The New Texas Land Stewards
It’s Not Who You Think
The notion of Stewardship is premised on the idea that this place has been here far longer than we have, and will be here long after we are gone. What we do in our time as caretakers can provide increased value for ourselves and for future generations, or it can destroy the value that is there. Stewardship is active management. It involves thought, planning, care and perhaps most importantly, a vision. It requires us to look beyond political boundaries and ownership lines and understand the intersection of natural resources and human needs.
Stewardship: the activity or job of protecting and being responsible for something
The office, duties, and obligations of a steward
The conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care
The Myth of the Land Steward
Texas has a mythology larger than the state itself. The state identity has historically been that of the tough as nails rancher, the dusty, worn cowboy and the men who toiled in the oil fields to bring wealth to the state. It is the part of the story that focuses on rural lands and the people who worked them. In a state with tens of millions of acres of unincorporated land, that makes sense. Or at least it did until the population reached 21st century levels.
I grew up in the myth, on my great-grandparent’s ranch on the Divide in the western part of the Hill Country. We were at the headwaters of three rivers you may have heard the names of, and raised cattle, sheep and goats on land that sits among some of the storied ranches of the 20th century, including the Schreiner family’s Y.O. Ranch. I hunted dove watering in the stock tanks, dragged sheep to the shearing crew and modeled Mohair fashion in Kerrville. We were some of the first Texans, and we worked the land, which also meant we took care of the land. What we did on our small corner of the world didn’t just affect us, it had the potential to impact thousands of people downstream. I was raised as a land steward, with a deep awareness of how water, wildlife and habitat could help you succeed or cause you to fail. And while we were directly responsible for those things within our fences, they don’t always pay much attention to fence lines. Water in particular is no respecter of boundaries. We have a clear reminder of that every time it floods.
From my current base in Central Texas I see a different side of the picture. Rather than being positioned to care for and protect natural resources that come from my family’s land, I consume them along with millions of other people in the Central Texas corridor. I hear a lot of conversations about water and land that use the words “limited”, “fragmented” and “private property rights”. What I don’t hear often is the word “Stewardship” or who the next stewards are. And we need to start adding that language to the conversations.
The Reality of a 21st Century Texas
In Texas, our rapid population growth and changing land ownership and natural resource management patterns are placing unsustainable pressures on urban and rural communities, resources and opportunities. We have not, as a state, been prepared to successfully address this level of growth and the policies that we are enacting and maintaining are not providing us with the options we need to successfully build a desirable future. Texas is a place of extremes. While we have extremely beautiful places, extremely friendly people and extremely good barbecue, we also have extreme rainfall, floods and drought. We have extremely rapid population growth in our urban areas that is swallowing up an extremely large portion of land in previously undeveloped areas. We might want to be extremely concerned about what will happen if we don’t get back to managing our lands and resources more effectively to deal with severe weather and population expansion that is among the most rapid in the US.
One of the lasting difficulties of managing rural areas is the burden that is placed on them by economic factors that include the declining relative value of agriculture and the influx of recreation and tourism visitors. Families that have managed lands and resources for generations are leaving for more financially secure educational opportunities and employment, and the land is being sold to new owners who may not have the same institutional knowledge about what ownership of these lands entails. While many may want to have their own piece of the Texas Hill Country, that enthusiasm for ownership may not be met with an understanding of what it takes to manage and live on the land.
What We Can Learn from the NYC Watershed
Giving urban residents the responsibility of paying for the benefits they received from land conservation did not in any way diminish landowner property rights. By declining to enforce eminent domain, nor did it diminish urban benefit. By leaving the care of the land in the hands of those best suited and most knowledgeable about how to take care of it, and by enabling rural landowners to maintain the profitability of agricultural uses, both parties have been able to mutually benefit from a business agreement that ultimately saved taxpayers and utility users billions of dollars.
If you remember the Pace picante sauce commercials of the 1990s, you will remember cowboys being disgusted that one of their peers would choose salsa made in New York City. They threatened to “get a rope,” the though was so revolting to them. Salsa, like our policy ideas, should be chosen carefully. It is not out of the realm of possibility that this could work in Texas. The difference here is that federal agencies are not (yet) threatening to enforce environmental and water quality standards upon us. We still have the option to choose our path before we have to deal with interference, and we should take that opportunity while it lasts.
If this is all news to you, you probably don’t live in the Hill Country, have friends who live (and work) in the Hill Country, or are generally busy with your life that doesn’t really involve the Hill Country. Except that it does. High levels of bacteria in Barton Springs, the Colorado River and smaller creeks are a recurring problem in Austin. Those bacteria are not only in our recreational water, they are in our drinking water sources. They are also in the water we are sending downstream to other communities, rice farmers and coastal wetlands. While some of the water pollution comes from motor oil, fertilizers and other household and commercial chemicals, the dangerous bacteria such as E. Coli come from us and our pets, and our refusal to clean up our shit. Dog-friendly Austin has pet owners that are not environment friendly, and who fail to clean up after their dogs to the point that the Colorado River has fecal matter dumped into it every time there is a significant rainfall.
And yet Austinites and other urban dwellers want Hill Country land owners to keep their lands pristine and undeveloped. This “your problem not mine” attitude and the dangerous consequences of this lack of care for our lands will only worsen as people continue to move to Central Texas and as long as those careless, responsibility-shifting attitudes continue and as long as the expectation is that private landowners to the west are the only responsible parties for water quality. For everyone who decries “sprawl” and subdivision development, for everyone who protests industrial land uses and points the finger at polluters, septic systems and sewage discharge plans, let me ask this: Are you doing your part? Do you clean up your dog poop, do you recycle and do you make sure that no chemicals in your possession are uncontained? Because if you don’t, you are also part of the problem.
Who Are the New Texas Land Stewards?
They’re us. It is all of us, rural and urban residents alike. Resource consumption (urban areas) is no less important or impactful than resource production (rural areas), and the demands for resources that cities in Texas are making are no less polluting or fragmenting or stressful on fragile ecosystems than what is happening on rural lands for those landowners to be financially successful. The places are different, the priorities are different, but the need for a balanced approach from both - an approach that assigns responsibility where it belongs and acknowledges real costs when weighing benefits - is needed as we live in the Texas of today.
This is a very different state from the Texas I grew up in, and we need policy solutions for today, not for three, four or five decades ago. Texas Land Stewards are no longer just our ranching grandparents, they’re all of us, whether your grandparents lived here or elsewhere. If you’re in Texas, you are participating in the Stewardship of Texas. Be a good steward.