Land Conservation - Land Owners
HONDO: The yawning cave on George Brucks’ ranch seems out of place among the wide stretches of mesquite and prickly pear that dominate much of South Texas’ usually arid wild places.
The cavern’s limestone walls and massive boulders that litter the landscape are laden with moss and shine with moisture on this misty day. Here and there, damp holes and crevices break through the rocky ground, leading to subterranean darkness, likely linking the land directly to the Edwards Aquifer below.
To Julie Koppenheffer, this all adds up to an extraordinary find, a find worth $990,000 of San Antonians’ tax dollars to ensure it is never paved over or turned into a golf course.
It’s one of three ranches in Medina County that Koppenheffer and her organization, the Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas, are helping ensure will never be developed. The organization closed the deal on Brucks’ ranch and one other Friday; the third is to be completed by the end of the month.
All three lie over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, which means the rain that falls on the ground here eventually ends up flowing through drinking water taps in San Antonio.
The deals will cost San Antonio about $3 million for roughly 2,446 acres over the recharge zone. It’s money paid to ranchers who will still own their land but have agreed to binding conservation easements that guarantee the property will stay undeveloped in perpetuity.
The money comes from a rapidly dwindling $90 million pool raised by Proposition 1, a 1/8-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2005 to protect land over the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer, the source of nearly all of San Antonio’s water.
By March, most of the money will be spent or pledged to land deals that will soon close, said Kristyl Smith of the San Antonio’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program. When complete, Proposition 1, which is the heir to a program passed in 2000 known as Proposition 3, will have preserved more than 80,000 acres over the recharge zone.
Much of the land preserved is thanks to Green Spaces Alliance, which, along with the Nature Conservancy of Texas, plays quiet middleman between the city of San Antonio and the owners of the property over the aquifer’s recharge zone. The program also includes panels of scientific and real estate experts to help determine the economic and aquifer protection value of a property.
The nonprofit Green Spaces Alliance was founded in 1998 as the Bexar Land Trust, but this year it changed the name it operates under to end a common misconception that it is part of the county government, Koppenheffer said.
It is probably most well-known for its community gardening program but acts as facilitator and educator between San Antonio and owners of property the city might want to preserve to help protect the aquifer. The organization also works to preserve land for habitat or other environmental issues.
The task of finding Texas landowners willing to sell their development rights might seem like a difficult one, but Koppenheffer said she’s found people are becoming open to the idea in recent years as more and more of old-time Texas is being eaten up by development.
“A lot of it is just word of mouth and having a reputation where people are comfortable dealing with the organization,” she said. “There’s really a fabulous awareness right now of the need to conserve.”
Brucks is a perfect example. He looks the part of classic rancher’ a tall, graying Texan in a cowboy hat and boots who played guard on the Longhorns’ first national championship football team in 1963.
His ranch has been in the family for more than a century, ever since his grandfather and great-uncle worked the land as bachelor teenagers. And he proudly displays in his office hundreds of arrowheads he’s found on his property and during travels throughout the state.
Neither Brucks nor his children have any problems with selling the rights to develop the property. He’s happy to take the deal offered and said he thinks more of his neighbors will follow as word gets out.
“It’s a good thing,” Brucks said. “This way, if the property was ever sold, it would be as a whole and it will carry on like it is.”
His son Cory Brucks, 40, agrees. He grew up on the property and knows firsthand how the land serves as a direct conduit to the aquifer below.
He fondly tells a childhood story about finding a small whirlpool in a swollen creek bed one day and trying to stick his head in the swirling vortex to discover where the water was going.
“None of us have any inclination to do anything with it than what we’re doing right now,” he said. “It’s a unique place. You’ve got the creek. You’ve got the wildlife. You’ve got the cave. It’s beautiful.”
The Green Spaces Alliance, which operates largely on donations, has set a goal of helping preserve some 125,000 acres of land in five years. It has just finished its first of the five years and has tallied 20,000 acres.
Koppenheffer expects another good year in 2009 as the final Proposition 1 properties close and landowners rush to take advantage of an enhanced federal tax credit for the donation of conservation easements that could sunset at the end of the year. After that, she’s hoping for an extension of the city’s conservation program and the federal tax incentive to keep the momentum going.
She’s optimistic on both.
“The people of San Antonio have recognized the need to protect their water,” Koppenheffer said. “And we’ve got quite a few committed landowners who want to keep the character of Texas.”