Barnes: George Cofer works to save open spaces

myStatesman – March 23, 2013

In 1961, when George Cofer and his friends from West Lake Hills entered the halls of what was then O. Henry Junior High on West 10th Street, they ran smack into an Austin version of culture shock.

“West Lake primarily was known for bootleggers, stonemasons and cedar-choppers,” Cofer, 64, drawls with amusement about the rap on his hometown, then considered on the “wrong” side of the river. “Those were not derogatory terms at the time to us. The Tarrytown girls labeled us hicks. They’d been to cotillions and coming-out parties. We’d been out hunting and fishing.”

Although Cofer became one of the most recognizable players on Austin’s environmental scene, the head of the Hill Country Conservancy never abandoned his elemental zeal for the out of doors. He stayed active in Scouting, swam competitively and water-skied with his wide circle of friends. He fought to save Barton Springs and camped out at Edenic spots, such as Storm Ranch in Hays County, open space that the Conservancy later helped to preserve.

“George found his ‘niche’ in the fight to protect Barton Springs,” says Mary Arnold, godmother to Austin’s green movement. “We and future generations will benefit from his dedication, his energy, his way of educating others to the value of conserving the land, and his determination to find resources to accomplish the conservancy’s goals.”

Cofer has led the charge to snap up conservation easements in the Hill Country, allowing some private projects, thereby securing legal protection for other open space in perpetuity.

Soon, his group will help break ground on Phase 2 of a grand project — the 30-mile Violet Crown Trail that will link the parks and greenbelts in Austin’s urban core toward a spine of Hill Country that arcs across the Barton Springs recharge zone.

“What open space the community is able to preserve in the next 25 years is probably the only land that will be forever in a natural or green state,” he says. “As we say at the conservancy, when it’s gone, it’s gone for good. When the conservancy preserves the land, it’s here forever.”

Texan through and through

Few Central Texans come to a love of this land — and an understanding of how power works — with family credentials as sterling as Cofer’s.

“We don’t talk about it,” says the sixth-generation Texan. “But we are very glad we have those deep roots.”

On his father’s side, Cofer is descended from Texas lawyers, judges and elected officials. His father, Hume Cofer, served as state district judge. His mother, Carolyn FitzGerald Chapman, counts ranchers, aldermen and at least one Texas land commissioner among her relatives. A school nutritionist, Chapman also served as an executive assistant for a state legislator.

Cofer’s parents divorced when he was 15 and both remarried. He remains close with siblings and step-siblings. One brother, Bill Cofer, runs the ancestral ranch on the Frio River.

“We were riding horses at the ranch since we were babies,” Cofer says. “My grandmother’s preference was that we stop in San Antonio at the Menger Hotel. When she grew up going to the ranch it was a two-day trip. She never got quite used to driving straight through.”

His step-dad, deceased banker Neal Dow Chapman, was quite the fisherman, friend of famed Central Texans Conrad Fath and Russell Lee, and he served as Cofer’s Explorer troop scoutmaster.

“Our vacations were really fun camping trips to places like Mexico or Port Aransas,” Cofer fondly recalls. “We used to camp for a week at Hamilton Pool — right by the pool!”

Cofer swam freestyle sprints for the Austin Aquatic Club and later the University of Texas. His Scouting career peaked with the 1960 National Jamboree in Colorado Springs, Colo., and an enviable trip to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.

Did he inherit this propensity for the natural world?

“I’ve always been interested in how much is social and how much hard-wired,” Cofer says. “I must have some genetic affinity for the great outdoors, but I think Scouting and ranching contributed to that life.”

Winding paths to maturity

In seventh and ninth grades, at least when the legislature was in session, Cofer didn’t go to school at all. He worked instead as a Senate page or a House clerk at the Capitol.

Later, he and his brother ran a Lake Austin beer joint called the Pier.

“I’d go to UT in the morning, the Capitol in the afternoon, the Pier at night,” he says. “We were lake rats, living in a shack on the lake.”

Throughout his youth, Cofer was social and something of a ne’er-do-well. Among his high school friends were future power broker Ed Wendler Jr., Salt Lick owner Scott Roberts and golf course designer Roy Bechtol. His “running, trouble-making buddies” were Roy Duckworth, Robert Furlow and Kristy Billy.

