Working lands stewardship

Working lands. Stewardship. These are words that we in the conservation field use frequently, but to those who live in the cities, the terminology can be confusing.  

So, first, a primer. 

“Working lands” means pretty much like it sounds: farms and ranches where the owner or manager works to generate income to cover the expenses and earn a living. According to Dave Specht of the Washington-based Advising Generations LLC, which works with farming and ranching families, “stewardship” is caring for something that respects the past and honors the future. In short, it means leaving something in better shape than you found it. 

Unlike the manufacturing world where economic productivity is measured in terms of money in, widgets out, farmers and ranchers have another dynamic to deal with. In order to be successful, they need healthy soils, healthy water cycles, and other well-functioning ecological processes. The biological health of their patch of ground is their natural capital, and as important if not more important than any asset on the balance sheet. 

Why does this matter to someone who lives in Los Angeles, San Antonio or Boston? Quite simply, if you care about natural resource issues, if you as an individual or as an organization have natural resource goals, you most likely cannot achieve those goals without involving working lands. Working lands surround our parks and wildlife refuges. Working lands border our bays and estuaries and host our springs and rivers. Working lands are home to threatened and endangered species as well as native wildlife habitats.  

This is not to say that there isn’t good conservation on public lands, because, no doubt, there is. But it is hard to argue with the statement that working, agricultural lands sustain our quality of life.  They clean our air and water, provide food and fiber, house the wildlife that is critical to our global ecological balance, and offer open space for our aesthetic and recreational enjoyment. They also support rural communities and make them economically sustainable, which in turn sustain part of our culture and social fabric. 

These are benefits that we all enjoy. Yet—frankly—these are benefits that we rarely pay for. And, if we don’t find meaningful ways to pay for these benefits—financial incentives that are predicated on the principles of a free market—we’re in for a heap of trouble. 

Consider that about 85% of farms and ranches in the US are family-owned and that over half of farm and ranch owners in the United States have a second job off property. Consider that the average market value of the U.S. farm or ranch doubled between 2002 and 2012, while the value of products sold stayed about the same. These high land values create dilemmas for families faced with selling land to pay estate taxes, and create barriers for new farmers and ranchers to enter the market. This is particularly troubling when you consider that the average age of the farmer or rancher in the U.S. today is 58 years old, compared to 42 years for teachers and 48 years for stockbrokers. 

For our working lands to be truly sustainable, landowners need financial incentives to keep stewarding those natural resources. Viable financial incentives that work for working lands will be based on the law of supply and demand. There will be regulatory certainty, meaning that the rules of the game won’t change mid-stream. The landowner will have the confidence to invest his money, time, and energy into stewarding the resource because he is confident that his right to own, to work, and to pass on his land is protected.  And, in the spirit of true markets, experimentation and innovation will be encouraged, results will be measured, and success will be replicated. Such incentives will be win-win for both the private landowner and the urban public.  

The conservation easement is one example of such a tool. First and foremost, it’s voluntary. The landowner and the land trust negotiate the terms of the easement; the landowner receives compensation—either in the form of tax benefits or a cash payment—a for retiring his development rights; the land trust advances its mission of conserving natural resources; and the public gets the assurance that those benefits, such as drinking water and clean air, will be protected forever. New York City used the conservation easement to protect its source of drinking water and, in the process, helped to bolster the dairy farm industry in upstate New York. A true win-win. 

What is unique about working lands as compared with many of the other “needs” we are confronted with as a society is that these lands have the ability to be economically sustainable, to care for themselves without the need for government acquisition. These lands “manage themselves” and “invest in themselves” so long as they and their owners remain working. 

In the end, we are protecting our most valuable natural resource—productive lands that feed us, nurture us, and sustain the values we cherish. Maybe most importantly, we conserve the human talents—the human capital—that work these lands. Skills that, once lost, are gone forever. 

A father of the modern conservation movement, Aldo Leopold, once observed that stewardship requires stewards. It is those stewards who need our help today.

 

Blair Fitzsimons is the CEO of the Texas Agricultural Land Trust. Founded by several statewide agricultural and landowner organizations, TALT today holds conservation easements on 225,000 acres throughout Texas. Prior to joining TALT, she, together with her husband, Joseph, ran the day-to-day operations for the family’s award-winning cattle and hunting ranch. For more information, visit www.txaglandtrust.org or follow on Twitter @TXAgLandTrust.


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