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Mitigation Agreement To Benefit Wildlife, Highways
AUSTIN — Texas transportation and wildlife officials today announced an agreement to increase large-scale wildlife habitat protection while also facilitating new highway projects.
The written agreement between the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) formalizes and expands the environmental strategy known as mitigation banking.
Developing mitigation banks in advance of large transportation projects can provide maximum public recreation and wildlife conservation with transportation funds that would have been spent anyway to offset project environmental impacts.
“Increasingly, wildlife biologists and other environmental scientists realize that to effectively conserve those woods and waters that are the key for wildlife survival and our human quality of life, you really have to work on a landscape scale,” said Joseph B.C. Fitzsimons, TPW Commission chairman. “With a big mitigation bank, we’re talking about the ability to protect major components of the ecosystem, such as river watersheds or coastal marshes.”
The agreement between the two state agencies calls for TPWD to identify large tracts of land suitable for use as mitigation banks, obtain all state and federal approvals and make available to TxDOT at a competitive cost the mitigation banking credits needed to satisfy mitigation requirements.
“As transportation demand increases in Texas we must still work to make sure that in building for growth we plan for environmental impacts and do what we can to offset them in a way that is better for the resource and the public,” said Mike Behrens, TxDOT executive director. “This agreement will allow us to do that in concert with our Parks and Wildlife Department partners.”
Federal laws such as the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act allow compensation for losses of wetlands and endangered species’ habitat that result from public works projects. This is known as mitigation, meaning natural resource restoration, creation, enhancement or preservation to compensate for unavoidable resource losses caused by development projects.
Historically, this could mean many small mitigation sites patch-worked along a new highway. These “postage stamp” wetlands were often unproductive and inappropriate for fish and wildlife because of their proximity to human development, the difficulty of re-creating necessary hydrology, and inadequate scale.
The new interagency agreement focuses mitigation on large acreage sites picked in advance for their ecological value. Typically, natural resource agencies identify locations with high ecological value and work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues permits for highways and other public works projects and private projects that affect wetlands, to set up mitigation bank sites and establish wetland credits for them. Mitigation bank credits can be purchased to offset wetland impacts of these projects.
“This agreement is important not only to conserve wildlife habitat on a landscape scale, but also as another means to provide public outdoor recreation,” said Philip Montgomery, TPW Commission member from Dallas. “Access to prime places to hunt and fish and otherwise enjoy the outdoors is an increasing challenge for many Texans.”
For example, TPWD expects to complete arrangements by late 2006 for the proposed 33,000-acre Pineywoods Mitigation and Conservation Area between highways US 59 and US 69 on the Neches River south of Lufkin in Angelina, Polk and Jasper Counties. This area was identified as a priority in the 1984 Texas Bottomland Hardwood Preservation Program Report. It includes large stands of mature river bottomland hardwoods, a vital yet vanishing habitat type, and it connects the Angelina and Crockett national forests.
The site will include a wetland mitigation bank to offset impacts in the Pineywoods Ecological Area. Eventually the site will become a TPWD wildlife management area that could offer public recreation such as boating, fishing, hunting, hiking, and birding.
The two state agencies have already partnered on three mitigation banks. In the early 1990s, TPWD and TxDOT developed the Old Sabine Bottom Wildlife Management Area (WMA) as a mitigation bank along the Sabine River north of Tyler. In the mid-1990s, the department worked with TxDOT to conserve the Blue Elbow Swamp as a mitigation bank called the Tony Houseman WMA along the Sabine River where I-10 crosses it. In 1999, TPWD and others created the Columbia Bottomlands Mitigation Bank in Brazoria County, also working with TxDOT. This site has since become the Nannie M. Stringfellow WMA, part of the Austin’s Woods initiative to protect migratory songbirds.
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