In a two-day event organized by the Texas Tribune, more than 200 officials, agriculture stakeholders including NRI's director Dr. Roel Lopez, and residents from across the state gathered to discuss and answer questions about challenges and opportunities facing rural Texans.
We're grateful for the opportunity to openly discuss and debate hard issues where shifts in perspectives are spurred by research in the field, by events happening right now. As Dr. Lopez pointed out, the best path forward is to continue to build more resilient rural communities and landscapes—after all, land is the most important rural infrastructure in Texas.
Day 2 of symposium touches on issues facing rural Texans
Elected officials, industry experts weigh in during event at Texas A&M
More than 200 officials, agriculture stakeholders and residents from across the state gathered in the Century Ballroom of the Doug Pitcock '49 Texas A&M Hotel and Conference Center on Tuesday for the second day of a two-day symposium -- hosted by the Texas Tribune in partnership with The Eagle -- on challenges and opportunities facing rural Texans.
Along with elected officials such as Texas comptroller Glenn Hegar, several Brazos Valley-based speakers presented Tuesday, including Texas Rep. Kyle Kacal. He was one of four panelists during a session titled "Preserving Natural Resources."
Moderator Andrew Sansom asked the panelists about their hopes for the upcoming legislative session, and Kacal was the first to respond.
"I hope that it's business as usual -- that we focus on what's good for the state," he said.
Kacal was one of several legislators throughout the two-day program to name public education as an essential area of focus.
"Public education is what I'm looking forward to because I represent 32 rural schools, 3A and down, grades pre-K [through] 12, 360 kids," he said.
Kacal's fellow panelist Roel Lopez, director of the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute, called for continued and increased funding of the Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program, which was first established by the state government in 2005. TFRL is now part of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's larger mission of conserving natural resources, according to its website.
"One of the values of a state fund like that is, frankly, the matching dollars to federal programs," Lopez said.
He also reflected on a changing landscape of rural Texas.
"Texas is comprised of 171 million acres. When you look at that 171 million acres, 83 percent is a farm, a ranch or family forest. Those working lands, as we call them, provide many public benefits to all of us," Lopez said.
Hegar spoke following the panel. He said sales tax collections for the past fiscal year grew by 10 percent from the previous year, and total tax collections grew by 12 percent over the 2017 fiscal year. Natural gas tax collections went up by 46 percent.
"What does that mean across the entire state of Texas? In fact, part of the discussion we're having today is that what happens in certain areas of the state are not necessarily applicable to the rest of the state," he said.
Hegar, a 1993 graduate of Texas A&M University, said two-thirds of Texas counties are non-metropolitan, and that urban counties have rural swaths as well. He stressed the importance of recognizing that economic opportunities available in some parts of the state may not be available to some rural Texans.
Lara Zent, executive director and general counsel of the Texas Rural Water Association, spoke about challenges facing Texans in terms of water infrastructure.
"A lot of these systems were put in place many years ago. Waste water infrastructure is very expensive, and it's more expensive for smaller communities," she said.
Zent added that treatment of water can also be challenging.
"We want to ensure that there is supply that's left for those communities, and an affordable price to them," she said of her association's work.
Blair Fitzsimons, CEO of the Texas Agricultural Land Trust, said some rural land owners and other workers also face a difficult choice to either "hold on or sell out," and she encouraged leaders to help find ways to expand those options.
"Right now, often times it's hard to say no to a developer's offer. So that's why we talk about needing more programs that provide financial incentives for those land owners -- so that they have a choice between hold out and sell out," Fitzsimons said.
From the Brazos Valley, Becky Garlick, executive dean of Blinn College; and Joe Outlaw, Texas A&M professor and Extension economist in the department of agricultural economics, also spoke at Tuesday's event.
Originally published on The Eagle