Parks and Wildlife Department Continues Effort To Erase StateEndangered Resources Programs

from the State Capitol Report - November 1, 1995
for background see: Biologist's allegations prompt investigations - Houston Chronicle (31 Aug 95)

While Texas' Natural Heritage Program lies bleeding and unaided at the hands of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), TPWD continues to go about their business as usual, seeking ways to weaken other endangered resources programs. This disturbing trend can be directly traced to a concerted effort by organizations and state/federal officials to weaken or repeal the Endangered Species Act. This political pressure is working. TPWD has bent over backward to this pressure by gutting the Heritage Program and is now seeking to redirect state and federal tax dollars away from endangered resources programs.

On September 26, TPWD replied to a letter written by State Rep. Bob Turner (D-Voss) expressing his concerns recording the Natural Heritage Program and a cooperative agreement between TPWD and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The cooperative agreement is a facilitating(y document that enables TPWD to annually access $300,000-$500,000 in federal (Section 6) funds. Rep. Turner apparently does not like the endangered species programs (i.e., research. etc.) on which TPWD is spending Section 6 funds. This federal aid program is used to fund endangered resources programs.

TPWD's answer to Rep. Turner's inquiry into whether the Heritage Program was still alive was, "the Heritage Program has been dissolved so it will no longer be a factor." As a result of Rep. Turner's letter and recently passed state legislation that restricts TPWD activities on private land, TPWD notified FWS of their wish to "revisit" (in order to revise) the cooperative agreement within 90 days. The two bills, HB 2133 [sponsored by State Representative Susan Combs(R-Austin)], and HB2012 (sponsored by Rep. Turner), prohibit the collection of information on private property without the landowner's permission and exempts from the Open Records Act technical guidance to given private property owners by TPWD, even though public tax dollars are utilized for this service. TPWD scheduled an October 17th meeting with interested individuals to discuss these and other endangered resources management issues. State officials or their aides attending the meeting who are actively working to gut endangered species programs were: Rep. Turner, Rep. Combs, Senator Teel Bivins (R-Armarillo), Senator Bill Sims (D-Paint Rock), and Senator Buster Brown (R-Houston). Other state officials represented at the meeting were Speaker Pete Laney, Lt. Governor Bob Bullock, and Rep. Clyde Alexander (D-Athens).

The meeting brought to light many questions and agendas regarding endangered resources management in Texas. It was clear that Reps. Turner and Combs were opposed to TPWD renewal of the cooperative agreement. They said that $500,000 in federal funds are not worth the trouble it causes.

Parks and Wildlife Commission Chairman Lee Bass said that he thought TPWD's Section 6 funded endangered species related projects should provide guidance for private landowners regarding endangered species management in a way that is compatible with other economic uses of their land-agricultural and wildlife practices that pay the bills.

When Chairman Bass asked meeting attendees whether TPWD should use federal Section 6 funds to help landowners deal with endangered species problems (i.e., endangered blackcapped vireo management) that the landowner already has, Desmond Smith, representing the Davis Mountains Trans-Pecos Heritage Association said, "As long as the federal government is involved, you could give me $100,000 and I wouldn't take that."

Much of the four hour meeting was spent discussing issues related to the exchange of endangered resources information between TPWD, FWS and private property owners. To date, most of that information has been collected, managed, and maintained by Natural Heritage Program biologists.

TPWD continued to cloud the issue about the Heritage Program's existence. When TPWD Executive Director Andrew Sansom was asked, "How is the Department going to collect the data now that the Heritage Program has been dissolved?" Sansom said, "Well, first of all, as you know, we have a vast number of employees throughout the state that are involved with private landowners in the exchange of information, including collecting information every day. The only thing that's changed is the parameters under which they can collect and use it by virtue of the law [referring again to the Combs and Turner- legislation] so we'll continue to do it but subject to the law."

Resource Protection Division Director Larry McKinney's response to the same question was that "we're (TPWD) not going to do any (Section 6) projects in which we don't have the landowner's permission to not only take the data but to use it - we don't do projects like that because we can't."

The Sierra Club has found that if Heritage Program opponents ask TPWD about the status of the Heritage Program, TPWD will ,answers "It has been dissolved." If Heritage Program supporters ask TPWD the same question, TPWD will answer, "Don't worry, the name may change but it will still be in operation." However-, it' you ask any of TPWD's Heritage Program biologists that question, they will not only tell you that the Heritage Program is being dismantled, they will express their fear of losing a very important twelve-year endangered resources inventory contained in the Heritage computer database.

While TPWD has backed away from their initial plans to move most of the Heritage Program biologists out of Austin, they still maintain that they will be spending more time in the field. However, their initial claim that these changes were necessary due to economic reasons is fading fast.

TPWD's direction was emphasized again at the meeting when Sansom said, "It's pretty clear that the current relationship between the TPWD and the FWS is not acceptable-so it's going to be readdressed as quickly as possible."

If TPWD decides not to review the cooperative agreement with FWS, FWS can transfer the funds to be used for qualifying endangered species programs to other states in the southwest region. The question is, considering TPWD's current trend to divert federal Section 6 funds away from research and current endangered species programs to those programs supported by the resource abuse groups, would our money be better spent in another state?

[Reprinted from the State Capitol Report (November 1, 1995) in the Fall, 1995 'News and Notes' newsletter of the Texas Organization for Endangered Species]