Few places in Texas have left as indelible a mark on me as Cypress Creek, which flows out of the fabled Jacob’s Well and makes its way through the village of Wimberley before reaching the Blanco River. The water is cold and clear, and majestic cypress trees line the banks like columns in a cathedral. The gnarled roots, called knees, cluster like gnomes around the base of these giants while high above, green foliage shifts in the breeze and dapples the light. I grew up on the muddy brown Brazos, so this crystalline stream seemed magical to me as a boy. I’d swim in it during summers spent in the Hill Country, then dream about it the rest of the year.
Unfortunately, dreams may soon be all that’s left of places like Cypress Creek. Protecting our natural heritage has always been a struggle in Texas, but now the challenge is becoming acute. Two forces are threatening a way of life that provided opportunities for kids like me to swim in the spring-fed waters of the Hill Country: the relentless fragmentation of family lands and a radical shift in demographics. A terrible cycle is under way. Texas’s rural landscape is disintegrating before our eyes, lost forever to development, and the majority of the state’s children are growing up in cities and suburbs without the opportunity to experience our natural heritage—and learn the importance of conserving it.
Sadly, we are not doing much about either problem. Although research proves the societal importance of protecting the landscape and equally compelling statistics demonstrate the need for children to spend time outdoors, our state government’s lack of vision and leadership is putting iconic places increasingly at risk of being lost forever. This is nothing new, of course. The last time the Legislature provided any significant funding for the purchase of parkland was in 1967, when John Connally was governor. Even more striking, it took four decades to spend it all. Though the Legislature in the past few years has been much more generous to state parks, Texas ranks last among all the states in the money available for places like Enchanted Rock, Garner State Park, and the San Jacinto battlefield, according to George Bristol, the president and executive director of the Texas Coalition for Conservation, an organization that has led efforts to increase state park funding.
Polls consistently show that large majorities of Texans support initiatives that would help the state acquire more parkland. But this rarely translates into action at the Capitol. Legislators have turned a deaf ear on efforts by land commissioner Jerry Patterson and others to allocate funds for purchasing the development rights of private landowners, an agreement in which the owners are paid to conserve the property’s ecological value but are still allowed to live on the property, sell it, or pass it down to heirs. “We need to take advantage of the current economic downturn,” said Jeff Francell, the director of land protection for the Nature Conservancy in Texas, one of the state’s most influential conservation organizations. “During the savings and loan crisis of the late eighties, Texas purchased more land for conservation than in its entire history. Our present situation, as bleak as it seems economically, may be our last chance to save the best of Texas for our children and grandchildren.”
A large part of the problem is that Texas is almost entirely owned by private citizens. Because so much public land was sold off to pay for the government during its first 75 years or so of existence, today less than 5 percent of our state is set aside for public use: highways, parks, wildlife areas, and other improvements managed by government at all levels. This means that most of the so-called ecological benefits we receive from the environment—including habitat for wildlife, the sequestration of carbon, and the vital functioning of our watersheds—happens on private property.
But though our tradition of private ownership of land can make conservation more challenging, it does not make it impossible. David Schmidly’s landmark book Texas Natural History: A Century of Change documents the widespread devastation of the state as our timber resources were destroyed and our grasslands, including those in the Hill Country, were horribly overgrazed. Yet Schmidly, a former president of Texas Tech University, notes that the state’s landscape is actually in better condition than it was a hundred years ago. Today, as a result of the actions of private landowners and conservationists, we can celebrate a good deal of progress. White-tailed deer were nearly extinct in parts of Texas at the beginning of the twentieth century; now their numbers are so great they have actually become a problem in many areas. We harvest more wild turkeys each year than existed in all of Texas prior to World War II. In an amazing recovery, the brown pelican, almost extinct a generation ago, was recently removed from the endangered species list.
Still, we now face our greatest challenge to date. Unless the state finds ways to purchase additional public conservation lands and work with private landowners to preserve endangered areas, the fragmentation of family land and the urbanization of our population will inexorably lead to a decline in our natural heritage.
But I’m hopeful. I’ve looked at the problem from different sides—as the director of both the Nature Conservancy and of Texas Parks and Wildlife—and I believe the solutions are there for us to find. In an attempt to show the victories that can be won by passionate individuals, I’ve brought together the stories of three places: the Dahlstrom Ranch, in the Hill Country, a tract critical to the aquifer that supplies drinking water to that booming part of the state; the massive Piney Woods, in East Texas, which have seen the largest transfer of private property in our history; and a surviving patch of the Great Plains, just west of Fort Worth, where an unexpected conservationist is trying to save an unspoiled grassland. As these people and places make clear,