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Saving land, rediscovering community 

The Bexar Land Trust has saved tens of thousands of acres of agricultural and park land to help protect San Antonio’s water supply, the Edwards Aquifer. This year, the Trust increased its drive to green the urban core of San Antonio with a potentially self-replicating program of community gardens in and around the heart of Alamo City. It also adopted a new name: Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas.

We caught up with director Julie Koppenheffer this week to talk water security, ranching culture, and the new gardening initiative.

The Bexar Land Trust, what was the primary mission?

It was an outgrowth of the mayor’s open-space advisory board. Members of that board met for 10 years `starting in 1988` trying to formulate a plan of what was going to happen with open space in a period of rapid growth. By ’98 they said, “Growth is continuing. Policies really don’t seem to be implemented. Could we form an organization that will have the ability to maybe implement some of these policies on a voluntary basis?” So they had a meeting in which 160 people appeared and there was a lot of interest in forming a land trust.

Obviously, you focus in the areas where development was occurring …

A main thrust was protection of the aquifer. And using the creekways and waterways of the city to try and keep those corridors of green. So Bexar Land Trust was involved in Proposition 3 `in 2000`, an aquifer-protection initiative, and buying natural areas over the Edwards to protect them from development. Government Canyon, Crownridge Canyon, Rancho Diana — all of those were acquired through the 1/8th-cent sales tax through Proposition 3.

In 2005, the citizens of San Antonio voted again to use a 1/8th-cent sales tax to do aquifer protection. Only this time, it was in Bexar, Medina, and Uvalde counties, in recognition of the fact that our water comes from Bexar and Medina and Uvalde County, and so we have continued to work with the City, the Nature Conservancy, and the Trust for Public Land was involved, in trying to acquire conservation easements. By the end of this program, which is rapidly filling up, we will have preserved together about 55,000 acres. So, a lot of land.

You really can’t legally limit growth in the counties, but we are approaching the point, I mean there is a limit to our resources. But we don’t live that way.

The nice thing about a land trust is it fits the mindset that the government can’t tell me what to do. What we do is we do voluntary agreements, so we don’t tell anybody you have to preserve your land. If a landowner is involved with us, they’re involved with us because they want to be. And in the city of San Antonio Proposition One program, the citizens of San Antonio think water protection is so important they will pay for conservation easements. But the federal government thinks that conservation is important enough that they give a tax deduction for someone granting a conservation easement that won’t be paid for it but will receive tax deductions.

I’m sure you run into landowners, particularly large rural landowners that have an idea of what working with the government is about. And they feel like their only option, you know ranching is a hard business, so they subdivide their ranch or sell off bit by bit.

It’s been very interesting to see. Of course, there is a lot of distrust among landowners in terms of wondering if someone is going to tell me what to do. With conservation easements, they’re negotiated documents. If you want a tax deduction, you have to follow the federal rules, but that being said, you still can own your land, you can still farm it, you can still ranch it, you can still hunt on it, you can still leave it to your heirs, and you can sell it. As long as whatever you’ve agreed to, you observe those things.

There have been those in the past who I’ve met that felt forced to see it broken up, or sell it off, these multi-generational ranches. There’s a lot of heartache over this sort of thing.

In Medina and Uvalde County, where you are dealing with a lot of heritage landowners, where the property has been in their families for 150 years almost. The other thing we’re seeing in Bexar County is we’ve worked with a couple of landowners whose families had owned 15- and 16-thousand acres and they’ve sold it off, and sold it off, and sold it off, and now they’re down to 110 acres. And they understand, you divide that anymore, there is nothing of their family’s history left and they’d really like to preserve it. And they’re torn because these become very valuable properties. And so preservation in some of the most important areas is very difficult. Also, it’s the challenge of keeping this a livable city.

And so you have also started some new initiatives. In what ways have you expanded the organization?

Our focus is still keeping San Antonio green. The community gardens are in recognition that we’re an urban land trust and how do you green the city in quarter-acre lots? How do you get people involved and see the value of nature, relate to where does your food come from? Get the inspiration of seeing caterpillars turning to butterflies and the excitement the kids have when they get into the garden?

So it was part of the same hole, which is, we want to keep people with a relationship with the natural environment, so they see the value of preserving open space. So the community gardens was a way to revitalize, green, and excite people about the natural world.

It was not really changing the focus. It was connecting the name with the activity and so the board came up with Green Spaces Alliance with Lionel Sosa and Kathy Sosa’s help. And the reaction of the community has been, “Gee. That makes a lot of sense. I never did understand Bexar Land Trust.”

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