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What Exactly is A Golden-Cheeked Warbler, and Why Should I Care?

As you drive the stretch of La Cantera Parkway between the Rim and the Shops at La Cantera, you may notice the large, recently bulldozed area just north of Six Flags Fiesta Texas. If you are familiar with the area, it may have even caught you off guard to see 38 acres of vibrant green cedar stands demolished in favor of the bare, seemingly "lunar" landscape now occupying the area. It probably comes as no surprise that this swift change has been met with criticism by neighbors and in the local press. You may have seen or heard terms like Endangered Species Act, Habitat Compliance Forms, and the Golden-cheeked Warbler thrown around by various government officials and special interest groups. If you are curious as to what exactly the issues are, and why so many people are up in arms about certain development, I invite you to read on.

The endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler is a small songbird named from the vibrant gold patches found upon the cheeks of mature males. Though it spends much of its time in the tropical forests of Central America, the Warbler migrates to central Texas to nest and mate in the summer months. Warbler habitat consists mainly mature stands of Ashe Juniper and Texas Oak trees found in the Texas Hill Country. Of the 33 Texas counties currently known to contain such habitat, Bexar County is the most southeastern. Though not the only endangered species in the area (karst invertebrates and the black capped vireo also make the list), the Warbler seems to receive the most notoriety and publicity.

As an endangered species, the Warbler is entitled to the protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under the ESA, land containing either an endangered species or its known habitat cannot be developed without the blessing of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That process usually entails a habitat conservation plan, whereby developers can pay fees into special funds aimed at protecting other suitable habitat, thus mitigating the damage done at the proposed development site. If someone is found to have destroyed endangered habitat in violation of the ESA, they may face consequences in the form of monetary damages and prison time.

While the ESA works well in theory, one major problem facing its application is the often inadequate resources of the Fish and Wildlife Services. This makes it difficult to prove that endangered habitat was in fact destroyed. By destroying the habitat, the developers often destroy the evidence. In an effort to both aid the Federal Government and control local development, many cities pass their own ordinances that make building permits contingent upon fulfillment of certain conservation measures. San Antonio is one such city, requiring that anyone developing a tract larger than 2 acres submit a Habitat Compliance Form. This form must either show specific compliance with Fish & Wildlife, or, in the alternative, a developer can "Complete a signed, sworn, and notarized affidavit indicating a biologist survey was completed that found that no species would be impacted by the activity subject to the application to the City of San Antonio." See San Antonio UDC Section 35-B133. This law is designed to provide vital evidence the Federal government may need to successfully prosecute an alleged violator of the ESA.

It is the Habitat Compliance Form that underlies the debate around the recent La Cantera Parkway clearance. While the developer did submit the required affidavit for his permit, it turned out the survey he referenced did not meet certain guidelines (it was too old, and it only accounted for birds, no other species). In response to this discovery, the City basically paused the project while it considered potential consequences. The past couple weeks have been filled with much lip service by City officials, angry neighbors, and special interest groups, but ultimately it appears the project will move forward. Though the developer may be out of compliance, the bottom line is the City allegedly reviewed his application and issued the permit. To revoke it would bring into question the developer's vested construction rights and potentially risk liability for the City. In order to have the ordinance's intended affect, the City should ensure compliance before issuing new permits. After all, it is still up to Fish & Wildlife to review the evidence and determine if the Act was violated.

The developer may be "in the clear" both literally and legally this time, but the situation highlights the continuous clash occurring in northern Bexar County. As suburban sprawl meets federally protected ecosystems, it will largely be up the local governments to determine how effectively the Endangered Species Act is enforced. Only through active communication and a balanced approach will communities be able to properly weigh the City's need for growth and the protection of endangered species.


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