“Yes, Billy was his last name,” Cofer says. “His dad owned several beer joints — Pink Flamingo and Bamboo Hut — we had fun in those places as well.”

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Cofer says he chose University of California-Santa Barbara for his pre-UT semesters because Playboy rated the No. 1 party school in America. While studying aerospace engineering — he wanted to be an astronaut — he also got in plenty of surfing.

In an almost inevitable rite of passage for the 1960s, he followed his sister up to Haight-Ashbury in San Fransisco.

Back at UT in Austin, he discovered the best parties were in the Classics Department — “they drank wine” — then moved on to seek a bachelor of arts. He took his time.

“That term ‘slacker’?” he says. “We all had Ph.D.s in Slackerism. UT cost $200 a semester. You could be at the lake in 10 minutes. We had the best music in the world, all the good honky-tonks. It was easier, freer, more open then.”

He graduated in 1971. Following the logic of the time, the lover of fine woodworking and remodeling started Hill Country Haze Construction, which lasted until 1984.

His first marriage in the 1970s produced one daughter, Chesleigh Lloyd. He’s been married to Mary Elizabeth Morgan since 1987. She had one daughter from a previous marriage, Hanna Robin Morgan, whom Cofer adopted Feb. 19.

“Which I think sets the record for slowness,” Cofer jokes. “Twenty-six years it took.”

The early green years

The Rollingwood resident attended his first meeting for the Save Barton Creek Association — the precursor to Save Our Springs (SOS) — in 1990.

“I had not been paying attention to the debate about land use and development or whether development in the Barton Creek watershed would affect Barton Springs,” Cofer admits. “I asked: ‘What do you mean there’s a debate?” I’d witnessed significant changes to the creek going back to the construction of Barton Creek Mall.”

Green pioneers such as Jack and Jackie Goodman, Shudde Fath, Wayne Gronquist and Bert Cromack had manned the environmental barricades for at least 15 years at this point. It was Cofer’s turn.

“George was never seeking personal recognition, but always willing to be in the background and help with whatever needed to be done,” Mary Arnold says. “And he was willing to stay involved for the long haul. And a long haul it has been!”

Grassroots fundraising was his first goal.

“Bill Bunch and I were able to get Jim Hightower to agree to have Robert Redford to do a fundraiser for Barton Springs at the Umlaufs,” Cofer says. “It was 100 bucks a person. Sold out because of Mr. Redford. Couldn’t be a nicer guy.”

Cofer was drafted to serve as programs manager — unpaid at first — of the association. He did what he continues to do well — gave outdoor tours, organized clean-ups, worked with educational and governmental groups.

“It was definitely a labor of love,” he says. “What mattered was that I was doing something I thought was important. We were fighting the good fight.”

Educating folks on how the underground aquifer directly affected water quality was not easy at first. Nevertheless, Austin passed a series of water protection ordinances collectively known as “SOS.” The Texas Legislature and some local politicians maneuvered to get around SOS.

Eventually, though, Cofer also changed his tactics.

Working on a retail project proposed for the MoPac Boulevard extension near the Barton Springs recharge zone in Southwest Austin, he broke with the all-or-nothing, line-in-the-sand strategies of some fellow activists.

“Instead of proposing to develop 15 percent of the land, it was more like 45 percent,” Cofer recalls of the developers’ daring plan. “In return, though, landowners gave up 300 acres and a very significant cave. And built a huge runoff pond. It made more sense.”

The Save Our Springs advocacy group — he served on the board at the time — vehemently opposed it. So Cofer resigned.

From that point on, Cofer, who remains friendly with SOS leaders such as Bill Bunch, became associated with alternative strategies for preserving open spaces. He embraced notions such as encouraging quality density in the urban core as an antidote to limitless sprawl.

“People can love or hate SOS,” Cofer says. “But I do credit it with starting a serious conversation about environmental protection and water quality. Now it has evolved into a discussion of water quantity as well.”

The conservancy model

“George is a leader,” says innovative developer Terry Mitchell. “He does not speak to be heard, but to accomplish his mission. George is respected by the environmental community, the real estate community and civic leaders throughout the Austin area.”

