How Texas landowners can save money by saving wildlife

How Texas landowners can save money by saving wildlife

David Prickett likes to say that the best part of his property is the dry pit that was once an active quarry. Forty-foot high limestone walls surround a circular valley, where nature has reclaimed the land with shrubs and trees and thorny grasses. Especially at sunset, Prickett will go out with his dog, Silly, and capture wildlife as the sunlight bounces off the old quarry rock.

It’s silent except for the distant hum of US Route 281 and the rumble of construction from across the quarry pit, where a subdivision of thousands of homes is going in.

“With all this development going up around us, wildlife comes here, on this land. They need a place to go,” says Prickett. “Soon this will be the only natural area for miles.”

At the Cibolo Garden Nature Conservancy and Events Center, just a few miles south of the town of Bulverde, Prickett owns 45 acres of Hill Country land. On the 6 acres where he lives, visitors can go to “glamour camps,” or glamor, or otherwise enjoy the community’s space for all things nature. However, the other 39 hectares are protected and untouched, but only for hiking trails. Prickett, an administrative director for a software company, earns extra money hosting campers and teaching outdoor classes. Eventually he wants to set an annual fee for the area as a private park.

Through the Texas Wildlife Management Program, landowners like Prickett can apply to save on their property taxes by managing native habitat and wildlife through projects and activities that support a healthy ecosystem. This made it possible for farmers and ranchers with an ag assessment—a special tax assessment based on the value of a property’s productivity—to keep these savings even after leaving the farming operation. As of now, about 6 million hectares in the state are assessed as wildlife habitat.

This especially benefits landowners around the San Antonio region, where farms and farmland are often too small to accommodate large-scale, high-productivity agriculture. Instead, these landowners can keep their land at the same assessed value as long as they keep the land wild as determined by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

At the same time, vulnerable patches of land that development is swallowing up in the Hill Country are now being protected by residents themselves. It’s a real “win, win,” Prickett said.

For others who were never farmers or ranchers, like Prickett, they sponsored wildlife researchers and biologists for two years on the property to achieve the special rating. This was the only way Prickett could afford the land and his mission to protect the wildlife community. Without the program, he would pay $8,000 more each year in taxes.

“My goals have been to find a piece of property and build some kind of intentional community, with solar and wind and growing our own food and such,” Prickett said. “And I’ve always wanted to nurture a place for wildlife, either on my own land or volunteering elsewhere. This program made that possible.”

The road to conservation

About 15 years ago, before Prickett arrived at Cibolo Garden Reserve, the land had been an active rock quarry. The site was closed, however, when some locals complained that dust from it was blowing into their homes. The company abandoned the earth, torn apart by the explosion, with massive pockets in the ground and chunks of rock all over the surface.

Eventually, a friend of Prickett’s turned the land into a wilderness survival school, where Prickett was a student. When his friend moved out, he bought the property in 2017 under the impression that his annual property taxes would only be $2,500 a year.

But that same year, the assessor’s office reassessed the property for the first time in a decade, and taxes jumped to $10,000.

“It was a shock and not sustainable at all,” Prickett said. “I wasn’t prepared for that at all and I didn’t want to develop the property, so I had to find another way.”

He found it, in the form of the wildlife management program through Texas Parks and Wildlife.

For decades, landowners who make a living from livestock, crops or timber have not had to pay the correct property tax for their acreage. Instead of market value, their taxes are calculated based on the value of their agricultural production. And since the passage of a 1995 law by the Texas Legislature, ranchers and ranchers can keep the same tax assessment on their land if they transition from agriculture to native habitat and wildlife management.

Tim Siegmund, private lands program manager for Texas Parks and Wildlife, said this allows landowners more flexibility.

“Let’s say you own 100 acres in Bexar County and you’ve realized that with the drought we had last summer, it doesn’t make sense for me to run any more cattle, too expensive, whatever,” Siegmund said. “But you need so many cows per acre to get the tax assessment, but if you go to wildlife, that wouldn’t apply anymore.”

Landowners must have been actively practicing agriculture for five years, then they can apply for the new assessment. The applicant must then create a wildlife management plan, which includes implementing three of the seven wildlife management practices on the property, such as habitat control, additional shelter, and predator control.

Prickett managed to incorporate six of the seven practices into his property. In one case, he removed juniper trees and used the brush to create habitat for smaller mammals and songbirds. In another, he built 12 nest boxes for birds and bats.

Eventually, landowners can return to farming if they want, Siegmund said. But even so, the benefit of healing the soil for five or 10 years is significant. Livestock and other farms are hard on properties and it is important that the land regenerates over time.

“It benefits the landowners and the land, and it fits the purposes of why someone bought the property for its aesthetic and recreational value more than its citrus production,” he said. “And since it’s tax neutral, between the ag and wildlife assessment, there’s no money lost in the county. It’s private land, but it’s a public benefit.”

Study and small houses

Since Prickett had never farmed the acreage at Cibolo Garden Nature Reserve, he needed another path to wildlife appreciation.

To help get there, he consulted with the law firm, Braun & Gresham, to sponsor undergraduate studies on his estate for $5,000 a year for two years, but during that time, his taxes would be new, lower rated wildlife. he could manage to finance the research.

The Ecology Lab program provides researchers from universities—such as the University of Texas at Austin, Trinity University, and Rice University—access to private land for ecological research throughout Texas. In 2021 alone, the program operated with over 100 properties and in four new counties. While Prickett did the program in two years, it now requires a five-year commitment from landowners.

“We do an assessment on the property and send the report to the (Texas Ecological Laboratory) to see if they find the property suitable for whatever project they’re working on,” said Shane Kiefer, chief operating officer and director of ecological services for Plateau. . Land and wildlife management. “You can’t just hire one guy to go out and do research. It must be conducted by a university.”

Plateau works specifically with clients like Prickett who need help getting into the custodial program; it can be a complicated process. The team from the company, which collects fees from the program’s applicants, helped analyze the land. He looked at what species live there and the condition of the property to help determine which of the more than 50 potential activities to qualify for the program will benefit the property.

Landowners must show such activity each year to continue qualifying for the rating, Kiefer said. Fortunately, Prickett’s land had ample opportunities for conservation. He hopes that when the property is more stable, he will sponsor more universities to come out and do research on his land. Since EcoLab was on the property, Prickett said he learned a lot from the university about the acreage and how to be a good steward of the land.

Now, the wildlife management plan is in progress since it was adopted in late 2021 and started in 2022. Every year from now on, Prickett will have to report annually on the status of the plan to the Comal County Appraisal District . In five years, he will resubmit the renewal plan.

But in the meantime, Prickett is planning to continue his work on the natural community he’s dreamed of for years. Right now, he and some volunteers are building a hobbit house straight out of “Lord of the Rings,” replacing one of the great tents, and finishing up a few tiny houses that he plans to eventually rent out.

And all the while, he and guests can walk the trails around the wildlife reserve — where he hopes to include signage and wildlife information — and find themselves in unobstructed nature.

“I want all of this to live on forever,” Prickett said. “If I’m not around anymore, I want to be able to survive without me. This is only the beggining.”

Elena Bruess writes for the Express-News through Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. [email protected]

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