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Protecting caves still an issue in Balcones Canyonlands Preserve

Thursday, June 7, 2012 by Charles Boisseau

Can an environmentally sensitive cave coexist with the controversial plans to build State Highway 45 Southwest, which would cut a swath through southwestern Travis County to Hays County?


That is emerging as a key issue City of Austin and Travis County officials are grappling with as they seek to continue to protect endangered and threatened species in the federally mandated Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.


Specifically at issue is Flint Ridge Cave, one of 46 caves that have some level of protection from development within the preserve – either by outright purchase or conservation easements. The entrance to the roughly 1,000-foot-long cave is 150 feet from the planned SH45 SW in southwest Travis County. And the highway could impact the water quality and vitality of a rare spider and beetle that live there, which are among 27 “species of concern” on federal watch lists that the preserve is designed to protect.


Providing adequate protection for this and other caves captured the interest of Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Travis County Commissioner Karen Huber, who last week presided over the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan Coordinating Committee, the local joint city-county body responsible for setting direction for the vast urban nature preserve.


SH 45 SW, which would extend MoPac (Loop 1) south to FM 1626 in Hays County, is planned as a four-lane toll road to open sometime from 2020 to 2025, according to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (CAMPO) regional transportation plan.


A city of Austin position paper on SH45 SW issued last year noted that the route of the highway is attempting to “thread the needle” near Flint Rock Cave and the adjacent Bear Creek. Environmental studies are needed to determine how the highway might impact the subsurface drainage and moisture that the cave species rely on, city officials said.


Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, a group that has spearheaded protections for the Edwards Aquifer and Barton Springs, was blunt. “Protecting this cave means not building 45 – at least not on this alignment,” said Bunch, who handed out maps that showed the 70-acre water catchment area for Flint Rock Cave bisected by SH45 SW.


Willy Conrad, manager of the city’s Wildlland Conservation Division, said that the permit the city and county have with the Fish and Wildlife Service allows them to replace protected lands with alternatives if there is no other way to mitigate damage from development.


However, Kevin Connally, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the committee that it would be difficult to locate a another cave in the county like Flint Rock that offers such a rich subterranean habitat for rare species.


“We’re not aware of any cave features that would offer the level of protection” for the invertebrates protected within Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, he said.


Leffingwell and Huber asked Connally and other government officials about the impact of degradation of the cave might have on the federal permit the county and city jointly manage to protect species. 


Huber asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to provide a memo with mitigation options available should SH45 SW be built. “I think it would be helpful to have that specificity to keep our nose clean,” Huber said.


Background on BCP
In 1996, the city and the county agreed to create the BCP to satisfy a U.S. Fish and Wildlife mandate for protecting the habitat of Golden-cheek Warblers and Black-capped Vireo, tiny birds on the federal endangered species list that nest exclusively or nearly exclusively in western Travis County, as well as karst invertebrates that are endangered or threatened. In exchange for creating BCP, the local governments are allowed to manage land development as part of an “incidental take” permit under the federal Endangered Species Act, which provides flexibility and streamlines the process of land development as long as rare species are protected. Without this permit, land development in western Travis County would likely grind to a halt because developers would be required to go through a time-consuming process to obtain site-specific permits for each project, federal and local officials say.


BCP’s 30-year goal was to buy and/or protect from development at least 30,428 acres in western Travis County for the endangered birds as well as 62 caves for six endangered karst invertebrates and other rare species.


Last week, BCP reached its long-sought acreage goal when Travis County paid about $9 million to close on the purchase of 170 acres in Grand View Hills, a residential development near Four Points and RM 620, said Melinda Mallia, environmental quality program manager with Travis County. She and others stressed, however, that work remains to be done to protect more caves and to consolidate land to improve habitat protection.


Travis County Program Manager Rose Farmer said BCP is in negotiations to purchase or otherwise protect from development several additional caves.


Among other items, committee members received an update on a report being prepared on mountain biking within BCP. BCP Scientific Advisory Committee Chair David Steed said a subcommittee has visited three mountain biking sites within the BCP and plans to issue a report later this year about the impact of biking on species habitat on BCP lands.


Finally, David Sedlock, president of the homeowners’ association at River Place, complained that a newly constructed 8-foot-tall fence protecting BCP land from a section of the residential subdivision was an eyesore and harms the quality of the life and property value of residents.


Conrad mentioned that the new fence is like others constructed on BCP land and were built after River Place residents jumped a five-foot fence and cut down trees. Sedlock later told In Fact Daily that three property owners wanted to improve their views.


Leffingwell told Sedlock that the city and county “stand in danger of losing our permit” if such encroachments harm habitat for endangered birds. “Certainly we want to arrive at a solution that protects the BCP and protects your interests, if we can.”


Conrad said the city staff has reached out to find ways to work with the association on whether a compromise could be reached on extending the 8-foot fence adjacent to River Place. Sedlock later said River Place is considering implementing penalties on its members who harm BCP lands, saying it may use as a model the HOA at Steiner Ranch, which he said has put in place a schedule for fines for property owners who harm the BCP.

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