Can one of the fastest-developing regions in the country prioritize conservation? That's the hope of the ambitious Great Springs Project, which has inched a little closer to realizing its goal of a national parklike trail connecting two of Texas' most populous cities.
On Dec. 8, the National Park Service selected the Great Springs Project to receive backing in the form of "community planning and technical assistance" for their endeavor to build a network of multiuse trails from Austin to San Antonio. The project proposes adding 50,000 acres of protected land over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone and portions of the contributing zones in Hays, Travis, Comal, and Bexar counties, as well as connecting hike-and-bike trails to the project's namesake four bodies of water: Barton Springs, San Marcos Springs, Comal Springs, and San Antonio Springs.
The southeast boundary of the imagined spring-to-spring trail clings closely to the west of I-35 and its northwest boundary spans along Barton Creek, Onion Creek, and the Blanco River down to San Antonio. The legal mechanism by which this land would be protected in perpetuity is called a conservation easement, in which private landowners get tax cuts in return for ceding their right to develop on the land. But typically the land in those cases is not publicly accessible; Great Springs, conversely, wants to encourage public access to the trails and waterways the same way a state park might.
Co-founded in 2018 by Deborah Morin, former board member of the Hill Country Foundation, the project aims to protect endangered species and Hill Country water quality from the increasing development along that corridor, especially in Hays County, one of the fastest-growing counties in the U.S. But Great Springs leadership also contends that it will be an "economic development catalyst," creating jobs with its ambitious construction.
"We know that more people in Central Texas means we need more places here for those people to live, work, and be outside," says Emma Lindrose-Siegel, their chief development officer. "For that reason, Great Springs Project works with developers and city and county planners to ensure that the things we love most about living here will be protected and continue to be a resource for future generations."
The project is currently in its design stages, so there's no clear plan yet as to where the trails will go, but Lindrose-Siegel says they will potentially connect to existing trails, making transportation by bike all the way from Austin to San Antonio a possibility. However much this project aims to involve the human communities along I-35, she says that only "a small amount of the total land conserved will have actual trail on it ... A priority is protecting the habitat of endangered species endemic to our region."
So far, Great Springs has made their pitch to former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger, who told the San Antonio Report that the plan is "conceptually" possible, though he worries that the public access part of it could make deals with landowners more difficult to attain. Hill Country landowners might live on their plots and be averse to bike trails crossing through their private land, but there are many different types of easements, and in many cases the landowners benefit from negotiating different uses for the land. For example, Shield Ranch, northwest of Austin, hosts summer camps and partners with TerraPurezza regenerative farm to raise their sheep and pigs on the ranch's property. Easements like this allow the family that owns the land large tax cuts to be able to keep the homestead in perpetuity, while allowing other uses on other parts of the property – a win-win situation that Great Springs could take advantage of. GSP currently partners with Hill Country Conservancy, Meadows Center for the Environment, San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance, Activate SA, Comal Trails Alliance, and Hill Country Alliance, and Lindrose-Siegel says they do want to "collaborate with ... city and county governments and community groups to both amplify their work and unite conservation efforts."
Great Springs is still just in its nascency; to help get the project off the ground, they'll require large philanthropic donations, and probably federal dollars, too. The trail planning process is projected to be finished in 2021, but in order to actually break ground, they first need to seek conservation easements and partnerships with land trusts and local, state, and national parks – and, of course, that all-important funding.
Congress Provides New Funding for the First Time in Nearly 10 Years
Scenic America celebrates the inclusion of $16 million in funding for the National Scenic Byways Program in the omnibus spending package announced today by Congress—the first time in nine years that dedicated funds have been made available for this important program. As part of the FY 2021 appropriations bill, the funds will deliver a welcome economic boost to the thousands of communities throughout the country located along these more than 1,000 transportation corridors.
Scenic America worked with several lawmakers in leading the charge to ensure the byways program’s inclusion in the appropriations bill.
“We are grateful to Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-ME) for her leadership role in securing these funds and commend Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) for his leadership and support for the funding in the Senate FY 21 Transportation and Housing Appropriations process to help reopen funding for the National Scenic Byways Program,” said Scenic America President Mark Falzone. “We are also greatly appreciative to Chairman David Price (D-NC) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) for support of the program throughout the Conference. This is an important program that preserves and protects our most significant roadways while bringing economic benefits to communities along the way.”
