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Bastrop County plan for saving toad is almost ready


Austin American Statesman (10/27/2003)
By Dick Stanley

BASTROP COUNTY — Saving the endangered Houston toad from extinction is one thing; bankrupting this rural county east of Austin to do it is quite another.

So, after three years of haggling over the details, a 15-member citizens work group charged by the county with coming up with a way to satisfy both local taxpayers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has pulled together a two-volume, 300-page Lost Pines Habitat Conservation Plan.

Mike Forstner, a Texas State University-San Marcos biologist who studies the toads for the county, says the plan is good enough to be a model for other areas faced with similar problems.

?It's a remarkable and astute compromise to the benefit of the Houston toad and the stakeholders,? he said.

Now the language of the plan is being tweaked by the county attorney's office before it is submitted, probably by April, to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which under the federal Endangered Species Act is responsible for ensuring the survival of the 3.5-inch-long amphibian.

The document departs significantly from Austin's preferred method of protecting several endangered species, including two songbirds, in the tax-supported, 30,000-acre Balcones Canyonlands Preserve in western Travis County. The Bastrop County work group decided several years ago that the county had neither the money for a refuge nor the political will to raise it.

?We can't afford a Balcones plan,? Bastrop County Commissioner Clara Beckett said.?We've got to engage the landowners and try to make it a positive instead of a negative.?

The county has used a federal grant to buy 400 of the 126,000 sandy acres of pine forest the Fish and Wildlife Service has designated as toad habitat. But the plan depends on two things: getting the maximum amount of participation, or voluntary stewardship, by the owners of property within the habitat in the county's northeast quadrant and calling for any development within the acreage to be low-density.

?The crux of the plan is the low-density development,? said Kariann Sokulsky, the work group's full-time manager.?According to Forstner, the toad cannot make it across 60 feet of open space. So the more we can help improve the connectivity of the habitat, the more chance the toad will survive.?

She said low-density development, which would be voluntary, should work because existing development within the habitat is low-density, including such things as 5- to 20-acre ranchettes and farms.

Landowners also would be encouraged to build ponds for toad breeding, keep much of their land's wild grasses tall and remove brush. Controlled burns would be allowed for forest management.

Landowners still would have to pay a one-time fee of $1,500 for the privilege of building within the habitat. But, if the federal agency approves, the county might be the one collecting the money and issuing the permits to speed up the process.

Meanwhile, Beckett and County Commissioner Lee Dildy are going over the plan to see if there are any gaps that need plugging and to give it a landowner ?test drive? to see how it would actually work. They expect to have everything completed and the plan submitted within about six months.

After that, the Fish and Wildlife Service would publish the plan in the Federal Register and allow up to nine months for public comment.

Inevitably, Beckett said, some opposition is to be expected.

?Any plan of this nature is subject to people challenging it,? she said.?Hopefully, the low-density development will be a solution. If it's not good enough, I don't really know what we're going to do. I think the community has put its best foot forward.?

Dildy agreed.

?Hopefully,? he said,?we'll be an example to the rest of the nation that adhering to the Endangered Species Act does not have to bankrupt local government.?