Land is the state’s most critical infrastructure

Photo by Cooper Neill

With the Trump administration's unveiling of a plan to invest in infrastructure, a question comes to mind: when are we going to start thinking of land as infrastructure? Roads, bridges, tunnels — these are what we think of when we hear the word "infrastructure." In Texas, where that definition extends as well to water, we have tapped into the state's Rainy Day Fund to make infrastructure investments.

But when are we going to start thinking of land — rural land — as infrastructure? When are we going to make substantial investments in this type of critical infrastructure?

Texas has 142 million acres of privately-owned, rural, working land — one of the highest percentages of private land in the country. Farmland, ranchland, and timberland constitute 84 percent of the state's land base. These rural lands not only provide food and fiber, they also capture and filter the rain before it flows into faucets in San Antonio, Dallas or Houston. These rural lands help capture carbon and clean our air. They provide the open space that minimizes the impact of storms like Hurricane Harvey. Rural lands provide wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities, and those scenic vistas that make the heart sing.

The farmers and ranchers who provide these benefits (which all Texans enjoy) most often don't get paid to do so. They get paid when they sell their cattle or crops, not for their loving care of the land that results in clean drinking water for cities like San Antonio. At the same time, these farming and ranching families face diminishing yields, rising labor costs, a dwindling workforce and children who don't want to come back to the farm or ranch. They sell because developers’ purchase prices are just too enticing. They sell because there are few alternatives. But unlike roads and bridges which can be rebuilt, once land is paved over, it's gone.

What if our policymakers recognized that land is just as important a part of our infrastructure as those bridges or tunnels or power lines?

There is plenty of precedent in other states. Colorado, for example, dedicates a portion of its lottery revenue to private land conservation. Ohio has a program where municipal water utilities get a lower interest rate on loans for plant upgrades in exchange for funding land protection.

Our state has made a good start with the Texas Farm & Ranch Lands Conservation Program, where the state makes grants to non-profit land trusts to purchase and monitor conservation easements. Under this program, farmers or ranchers continue to own and manage their properties, which can never be developed, and the citizens of Texas get the assurance that those natural resources will be protected — forever. This is accomplished at a fraction of the cost of purchasing the land — a true win-win for rural land, for rural landowners, and for all Texans. But with a $2 million appropriation from the Legislature every two years, the program is woefully underfunded.

Bottom line, protecting our rural lands is a low-cost way to ensure that the future of Texas is one of working lands, vibrant natural resources, wildlife habitats and open spaces. Making investments in the protection of Texas rural lands, just as we do for other infrastructure, will pay dividends for future generations.

The old adage is true: "they ain't making any more of it." When our rural lands are gone, they're gone.

Blair Calvert Fitzsimons

CEO, Texas Agricultural Land Trust