Going Green

Friday, March 21, 2008

Agricultural and Nature Tourism for the Texas Panhandle

Some time back I wrote about the opportunity of generating income from individuals who were interested in viewing nature. I am sure the idea was met with skepticism by most of the landowners who read the article. Lease income from hunters has become a significant source of income for those whose land provides good habitat for deer. Occasionally, we find someone who is generating income from quail, pheasant and dove leases. These are great ways to supplement income on land that is increasingly priced far above its productive value.

This past weekend, while attending the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Convention, I met some folks who are taking a completely new approach to generating income from nature tourism. It is an organization called “Images for Conservation Fund” (ICF) founded by John and Audrey Martin. What is unique about their approach is that it utilizes the free enterprise market system to both provide funds for conservation of prime wildlife habitat and income for the landowner.

One method the ICF utilizes for raising funds is built around the need for professional photographers to have access to prime habitat for photographing wildlife in their native surroundings. In response to this need, they have organized the Pro-Tour of Nature Photography which is styled along the lines of a professional golf tour. The tour is funded by donations from major corporate sponsors (just like a golf tour).

The organizers of the tour enroll twenty ranches and twenty professional photographers in the program for each event. The 2008 contest will be held during the month of April in the Coastal Bend. The landowner and photographer become a team for the month of April and are charged with producing a portfolio of images from several nature categories that showcase the diversity of the ranch. At the end of the month, they submit their photographs for judging. Prize money is awarded to multiple levels and categories so that all participants have the opportunity of sharing in the reward.

Through corporate sponsorships, the prize money can be significant. Here comes the part that is important to the landowners. The ranches receive half of the money raised. The first Pro-Tour, which was held in the Texas Hill Country in 2006, paid $160,000 in prize money with half going to the participating ranches.

The Pro-Tour of Nature Photography is a special event that is held every other year. Nature photographers seek access on a continual basis. My Trade Show booth was located next to the ICF booth and so I was able to visit at length with the Martins and some of their staff and volunteers. There are ranches in the Hill Country, the Coastal Bend and the Lower Rio Grande Valley already hosting photographers with the going rate of $100-$150 per day for access to the photo setting. Photography is low impact and can be a compatible addition to other ranch enterprises.

Do we have the type of landscape that would attract nature tourists to the Panhandle? Absolutely – and not just to the grandeur of places like Palo Duro Canyon or the Canadian River breaks. Our playa lakes are locations where there is a significant congregation of wildlife – especially at certain times of the year. Locations along the various creeks that traverse the area also could hold promise to wildlife photographers.

Photography is not the only opportunity for tourism dollars. There are companies that specialize in providing tours for foreign visitors to our country. Those visitors are interested in seeing what we do and agriculture is of great interest to them. Such visitors would be interested in seeing everything from how we raise cotton or corn to cattle grazing on wheat pasture. The landowner/operator could be as involved as he wanted to be with the tourists visiting his land. A personal tour in which one was available to answer questions would be one way to participate. For the truly creative, a Barbeque dinner somewhere on the place could be another way to both generate income and create goodwill.

As urban sprawl puts continued pressure on land prices, it is necessary to explore additional sources of revenue to maintain operations that can be sustained based on their productive value. Agricultural and nature tourism are definite possibilities for generating additional income.

Images for Conservation Fund can be found on the web at http://www.imagesforconservation.org/.

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