April 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 2 // Research in Brief // 2RIB1

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Dealing With Endangered Species Issues On Private Lands

Timely and accurate information about landowner environmental issues provided by Extension enabled the Travis County Commissioner's Court to make better informed decisions regarding the impact of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Data were collected using a mailed survey instrument addressing concerns about the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan as an area-wide habitat conservation plan in Texas. This survey found that most respondents classified their land as agricultural. Respondents also expected a large decline in the amount of land used for agriculture, and an increase in the amount used for endangered species preserves and wildlife habitat. Most respondents were interested in educational programs about endangered species, but few thought they would need permits to comply with ESA.

Jack Thigpen
Assistant Professor
Community Development Specialist
Texas Agricultural Extension Service
Texas A&M University
Internet address: j-thigpen@tamu.edu

Extension's role as a public agency is expanding and Extension professionals must deal with increasingly complex issues. One such issue is our use of the environment. In Travis County (Austin), Texas for example, the issue of endangered species protection caused conflict between environmentalists, developers, and ranchers. Missing from the debate was information about landowners' opinions. Texas Extension was able to fill this gap and ultimately provide much more than data to address the issue.

The Issue in Travis County

The greater Austin area and much of western Travis County, harbor a number of species categorized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). This affects the development potential of hundreds of tracts of private land. The decline in some property values in western Travis County may be due to apprehension in the real estate market over the endangered species' habitat. In addition, ranching practices of clearing cedar (ashe juniper) for pasture, fencing, and road-building may also be affected.

In 1988, representatives of Austin and Travis County approached the FWS to discuss ways in which economic as well as environmental concerns might be addressed under the ESA. The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP) was proposed as the first true area-wide habitat conservation plan undertaken in Texas. The BCCP has been described as a "quality-of-life" plan, for both the species of concern and the people in the planning region (which includes 250,000 acres). By 1992 the proposed BCCP was a controversial issue and many of these landowners felt that their interests and opinions were not being adequately addressed. It became apparent that objective information about landowners' needs and plans was needed so that educational programs could be designed for them and so that fair land-use decisions could be made.

In May 1992, under pressure from landowners and environmentalists, the Travis County Commissioner's Court approved a project to determine landowner interest in a cooperative habitat permitting effort. This information-gathering effort was not intended to generate support for the BCCP, but to give landowners a voice in resolving the conflict. The Texas Agricultural Extension Service (TAEX) was chosen to complete the survey because of the agency's rapport with landowners. A seven person steering committee representing environmentalists, developers, landowners, and business people was appointed to oversee the project. This diversity was important because although team members had different points of view, the desired end result was a survey methodology they all could support.

Survey Methodology

The 1,270 owners of unplatted land in western Travis County were surveyed by mail. To ensure a democratic process, the committee decided that each landowner would receive only one survey instrument regardless of the number of tracts owned. The survey instrument was designed to record information concerning multiple tracts. An initial mailing included a cover letter, which acquainted the respondent with the project, a survey instrument, and a postage-paid return envelope. A reminder postcard was mailed one week later and a second mailing of survey instruments to all persons failing to respond followed in two weeks. Of the 1,270 survey instruments mailed, 480 were completed and returned.

Survey Results

Respondents owned 100,341 of the 250,000 acres of the proposed BCCP. Sixty-one percent of the respondents did not consider the property their primary residence. Table 1 illustrates that when asked about their knowledge of the federal Endangered Species Act, 43.8% replied they knew nothing or very little about it, 31.3% knew something, and 24.9% said that they knew quite a bit or a great deal about the subject. Respondents expressed great interest in learning more about the Endangered Species Act. Sixty-three percent said they were interested or very interested, 17.3% were moderately interested, and 19.7% were slightly or not at all interested in learning more about how the Act affects Travis County landowners.

Table 1
Landowners Knowledge of and Interest in the Federal Endangered Species Act
How much do you know about the requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act?
Nothing/Very little 43.8%
Some 31.3%
Quite a bit/A great deal 24.9%
What level of interest do you have in learning more about the act?
Not/Slight interest 19.7%
Moderate interest 17.3%
Interested/Very interested 63.0%

Although the sample was selected based on a high probability that the land contained endangered species habitat, Table 2 shows that only 12.6% of the respondents (13,155 acres) believed they will need permits for compliance with the Endangered Species Act in the next five years. Over one-third (34.1%, 24,069 acres) were not sure. The remaining 53.3% (56,378 acres) reported they will not need permits.

