Friday, August 3, 2012

Dale: Jollyville Salamanders Are Blind, Policy-Makers Don't Have To Be

Cedar Park Mayor Pro Tem and Republican nominee for Texas House District 136 Tony Dale  penned the following editorial about the salamander issue in Williamson County.  I touched on this issue in my column (Lessons From Gatorland,) but salamander politics continue to plague local residents.

By Tony Dale:

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately you may have noticed articles about various salamanders that are the subject of federal and local attention. One may ask why a creature only 2-3 inches long should be in such a spotlight, and why you should care. If you own an average home in a subdivision, an empty lot you want to sell, a ranch, or 1,000 undeveloped acres you may be impacted.

The controversy started in June 2011 when the Obama Administration settled two lawsuits filed by national environmental groups. Those groups petitioned to list an astounding 779 species as endangered. To put that in context the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) currently has 603 animals listed as endangered or threatened. In the settlement the Administration agreed to list over 250 new species. Included in that number are the Jollyville Plateau and Georgetown salamanders. These salamanders appear in springs in Austin, Cedar Park, Leander, Round Rock and Georgetown.

So how does this impact everyone with a home, business or land? Simply put the likely listing will result in new land use restrictions on private property that may reduce the value of the property. It could also make some land completely undevelopable. Under federal law landowners are not compensated for the loss in value. So if for example a new retail establishment cannot be built, or its planned size is reduced, that means less sales tax revenue to cities. As a result cities will have to rely more on property taxes from single-family homes. Cedar Park leaders have worked hard to diversify the mix of sales tax and property tax to relieve the burden on homeowners. New development rules would also increase the cost building of new schools and roads at a direct expense to taxpayers. Also, less development means fewer job opportunities for Williamson County families. I believe that a strong economy leads to strong families and this federal intervention harms both.

Evidence collected by Williamson County’s scientists shows that humans and salamanders can coexist in a rapidly developing area. It is also important to note that of approximately 90 known locations for the Jollyville salamander more than 80 are already protected. Many of us involved in working on this issue have seen that the USFWS is using data that does not support their likely conclusion that the species is endangered. In 2002, the county created the Williamson County Conservation Foundation (WCCF) to provide for conservation of endangered species in Williamson County while helping to promote responsible development. The Foundation is in its second year of a five-year study, but the federal settlement has short- circuited that work.

As a former board member of the WCCF and a current member of the county
task force related to this issue I’m proud of the county’s history of protecting
habitat and developing in a responsible way. When you put people at the center
of your policies you typically get good results. However, when you fail to use valid

science or abuse our legal system, as I believe the national environmental groups
have, poor decisions are made. A glaring example of that was reported recently
regarding the golden-cheeked warbler. Texas A&M published that the population
of warblers in Texas is over 263,000 as opposed to number less than 10,000
when it was listed. This bird was central to battles between environmentalists and
developers in the 1990s. As reported in the Austin-American Statesman the “Texas
regional wildlife director for the Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview
that the species would ‘probably not’ have been listed as endangered in 1990 had
the Fish and Wildlife Service had these figures then”.

It is time for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to slow down and let Williamson
County complete its study so they do not make the same sort of mistake they made
with the golden-cheeked warbler.

Tony Dale is the Mayor Pro Tem of the City of Cedar Park. He is a former board member of the Williamson County Conservation Foundation and currently serves as a member of the County Task Force studying endangered species issues.

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