Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission
April 7, 2005Commission Hearing Room
Texas Parks & Wildlife Department Headquarters Complex
4200 Smith School Road
Austin, TX 78744
BE IT REMEMBERED, that heretofore on the 6th day of April, 2005, there came on to be heard matters under the regulatory authority of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, in the Commission Hearing Room of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Headquarters, to wit:
THE TEXAS PARKS AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION:
- Joseph B.C. Fitzsimons, San Antonio, Texas, Chairman
- J. Robert Brown, El Paso, Texas
- Ned S. Holmes, Houston, Texas
- Alvin L. Henry, Houston, Texas
- Peter M. Holt, San Antonio, Texas
- Philip Montgomery, Dallas Texas
- John D. Parker, Lufkin, Texas
- Donato D. Ramos, Laredo, Texas
- Mark E. Watson, Jr., San Antonio, Texas
THE TEXAS PARKS AND WILDLIFE DEPARTMENT:
- Robert L. Cook, Executive Director, and other personnel of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
COMMISSIONER MONTGOMERY: The first order of business is the approval of minutes of the previous meeting. Do I have a motion?
COMMISSIONER HOLMES: So moved.
COMMISSIONER MONTGOMERY: Second?
COMMISSIONER RAMOS: Second.
COMMISSIONER MONTGOMERY: Any opposed?
COMMISSIONER MONTGOMERY: Bob, would you like to go to Executive Session now or do the other items?
I'd like to announce that pursuant to the requirements of Chapter 551, Government Code, referred to as the Open Meetings Law, an executive session will be held at this time for the purpose of consideration of Section 551.072 of the Texas Open Meetings Act regarding real estate matters and general counsel advice.
We'll adjourn here and move upstairs.
(Whereupon, the meeting was recessed, to reconvene following the Executive Session.)
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Let's reconvene Conservation Committee. Mr. Cook, Chairman's Charges.
MR. COOK: Thank you very much, sir. One in particular, the first agenda item today coming up will be Dr. McKinney will outline the status of our Science Review in general.
As you're aware, we consider this to be among the highest priority initiatives in the Agency. I believe that the results will demonstrate the Agency's commitment to sound science. I have laid at each of your chairs a synopsis/summary of Senate Bill 3.
I think we've pretty well covered most of the issues. We have the whole issue of dedicating unappropriated water to maintain streams, rivers, bays and estuaries is there. Existing water rights may be amended to protect fish, wildlife habitat and other needs.
The bill, as best we have reviewed, has covered most of the issues that we have been talking about for the last several years.
And as the Chairman points out here, one of the things that we all again started working on several years ago was this business of the importance and value of land stewardship that we have across the state, and private landowners, the job that they're doing and the contribution that that makes to our water supply in Texas.
Those are all noted in the bill, and so if you look this over, if you have any questions or comments, I'll be glad to address them as the day goes by.
Thank you, sir.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: As Peter Holt points out, it's a great bill, it's not a law yet.
COMMISSIONER HOLT: I think it might be a little bit of fight going on.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Hopefully they might be talking about municipal water fees; that's what I want them to be talking about, not my stuff.
DR. McKINNEY: For the record, Dr. Larry McKinney, Coastal Fisheries.
One of the things I wanted to brief you on today is our Science Review, and Mr. Cook kind of gave you a background. It's been a significant effort, it's taken us some time to work on, and I'll tell you, as far as the significance to us, I would make it with this point, that when Mr. Cook was named Executive Director, it may have been one of the first conversations that he and I had after that was to talk about this very topic and how important it would be to take a look at what we're doing and make sure we're doing good science.
And that is something that he wanted to move forward on, and it's taken us a little while but we're doing so, and I think it has been and it will be.
So I want to give you a little bit of background of how we got started. OF course, it as part of our Original Land and water Conservation Plan, that charge there that set us up, laid out how and what we should do, set a goal for us to improve our science and data collection, gave us some directions to undertake a review of all of our programs and so forth.
The second part of that goal was to develop an integrated GIS database in which to put all of our information and make sure that it is accessible for decision-making purposes, and that was another part of the charge that we took on as well.
Let's talk about the process for a second. It really has been a four-part process, and the first part of that process really began with an internal action.
You know, we are a science-based organization here in all aspects from wildlife and fisheries and assorted parks and the conservation resources side of it, and we do have procedures that we've had for some time. And in getting ready to do a complete review of our science-based, the first thing we need to do is make sure we have all of our internal work together.