The legal notion of private entities buying up development rights and investing in physical improvements goes back at least 100 years. The enormous, nationwide Nature Conservancy was founded in 1951 and the Texas Land Conservancy got going in 1982.

The Hill Country Conservancy, which Cofer founded in 1999, focuses on land near recharge zones southwest of Austin’s core. The group also works to influence development codes and regional planning.

This land trust project grew out of peace talks between green leaders and the developers. Cofer introduced the idea of easements.

“I knew about conservation easements from the landowners side,” he says, referring to the family ranch on the Frio. “It made sense to me. In a document recorded at courthouse, the terms are perpetual and set out the rights that the family reserves and the rights that are extinguished.”

One rhetorical sidestep helped to win over landowners, some of whom had joined the land rights movement in the 1990s.

“The Hill Country Conservancy is not for or against growth,” he says. “But when families want to preserve their land for a ranch, or a nature preserve, or a bed and breakfast, or a vineyard, or a hunting lease, it’s incumbent on all land trusts to make sure in the agreement that the family reserves enough rights to be economically successful.”

Critics accuse the conservancy of preserving the views of owners already rich in land, but to Cofer, open space is open space.

One of the biggest “gets” was Storm Ranch between Drippings Springs and Wimberley. Cofer had grown up with the children of late oilman and rancher Lynn Storm, who treasured his 5,700-acre ranch.

At one point during a ranch tour, Cofer recalls, a documentary film crew member posed a question to the ranch owner.

“Mr. Storm, this is an extraordinarily beautiful place and obviously worth a lot of money, have you ever thought about selling it,” Cofer retells. “He said: ‘I would sooner go to hell.’ It got very quiet in the truck.”

The agreement allows the Storm descendants to continue traditional agriculture, hunting and horseback riding, but protects the water and land as a single ranch.

At the Dahlstrom Ranch, right outside Buda, the relatives of Gay Ruby Dahlstrom had held 2,300 acres for three generations. It now supports an exotic game ranch, operated by fun-loving Jack Dahlstrom, her son, and small gravel quarry. Yet the ranch hid another extraordinary value.

“Jack pointed out cave entrances,” Cofer recalls of his first visit. “Some were covered with dirt, looked like low spots in the pastures. We got together with cave and aquifer experts and cleaned them out. They are still finding caves on that place. When it rains, water pours directly into the aquifer. What goes in, comes out at Barton Springs.”

Protecting caves like these makes economic sense as well.

“The water that comes off our yards, streets and parking lots has to be cleaned up,” Cofer points out. “It is exponentially more cost-effective to keep the water clean at its source. That’s the key link between land conservation and the water.”

Luckily, Gay Ruby Dahlstrom understood, as Cofer learned during negotiations.

“She had not mentioned any partitioning or rights to build homes,” Cofers remembers. “I said ‘Mrs. Dahlstrom that’s a beautiful vision, but wouldn’t you like to reserve the right to partition a small piece of the ranch and sell part of it, or give it to your children?’ She stopped me and said: ‘Mr. Cofer, what part of this conversation do you not understand?’ ”

A vision of green networks

Cofer foresees the Violet Crown Trail becoming the “trunk line” of 200-mile system that links up with the Butler Trail around Lady Bird Lake as well as the northern and eastern trails, including those along Shoal and Waller creeks.

The section between Zilker Park and Sunset Valley, including four miles along the Barton Creek Greenbelt, is done. Phase 2, to cost $6 million, will take two years to construct and extend the network to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Circle C Veloway.

“Connectivity is the big goal in these neighborhoods,” Cofer says. “But the Violet Crown Trail will not go all the way to Onion Creek because we don’t want it trashed like Twin Falls and Sculpture Falls get trashed every weekend on Barton Creek.”

The trail also showcases land that the Conservancy has saved since the 1990s.

“This may well be a game changer in how Central Texans can experience the beautiful Texas Hill Country,” Mitchell says. “I am hopeful that George’s leadership will provide a road map for many of us to take steps to preserve our unique environment. A lot of people talk about helping the environment, but no one in this city has done as much as George to improve and preserve it.”