"We all know that economic development is great for our state, but the downside for agriculture is that for every thousand people who move to this state, we lose on average, depending on what part of the state you're in, about 200 acres," Fitzsimons told the committee. "At the same time, another three and a half million acres are fragmented, meaning they are chopped into smaller and smaller pieces."
Committee member Glenn Hegar of Katy, who lists his occupation as "farmer," remarked on the 200 acres of land lost for every 1,000 new residents.
"We have between 1,000 and 1,300 people a day -- every day -- seven days a week, 365 days a year, moving to the state," he said. "So another number is on top of that, there is now 200 acres lost every single day? That's a number that people can readily grasp and understand."
Most of the information Fitzsimons quoted in her testimony came from Texas Land Trends report done by American Farmland Trust and the Institute for Renewable Natural Resources (IRNR) at Texas A&M University. The report showed that Texas leads the country in privately-owned lands, which accounts for 142 million acres of farm, ranch and timberlands, but is losing a million and a half acres of agricultural land every 10 years.
TALT, a private non-profit group, was founded in 2007 by leaders from the Texas Farm Bureau, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and Texas Wildlife Association in response to the report. TALT works with landowners to protect privately-owned agricultural lands through the use of voluntary conservation easements and also to educate the public about the importance of keeping agricultural lands intact.
Fitzsimons told the committee that some people are inclined to think that with so much private land, 1.5 million acres every 10 years is not significant, but she used water as an example of the direct connection between private land ownership and public policy.
"With 84 to 97 percent of the land being privately owned, depending on what study you're looking at, how that land is managed, the ability of that land to capture and recharge clean water, directly impacts our sources of drinking water," she said.
Fitzsimons added that the most obvious connection between private land ownership and the public welfare is food and fiber. As the second-largest agricultural state in the country, Texas accounts for 7 percent of the country's total agricultural income. Outsourcing food production would have serious national security implications, she said.
"There has been a lot of talk, thought and action devoted to protecting our energy sources in other parts of the world, but very little to the strategic importance of our food supply," she said.
Fitzsimons told the committee that publicly-funded Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) have worked well elsewhere in the country, but that Texas lags behind in implementing PDR's or taking advantage of funds available through USDA to protect agricultural lands. The Texas Legislature created the Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program in 2005 but she said that PDR has gone largely unfunded.
As an example of a PDR that has worked in other parts of the country, Fitzsimons pointed to the New York Watershed Agriculture Program in New York City. She said the program not only revived a faltering New York dairy industry but also saved the city billions of dollars.
In the late 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency mandated that New York City build a new filtration policy at a cost of $4-6 billion plus $250,000 annually to operate it. Instead, the city moved to protect the quality of its source of drinking water -- the highland lakes in upper New York state -- by buying conservation easements on dairy farms surrounding the lakes.
"New York City to date has spent $70 million on easements protecting the quality of its drinking water," said. "That's a win-win for agriculture and for the people in the cities."
Fitzsimmon suggested that the legislature foster a mix of state, regional and local programs to incentivize the stewardship of the state's agricultural lands and natural resources and include watershed protection on private lands in future amendments to the state water plans. She also asked the legislature to consider any requests to fund the Land Trends Study.
"The first two versions of the land study were funded by private organizations," she said. "I'm not sure we can keep going back to them to fund something that's become such a valuable resource. We need data to quantify the unseen benefits of the land that's being lost and to measure the return on any public dollars that are expended to protect the resource."
A video of Fitzsimmmon's presentation is available on the Texas Agricultural Land Trust website at txaglandtrust.org.