Table 2
Landowner's Perceived Need for Permitting Under the Federal Endangered Species Act
Do you think that your land will need a permit to comply with the Endangered Species Act?
No 53.3% (56,378 acres)
Not Sure 34.1% (24,069 acres)
Yes 12.6% (13,155 acres)

Landowners were asked to choose between five categories of desirability for five selected approaches to obtaining a permit for land use under the federal Endangered Species Act. Over one- half (53.5%) found an alternative public/private permitting option at least somewhat desirable. More than half (57.5%) answered that a revised BCCP would be at least somewhat desirable and 49.8% felt this way about a private co-op alternative. Less than half (45.6%) responded that the proposed BCCP was at least somewhat desirable and 42.7% found an individual approach to permitting at least somewhat desirable.

Table 3 shows that few expressed interest in donating land in lieu of making cash payments for permitting. Of the 184 respondents answering this question, 16.9% were interested in land donations in lieu of cash payments. Over one-third (34.1%) were at least moderately interested.

Table 3
Interest in Alternatives to Permitting for Compliance with the Endangered Species Act
Level of
None/Slight 82.3% 65.9%
Moderate 8.2% 11.9%
Very Interested
8.7% 22.2%

In summary, this survey found that most respondents classified their land as agricultural, but expect a large decline in the amount of land used for agriculture and an increase in the amount used for endangered species preserves and wildlife habitat. Most respondents were interested in educational programs about endangered species, but few thought they would need permits to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The desirability of five different permitting methods was measured. An alternative public/private approach, a revised BCCP and a private cooperative method were ranked one, two, and three, respectively, for both number of landowners and number of acres.

Information for Decision-Making

The timely and accurate information about landowner environmental issues provided by Extension enabled the Travis County Commissioner's Court to make better informed decisions regarding Bond Issues for the county. In March of 1993, the team made a formal presentation accompanied by a 125 page final report of the results from the Travis County Landowner Survey project to an open session of the Travis County Commissioner's Court. This meeting was televised and resulted in further television and print media coverage. The Commissioner's Court is currently using the information regarding: (a) location of affected property, (b) current and expected future land use, (c) knowledge and interest in the federal Endangered Species Act, (d) the perceived need for compliance by landowners, and (e) the desirability of various alternatives for habitat permitting, land donations, and conservation easements as a basis for policy decisions regarding bond issues and environmental planning. Over 500 copies of the results of the survey were distributed to TAEX faculty, county officials, and agency professionals.

Although only about a third of landowners responded to the survey, results of this project are the first objective information about their perspectives regarding the ESA and its implications for the environment, agriculture, and development. They are being used in several important ways: (a) the Travis County Commissioner's Court, who authorized and helped to finance the project, is using the results in making decisions relating to bond issues and understanding the needs of their constituents; (b) Travis County Extension is designing educational programs for county residents regarding the ESA based on the needs identified in the survey; and (c) the results are also being used to educate Austin residents about western Travis County landowners' feelings regarding the ESA and how they intend to act regarding these requirements. This Extension programming effort is allowing decision makers and the public to better understand the current and future plans that Travis County landowners have for their property.

Building the Extension Educational Program

In addition to providing important information, the survey project gave Extension a basis for landowner education and public policy education in Travis County. Immediately following the completion of the analyses and generation of the final report a summary of the results were mailed to all 1,270 landowners. This allowed them to directly receive the same information that the Commissioner's Court was using for decision-making. For the first time during the entire BCCP process, landowners now had an objective reporting of their land-use plans and ideas about the various alternatives to the BCCP. The findings were also reported in front-page articles in the Austin American Statesman, the Austin Business Journal, and the Lake Travis View, as well as immediate television and radio news coverage. This news coverage served as an important outreach educational tools for all county landowners, including those who had participated in the survey.

The process of conducting this project also enabled the formation of a broad-based team of landowners, environmentalists, land developers, and communities to work together on environmental issues. Arguably, the most important result of this project was the formation of a working group comprised of persons with very different agendas and backgrounds. A necessary component of a successful project dealing with a controversial issue is the ownership of the plan by all involved parties. TAEX's role of liaison between the groups made this a reality. The team's ability to bring these diverse parties together and provide them with objective expert subject-area information may have been one of the most important components of the entire project.

This project illustrates that solid survey research work can play an important role in educational programs targeted to all parties involved with environmental issues. Extension Specialists working with County faculty can create a complementary team that serves all clientele--rural, urban, environmentalists, and developers. Extension, in its role as disseminator of valid research methods and results, can play an important part in developing educational programs designed to bring conflicting parties together and to serve all clientele. The carefully chosen steering committee that represents all involved parties should be an integral part of any Extension information-gathering project. A three-day conference in the Fall of 1994 focusing on private property rights and environmental issues was co-sponsored by Extension and many of the groups that were involved with the research project. This conference allowed landowners, concerned organizations and individuals, state and federal agency representatives, educators, and local government officials to develop a dialog that encouraged constructive communication on endangered species issues on privately owned land.