Birds Get a Break in Texas With Land Conversion Law

Private landowners who use property for wildlife will keep low tax

FARMERS in Texas may soon turn plows into bird houses.

A new law allows owners of agricultural land to convert it to wildlife-management uses without losing a crucial property-tax exemption. Approved as Proposition 11 by voters here last week, the law eschews arm-twisting regulation in favor of financial incentives for species and habitat preservation.

Little wonder then that ''a strange mixture of folks'' from property-rights advocates to environmentalists endorsed the law, says Lance Lively, who was treasurer of Texans for Proposition 11. ''The far left and the far right agreed.''

At a time when Republicans in Congress are drawing a bead on the landmark Endangered Species Act, supporters of the new wildlife exemption see it as part of a trend toward environmental laws that say ''would you consider'' instead of ''thou shalt.''

''Now we are offering private landowners a choice,'' says Terri Bronocco, a Nature Conservancy spokeswoman in San Antonio. ''That is truly the way it should be done.''

Virginia already offers the tax break. But its adoption by Texas has drawn inquiries from wildlife officials in Colorado, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

The law's impact in the second-largest state could be dramatic. The most biodiverse spot in the nation is the Rio Grande Valley from Laredo to Brownsville, according to the Department of Interior. That part of south Texas is the world's No. 1 destination for bird watchers and home to the nation's first wildlife sanctuary.

But 97 percent of Texas' 172 million acres are privately held. Thus, to make progress in conserving species requires gaining the cooperation of landowners, says Kirby Brown, program director for private lands enhancement at Texas Parks and Wildlife, a regulatory agency.

Since 1983 the Nature Conservancy has persuaded farmers in the Rio Grande Valley to make room among their rows of broccoli and tomatoes for 45,000 native tree seedlings.

''Now these landowners have a tax incentive to work with us,'' Ms. Bronocco says. That could accelerate the organization's program to restore the valley's nearly vanished jungle cover, creating habitat for rare ocelots and jaguarundis.

Taxes will remain the same after the exemption status is switched, even if income from the land declines. And it may not: Birding is North America's fastest-growing hobby. Enthusiasts spend $18 billion a year on travel and equipment.

ONLY land already taxed at the lower agricultural rate qualifies for wildlife management, but that's 92 percent of the state. To hear rancher David Langford tell it, property owners have long wished to encourage wildlife. What stopped him in the past, he says, was the need to keep the agricultural exemption on the ranch his family has owned since 1851. That exemption requires running cattle in such great numbers as to ''obliterate wildlife habitat.''

The alternative would have been to forgo the exemption. But ''they just tax the pants off of you,'' he says, making land too expensive to hold.

Under the new law, Langford will reduce his herd, graze them in the same pattern as buffalo once used, and institute controlled burning. Replicating the former natural cycle will cause native prairie grasses, and the wildlife they support, to thrive. His cattle will grow fatter, Langford says.

And his revenue from sportsmen will rise. While cattle buyers pay Langford $300 a head, out-of-state hunters pay him up to $6,000 for a chance to shoot a trophy whitetail buck. Hunting fees already provide more than half the ranch's income.

Texas draws more hunters than any other state. Of the $1 billion dollars they spend, 39 percent goes to landowners. Restaurants, motels, and so on take the rest. The hunting angle might repel some nature lovers. But the tax-exemption law, first proposed by hunting enthusiasts in the state Legislature, says the land will be managed for ''indigenous wild animals for human use, including food, medicine, or recreation.''

To make sure landowners earn the exemption, the law requires practices like controlling erosion or providing supplemental water. ''You can't just put a lock on the gate and throw some bird seed out,'' Mr. Lively says. But will ''predator control'' mean shooting coyotes that prey on fawns? Will managing land for deer destroy turtle habitat?

Parks and Wildlife's Mr. Brown, who will write the regulations governing the exemption, insists that preserving a balanced ecosystem is paramount under the law.

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