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Travis Audubon gives update on sanctuary and potential environmental peril

Wednesday, May 17, 2023 by Ava Garderet

Reports of celebration and concern were highlighted at the Balcones Canyonland Conservation Plan (BCCP) Coordinating Committee meeting last Friday. 

Nicole Netherton, executive director at Travis Audubon, began by giving a general overview of some of the county’s conservation advocacy efforts worth recognizing.

“There is certainly a lot to celebrate about the beauty and uniqueness of our ecology, the increasing numbers of our neighbors who are paying more attention to the environment, and the important victories we’ve had this year, including Austin’s official designation as a ‘bird city,’” Netherton said. 

Netherton spoke to the committee about the groundbreaking of Baker Sanctuary, part of Travis Audubon property and the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, which is the first sanctuary in the world established to help protect the golden-cheeked warbler in its habitat. 

This exclusively native Texan bird was listed as an endangered species in 1990. The warbler is threatened by extreme habitat loss in its Central Texas breeding grounds, largely due to urban growth reducing the Ashe juniper, which are trees that the warbler depends on for breeding and foraging.

According to Netherton, the original 94 acres of the Baker Sanctuary were purchased in 1966, soon after the warblers’ habitat began to disappear, and the property is now 715 acres dedicated to these small, yellow-headed birds.

“Texas is really gaining momentum,” Netherton said. “We have so many partners who are elevating this initiative across their networks, and even our yard signs have really been effective in educating neighbors on how they can help.”

She added that Travis Audubon is also working to teach developers about bird-friendly building practices and materials, and pushing to conduct responsible development and environmental studies all across Austin, but especially near the Colorado River and other waterways. 

Travis Audubon is planning support walks with each City Council member’s office and the staff of the Office of Sustainability over the next year in hopes of making Austin an example of a city that prioritizes the environment in its building projects. 

However, Netherton also pointed out some of the new state legislation from this session that poses a threat to these conservation efforts.

“State preemption of local conservation initiatives is a huge concern for our work,” she said.

House Bill 2239 is of particular concern for those protecting the warblers, as it would prevent local regulation of residential removal of the Ashe junipers the birds rely on to survive.

“There is no undo button – we cannot restore what is unique to Central Texas – and I worry that if this bill becomes law, we will see even more habitat destruction for the warblers,” Netherton said.

In particular, she expressed concern that the bill’s passage would not allow local limitations on tree removal for single-family lots, but also the extensive clear-cutting procedures on larger multifamily projects. 

The bill was filed by Texas Rep. Ellen Troxclair, who believes that Ashe junipers are invasive and “are decimating water supply, taking nutrients from other native flora, while also being a wildfire hazard.”

Netherton disagreed with this premise, saying that the bill is based upon misinformation that ignores current science about this plant species that is so important in Central Texas ecology. 

Recent research found that in the past 80 years, groundwater beneath Ashe junipers has actually increased, in contrast to a history of stigmatization surrounding the trees and their effects on their surrounding ecosystems.

“I think HB 2239 is evidence of the continuing and dangerous tendency by many politicians to ignore science,” Netherton said. “With all that we have invested in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve over the past 30 years, what will these projects continue to look like, if the federal laws that help protect unique species are rendered toothless?”

An amendment to the bill was proposed that would prevent developers from clear-cutting by providing a more limited definition of private property, but it was rejected. 

On May 3, the Texas House advanced HB 2239 by a 109-35 vote, allowing it to move to the Senate for another vote. If approved, the bill can be enacted into law and take effect on September 1. 

“We are currently fighting this bill in the Texas Senate with our partners,” Netherton said, “but with a lot of understandable attention on other problematic legislation this session, I worry that this one will get compromised votes at the expense of the environment.”

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