No group has more potential to impact Texas’ natural resources than private landowners, because they own more than 95 percent of the state’s land. That belief drives the work of the small but dedicated staff at the Texas Wildlife Association (TWA).
Acting individually, landowners — no matter how passionate they are about their land — are limited in what they can accomplish. When they work together, however, they become a powerful force.
The Texas Wildlife Association wants to harness that power and get landowners actively involved in improving natural resources. TWA also acts as a legislative watchdog, keeping an eye out for landowner interests and fighting for them to have a seat at the legislative table.
Fighting "Natural Resources Illiteracy"
An urban population that is removed from the land has made conservation more complex in Texas and other states.
"If we’re going to protect open space in Texas, we’ve got to reconnect the public to the land through education," says TWA Executive Vice President Kirby Brown. Five of the association’s 13-member staff are dedicated to education initiatives, which are funded through the Texas Wildlife Association Foundation.
These programs include school enrichment curricula, leadership training for youth, and field days and seminars for adults. Forget boring lectures and thick textbooks: Hands-on learning activities are TWA’s best weapon in the fight against natural resource illiteracy.
Expanding Students’ Understanding of the Wild
"The school education programs are excellent. They provide a way to give kids an understanding of our natural resources that they might not get otherwise," says Mark Hiler, senior vice president at Capital Farm Credit, which sponsors TWA and the TWA Foundation.
In 2007, TWA school enrichment programs had 11,892 participants. Of these, more than 5,600 students took virtual field trips via real-time teleconferences with TWA staff.
Both on-site school visits and virtual field trips use natural artifacts, such as animal skins and skulls, to introduce students to wildlife and natural resources.
"When we’re showing animals, kids are interested. But that’s just a hook," Brown says. "What they’re really learning is critical thought-process and how wildlife, habitat and science go together."
High retention results, increases in state academic test scores and positive feedback from teachers have increased demand for the classroom programs.
"Right now there is more demand than what we’re capable of delivering," Brown says.
Developing Leaders at Every Age Level
TWA plays a large role in the Texas Brigades, which is a cooperative effort among several state agencies and wildlife organizations. Helen Holdsworth, executive director of the Brigades Program, is part of the TWA staff.
The 117 high school students who attended one of four Brigade camps in 2007 have now become ambassadors for conservation. "These young people will talk to 11,000 to 13,000 people over the next year about conservation issues," Brown says. "This is an incredible group of young leaders. In fact, some of the best adult volunteers we have today are former Brigade cadets, and one of them works on our staff."
In addition to youth education programs, TWA also partners with a variety of groups to provide high-quality training for landowners. Seminars cover a wide range of topics, including deer and quail management, photography, prescribed burning and wind energy.
"We like to say that we are for both those born to the land and those who are reborn to it," Brown says. "I mean both longtime landowners in traditional agriculture and those who are new to owning land. The bulk of our membership is new landowners."
Recruiting Active Members
Hiler says Capital Farm Credit recognizes the value that TWA provides for new landowners. The cooperative lender has begun a limited pilot project to provide a one-year associate membership to borrowers. The membership includes a one-year subscription to Texas Wildlife magazine. Since the pilot project began in October 2006, Capital Farm Credit has sponsored 250 TWA members.
"This program has been very popular with the new members," says Pam Fyock, TWA’s director of development. "The best part is that these people have not just become members — they’ve become active members. The borrowers I’ve talked to see it as a huge benefit their lender has provided them."
David Gray has been a Capital Farm Credit customer for four years and a TWA member for two months as a part of the pilot project. "I really enjoy reading the magazine and being able to access so much information in one central location," Gray says. "I’ve read things that have perked my interest about making improvements in my own personal wildlife operation."
Gray, who owns an engineering firm in Austin, Texas, had always wanted to have a place in the country. A few years ago, he purchased property in Mason County. It is high-fenced for wildlife and also has a working cattle operation.
"I’m new to ranching, but it has definitely become my passion," Gray says. "Getting this place really met a lot of things that I wanted to get out of life in terms of recreation. It gave me a place for my kids to get out of the city and see another side of Texas, which I think is very important. Plus, it has been a great investment. Owning a ranch has been a lot more fun than playing the stock market."
Coming to Learn, Staying to Serve
Many TWA members come to learn, then stay to teach and volunteer. "We have one of the highest retention rates of any organization I know, because people believe in what we’re doing," Brown says. "If I had to use one word to describe our members, it would be ‘passionate.’"
Member involvement stretches into the legislative arena as well. TWA provides talking points about issues that could affect landowners. Although several TWA employees dedicate their time to lobbying and tracking legislative issues, their efforts would be incomplete without reinforcement by members.
"Right now we have about 5,000 members who own almost 40 million acres in Texas," Brown says. "It has a lot of impact when they can deliver a message to their legislators."
Promoting Landowner Interests
Over the years, TWA has achieved significant legislative success. In 1995, the association helped pass an amendment to the Texas Constitution that allowed landowners to change the use of their land from traditional farming and ranching to active wildlife management, and thus retain their agricultural ad valorem property tax valuation of that land.
More recently, they were successful in getting land stewardship mentioned in water policy as an important component of water management. "That ensures that landowners are at the table in water debates," Brown says.
The TWA staff monitors many issues, including eminent domain, water policy, land fragmentation, loss of habitat and the Trans-Texas Corridor.
"Every landowner ecosystem services wildlife, habitat and water that eventually is provided to urban communities," Brown says. "We strongly believe that land stewardship is a realistic and viable option to address natural resource issues in the state."
Hiler agrees. "We’ve sponsored this association because these guys stand for being good stewards of our natural resources. And at Capital Farm Credit, we have a parallel focus. Our membership is overwhelmingly composed of Texas landowners that have that same goal. They want to take their land, make it better and pass it on so that future generations can enjoy it as well."
For more information, visit www.texas-wildlife.org.