Summit Brings Industry and Conservation to the Table

Nearly one hundred attendees gathered to hear a roster of experts for the first Summit on Healthy Lands and Energy Development at the Horseshoe Arena in Midland on April 6. The one-day summit was organized by Respect Big Bend, a coalition dedicated to responsible energy development in West Texas, in partnership with Borderlands Research Institute at Sul Ross State University in Alpine.

The focus of the summit was on finding a balance between energy development and land conservation practices, with energy industry professionals, landowners, land managers, research scientists, and government officials among the day’s many speakers.

“Our discussions are particularly timely with an increased focus on energy independence and security. Texas is well positioned to respond and we’re already seeing an uptick in activity. How can this next wave of energy development occur with the least harmful imprint and as responsibly as possible?” queried Melinda Taylor, event co-organizer and senior lecturer at the University of Texas School of Law, in the opening remarks.

“Energy and conservation can coexist,” said Dr. Louis Harveson, who is the Dan Allen Hughes, Jr., BRI Endowed Director and professor of Wildlife Management at Sul Ross State University. “We need to better define conservation practices and how to implement them,” he continued. To meet that goal, the Borderlands Research Institute created the Center for Land Stewardship and Stakeholder Engagement, dedicated to helping landowners navigate conservation resources as part of their land management plan.”

Michael E. Young, senior research scientist with the Bureau of Economic Geology, said 30-year projections for energy demands in Texas predict that between 800,000 to 4 million additional acres of land will be needed for energy development, whether it’s for wind, solar, oil and gas, or other energy sources.

One of the many resources available to improve land stewardship in the face of development includes the work of the West Texas Native Seeds project, according to its assistant director Colin Shackelford. This organization cultivates viable native seed sources best adapted to the conditions of West Texas. The organization also develops restoration strategies that help set the stage for successful revegetation of disturbed sites.

Success stories from landowners and energy professionals provided guidance on how to advance land conservation and energy development goals.

Chase Currie, the natural resource manager at San Pedro Ranch in South Texas, said the goals of the ranch are to minimize habitat fragmentation and stop the encroachment of invasive plant species while facilitating energy production on those same lands. It started with a sound surface use agreement, he noted. Surface use agreements spell out the guidelines that developers must follow on private lands.  Having a stout agreement along with the ability to enforce it was step one. He also developed a baseline survey of the property that included soil types, ecological sites, and other data, to better inform the planning, construction, and post-construction reclamation phases. The ranch focused on using existing roads and positioning new energy rights-of-way next to existing roads, as well as identifying areas where infrastructure could be consolidated. Other techniques included painting infrastructure to match the landscape in order to preserve the viewshed.

Fay Fitzsimons Walker, manager of government affairs and community engagement at Apache Corporation, said energy companies are liable to a social and environmental license to operate. Her work includes assessing how to better engage with communities where Apache Corporation is operating and to create proactive management plans with community input, a practice that was put to the test during Apache Corporation’s Alpine High explorations in the Big Bend region. “Engagement principles gained here are being applied to other parts of the world where we’re operating,” Walker said.

Takeaways from the day included coming to the table with a solution mindset, respecting the mutual expertise of professionals from different fields, hiring people who understand conservation and land ethics, and focusing on collaborative efforts.

Noting that West Texas harbors some of the greatest biodiversity in the continental United States as well as some of the best professionals across multiple industries, speaker Joni Carswell with Texan by Nature noted that “we have the opportunity to lead and show the world how this works moving forward.”

To find out more about conservation resources and the Center for Land Stewardship and Stakeholder Engagement, visit the Borderlands Research Institute website at bri.sulross.edu.