“Maine’s National Scenic Byways and the Acadia All-American Road provide Mainers and tourists alike with spectacular views and memorable experiences. These roadways also spur much-needed economic activity throughout our state,” said Senator Collins. “Last year, Senator [Ben] Cardin (D-MD) and I led bipartisan legislation that reopened the National Scenic Byways program to allow for new roads to be nominated and designated. This funding included in the omnibus will help to protect precious corridors and provide tangible benefits for local communities.”
Established in 1991, the National Scenic Byways Program recognizes roadways with notable scenic, historic, cultural, natural, recreational, and archaeological qualities. The funding included in this spending package is available to the 150 roadways that carry this national distinction, as well as to the more than 1,000 state and tribal scenic byways throughout the country.
Beyond their conservation and environmental benefits, scenic byways are a critical part of America’s travel and tourism industry, which generated $2.9 trillion in economic impact in 2019, according to the U.S. Travel Association. For example, the Blue Ridge Parkway generated $1.4 billion in economic output and supported 16,300 jobs in North Carolina and Virginia in 2019, according to the National Park Service. During the same year, the Natchez Trace Scenic Parkway brought $13.1 million in economic output to Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi, supporting 161 jobs.
In 2019, Scenic America took the lead in working with Congress to reinvigorate the National Scenic Byways Program, both to open new nominations and establish funding for the program. Since 2009, no new byways had been designated by the Federal Highway Administration and funding was cut off in 2012. The Reviving America’s Scenic Byways Act was signed into law on September 22, 2019, thanks to the leadership of bill sponsors Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), Sen. Collins, Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), and Sen. Cardin.
“The bill’s lead sponsors recognized that the Byways Program could deliver tremendous benefits and acted quickly to move this legislation through Congress,” added Falzone. “We also want to thank co-sponsors Rep. Chris Pappas (D-NH), Rep. Harley Rouda (D-CA), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Sen. Christopher Coons (D-DE), Sen. Angus King (I-ME), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH).”
Scenic America will continue to advocate for the program’s long-term funding, as well as for it to be included in the Surface Transportation Reauthorization bill that Congress will take up next session.
Lights Out, Texas!Texas Conservation Alliance is teaming up with the Dallas Zoo, the Perot Museum, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and others to share the message of Lights Out, Texas!, September 5 through October 29, 2020.
Visit birdcast.info to learn more about bird migration patterns.The peak migration season this year for birds traveling south to warmer winter climates is between September 5 and October 29. Bright commercial and residential lights at night cause birds to become disoriented and distracted. The second greatest source of mortality for migratory birds (behind feral cats) is collisions with building windows and walls.
Birds are easily confused and disoriented by artificial light at night.
TCA and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are partnering on an initiative called, “Lights Out, Texas!”. All Texans can take simple action to protect birds during peak migration (Sept 5-Oct 29) – just be sure your lighting is off or minimal. It’s as easy as the flick of a switch!
By Douglas Broom
World Economic Forum
"Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people," said former U.S. president, Franklin Roosevelt.
Covering almost a third of the Earth's surface, forests are home to eight in 10 animal and plant species. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says the world's forests include over 60,000 species of tree, all of which absorb CO2 as they grow.
But all is not well in Earth's woodlands. Only half of all forests are still intact and only a third are primary forest – naturally occurring woodland composed of native species where human activities have not disturbed the natural ecology.
Over 20,000 tree species are at risk and over 1,400 of them are on the critical list, according to the FAO. Estimates suggest 420 million hectares of forest have been lost since 1990 and although the rate of loss has slowed, 10 million hectares were lost between 2015 and this year.
So the FAO is using Twitter to remind the world of these five hidden benefits of forests.
1. Forests Nurture the Soil
As well as stabilizing soils and preventing erosion – which quickly occurs where trees are felled – forests are home to soil microbes, which together with insects, birds and mammals, play a crucial role in enriching and maintaining soil quality.
2. Forests Absorb Carbon
Forests act as 'carbon sinks', trapping and storing CO2. NASA estimates that tropical forests absorb 1.4 billion tonnes of CO2 every year, while a study in 2017 estimated that forests would absorb a third of the atmospheric carbon needed to keep global warming below 2C by 2030.