So we put a lot of time into going back and looking at our existing procedures and how we could assure quality control and those types of things, putting those into order. It was a lot of work from our staff, three people in particular led that work: Ken Kurzowski, Inland Fisheries, Robin Riechers in Coastal, and Ron George in Wildlife were key to overseeing that and helping us through this process. I really appreciate all the work that they did in getting that ready.
We've of course, completed Phase 1 in order to move forward with the second phase which we have just completed, and that's really the subject of this briefing which is that Phase II which is a programmatic peer review evaluating all of the programs that we do and make sure that we develop our scientific information in a sound manner.
Phase 3 we are starting now which is basically reviewing those peer reviews and implementing the recommendations that came in then. Again, we'll talk about that today.
The wrap-up phase of this will be to look at how we're going to continue what we've started here and the progress we've made, how we can continue to have a process that assures that our science base is sound, and also taking a look, as best we can, look down the road to see what new challenges are going to be coming in front of us from a management perspective and making sure that we are developing the science base to give you and those that follow you good advice and good recommendations, that we are asking the right questions and answering them as well.
So that will be a challenge in itself.
Why do we need a science review? Really for me it breaks down into two main parts.
One is that decision-makers, be it the legislature or you as commissioners, the executive director and our constituents, you have to have confidence that the Agency recommendations are based on sound science and on the best available information. You have to have that confidence that you move forward on.
We all know that when we make decisions, when you all make decisions, that there's more to it than just the science phase, you're going to make decisions with input for socioeconomic reasons, all other types of things, but we are a science-based organization so our recommendations need to have a sound scientific basis that you have confidence that it is. So that's a key one.
The second point is that I believe that as resource management decisions become more complex and the consequences more far-reaching, that scientific basis comes under increased scrutiny and challenge, and we are certainly seeing that.
I will tell you, for example, in 2000 this Commission passed new shrimping regulations and those regulations were quickly challenged in court and they're still being challenged. And I will tell you that we have won every one of those challenges and we hope that they're winding down at some point.
But one of the reasons that we have won them, and it has been in some of the judge's responses is that the strong scientific basis of those recommendations, those regulations make them sound from a legal perspective as well. So that type of thing points them up.
We were just talking about water and bays and estuaries and in-stream flows and those types of things, and we've been working on trying to develop the recommendations for bays and estuaries for a number of years, and we have them now.
And I will paraphrase our Chairman a bit. When we finally laid those numbers out and things got serious — in other words you had to quit talking about how we want to protect the environment and protect in-flows to bays and estuaries and actually doing it, that means where do you get that water to do it — the scientific basis of those determinations are being challenged and were challenged.
I think the paraphrase was that it's — well, I should let you make the point, but it's not the answers, they just don't want to hear the answers. And so it's a tough deal because decisions are being made that affect the lives and millions of dollars.
So we have to have confidence and make sure that they can stand up to that scrutiny. That's key to where we're going.
So how do we design that science review? I'm sorry Commissioner Montgomery is not here. He's been instrumental in helping me when we started this process to what we need to do. He has some really excellent connections in Kansas City with the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, and his connections there allowed me to go up and visit with that group.
This is a research institute that has a $1 billion endowment to support the work, so they are not limited by funds in setting up how they're going to go about doing science, and they've laid out a program for their own institute as to how they assure that they're doing the best science available, and I learned a lot from them when I went to visit with them.
It certainly gave me one end of the spectrum as to how you go about this doing this type of thing. It was quite impressive.
I thin it really boils down to this, that the best defense of scientific credibility is a good offense and an independent peer review is that offense: be willing to go out and lay what you have in front of your peers, independent peers, and let them take their shots at you, and react to it in a positive way and move forward. That's the goal of what our peer review was to try to accomplish.
And so we went to the best that we could. For our in-stream flow programs, we went to the National Academy of Sciences to have them review those programs; for our Wildlife and Parks divisions, the Wildlife Management Institute provided that service; and for Inland and Coast Fisheries divisions, the American Fisheries Society provided those reviews as well.
I will tell you that the scope and the depth of this review is unprecedented anywhere in state or federal resource management agencies. About two weeks ago I was in Washington, D.C. for the annual meeting of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, and I talked to a number of Mr. Cook's peers and others there that I know, and the basic response was: Are you guys crazy?
It's a big deal when you go in and have this done. And then they back off and think and we talk about it and they say, Yes, I see what you're doing and this is something that we, frankly, all ought to do.
