A Playa Rehab on the West Texas Plains

 

Mark Hilliard of Hale County, Texas, says, “This is cotton country. It’s rare to find a pristine playa lake.” He bought the native grassland on which the playa sits from family members, then protected the playa and its grassland buffer with a permanent Wetlands Reserve Easement. He couldn’t be more happy with NRCS assistance removing sediment from the playa to improve its function and create bird habitat. Learn what’s involved in negotiating a perpetual easement.

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This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.

For over 20 years, the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Wetlands Reserve Program has been offering landowners the opportunity to protect, restore, and enhance wetlands on their property. With the 2014 Farm Bill, that program, along with two others, has been consolidated into the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. The goal of Wetlands Reserve Easements is to achieve the greatest wetland functions and best possible wildlife habitat, on every acre enrolled in the program. Lands eligible for consideration include farmed wetlands, like maybe a playa lake in the middle of a field, farmed wetland pasture, and lands that have potential to become a wetland owing to flooding. NRCS provides technical and financial support to landowners, and typically contracts a conservation easement with the landowner, for 30 years or perpetually.

“Some people listening might wonder why would anybody want to do that for a lifetime easement.”

Blake McLemore is the NRCS district conservationist in McPherson, Kansas.

“If someone came in and applied for the program and were put into the contract, they would get a lump sum of money on a certain dollar rate per acre. They would get that up front, and by agreeing to do a lifetime easement, they are agreeing that they still own the rights to the property and whatnot, but they do not have authority to make any land use changes.”

Today, we’re going to west Texas to hear a Wetlands Reserve Easement success story — that part of Texas south of Amarillo and north of Lubbock.

“Plainview, which is halfway in the middle”

Meet Mark Hilliard. He’s an art professor.

“ I went to Wayland Baptist University in Plainview.”

He manages the family farm:

“Corn, cotton, wheat, milo — irrigated; some dryland milo and a little bit of dryland wheat; stocker cattle; 400 acres total.”

He’s rehabbing a playa lake on 95 acres of virgin grassland he bought from his family.

“Of that 95, about 76 of it is in native shortgrass prairie. The playa itself, I think the surface area when full is about 22 acres and the basin, I believe, NRCS measured at 44 acres. We’ve got 72 acres enrolled in the conservation easement.”

Mark put this land under a perpetual conservation easement, but hold on a minute. We’re in West Texas, oftentimes bone dry West Texas, and there’s a Wetlands Reserve project in these parts?

“They’re finally beginning to recognize that we have wetlands out here. And so they want to get as many of these easements out in West Texas as they can. I think there’s three or four other ones up in this area.”

Mark finished the paperwork with NRCS last November and the project, rehabbing and protecting the playa, is underway.

“The nice thing about this playa is it’s never been plowed, it’s never had a big nasty tailwater pit dug in it. It’s real simple on the dirt work. It’s not been abused.”

I asked Mark about that perpetual conservation easement. That seems like a huge and sobering decision, to forever give up the ability to build on the land or put it into production.

“It was a really easy decision on my part. Even though I lose my cattle income off it, I was making $100 a month cattle rent. By the time I pump the water and keep the electric fence hot, I’m not making any money. So it was time to do something different. There’s still opportunities to generate income through ecotourism, pheasant hunting and things of that nature.”

I posed this question to Mark Hilliard: What if a landowner hears this report, and we’ve got them interested in Wetlands Reserve Easements, what would you advise them?

“I’d just tell them to talk to NRCS. Get an evaluation of the property, and see what needs to be done.”

Under a permanent easement contract, NRCS pays 100 percent of the easement value and up to 100 percent of restoration costs. Under a 30-year easement, NRCS pays up to 75 percent of the easement value and up to 75 percent of costs.

This episode of Playa Country was made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures, and the USDA’S Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Original broadcast: May 2014

Posted: August 7, 2016
Topics: Conservation Easements, Ogallala Aquifer Initiative, Playas