Protect Water Resources for Better Habitat, Wildlife Exemption

Protecting natural habitat is the key component to successful wildlife management. Without quality native plant communities both the habitat and associated wildlife populations suffer. Texas, which has been aware of the importance of natural habitats for some time, has once again put it’s money where is mouth is. During the mid-90’s Texas passed the wildlife tax valuation, commonly incorrectly referred to as the wildlife exemption, that allowed landowners to manage for native wildlife and habitat while maintaining their agriculture taxes – without having to perform farming or ranching practices.

This legislation has gone a long ways towards protecting Texas’ wildlife habitat, but they are far from over. Now, a bipartisan group of legislators, representing both rural and urban parts of the state, is supporting a bill that would create an innovative incentive for landowners to protect water resources, preserve the state’s cultural heritage by protecting natural resources on privately owned land, and advance Texas’ long-range water plan – all without costing taxpayers money.

The bill is being headed-up by Senators Craig Estes and Kirk Watson. They jointly filed Senate Bill 449, which would expand the state’s definition of agricultural land to cover water stewardship. But it does not stop there. Representative Allan Ritter plans to file an identical bill in the House of Representatives in coming days.

This is great news for wildlife and landowners interested in active habitat management. Management for water and improved plant communities will help bobwhite quail and grassland-dependent songbirds. This legislation would allow landowners to have their land valued for property tax purposes as agricultural (and receive what is sometimes referred to as the property tax agriculture exemption) by managing their land in a way that promotes and sustains water quality and conservation.

“This bill gives Texas another path to meeting the extensive demands on our water supply that we know we’ll face in coming decades,” said Senator Watson, of Austin. “It would harness the power of the private sector – and the conscientious stewardship of Texas landowners – to improve water quality and quantity for all of us.”

The bill would work in tandem with Senate Joint Resolution 16, a proposed constitutional amendment that would, with voter approval, add “water stewardship” to uses of land that qualify for the wildlife tax valuation. In order to qualify, landowners would need to take specific actions on their land – such as controlling erosion, restoring native aquatic species, or implementing efficient irrigation practices – that preserve and improve water supplies. Additionally, they could donate water rights to the Texas Water Trust or commit to using their water for environmental purposes.

“The farmers, ranchers and rural property owners managing their lands and soils in these ways are not only protecting Texas’ rural history – they’re ensuring its future,” said Senator Estes, who chairs the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. “We need to create incentives for others to follow their lead.”

The bill would create a new spinoff of existing agriculture property tax valuation provisions, which are already widely used to help landowners who are committed not only to farming and ranching, but also to things like wildlife management and open space preservation. The legislation avoids costing the state money, because landowners who would qualify under the water stewardship rules are probably already eligible for – and taking advantage of – another type of agricultural and wildlife valuation.

In applying instead for the water stewardship valuation, landowners would adopt management practices that simultaneously maintain the rural nature of their land and fortify the state’s water supply. “This is a smart, cost-efficient way for the state to partner with private landowners on a goal we should all share – protecting our water and everything that relies on it,” Representative Ritter said. “It’s an affordable new tool to help Texans manage their property in a way that helps the whole state.”

The idea for a collaborative water stewardship effort originated with the Nature Conservancy of Texas, which owns more than 30 Texas nature preserves and conservation properties, assists private landowners in conserving their land, and has protected 750,000 acres in Texas. It’s good to see my home state preserving open space, protecting water supplies, and interested in habitat management. I think this bill is not only looks good, but it also shows how the state and private landowners can work together for our natural resources.

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