3. Forests Provide Food for Millions
More than 86 million people depend on forests for their livelihoods. Globally, 1 billion people rely on wild foods including meat, insects, plants, mushrooms and fish. As well as providing edible plants and protecting water sources, forests also provide shelter for animals kept by forest dwellers.
4. Forests Are Natural Aqueducts
Forests provide "relatively pure water", not just for indigenous peoples, but also for some of the world's largest cities, according to the FAO. One-third of the world's metropolises get all or part of their drinking water from forest-protected areas, including Bogotá, Jakarta, Karachi, Madrid, Mumbai and Singapore.
5. Forests Host 80% of Earth's Biodiversity
Forests are home to 80% of the world's animals, plants, fungi and bacteria. They include almost two-thirds of all plants, three-quarters of all birds, 80% of amphibians and 68% of mammals. The most biologically diverse and complex forests are tropical rainforests, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, because rainfall is abundant and temperatures are consistently high.
One Trillion Trees
The World Economic Forum has launched an initiative to conserve, restore and grow 1 trillion trees to help curb climate change. Research has shown the importance of nature-based solutions, such as conservation, restoration and reforestation, in tackling climate change and biodiversity loss. But, these must take place alongside other measures, particularly decarbonizing industry.
EcoWatch reposted with permission from World Economic Forum.
In a major victory for conservation groups, a federal judge ruled that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act covers unintentional but avoidable avian deaths.
No law degree is required to get the gist of the ruling U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni handed down on Tuesday. Sure, the decision—the latest blow to the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken environmental laws—is marbled with the typical Latin and legalese. But beginning with its opening nod to the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Caproni’s ruling in the Southern District of New York makes it plain that the Interior Department’s interpretation of the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) isn’t merely flawed—it’s flat-out wrong.
The decision strikes down a 2017 legal opinion issued by Daniel Jorjani, Interior’s top lawyer, which claimed the MBTA did not prohibit “incidental take,” a term for the unintentional but foreseeable and avoidable injury or killing of birds, often through industrial activity. For decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has used the threat of potential prosecution under the MBTA to convince companies to take steps to prevent killing birds, such as covering oil waste pits or marking power lines to make them more visible to birds in flight.
Under Jorjani’s opinion, even mass killings of birds—such as the 2010 BP oil spill, which killed an estimated 1 million birds and resulted in a $100 million fine against the company under the MBTA—would not be punishable if killing birds wasn’t the intention. Guided by that interpretation, the FWS has opted not to investigate cases of incidental take, and even counseled companies and local governments that they need not take steps to protect birds.
Caproni eviscerated that reading of the law. “It is not only a sin to kill a mockingbird, it is also a crime,” she wrote. “That has been the letter of the law for the past century. But if the Department of the Interior has its way, many mockingbirds and other migratory birds that delight people and support ecosystems throughout the country will be killed without legal consequence.”
The ruling is a major win for six environmental groups and eight states whose three consolidated complaints argued that the law clearly makes it illegal to kill, hunt, capture, or attempt to capture a bird or egg without a permit “by any means or in any manner.” Caproni agreed, ruling that Interior’s position was “simply an unpersuasive interpretation of the MBTA’s unambiguous prohibition on killing protected birds.” The judge also rebuked Jorjani for issuing an opinion without tapping the expertise of federal wildlife officials. “There is no evidence of input from the agency actually tasked with implementing the statute: FWS,” she wrote.
Conservationists were thrilled at the judgment’s forceful endorsement of their position. “The ruling is completely unambiguous on every count. Every rationale the government gave to try to uphold this rollback of the MBTA, the judge shot them all down,” says Erik Schneider, policy manager for the National Audubon Society, which was among the plaintiffs. “The experts had no bearing on [Jorjani’s opinion]. It was a political decision made without their input.”
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, another plaintiff, said in a statement that the ruling “recognizes the critical importance of protecting our precious wildlife and upholding the rule of law. We hope the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service learn their lesson and renew their commitment to acting in the best interest of the public.”
People on both sides of the case expect the administration to appeal.
