Lone Star State Creates Conservation Partnership

Texas Hill Country Bioreserve Project will protect a total ecosystem covering 18,000 square miles and 26 counties

`IN Texas, private land is considered next to God," says Beryl Armstrong, who manages a 9,300-acre ranch here in the central part of the state known as the Hill Country.

"There's no public land in Texas," Mr. Armstrong says. "It was all given away as scrip."

While Texas does have some public land, 98 percent of the state is privately owned. And Texans hold their land and privacy sacred.

"The Texas mentality is: `This is my property - what's above it and below it is mine, and you can't touch it,' " says Tom Arsuffi, assistant professor of biology at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.

Until recently, state law allowed that underground water belonged to the owner of the land. But when a Texas rancher decided to create a catfish farm several years ago and started using 43 million gallons of water a day, the state took another look at the law.

In the Lone Star State, a new attitude is bubbling up like a crystal-clear Texas spring.

A broad partnership of landowners, public agencies, and developers, among others, is tapping into this growing interest in the environment and has begun working out a new approach to conservation.

Known as the Texas Hill Country Bioreserve Project, it covers more than 18,000 square miles and 26 counties in central Texas. Within this area, a strategy is taking shape to simultaneously protect natural habitats and preserve economic viability for the region.

The Texas Hill Country, which is the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, defies the stereotypes about this state. It may be big, but it's certainly not flat, and water is plentiful.

Rolling green hills cover the landscape. Springs gush to the surface, and rivers snake through the region, carving deep canyons in the rugged limestone. Oak and cedar trees nest songbirds and provide shade for native deer and armadillos.

Some 3.5 million people now live in the Texas Hill Country, which includes the cities of San Antonio and Austin. For decades, people have been attracted to the temperate climate, lush vegetation, and abundant water. Ranching, recreation, and retirement are the three R's of the region.

As population has soared and the habitat has become more fragmented, piecemeal efforts to protect endangered species have floundered. Rather than continuing the various isolated efforts at saving individual species, the bioreserve initiative takes a comprehensive approach to protecting the entire ecosystem through a regional habitat-conservation plan.

In a departure from the traditional approach to conservation, this plan views humans as part of the equation. Instead of trying to set aside nature preserves and exclude people from interaction with the environment, human needs are integrated with environmental needs.

"A lot of what the bioreserve is about is building relationships between the players," says Rebecca Bernard of the Nature Conservancy of Texas, which is spearheading the project. "You can't just fence off an ecosystem and call it a preserve."

"This project allows us to really answer some questions about how ecosystems work," says Jim Fries, bioreserve director for the Nature Conservancy of Texas. "It's a new frontier for biodiversity."

If all of the players in this project acted alone, it would cost four times as much to conduct the research and implement conservation plans, Mr. Fries says.

"We're looking for partners," says Terry Cook, bioreserve ecologist for the Nature Conservancy of Texas. "What happens sometimes is you have people doing research in isolation. We're trying to coordinate."

And, say some, if this approach can be successful in Texas, it can work anywhere. "It's one of the toughest cases in the country," says Armstrong.

But support for conservation efforts is growing. "There's an increasing sensitivity and concern about the environmental threat to the Hill Country," says Fries. "It's not limited to a hotbed of environmental activists anymore."

"There's a generation of people my age - 40 and under - who have been raised in a different sort of thought pattern about land," Armstrong says. "Land is not to be abused, but to be used. And if you can use it and improve it at the same time, you should try to do that."

At Shield Ranch, just outside of Austin, Robert Ayres and his family still make their living as cattle ranchers. Along with grazing cows, the 7,000-acre ranch hosts the golden-cheeked warbler, one of two endangered songbirds in Texas.

Mr. Ayres is careful to protect the golden-cheeked warbler's habitat. "I really feel that the stewardship of the land includes the well-being of wildlife, as well as a strict look at dollar signs," Ayres says.

But not all ranchers are as cooperative as Ayres and Armstrong. "The willingness is not there yet," Armstrong says. "There has to be some generational change."

Ranchers are only one link in the bioreserve project. The area includes the two major cities of San Antonio and Austin where developers have long battled with environmentalists.

A conservation plan for the Austin area has been in the works for the past four years. This effort is now joined in partnership with the bioreserve project. It involves a plan to create a preserve system of 60,000 acres in the metropolitan area.

A $22 million bond issue to finance the local government's portion of the land acquisition passed this month. The remaining land will be left free for development.

During the 1980s, the Austin area grew by 45 percent, and concern about protecting the natural habitat exploded along with the population. Water quality is a major concern among environmentalists in the area.

The Edwards Aquifer, one of the largest reservoirs in the United States, is more than 200 miles long and averages 25 miles in width. The aquifer is included in the bioreserve and serves as the primary source of drinking water for the more than 1 million residents of San Antonio.

Since water percolates down through rock and soil to directly replenish the reservoir, the state posts signs off roadways reminding residents when they are within the recharge zone and should be alert to ground-pollution hazards.

The Texas Hill Country is home to about 80 plants and animals identified as either rare or threatened. Some 40 to 50 species, such as the Blanco blind salamander, are endemic to the aquifer. As water recreation continues to grow in the region and the aquifer level fluctuates, some environmentalists are concerned about the impact on these fragile species.

"We don't really know the effects of aquatic recreation at this point," says Professor Arsuffi.

"We're being real careful so that we don't act before building up a sound scientific basis for action," says Fries. This approach is gaining support from a wide range of perspectives. "We're not dealing with tree-huggers or animal kissers who are going to stand up and scream every time you move," says Armstrong. "They try to find a way to make conservation practices palpable to the previously nonconservation-minded."

But the Texas Hill Country Bioreserve Project won't be a success overnight. "It's going to take some growing, it's going to take some tinkering, and it's going to take movement on all sides," Armstrong says.

"I start each morning saying, `Be patient, Jim, you can't get all this done in a day,' " Fries says.

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