Cousins Howard Hicks and Bettie Green didn’t want their grandfather’s Hill Country ranch cut into subdivision lots and corner convenience stores.
“I had this real desire for it to continue to be a working ranch as long as possible, because I felt that what’s my granddad would have wanted,” says Green, now a grandparent herself. “We all wanted it to stay pretty much as it is.”
Hicks agrees. “It’s important to keep it where we could graze cattle on the land and make money from it. But our kids and grandkids have been coming here for years and have feelings for it and we also want to practice conservation.”
Their grandfather, Pike Davis, was one of five grandsons of Alfred Davis, who came to Texas in 1854. The earliest record of Davis owning land is in 1871, the cousins say. He accumulated an additional parcel, eventually owning 4,300 acres. Details are a bit sketchy; some records were lost when the Blanco County courthouse burned down, others when a tornado destroyed the family home in the 1920s.
“Ninety-five percent of land in Texas is privately owned, so the best chance at protecting land here is if private landowners lead the cause by electing to protect their own land in partnership with conservation organizations."
Over the years, pieces of the ranch were sold off. Today, it encompasses 1,415 acres of Llano Uplift in the Colorado River watershed, falling in both Blanco and Gillespie Counties. In 2008, Hicks, Green and other members of their extended family approached the Texas Land Conservancy (TLC), says executive director Mark Steinbach. The land conservation non-profit has been around since 1981 and preserved 108 properties totaling 80,000 acres around Texas.
“We completed a project with two adjacent properties in 2007, and the owner was so happy with the result that he recommended us to Howard Hicks,” says Steinbach. Hicks completed an easement on his individual property adjoining the Pike Davis Ranch in 2008. TLC staff spent the next four years meeting with the various owners and bringing everyone to agreement about how they wanted the preserve the ranch.
Together, these four properties protect 2,115 acres of Hill Country landscape, an area larger than Garner State Park and including frontage on the Pedernales River. It includes abundant native plants and natural habitat, water resources, and a lot of history. The latter means the most to Green. “Just to go around and say, my relatives walked here, that’s the most important thing to me.”
For TLC, one of the most important conservation values is the joining of the four properties. “It’s a tenfold outcome versus one piece of property,” Steinbach says. “Stitching together private lands in this way allows us to protect vast landscapes. With the price of land in the Hill Country, it’s nearly impossible to protect such large tracts without working in partnership with landowners.”
Conservation easements are a tool to help families with their long-term planning goals, he explains. Under a voluntary, negotiated agreement with TLC, the owners retain the right to build houses, within reason, and conduct other activities such as agriculture and hunting. “Easements protect the property from land fragmentation, and large-scale or intensive development,” Steinbach explains. “The landowner can pass it down to heirs, or sell it. The easement is perpetual and so runs with title of the land.” Tax benefits are the main takeaway for landowners, he adds. “By donating development rights to us, the owners can take a tax deduction of that value.”
Typically, the taxable value of the property is diminished by anywhere from 30 to 50 percent. “If the land is worth a million dollars, then perhaps $300,000 of that would be donated. With Hill Country land as valuable as it has become, that makes for a good enough incentive.” But even with tax benefits, the easement is not a money making strategy for landowners. Those who enter into an easement tend to have a conservation ethic in the first place.
“This will be the second centennial ranch, meaning one in the same family for more than a century, for us,” Steinbach adds. “It’s pretty significant that a family could hold land together for that amount of time, and now ensure that the next generation can hold the land. It’s a historically significant piece of property.”
The ranch will not be open to the public, which is the case with many conservation easements, but it will contribute to the public good, says TLC Outreach Coordinator Callie Thompson. “Ninety-five percent of land in Texas is privately owned, so the best chance at protecting land here is if private landowners lead the cause by electing to protect their own land in partnership with conservation organizations. Because Pike Davis will never become a shopping mall or parking lot, it will continue to be a public asset through its preservation of scenic views for everyone, protection of water quality, and conservation of native plant and animal species.”
Without the easement, the ranch most likely would be developed at some point. “Areas in Texas that are not under some kind of conservation easement, or that aren’t large properties that someone can afford to keep, are going to be developed,” Howard says.