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Saving Working Lands Workshop Preps West Texas Landowners for Energy Development

On Nov. 14 at Sul Ross State University-Alpine, the Texas Agricultural Land Trust (TALT) and the Borderlands Research Institute (BRI) hosted a landowner workshop to address issues related to burgeoning energy development in West Texas.

The workshop is part of the outreach efforts of the Respect Big Bend Coalition. Respect Big Bend is a collaboration between local landowners, community residents and leadership, scientists, industry, researchers, and conservationists formed to address energy development’s impact in the Big Bend region.

Titled Saving Working Lands: Preparing Landowners for Energy Development, more than 140 people attended to learn about what landowners can do when loss and fragmentation of private lands are at stake due to mineral rights, eminent domain, estate taxes, and shifting family roles and demographics.

Throughout the day some notable facts were shared:

  • 1,000 people per day are moving to Texas
  • 80% of the land in Texas is occupied by 12% of the people
  • 30% of West Texas landowners are new to the land (10 years or less)
  • Over the past 50 years, beef agriculture has increased output by 250%, with fewer cattle
  • With this increased efficiency, the cattle industry has lowered its carbon footprint nearly 20%
  • Between 2006-2018, Texas gained 33,274 oil wells and 2,049 gas wells
  • Women operators of working lands are becoming more common in the state
  • The average farmer or rancher in Texas is 57 years old, and the average forest owner is 65
  • The largest intergenerational transfer of land in history is occurring right now
  • 20,000 new farms and ranches of less than 500 acres each have been created in Texas since 1997, contributing to land fragmentation

Some of these facts underscore the challenges our state faces, but an unmistakable takeaway from the workshop was that landowners are a key part of the solution.

As West Texas landowner Bobby McKnight put it: “We need your voice!”

This message—that working lands and landowners are essential to the economic, cultural, and environmental health of our state—was presented by an inspiring lineup of speakers:

Blair Fitzsimons (CEO, Texas Agricultural Land Trust)
Bobby McKnight (President, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association)
James Cathey (Associate Director, Natural Resources Institute, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service)
John Paul Pierre (Research Scientist, Bureau of Economic Geology, University of Texas at Austin)
Joseph Fitzsimons (Attorney, Uhl, Fitzsimons, Jewett, Burton and Wolff, PLCC)
Jeff White (Manager, Surface Interests, University Lands)
James Oliver (COO, Texas Agricultural Land Trust)
Borderlands Research Institute’s Billy Tarrant and Louis Harveson moderated the sessions.

Here are a few quotes from the day:

“Our state is comprised of 141 million acres of privately owned land, and a very small subset of the population owns that land. It’s really important that we communicate to urban audiences that privately owned lands are the connective tissue that support our cities, that support our national and state parks and that create our quality of life that we know as Texans.

These privately owned working lands host the wildlife that we care about. They help clean the air around Dallas and Houston and Austin. They provide our drinking water. When it rains in Texas, it rains on private land before it makes its way into our water supply. These working lands provide scenic vistas and open space that draw tourists and underscore our quality of life and our identity as Texans. They provide open space to buffer the impacts of storms, which is really important in the wake of events like Hurricane Harvey and some of the more recent flooding in Central Texas. But the key to the health of these working lands are landowners. These lands are not going to be healthy without active management and stewardship on the part of landowners. Landowners play a key role that needs to be recognized by the rest of the state.
–Blair Fitzsimons, CEO, Texas Agricultural Land Trust

“The simple fact is that land damaged is less valuable, it’s worth less money, it’s not as agriculturally productive, and it’s not good wildlife habitat. We encourage everyone here to look at all the resources available; learn about options like the voluntary conservation easements that TALT provides, and join organizations like Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association to make your voice heard. … And I hate to say this, but I firmly believe it: you need a good lawyer. I can assure you that [with energy development] whatever the issue is, on the other side of the table, they are lawyered up. You need the best representation you can get to preserve our land and our property rights.
–Bobby McKnight, President, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association

“The tool that we’ve seen take a lot of our productive lands out of production for us can be flipped around and used to preserve that same opportunity for future generations.”
–James Oliver, Director of Land Conservation and COO, Texas Agricultural Land Trust

“Whoever owns the minerals has the right to develop the surface as much as is reasonably necessary. They can use all the water. You need to understand what you own. You need to hire a lawyer. And you need a surface use agreement.”
–Joseph Fitzsimons, Attorney, Uhl, Fitzsimons, Jewett, Burton and Wolff, PLCC

More than 80% of workshop attendees were landowners and land managers, primarily from West Texas. Petroleum geologists, real estate brokers, natural resource professionals, landowner consultants and financial professionals were among the participants. According to a post-workshop questionnaire, most participants reported feeling more aware of their situation, better informed on conservation easements, and more prepared to deal with energy development.

Future BRI landowner workshops may focus on challenges and solutions for landowners with less than 100 acres. In addition, the new Big Bend Seminar Series on Energy Development coming this Spring will be a great opportunity for the greater Big Bend community (landowners and not) to learn about their rights and the array of solutions available to establish and preserve sustainable land stewardship practices, family legacies, and the region’s iconic vistas, while also managing our lands and resources in a way that is fiscally and economically viable.

The Saving Working Lands: Preparing Landowners for Energy Development workshop was made possible by funding from the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, the Still Water Foundation, and the Permian Basin Area Foundation. Sponsors included Borderlands Research Institute, Texas Agricultural Land Trust, Capital Farm Credit, Dixon Water Foundation, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Texas Farm Bureau, Texas Grazing Coalition, Texas Wildlife Association, and Respect Big Bend Coalition.

Dr. Cathey landowner workshop

Dr. James Cathey of Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute was one of seven experts who presented at the Nov. 14 workshop aimed to prepare landowners for energy development in the Big Bend Region.