But it's really a tough deal to lay yourself open like that and have these people come in and look at it, but it's a worthwhile endeavor and I hope we'll illustrate that as we go through it.
These reviews, all three of the reviews are on our website and laid out there for anyone to look at. What I have provided for you here are summaries from the three reports, the findings and recommendations and that type of thing in some detail.
We went through and picked out a few points to cover with you today. If you have any questions or comments, we'll do those, but I'm going to ask right now if Phil will come up here and we'll kind of do a little round robin here on these things. And Phil and I will talk about the review of the fisheries divisions.
It's always good to start off with something positive, and they did, so I think we had an excellent review from the American Fisheries Society. Here's a couple of their findings as they noted here.
TPWD Inland and Coastal Fisheries divisions have developed a well-defined set of protocols for obtaining comprehensive, scientifically sound data on fish populations, habitats and constituents, and so on. So we were happy to hear that.
Of course, when you bring a review in, it's like an audit, and we hope they're going to have something to tell you how you can do something better and address some things. So they did have some recommendations in some areas that we need to talk about.
And that's where we're going to go. I really have about three areas here for fisheries. One is our scope of our monitoring programs. One of the findings in the Inland Fisheries is it would benefit Inland Fisheries to increase the number of fisheries districts, it would improve precision and at the same time not require special studies and/or research to make defensible management decisions.
I'm going to let Phil kind of talk about how he's responding to that, and some of the others and we'll go back and forth.
MR. DUROCHER: Commissioners, I'm Phil Durocher, director of Inland Fisheries, just for the record.
It was something that we were looking forward to, this science review. Having been around here a long time and helped develop these programs, I felt like the work that we were doing was topnotch, and it was kind of gratifying to have some of your peers come in and take a look at your work.
And what I can say is the things they identified were things we already knew. If you look at the three areas we're going to deal with now, the scope of the monitoring program, sure we'd all like to have more people, have more data, make it better, but we have some decisions to make.
And I think all of the ones here that the Inland part of it are related to, the staff, how much resources we have to deal with, and the decisions we make on where to put those resources.
We can't do everything, and since most of our constituents and most of the fishing we provide is on public reservoirs, that's where we put our effort. We have to use the people we have.
So all three of these, scope of monitoring, ecosystem management — which we're going to get into — and stocking protocol, are all based on what we decided was the best use of our people at the time. And I think we're doing pretty well with what we have.
DR. McKINNEY: The monitoring programs, as Phil said, are really the basis to what we move forward on. And I thought this particular comment on Coastal was an interesting one, and one we've talked about too, is that we've invested a tremendous amount of resources into that long-term monitoring program and it has really paid off well for us.
But one of the points that they made, I think is a good one, that we're so invested in it that we're not taking advantage of it as best we could. We need to step back from the trees and look at the forest a little bit more, take that data we've been collecting and use it.
And so that's a point I think that we're going to look at very closely.
And just to make it a little more so, these long-term monitoring programs, the value of them in that decision-making process is to make sure that you're seeing those types of trends and that information out there.
Just to illustrate here, if you were looking at the catch per unit hour of red fish under this scenario, you might be pretty concerned about what's happening and if you had to make your decisions based on that, you might have some concern.
But if you have that long-term trail of data, you can begin to see how things are actually happening and respond in a way that levels all that out.
So these long-term monitoring programs are very expensive, very resource and personnel intensive, but they do pay off.
The point is well taken from American Fisheries Society reviewers is that you do need to use this information. There's a lot of information to be mined and we're certainly going to be taking a look at it.
The next point that they made is ecosystem management at both Coastal and Inland, an I think basically the points they're saying there is that, as Phil said, we focused on those game fish as you might expect, but we really need to begin to expand and look at other areas, look at habitat, look at some of those non-game type of things.
And we've taken a couple of steps to do that. For example, when you look at what we're doing in Land and Water Resource Conservation Plan, we're taking a look at watersheds. That's a focus of developing that plan to begin to look across divisions to see how we can work together to address issues on an ecosystem basis, watersheds being that system.
That's an emphasis that Mr. Cook and Scott make and are on top of, and so we're certainly going that way. It was one of the important factors in the decision to take resource protection, and frankly split it between the two divisions, Coastal and Inland, to add those components to the divisions.
And I think it's beginning to pay off. It has expanded our perspectives and how we're going at things, and I think it's going to show great benefit.
MR. DUROCHER: Well, what it says here, and I mentioned this earlier, Inland Fisheries has not adequately addressed non-reservoir, non-game species, and we don't spend enough time on the rivers. And we know that.
