Going, Going, Gone: The impact of land fragmentation
on Texas agriculture and wildlife
Everyone, it seems, wants to own a piece of Texas. To meet that demand, land is being divided into smaller and smaller pieces, or fragmented, at an alarming rate. A day will come, however, in the not-too-distant future, when all the pieces will no longer add up to the whole of what Texas once was.
Ironically, the same love of the land that is driving that process is probably the best hope for saving it. Texans have a very strong connection to the land, something that we all point to proudly. Most Texans would help conserve the land if given the proper tools.
The following recommendations put forth options to slow the breakup of family lands in Texas caused by land fragmentation and ultimately to secure a strong future for farming, ranching and wildlife conservation in Texas. Underlying all these suggestions is the reality that in order for agricultural landowners to stay on the land, the land must be profitable. Maintaining and enhancing the economic viability of agriculture-through tools to enhance productivity and diversification, direct marketing assistance and creation of a climate favorable to innovation-is critical to its future.
Land fragmentation is occurring, but it is not too late. By taking decisive action now, we can slow the fragmentation of our land and ensure that our water, wildlife and rural lands will be in good shape in the years to come. To support landowners in their efforts to stay on and keep land in private ownership and management, legislators and other decision-makers should:
- Institute a funded, voluntary statewide Purchase of Development Rights program for Texas now. Few tools are available to Texans interested in conserving family lands. A PDR program would provide an additional conservation tool to Texas landowners by buying development rights from willing landowners and compensating them for conserving wildlife, water, open space and Texas' traditional way of life rather than selling land for development.
- Maintain agricultural, open space, timber and wildlife differential property tax valuation laws to ensure that qualification for these ad valorem taxes is not limited. Elimination or limitation of differential property tax assessment-which would change appraisal of lands to market value rather than keeping appraisals that recognize the lands' productive, open space or wildlife value-would have the immediate effect of rapidly fragmenting land statewide as individuals unable to pay higher property taxes were forced to sell.
- Provide counties with greater ability to plan for and manage growth in unincorporated areas. Rapid growth in formerly rural areas surrounding cities has left counties with few means to assure sustainable, manageable growth or to protect the quality of life in these areas. Policymakers could encourage a better quality of life in communities statewide through a combination of strengthened ordinance-making ability, planning authority and local financial or tax incentives to conserve private lands for agriculture and wildlife. (More information on AFT's "Farm-City Forums," which bring rural and urban policy makers together.)
- Promote the use and benefits of native grasses rather than introduced grass species to enhance grazing and wildlife habitat. As wildlife, especially lease-hunting, becomes an increasingly profitable enterprise for private landowners, landowner advisors and agriculture agencies working with landowners should emphasize the benefits of native grasses. This will be most successfully accomplished when a clearer understanding of the economic benefits of natives to overall ranch operation is reached. (Information on AFT's research on grass-based grazing)
- Promote the creation and enhanced role of land trusts and wildlife management cooperatives. These organizations and others like them can effectively counteract the negative impact of land fragmentation by unifying conservation and management practices across smaller properties.
- Support meaningful estate tax relief that would help farmers and ranchers keep their land in agriculture and pass it on to other family members by raising the unified credit exemption amount for estate taxes and creating federal income tax incentives for farmers and ranchers to conserve their land. Currently, federal estate and capital gains tax provisions actually encourage the sale or conversion of agricultural land in urban areas to pay inheritance, estate, and property taxes. Changes to the tax codes will facilitate the transfer of farmland to the next generation and slow the conversion of farmland to other uses.
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