Salamander Tales

To Protect Toads or Build Back Nine? Golf, of Course

Governor George Bush wants decisions about protection for the Barton Springs Salamander to be based on science. But the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), the state's lead agency in charge of assessing the biological needs of the salamander, appears to be hiding data and even trying to repress the findings of its own scientists in regard to a number of endangered species, including the salamander.

The agency recently reprimanded Andy Price, its lead aquatic biologist and an expert on the salamanders of Central Texas, for putting together a report which lists threats to the regions' salamander population. One staffer says that pressure from the Legislature led TPWD managers to tell heritage program biologists to "lay low during the legislative session" and to stay away from anything that might be controversial. Then, this spring, Price sent his report on threats to Central Texas salamanders to several other scientists for their comments. According to sources within the agency, TPWD director of resource protection Larry McKinney and other TPWD officials feared a political backlash from developers in the Austin area and wanted to distance themselves from Price's report. "That was the excuse for reprimanding Andy," says one employee. Price is appealing his reprimand.

Then, in June, when Austin's Environmental and Conservation Service department head Austan Librach asked TPWD for copies of reports being done by five scientists hired to study the Barton Springs salamander, McKinney refused to provide them, even though the city provided $25,000 in cash to fund the scientists' work. TPWD has since relented, providing copies of the Aquatic Biological Advisory Team (ABAT) reports to the city two weeks ago. The first draft of the city-funded report on the salamander is expected to be open for public comment by the end of the month.

But while TPWD gave copies of the ABAT scientists' reports to the city, it refuses to give them to the Chronicle, which requested them under the state Open Records law. And it also refuses to release documents detailing the reprimand of Price. The agency is appealing to the Texas Attorney General for an opinion on releasing the documents to the press.

Meanwhile, TPWD appears ready to dismantle the Texas Natural Heritage Program, which oversees a database containing information on all of Texas' endangered species. Earlier this year, program biologists were told that up to five of the eight permanent staffers in the department could be cut. Two weeks ago, according to agency sources, McKinney told two dozen employees that the Heritage Program was going to be terminated altogether.

On Monday, McKinney confirmed that TPWD is considering an overhaul of the heritage program. "The single most difficult conservation issue in the state right now is endangered species," he says. And since his division is facing a five percent reduction in budget, McKinney says, some people in the Heritage Program and other branches in the resource protection division may be fired. "We are reviewing everything we do," he says.

The Heritage Program is not unique to Texas. Some 43 other states and numerous foreign countries have similar programs. Started by the Nature Conservancy, the program is designed to identify and catalog plants, animals, and ecosystems in regions throughout the state. They also catalog and study endangered species. The Heritage Program, at $390,000, comprises a fraction of TPWD's overall $134.2 million budget. A decision on the fate of the program is expected by August 31.

While it's not clear whether the agency will fire any of its endangered species biologists, laws passed by the 74th Legislature may limit the effectiveness of the Heritage Program. A new law, House Bill 2133 authored by Rep. Susan Combs (R-Austin), prevents TPWD scientists from gathering any endangered species information on private lands without written permission from landowners. The law also limits the agency's ability to enter endangered species data into the Heritage Program's database or any publicly accessible database.

This all comes at an interesting time for TPWD. Last month, the agency - using $250,000 in state funds and $500,000 in federal funds - began building an additional nine holes at the golf course in Bastrop State Park on land inhabited by the endangered Houston toad; incidentally, Price is the agency's most knowledgeable scientist on the rare animal. In 1993, McKinney distributed an article from the Bastrop newspaper which highlighted Price and his studies of the rare toad, even scribbling a note at the top saying, "This is one of the best articles about RP [Resource Protection] staff I have seen. I am very proud of Andy...."

But now the political winds are blowing against endangered species, and despite the agency's avowed care for critters, Price hasn't surveyed the park for toads since the golf course construction began. n FROM OIL TO WIND: Walworth, Inc. used to make oilfield valves at its Waco plant. Within the next few weeks, the retooled 150,000-square-foot plant will be up and running again, this time making wind turbines for the San Francisco-based Kenetech company. The plant will employ more
than 200 people, and will produce some 1,500 KVS-45 variable speed turbines per year.

The turbines, which cost about $350,000 each, use 22-meter-long blades and will be tested at the company's generating site in Culberson County. Kenetech has a contract to install 35 megawatts of wind-generating capacity at the West Texas site and is hoping to find more buyers. Partners in the project include the Lower Colorado River Authority (25 megawatts) and the City of Austin (10 megawatts). When the Culberson County facility becomes operational on October 1, it will be the largest U.S. wind generation facility outside of California.

But an ill wind blows in the power industry. Kenetech, which began selling its stock to the public in September of 1993 at $16.50 per share, has seen its stock price decline by half amid several quarters of disappointing revenues. Kenetech traded last week on the Nasdaq at $7.65. The company will soon close its Austin office (it opened here in late 1993) while maintaining operations in Houston and Waco. The company also closed its office in Portland, Oregon. n TAXING FREEPORT: New Orleans-based mining giant Freeport-McMoRan doesn't like to pay property taxes. FM Properties, Freeport's local money-losing real-estate subsidiary, still has a property tax appraisal lawsuit pending against the Travis Central Appraisal District. The suit, filed in 1993, seeks a lower valuation on much of its property and will probably be litigated all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. Currently, the case is pending at the state appeals court.

Meanwhile, on August 23 in New Iberia, Louisiana, Freeport will try to convince the state Board of Commerce and Industry to grant several million dollars in local property tax abatements because the company closed the gypsum stacks at two plants in Donaldsonville and Uncle Sam. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, those plants dumped 180 million pounds of toxic material into the river in 1993.

Rechelle Banford, director of the Louisiana Coalition for Tax Justice, says that Freeport is asking for $3.75 million in tax relief. But Banford says Freeport missed the deadlines in applying for the abatements and that it has included items like flowers, film, and ice in its list of capital costs for closing the stacks. "So we have some real problems with their application, needless to say," says Banford. n AUSTIN ENVIRONMENTAL FORUM, ROUND 2: The newly formed AEF will host the ever-irascible former City Councilmember Robert Barnstone, who will give a talk on the deep, loving relationship between the Texas Legislature and the City of Austin. The place is Scholz Garten, 1607 San Jacinto, on Friday the 18th at 6:30pm. After Barnstone's speech, oops, I mean lecture, Bayou Beaujolais will play their brand of Cajun tunes, and local environmental groups will be there to edify innocent bystanders. It's free. Call 443-8425 for more info.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 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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