News The bird is the word 

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The golden-cheeked warbler is listed on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife's federal endangered species list. In Bexar County, it breeds and nests in several areas, including the PGA development.
How does the golden-cheeked warbler fare in the PGA development?

The song of the golden-cheeked warbler is a sweet, shrill trill: three short whistles followed by a long, held note, and a brief, finishing tweet. If you were at the right place at the right time, you could hear the song in the stands of mature ash junipers in north Bexar County, site of the future PGA development.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife has issued for public comment a draft habitat conservation plan that if approved, would forever set aside 760 acres on the controversial Lumbermen's Inc. development for the endangered songbird. In return, the developer will develop about 846 acres and receive a 30-year "incidental take permit," allowing Lumbermen's to "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, capture, or collect" the golden-cheeked warbler, as long is the take isn't purposeful, but a by-product of building on the land.

It would be the first take of the golden-cheeked warbler in Bexar County. A Lumbermen's spokesperson could not be reached at its Austin or Dallas offices.

While the 100-page document evaluated several alternatives to protect the golden-cheeked warbler, questions linger about environmental monitoring and funding of the development.

Char Miller, historian and director of Trinity University's Urban Studies Program, said that after reviewing the plan, "I was more impressed than I anticipated being. It raises issues that aren't ordinarily addressed, but whether that means someone is paying attention is a whole other game."

Miller is referring to several unknowns within the plan, including who will monitor the habitat preserve. Lumbermen's is responsible for conducting or subcontracting bird surveys, but USFW will have to rely largely on the quality of the developer's data.

Comment on the plan

U.S. Fish & Wildlife plans to post the draft Habitat Conservation Plan on its website (http://ifw2es.fws.gov/AustinTexas/).

To receive a hard copy of the HCP, call 512-490-0057. Public comments are due by July 1 to the Ecological Services Field Office, 10711 Burnet Road, Suite 200, Austin, TX 78758-4460.

The proposed plan notes that the number of warblers "taken" will be unknown because of the difficulty in conducting an accurate survey. "The take is not characterized by an exact bird count, but in a destruction of habitat." Moreover, the plan notes that USFW and Lumbermen's "are in disagreement, to a degree, over the extent of warbler habitat on the property" because of the way data is interpreted.

Under the proposed plan, surveys would be conducted in the conservation area every other year for a decade and then every third year through the lifespan of the permit.

Robert Pine and Scott Rowin of USFW's Ecological Service in Austin said there are legal and practical reasons the agency relies on data from the permit-holder. In the 1970s, when the Endangered Species Act was written, said Rowin, a wildlife biologist, the thinking was that with federal guidance, "a private entity needed to figure out what would work within the context of their project."

If Lumbermen's violates the agreement, it can be fined $25,000 or more.

Moreover, budget cuts and subsequent staffing squeezes at USFW prohibit the agency from monitoring all the preservations and projects. The Austin office has 24 people to oversee 78 counties. "There is no way we could monitor the plans," Pine said.

According to surveys commissioned by Lumbermen's and submitted to USFW, the songbird has been spotted on all parts of the 2,855-acre property. USFW settled on preserving habitat in the 258-acre North Triangle Tract and parts of the 785-acre Wolverton Tract, which lies to the east. These areas are adjacent to other hospitable wooded areas, providing a continuous warbler habitat.

It is also unclear what "management entity" will monitor not only the preserve, but also water usage (estimated to be 2.1 million gallons daily) and runoff. Although golf course irrigation water will be recycled, it's less clear whether recycled water will be used on private lawns.

The cost of monitoring is estimated at $2 million over 20 years. Lumbermen's will be required to cover these costs for the first five years; afterward, the financial responsibility will be assigned to the property owner's association.

USFW also lists indirect environmental impacts, including the 42,000 daily car trips that are projected to clog U.S. Highway 281. These emissions could worsen Bexar County's near non-attainment status for ground-level ozone; it exceeds federal air quality rules for an eight-hour standard.

With these and other caveats, including the development's spurring of other large-scale master-planned communities, Miller said that the upside of the project is that "knowing it's going to be developed anyway, it seems to be potentially the most environmentally rigorous planned development in the community yet."

"This is a golden opportunity for Lumbermen's to reclaim a moral high ground that they don't have in this community. It may start to nibble away at the issue of 'development at all costs.'"

By Lisa Sorg


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