Taxpayers Fleeced to Protect Blind Cave Spider
The State of Texas and Williamson County officials are arguing over who should pay for the protection of blind cave spiders whose caverns are in the path of Texas 45 highway construction.
The state wants the Williamson County Karst Conservation Foundation to buy more land as mitigation (extortion) for two more spider caves discovered last summer.
The Foundation has already purchased 160 acres for the creatures and County Commissioner Greg Boatwright thinks that's enough.
"We did our job in preserving the 160 acres the highway department said was necessary to mitigate the caverns they initially discovered. Now the highway department has another set of caverns it wants us to mitigate.
The county doesn't need to use any more money to mitigate new caves," Boatwright said. The Karst Foundation was formed and funded last year with $3.2 million from the Texas highway department to buy land to protect blind spiders. Boatwright wants to retain the remaining $1 million or so for the upkeep of land it already has.
Also, says Boatwright, the highway department and the City of Round Rock should work out a deal to preserve caverns on 245 acres of city-owned park land for the bugs. County Commissioners agreed Tuesday to spend $4,700 to study the matter.
Even if the state,county and city can come to an agreement over the spider situation, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service must approve the deal. So much for state's rights.
Who should protect the spiders? Officials spar over paying for caves to preserve species
The Texas Department of Transportation is building Texas 45, which will stretch from U.S. 183 to the planned Texas 130, east of Interstate 35, and run past La Frontera, a shopping mall in southwestern Williamson County. Engineers have long known the road will be built over caverns that are home to the federally protected Bone Cave harvestman, a blind spider less than an eighth of an inch long that lives in the karst, or subterranean limestone forma- tions.
In July, workers discovered two additional caverns beneath the path of the planned highway. To get federal approval to build over them, state highway administrators must find a site in Williamson County that is also home to the endangered species and permanently preserve that site, as they have done for previous caverns.
Highway officials asked the Williamson County Karst Conservation Foundation to buy the land to be preserved. But County Commissioner Greg Boatright, who sits on the foundation's board, has protested, saying the foundation had already done its part in clearing the way for Texas 45.
"We did our job in preserving the 160 acres the highway department said was necessary to mitigate the caverns they initially discovered," Boatright said. "Now the highway department has another set of caverns it wants us to mitigate. The county doesn't need to use any more money to mitigate the new caves."
The Karst Foundation, created a year ago with $3.2 million from the state highway department, was designed to buy and protect land housing endan- gered bugs.
Shortly after its formation by the Williamson County Commissioners Court, the foundation bought 160 acres of habitat east of Cedar Park to mitigate, or offset the destruction of the caverns in the planned highway's path.
After buying the land and paying for other expenses, the Karst Foundation has more than $1 million of the highway money left, Boatright said. He said the foundation needs to keep the money to pay for upkeep of the preserves it has already purchased and to buy additional land to mitigate future projects by the county or private developers.
Other county officials see things differently. Charles Crossfield, a lawyer representing the county and the foundation, said he is exploring options that could allow the foundation to buy enough land to mitigate the caverns discovered on Texas 45, though he would not say where that land is.
But Boatright said that even if additional land is found somewhere in the county, he still opposes using foundation money to mitigate the Texas 45 caverns unless "someone can show me a contract or agreement that proves that we have to mitigate all caverns on the highway."
The Bone Cave harvestman is one of several species of insects commonly found in Williamson County that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking to protect The others include the Coffin Cave Mold Beetle, a long-legged insect that has no eyes and is found only in Williamson County.
Some environmentalists have questioned the effectiveness of setting up preserves to offset habitat destruction. In the fall of 2002, when the Karst Foundation was being created, Peter Galvin, an Arizona-based biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said that relying on such "banking" preserves "often leads to severe compromises for species that are already severely compromised."
Boatright says the highway department and the City of Round Rock should work out an agreement in which caverns on city-owned parkland would be preserved in exchange for construction over the caverns discovered in July.
The city owns 245 acres near RM 1431 and Sam Bass Road with several subterranean caves. County commissioners on Tuesday approved spending $4,700 to have their environmental consultant determine whether those caverns contain endangered species and can be used to offset the destruction of the caves underneath the highway.
The City of Round Rock has taken a preliminary look at transferring ownership of the city's park property to the Karst Foundation.
"We are just at the preliminary stages," City Manager Jim Nuse said Thursday. "For anything to happen requires discussion and action by the City Council and would be put before the voters."
John Geiselbrecht, environmental coordinator with the Austin office of the state highway department, said the issue of finding enough preserves to allow construction over the recently discovered caverns has not delayed Texas 45 so far.
The project is scheduled to be finished by 2007. Geiselbrecht said any agreement involving the state, the county or the city requires approval by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department.
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