Again, we're going to have to decide where we' put out time, and since most of our constituents spend their time on the reservoirs, that's where we use the manpower we have.
I think the reorganization, the inclusion of a lot of the river people from the old Resource Protection Division into Inland Fisheries is going to give us some opportunities to expand in those areas, and we're already doing that.
DR. McKINNEY: The last item on the summaries is on stocking and how we use the stocking protocols in both Inland and Coastal. Phil, why don't you respond to it.
MR. DUROCHER: What it basically says here is that we don't put as much effort into collecting data to evaluate stocking and to make stocking recommendations as we do in our monitoring program. And we know that.
Again, it's a matter of making a decision on how much data you need to make good decisions.
But I want to remind you, and we were complimented for the work we do in human dimensions, collecting sociological data and economic data, and a lot of decisions we make we don't just use biological data, we use sociological data and we use economic data to make these decisions.
That's particularly true with stocking. Let me give you an example. For instance, we have some reservoirs now that are being severely impacted by the Golden Algae, if you look at places like Whitney, Possum Kingdom and Granbury.
If we made our decision on whether to not to stock those lakes on a pure biological basis, we would probably not stock them. But when you bring in the sociological impacts of what's happening to those areas, you bring in the economic impacts that those fish kills are having in those areas, I think it's to our benefit and it's worth the risk for us to go in and stock those places with the hope that we can bring them back as quickly as possible.
So we are aware of the issues.
DR. McKINNEY: From the Coastal side, the question of how effective is stocking at managing populations, particularly after a population has recovered — like with Red Drum — is it effective to continue stocking, how does that fit.
That's a question that's debated across the country, and we are determined to answer that question. And it's high on our priority list, we're going to be working on that over the next several years. It will take us some time to answer it. Just exactly what is that role in resource management issues and fisheries management, those types of things, how can we make best use of that tremendous resource that we do have and we have invested in so heavily over the years.
So we will be looking at that as well.
The final part on the aquatic side — and we've talked about this before — this is our in-stream flow recommendations for our rivers and so forth.
This is something we're doing, a project we're doing jointly with the Water Development Board and TCEQ. We learned out lessons on our bay and estuaries development that we wanted to make sure that we answer that question up front and we had the opportunity here, and so with the guidance of the chairman and the chairs of the three water agencies, we were able to put this together and I think it's going to pay us well in the future dividends in that regard, particularly as we move forward with SB-3.
We were very pleased with the results of the review of he Academy of Science. They gave us tremendous support on the direction that our scientists were taking.
And we were talking about this the other day. I had a meeting, kind of a team work session between all the water experts to talk about the Brazos River permit or something like that, and most of our folks were at that table and we just managed to put on two new hydrologists positions were filled, we've stolen one really good person from TCEQ to head up our Rivers Program.
Sitting around the table looking at all the folks that were there, Collette Barron and our attorneys, the team that we have, I will tell you that we have the best team that I've ever seen anywhere. We're ready.
Hopefully SB-3 will come to fruition and move forward, and I will tell you when it does, we've got the folks onboard to meet our responsibilities and do well, and I'm very excited about that and it's a big plus.
And this science review from the National Academy of Sciences is just one of those stickers on there that says "Yes, you do." So we're very proud of that.
With that, we'll moved on to wildlife and get Walt and Mike to come up and join me.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Larry, while we're doing that, we've got to give credit to Texas Water Development Board. We wanted the in-stream review by the National Academy of Sciences but they paid for it.
DR. McKINNEY: Good point.
COMMISSIONER HOLT: How did you get them to pay for it?
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Well, they're good friends.
MR. COOK: We made them think it was their idea.
(General talking and laughter.)
DR. McKINNEY: Again, the Wildlife Management Institute took on this review for us, and they had many positive things to say about where we're going and what we need to do. These are two that I pulled out of the report that make that point very well.
MR. BERGER: I'll just say, as Phil did, we're glad they recognized the good things that we do and the strengths that we have, and one of them really is, as pointed out here, is our staff.
We have a staff that does understand the scientific process and they do want to be involved in that to the extent that they can, and pleased to have that recommendation from them, that recognition.
MR. DABNEY: We really appreciated the recommendations and I think it spoke well, especially the size of staff that we have committed to research and resource management efforts in parks, so we were pleased with this study.
DR. McKINNEY: Let's go ahead, just as with Inland and Coastal, take a look at some of our approaches to how we do our job, and here's a couple of the comments.
