A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and the entity which “holds” the easement. Easements are most often held by land trusts, though cities, counties, and other entities may also hold easements. The landowner agrees to restrict certain uses of the property in order to protect its natural or cultural features — its conservation value. The easement holder monitors compliance with the terms of the agreement. Easements may be donated (the donation may qualify as a charitable deduction), or a landowner may be compensated for an easement. A compensated transaction is often referred to as the “purchase of development rights.”

In 1998, when the owners of Shield Ranch donated their first conservation easement to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) of Texas, conservation easements were still new in Texas. At the time, this 4,670 acre easement was the largest easement donation to TNC in Texas.

A second easement, on an adjacent 1,676 acres, was sold to the City of Austin in 1999 as part of Austin’s first voter-approved bond initiative to protect water quality in the Barton Springs Segment of the Edwards Aquifer. Over the years, voters in Austin and Travis county have continued to overwhelmingly support open space bond programs. Since 1998, over 28,000 acres have been protected to ensure water quality in the creeks and springs that contribute to Austin’s water resources.

Today, ninety-three percent of Shield Ranch is protected in perpetuity by these two conservation easements. Together, these agreements preclude residential subdivision and commercial development on the vast majority of the Ranch. They do allow the owners to create limited facilities for nonprofit use; to continue traditional activities such as ranching, hunting, and recreation; and to build a limited number of additional family residences.

Shield Ranch family and staff members are happy to share their conservation easement experience with interested landowners.


One way to learn more about conservation easements is through the Texas Land Trust Council (TLTC). TLTC is a coalition of land trusts that encourages excellence in the land trust community through collaboration, education, and outreach. There are over 30 land trusts across Texas that have helped to conserve more than 1.65 million acres of farms, ranches, waterways, and wildlife habitat.

A Guide for Texas Landowners about Conservation Easements, published by the Texas Land Trust Council can be downloaded here.

TLTC completed a study of the economic benefits of conservation easements in 2019. “Lands were assessed in terms of the services and subsequent taxpayer savings they provide for water quality, water quantity, flood prevention, and rural economies (via agricultural production and wildlife leases). Read the full report here.

An interesting graphic summary of the findings of the the Texas Land Trust Council study on economic benefits can be downloaded here

A guide for conservation easements and land trusts working in the Texas Hill Country region published by the Hill Country Alliance can be downloaded here.

Land Trusts that are working near Shield Ranch include:

More resources on national level land conservation issues, advocacy and education can be found at the Land Trust Alliance.