An end-run on warblers?

Big maps, little birds: tech advisers figurin' on warblers Monday.

By Greg Harman

[email protected]

If landowners around Camp Bullis ever have to sign off with the city regarding endangered species, one thing they probably won't have to swear to is that they actually understand the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

You can thank Gene Dawson Jr. for that.

In an attempt to get a handle on the rapid destruction â?? some call “development” â?? of lands around the military training post in Northwest Bexar County, the Planning Commission's Technical Advisory Committee hashed out preliminary language for a proposed amendment to the city's Unified Development Code.

The addition would require landowners with more than two acres to submit a signed affidavit regarding the presence/absence of rare neo-tropical songbirds or endangered cave spiders on their land any time they are out to clear trees, subdivide, master-plan, or throw down a PUD.

A sustained complaint from environmental and military voices has long held that property owners (developers) are either not doing or not providing their endangered-species surveys for inspection.

After delaying several months for legal analysis, Planning's TAC finally pushed this baby out of the barn.

The language of the affidavit was massaged, however, so landowners will no longer have to swear they are “aware of and have had the opportunity to review the Endangered Species Act's rules and regulations and have complied with the requirements of the Act.”

“There's no way in hell I'd sign that certification,” bleated TAC Vice Chair Steve Hanan, of the Hanan Development Company.

But even without the statement, under the amended version, landowners will still have to have certify they have had a biologist survey their property to declare whether or not endangered critters are about.

The erosion of endangered species habitat around Bullis is putting increasing ESA pressure on the base, according to Bullis brass, and has begun to limit the military's ability to train there.

Committee member Gene Dawson Jr. (left), of Pape-Dawson Engineers, Inc., brought forward the amendment striking the ESA-comprehension clause, saying the committee's effort suffered from a “perception problem” in that “some people don't think it's legal.”

Currently, state law holds that local governments “may not discriminate against a permit 
application, permit approval, or the provision of utility service for land
that: (1) is or has been designated as habitat preserve or potential habitat preserve in a regional habitat conservation plan or habitat conservation
plan; (2) is designated as critical habitat under the federal act; or (3) has endangered species or endangered species habitat.

Responding to that challenge, Norbert Hart of the city attorney's office fussed, “You have to read the whole chapter and not take a clause out of context.”

“It's confusing to the layperson,” Hanen responded, “but we'll rely on your judgments.”

It was voted up without any opposed.

Still with what has been described as the last remaining large unpaved parcel coming up before the City Council for a rezoning request Thursday (389 acres over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone), the affidavit effort is probably arriving years too late.

Long-time activists fighting to protect the Edwards Aquifer, or open space, or cave beetles, or trees â?? or all of the above â?? have learned to ask questions even when they win. Buried in those all-too-rare victories, tend to reside significant glitches: some offender gets a huge pay-off, or a loophole is cleverly wired sub rosa. Which is why `former*` TAC board member Richard Alles was 1) surprised the proposed amendment cleared committee, and 2) is pessimistic about its potential impact.

He wasn't present for the vote, but he mused to the Current this week, “I'm wondering what that really accomplished â?¦ There is a real question as to whether this ordinance is too late to affect any significant development around Camp Bullis.”

Aye! There's the Rub

Meanwhile, across town Monday a committee to the newly formed, state-level “Taskforce on Economic Development and Endangered Species” was getting underway.

Innocuous-sounding enough, the Taskforce was created by legislation carried by San Antonio's state Senator Jeff Wentworth and is intended to, among other things, “assist landowners â?¦ identify, evaluate, and implement cost effective strategies for mitigation of impacts to and recovery of endangered species that will promote economic growth and development in this state.”

The group is led by a panel of state elders not always equated with environmental stewardship: current Comptroller and former Ag Commissioner Susan “Beef Master” Combs, current Ag Commissioner Todd Staples, TxDOT's executive director, and ED's from the Soil & Water Conservation Board and Texas Parks & Wildlife.

Hazards lie ahead should the group seek to emulate the “success” of an endangered species program at Fort Hood championed by former President George W. Bush and put in place with Combs' assistance.

That effort, which pays landowners to lease their lands at 10- and 25-year cycles, has transferred $4.4 million from the federal money to consultants and landowners in a boondoggle deal that U.S. military and USFW biologists say is not doing a thing to help wildlife.

According to The Washington Post, an independent consulting firm hired to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the Fort Hood project “concluded that the military should instead devote resources to the Army Compatible Use Buffer Program, which allows the military to buy permanent conservation easements from willing landowners.”

Wrote WaPo writer Juliet Eilperin earlier this year:

She said she pushed for the funding because she wanted to promote "a tremendously important installation" while helping and educating area ranchers.

"The real issue was how could we persuade landowners to do the right thing for endangered species and also help Fort Hood," said Combs, a cattle rancher whose son spent time on the post before serving in Iraq.

Both Combs and Wilkins said they had made the decision to shield the landowners' identities in order to enlist ranchers in the program. Wilkins -- who said the program had paid $460,522 directly to property owners and spent another $1.9 million on "conservation actions" on their land -- said groups including the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and the Texas Farm Bureau have embraced the project.

It's true enough that Bullis preceded the development that now encircles it. It's also true that local governments have an economic duty to do what they can to help “guard” the base. But, more to the point, all parties involved should be doing what they can to keep unique species that have evolved alongside us, well, in the language rooted at the heart of Wentworth's bill, “solvent.”

Maybe all of us should have to sign an affidavit saying we have read and will abide by this here ESA. Then we can all pile on with earned moral authority and demand that Bullis, the City, Bexar County, and the developers get serious about permanent conservation easements.


`Astute readers may remember Wentworth as the booster who offered Homeland Security all of Texas's “cattle, swine, deer, sheep, goats, buffalo, birds, snakes and bats” if they located their germlab in San Antonio. While we awaited a callback from his office today, we mused that he should be taking a personal interest in the success of this Task Force. In terms of legacy, you know, if you can't get guns on college campuses, maybe you can at least play a part in saving â?? not secretly savaging, a la Fort Hood methodology â?? such melodiously iconic species as our golden-cheeked warbler.`

*correction added August 6, 2009.


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