People on both sides of the case expect the administration to appeal. “Three circuit courts have already weighed in supporting the opinion underlining the MBTA rule,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance—an association of oil and gas companies that lobbied for ending enforcement of incidental take—in an email. “One district court ruling from New York will not be the final word.”
Sgamma’s reference was to other MBTA cases prior to Jorjani’s opinion. Interior cited those earlier rulings as evidence that courts hadn’t settled whether the law covers incidental take and that prosecuting accidental bird deaths was therefore legally dubious. But Caproni found that line of reasoning unconvincing. “Interior’s argument vastly overstates circuit disagreement and blurs the actual boundaries that have been drawn,” she wrote. “Tensions between the circuits certainly exist, but they are not of the magnitude or kind Interior presents.”
Caproni’s decision is a significant blow to Interior’s effort to enshrine Jorjani’s opinion in a formal rule, which would make the allowance of incidental take more difficult for a later administration to reverse. Part of the justification for such a reversal could come from the department’s recent draft environmental impact statement on the proposed rule, which says it is likely to push some bird species onto the endangered species list.
An Interior spokesperson declined to say if the department would continue work to finalize that rule despite the court decision, instead offering an emailed statement: “Today’s opinion undermines a common sense interpretation of the law and runs contrary to recent efforts, shared across the political spectrum, to de-criminalize unintentional conduct.”
Interior also declined to say how the ruling would affect day-to-day enforcement of the MBTA by the FWS. Gary Mowad, who spent 25 years with the FWS and was deputy chief of enforcement, says the agency should return to investigating industrial threats to birds and engaging companies to reduce those threats. “I hope that the Department of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service take the special agents off the leash and let them do their jobs,” he says. “What I fear is that the service always has the ability to establish enforcement priorities, and they may still make this type of mortality a low enforcement priority.”
To buttress Tuesday’s victory, conservationists want Congress to step in and spell out even more clearly that the MBTA does not apply only to killing birds on purpose. The Migratory Bird Protection Act, which has passed a House committee but hasn’t yet received a vote in the full chamber or a companion bill in the Senate, would affirm that the MBTA prohibits incidental take. It also would set up a permitting program whereby companies would be protected from legal action as long as they adopt industry best practices to limit harm to birds. “Congressional action could potentially build on this victory,” Schneider says, “and help provide even greater stability going forward.”
Hays Free Press
By Megan Wehring
August 7, 2020
Hays County is nestled in the Texas Hill Country with incredible natural spaces. If public access isn’t always attainable, how can residents enjoy these areas during the pandemic?
The Parks and Open Space Advisory Commission (POSAC) recommends the Hays County Commissioners Court call for a bond by Aug. 17.
For the upcoming election in November, POSAC recommends a total bond initiative for $75 million to $80 million. Between $60 million to $65 million is looking to be used toward the tier one and tier two projects, while $15 million to $20 million could be set aside for future projects.
While some residents may be concerned that the bond package would affect property taxes, POSAC Chair Scott Way ensures that the rates would stay the same.
“The Commissioners Court, what we’ve heard based on the recommendations that we’ve received from their financial advisor that a bond in a range that we are recommending would not cause any increase in the tax rate,” Way said.
Tier one, highly-recommended projects are of highest priority. The highest-rated project is the Coleman’s Canyon Preserve that is adjacent to the Jacob’s Well area.
The Cape’s Fishing Pond property in San Marcos was bought by Hays County in March. The entire property is about 29 acres with the pond just under six acres. The proposal includes a connection to the bridge over the San Marcos River, trails around Cape’s Pond and San Marcos River trails. POSAC member Jim Camp said the project’s goal is connectivity for areas in San Marcos along with recreational access.
“It looks like a great project because it has recreation,” Camp said. “It has a proposed fishing pond partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife. It’s adjacent to, I think, a fish hatchery in San Marcos. It also scored high because it has San Marcos River access.”
Urban parks are listed as some of the tier two projects. The 14,000 square foot Dripping Springs Regional Skate Park would give individuals a place for recreational activity.
Patriot’s Hall, proposed to be near Dripping Springs, would give a 10-acre retreat for all veterans and their families. There would be about 60% to 70% green space available for campouts, cookouts and fitness challenges.
The next Commissioners Court’s meeting is Aug. 11 with a possible agenda item of discussing the bond initiative.
Read the Hays Free Press article.