Naked City

TxDOT Goes Green, Sort Of

In last year's movie I (Heart) Huckabees, the giant retail chain honored environmental stewardship by preserving a patch of wetlands located at the site of their latest Huckabees. The patch, about 10 feet square, consisted of one very large rock.

In the some-may-wish-it-were-only-a-movie development of State Highway 130, the $1.5 billion toll road project that will slice through eastern Travis Co., TxDOT has decided to preserve not a rock, but a whole wetlands that would otherwise be paved over. TxDOT's vision of preservation? Digging up about 5,000 rare wetlands plants and then paving the whole thing over. "This is one of those exceptional moments," said Rene Barrera, preserve manager coordinator for the city of Austin. "The agency has taken the high road and decided to move these plants somewhere else."

The digging was in full swing Monday afternoon on a sunflower-covered field out on FM 969. The site was just to the east of Elm Creek, which the four lanes of SH 130 will one day span with a bridge. Surrounded by ragweed and dodging fire ants, a team of AmeriCorps volunteers in their late teens shoveled clumps of pink smartweed into baggies. From there, Barrera will move the plants indoors and tend them until fall, at which point he will use them in restoration activities in other city preserves.

Justin Keener, spokesman for Lone Star Infrastructure, the company with the contract for SH 130, said the plant-moving effort is only part of the company's commitment to preserving wildlands that lie in the path of the 49-mile highway stretching through eastern Travis Co. The company has already moved a patch of otherwise-doomed cedar elms to local elementary schools, and rescued a baby owl that had fallen out of a tree. Keener said Lone Star Infrastructure is always on the lookout for other sites with plants in need of saving, but that for the time being, the Elm Creek site is the only plant-salvage operation going. "Not every place has plants that are worth salvaging," he said.

Lest anyone romanticize the doomed wetlands, Keener pointed out that this particular site was not a natural marsh – it had only developed a population of wetlands plants because area residents had been using the field as a dump. As their pile of trash grew, he explained, it altered drainage patterns from the nearby creek just enough to trap water.

Romantic or not, Barrera said the plant-transfer effort is worthwhile. "We're not losing a wetlands," he said, standing beside the growing pile of bagged smartweed, wilting in the heat. "We're transferring all this wealth to another place."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

SH 130, Rene Barrera, Justin Keener, Lone Star Infrastructure, wetlands

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