As strange hoots and howls echo across the night sky, most kids are unnerved their first night at the El Ranchito Nature Discovery Camp. Very few have slept away from their inner-city homes — even fewer outside in a tent. In the span of one week, something magical happens. They become experts on algae. They are advocates for clean air. They are believers in the wonders of nature.
For Bob Ayres, introducing new generations to outdoor adventures is vital to land conservation. “They will determine the future of our natural resources. My family has always been interested in connecting young people to nature, especially those who otherwise may not get to experience it firsthand.”
Bob’s family provided for programs like El Ranchito in their conservation easement for the Shield Ranch near Austin, Texas. “Growing up in San Antonio I saw ranches become subdivisions and shopping centers, and I could see Austin headed our way. I didn’t want that for our property.”
After a decade of work, Bob’s family agreed on an easement strategy that satisfied conservation and financial interests. Because tax incentives played a significant role, Bob gladly said yes when Lynne Sherrod, Land Trust Alliance western policy
manager, asked for his help to make the enhanced incentive a permanent part of the tax code.
Since 2006, the incentive has increased the pace of conservation by more than 250,000 acres per year in its first two years. It allows family farmers, ranchers and other moderate-income landowners to deduct a larger portion of their income over a longer period of time for their easement donation.
Lynne asked Bob to try to get co-sponsorship of the bill from his representative. In 2009, Bob took time away from a family trip to D.C. to visit Congressman Lamar Smith personally. “I made the case as a satisfied customer. It is effective to reward
families for their time and investment in a public good — the permanent protection of land and water.” Congressman Smith agreed to co-sponsorship that day. “He was impressed by the groups that the Alliance helped get behind the bill. He noted any issue that could bring the Humane Society and 30 hunting and fishing groups together is worth consideration.”
Word spread quickly. Soon, other Texas land trusts contacted their representatives. While the bill is still not permanent, it’s closer than ever before. And Bob’s policy work is not done. “The land conservation community will never reach our goals without government money, incentives and programs.”
Why does he do it? “It’s immensely gratifying to know we’re making a difference. I see it every year with the kids who come through our camp. We’re preserving and sharing something we love.”