Page Two

Page Two
"Beware the Salamander, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jujub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

`Tis the season of the salamander, the poor amphibian which has become the poster child of environmental extremism. In the daily paper and on the radio we hear about the crazed, tree-hugging environmentalists who would rather save the salamander than fight for social and economic justice in East Austin or support our deteriorating city services. Imagine what kind of a nut would choose the salamander over human beings, the slimy salamander over improved police, fire, and emergency medical services.

I've ranted on this one before, but this absurd revisionist history is missing the point. The story is not about the salamander, dead or alive. It is about the future of Austin. Over the last two-and-a-half decades the local environmental community has argued that uncontrolled, unplanned long-term growth would negatively impact the area's water base and strain the basic city infrastructure and services. To no one's surprise, this has happened.

If the council and organized citizenry had not fought to control growth to the extent they have, would our city services be better? More density equals more growth. It would be crucial to concentrate on city services if we allowed unrestricted growth because we would have to be expanding them dramatically every year to keep up.

Austin is outgrowing the city support systems that have been set up. I am second to none in my praise for the quality of services provided by the police, fire, EMS, etc. The quality of the personnel is outstanding; they are simply understaffed and unequipped to handle the growth (though the police department obviously has some very serious problems). This has been compounded because growth has been so intense and so scattered. Among the problems facing us are the city versus county controversy, with a duplication of services that results in both areas being under-served.

On one extreme, there are members of the development community who think we should pave over every available piece of land, arguing that there's plenty of empty land in West Texas, and that any threat to the environment is just a hysterical reaction on the part of salamander groupies. On the other extreme, there are environmentalists who think too much has been built and we should start tearing down (although, oddly enough, not starting with their houses). In between, stretched out along all sides, are the rest of us.

Truthfully, most of us who don't directly profit from it are opposed to development - who the hell really wants to see another piece of the Hill Country turned into a suburban community? - but are reconciled to it. Asking for attractive, intelligent planning and development, however, is no sin. I remember when, before S.O.S. passed, many people were predicting it would kill real estate prices in Austin. This didn't happen. Instead, prices in many areas of the city rose. A city that plans for and fights for its future is a city that is going to thrive.

Those who are concerned about much-needed city support for infrastructure and services and for social and economic justice are not wrong. They are just simplifying serious, complicated areas of discussion into ridiculous, two-sided arguments. Environmentalists who blame developers and the development community for all our worries also miss the point. More and more people want to move here because this is such a desirable place to live and work. As they move here we must regulate growth, we must expand and support infrastructure and services, and we must fight so that everyone enjoys the effects of the boom.

As we approach the fall and winter of this city's discontent, as Austin and the area around it continue to grow at an incredible rate, as the nature of the city and its problems change, what we don't need now is lazy editorializing against the environmental community. We don't need issues cast in basic black and white. What we need to do, together, is seriously face the issues that concern this city, from the Eastside to basic services to infrastructure to roads to the environment, yes, even to the salamander, and come up with mature approaches to long-term problems. Growth and the environment are not boutique issues, they are central to every discussion from services to economics.

Growth is going to continue; let's direct it and not simply accommodate it. The most devastating thing we can do for the future of Austin is to try to punish traffic, new residents, and new developments by making every issue as contentious and complex as possible. I thought the statement by a transportation activist, quoted in an article on proposed highway 130 in the July 18 issue of the Chronicle, that this route was "a billion-dollar solution looking for a problem" was the kind of blathering that does the environmental community more disservice than any affection for amphibians. Everywhere we see increased traffic congestion. This is obvious. Blithely dismissing this as not a real problem is the kind of thing that drives the environmentally inclined citizen away from the political activity of that community. This strategy will have consequences that will negatively impact us all.

Equally bad is to label this city's remarkably intelligent and consistent environmental concerns (which will seem prescient as cities across the state and the region have to deal with these issues) as some moronic defense of the salamander. The problems facing this city are extraordinary. In the next 20 years, downtown will transform into high rises and a denser population. Many of those who have been talking about the compact city for years will stand there in shock and horror as it happens.

There are no obvious answers. Dealing with this person or that person as a villain is to ignore the serious issues facing this city. To postulate that the politicians are insipid and the solutions easy is to be a demagogue. To blame the environmental community for city problems, especially those that are the consequence of the very growth they have fought, is wrong and childish. The best-intentioned and most intelligent person will find the waters of this city difficult to navigate over the upcoming years. We must do everything in our power to protect the environment, but we also must deal with the problems facing Austin. In truth, this has little to do with the salamander.

"And has thou slain the Salamander?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

(A tip of the Hatlo Hat to Lewis Carroll.)

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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