In Texas, Private Landowners Hold Their Ground

Photograph by Sarah Wilson

In Texas, Private Landowners Hold Their Ground

Texas is no stranger to the oil business. But with the new boom, private landowners are forcing oil and gas companies to clean up their act.

By Dan Oko
Published: 12/16/2013

This article is part of Audubon's Fossil Fuel Boom series, which explores how oil and gas extraction in the United States is affecting wildlife, habitat, and people. Read more stories here.

Twenty-one years ago Buddy Temple bought an 11,300-acre ranch in South Texas and set about transforming the property from an overgrazed, overhunted, mesquite-studded parcel to exemplary wildlife habitat. Through prescribed burns and native plant restoration, Temple created a haven for bobwhite quail, Rio Grande turkey, white-tailed deer, bobcats, and the occasional mountain lion. In 2011 the Temple family won a $10,000 Aldo Leopold Award for its conservation work. At about the same time, a work crew showed up with orders to lay a 30-inch oil pipe across five miles of the newly rehabilitated Temple Ranch. 

Temple was not happy about it, but the former Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate knew there was no way to stop it. In Texas the energy industry is a part of the social and regulatory fabric. The pipeline company had already established eminent domain.

Rather than let them ride roughshod over his land, Temple demanded that the company save the topsoil from the project and, after it buried the pipe, replace the soil and pay to reseed the roadbed and buffers with native grasses. "We would prefer the pipeline would not be there," Temple says today. "But they would rather have an agreement than a lawsuit. We're very proud of what we accomplished."

Just a few miles from his spread lays the Eagle Ford play, one of the nation's fracking hotspots, a 50-mile-wide shale formation stretching 400 miles from the Dallas suburbs to the Mexican border. This play, or area with suspected hydrocarbons, hosts more than 1,250 producing oil leases and nearly a thousand gas wells, almost exclusively on private land. Gas and oil development across the region is expected to draw $30 billion in investments this year. Texas has long been the nation's leader in crude oil production, and now it ranks as one of the 15 largest oil producers in the world. By providing access to gas and oil that was previously considered off-limits, fracking has helped revive the economic fortunes of many communities and companies after oil development slowed in the 1980s.

To mitigate the ecological damage wreaked by these developments, ranchers are increasingly insisting on strict reclamation contracts like the one Temple secured. It's a big deal, since 96 percent of the land in Texas is privately held. Oil field restoration stands to benefit migratory birds as well as such rare but iconic Western species as the Texas tortoise, the horny toad lizard, and the bobwhite quail. Drought and dropping water tables have also helped this coalition of Lone Star State conservationists broaden discussions about balancing energy demands with environmental concerns, pushing companies to use less destructive resource extraction technology, like directional drilling, and reduce their freshwater consumption.

Green groups are helping these ranchers outline the steps they would like energy companies to take, mindful of fracking's widespread support and position as the state's No. 1 industry, says Audubon Texas executive director Brian Trusty. Instead of blanket opposition to fracking, they're pushing for better wastewater treatment and disposal. Wastewater ponds should be sealed below to protect groundwater and netted over the top to keep birds and other wildlife from bathing in the toxic discharge. "It's really about managing risk," says Trusty. "All of these [energy] technologies carry risks."

Take wind, for example. Texas is already a leader in the renewable energy source, with nearly 10,000 turbines providing seven percent of electricity statewide. With wind power, as with fracking, environmental groups, including Audubon Texas, favor a balanced approach that safeguards wildlife while ensuring continued development. In the absence of strong state regulations they embrace and advocate volunteer efforts that rely on the goodwill of landowners and look for ways to drive the energy industry to consider ecological impacts like fragmentation, a consequence of energy development easily seen at the Eagle Ford play.  

"This was one of the most pristine areas of Texas," biologist and native plant specialist Forrest Smith says of the play. A consultant to conservation-minded landowners interested in habitat enhancement, he's a native Texan who first moved to the area in 1999 and now coordinates the South Texas Natives seed bank for the Kleberg Wildlife Institute at Texas A&M-Kingsville. Smith estimates that as much as 20 percent of the habitat across the South Texas ranches he works with has vanished beneath newly built roads. "It's becoming almost an industrial area. Overall diversity is really degraded."

One thing that would help--both with fracking sites and wind farms--is a comprehensive strategy to protect habitat affected by energy development, which could further protect wildlife. "The state has a 50-year water plan, but we don't have a rational energy plan," says Laura Huffman, state director for the Nature Conservancy. "We need to know the impact to our land, the impact to water."

Until then, advances will be left largely to the landowners. Fortunately, Temple is in good company. "A majority of the ranches are owned for cattle, wildlife, hunting, or recreation," says Smith. "The owners are sensitive to the impact of industry." In addition to forcing companies to restore land, some are asking them to take their efforts a step further, like installing washtubs and requiring truck drivers and heavy equipment operators to rinse their tires to keep out exotic plants. Another way landowners are limiting industry impact, meanwhile, is to require gas and oil workers to paint wellheads so they blend in with the surrounding landscape. It's a step in the right direction, if a small one. In the face of Texas's new energy boom, it is going take more than a paint job to preserve what's left of the natural state.

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Dan Oko

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine