defies the stereotypes about this state. It may be big, but it's certainly not flat, and water is plentiful.

Rolling green hills cover the landscape. Springs gush to the surface, and rivers snake through the region, carving deep canyons in the rugged limestone. Oak and cedar trees nest songbirds and provide shade for native deer and armadillos.


Some 3.5 million people now live in the Texas Hill Country, which includes the cities of San Antonio and Austin.

For decades, people have been attracted to the temperate climate, lush vegetation and abundant water. Ranching, recreation and retirement are the three R's of the region.

As population has soared and the habitat has become more fragmented, piecemeal efforts to protect endangered species have floundered. Rather than continuing the various isolated efforts at saving individual species, the bioreserve initiative takes a comprehensive approach to protecting the entire ecosystem through a regional habitat-conservation plan.

In a departure from the traditional approach to conservation, this plan views humans as part of the equation. Instead of trying to set aside nature preserves and exclude people from interaction with the environment, human needs are integrated with environmental needs.

"A lot of what the bioreserve is about is building relationships between the players," says Rebecca Bernard of the Nature Conservancy of Texas, which is spearheading the project.

"You can't just fence off an ecosystem and call it a preserve," she says.


If all of the players in this project acted alone, it would cost four times as much to conduct the research and implement conservation plans, says Jim Fries, bioreserve director for the Nature Conservancy of Texas.

"We're looking for partners," says Terry Cook, bioreserve ecologist for the Nature Conservancy of Texas. "What happens sometimes is you have people doing research in isolation. We're trying to coordinate."

And, say some, if this approach can be successful in Texas, it can work anywhere. "It's one of the toughest cases in the country," Mr. Armstrong says.

But support for conservation efforts is growing.

"There's an increasing sensitivity and concern about the environmental threat to the Hill Country," Mr. Fries says. "It's not limited to a hotbed of environmental activists anymore."

"There's a generation of people my age -- 40 and under -- who have been raised in a different sort of thought pattern about land," Mr. Armstrong says.


"Land is not to be abused, but to be used," he says.

"And if you can use it and improve it at the same time, you should try to do that."

Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will resume Sept. 9.