Candid Camera

In the Texas Hill Country, the limestone hills and spring-fed river region between Austin and San Antonio, people like to say their favorite color is camouflage—hunting has traditionally supplemented ranchers" incomes. As land values have increased from $300 to $2,000 per acre in just a few years, ranchers feel pressured between holding onto their family land and scrambling to pay skyrocketing property taxes.

The author packs cameras, not guns, on her trips into the Texas Hill Country.©Francis Zera/zeraphoto.com

Few can hold out against the high prices paid by developers, but once rolling hills turn into concrete-paved subdivisions, habitat for mountain lion, deer, bobcat, coyote, wild turkey, quail and the endangered black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler disappears forever.

The lure of catching wildlife on camera may save Hill Country ranchers" way of life, not to mention disappearing open spaces. Instead of shooting deer with a rifle, people are paying money for a chance at shooting wildlife on film.

"Five years ago, landowners would have laughed you off their land," says ecotourism consultant Loy Sneary, who coordinated a three-day seminar on photography leases in the Central Texas Hills and Rivers Region last year. He says that property owners are beginning to realize that the lens, rather than the bullet, may provide ranchers a win-win solution.

"A 500-acre tract of land could clear around $32,000 a year from photography," says Sneary, basing his conclusion on seven blinds booked 30 days a year, charging $150 a day. In contrast, a hunter pays around $2,000 to $4,000 for seasonal access, but needs nearly the whole acreage.

Photographers are lighter on the land than hunters, says Bob Foreman, former Houston restaurant entrepreneur who retired on the Segovia, Texas CAVU Canyon Ranch, which provides cabins and photo blinds to visitors. He’s joined several other ranchers who lead the way for this new phenomenon, including Red Creek Nature Ranch near Junction. Other ranchers lease their land for day use.

"You don’t just put blinds on your property and photographers show up. You have to build the blinds, for around $1,000 each," says Sneary. "The other thing you have to do is locate the photo blind in a place where wildlife is going to be, such as close to running or standing water."

The nonprofit Images for Conservation Fund (ICF) plans to take the photo lease trend nationwide. The first national ICF Pro Tour of Photography was held in the Hill Country last April, with well-known nature photographer Art Wolfe as one of the judges. The Tour lasts a month, and photographers visit a handful of carefully chosen ranch properties, on which they create a 75-photo portfolio.

The tour gives out more than $200,000 in cash prizes and winning photos are published in a commemorative coffee table book used to raise awareness of the region as an ecotourist destination. Future tours will be held in other states. According to ICF, "Our ultimate goal is to galvanize the nation’s 26 million nature photographers into a viable economic force for the future of habitat conservation."