MR. BERGER: The first one there has to do with sampling strategies, and it's interesting, I think, in the report which is some 166 pages long in total and 100 of those pages talk about our surveys that our program and field staff do every year, mostly the field staff that implements those programs.
It's interesting, too, when you think about how many we do because we have an LBB measure that we report on yearly the number of surveys conducted, and in the past that's been as high as 15,000. So when the Wildlife personnel do 15,000 surveys a year, I tend to take they spend a lot of time at it.
But that's counting every deer line, every quail line, every dove line that they get done, but nevertheless, when you count the number of people we have and the number of surveys that we report to LBB, it's a daunting responsibility that those people have out there.
And again, as Phil said, we knew we had some rough spots and the Wildlife Management Institute found them and pointed those out to us, some of the main ones being the randomness of our surveys.
But it's hard — you know, not to make excuses but we do have — it's hard to get a random survey when you're limited to some kind of road of travel or some way to get there or some length of road that the survey may have to take, and to find that in all the right completely random places is very difficult.
Now, having said that, and them pointing out the problems with some randomness in some of our surveys, we have sunsetted all our surveys, and about a month and a half ago we had a program meeting of Wildlife, and some of the Parks staff as well involved in this, to talk about which surveys we really need to have and how they can be improved and at what cost.
And we've got some of those reports back in and we're evaluating those right now. But for the time being, all our surveys are sunsetted pending approval of which ones are justified and which ones we can do the right way to provide us the information we need.
DR. McKINNEY: And just to make a comment, I think it's a wonderful approach that Mike has taken.
What these reports have done for us, both from the Wildlife and Fisheries side, is they've come and looked it from kind of an ideal situation. Here's what you need to do ideally; if you can do this, this will really improve your credibility.
And they understand the fact that we have constraints of resources and timing and those types of things. So what it's done is set that benchmark for us to move forward and address where we can, and I've appreciated all of our folks taking this very seriously and moving forward with it.
MR. BERGER: I mean, you can read this. They recommend better integrate science into operational planning, improve our process.
We now have for our research, we have a research review team in Wildlife where we take internally recommended proposals and we take externally submitted proposals. Some come in from universities proposing research, some we say can you propose us a research topic or a research study, and we review those internally.
And I think one of the recommendations here was that we bring in some people from outside the Agency to give us a little additional credibility. And we've got one from Texas A&M now who has agreed to join our research team. That's Dr. Marcus Peterson who used to be on our staff here and so knows us and our problems very well. And we're still looking for one more to bring on to that team to help us review that research and make our research stronger and help us stay focused on those things that really need to be studied.
DR. McKINNEY: Certainly on our perspective and in Walt's shop with his folks there trying to work with that group as well to try to give them assistance and work back and forth, I think it's going to be a plus.
It's a recommendation that came out of here ands so we'll continue to develop those relationships between our divisions which have gone their separate ways in many regards and I think this pointed out we need to work a little better in that regard.
The final part, of course, is information and data. When we collect all this information on all these 15,000 surveys, what do you do with it, making sure that you can access it. It's an ongoing challenge to all of us to take all those trees and turn them into a forest that you can stand back and see.
And we have invested heavily. Through the graces of the State Wildlife Grants, we've been able to come up with the money for our GIS Laboratory to set up a Resource information system, inventory system to help us do that better. And that's been underway for several years and beginning to give us some real tools to work with.
That was one of the final recommendations.
MR. BERGER: I would just say that in developing that resource information system now, we are beginning to draw on resources of other agencies and partners.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated an interest in putting some of their information on endangered resources into that system, so it will be more comprehensive. And the Nature Conservancy has also indicated an interest in some of their information going in there. So that we will have a broader overall more useful database when we finish this.
DR. McKINNEY: So where do we go next? In the latest revision of the Land and Water Plan, of course, our science review and our processes is there, taking a look at what do we do.
And to follow up on Mike's comment there, one of the key ones again is how do we deal with this information, where do we put it. And I will echo what Mike said that the resource inventory system, the work that's being done in the GIS Lab that we were able to fund in that way is something that a lot of people are looking at.
Because it's a pretty innovative group down there. They're putting some tools together that I think will greatly benefit us in the future, and we'll continue to work with them in that way.
Last of all is that we will begin to work now and a number of us are thinking about is how do we continue this process, what are the parts of this process that we need to continue, how often do we need to do one of these peer reviews. It shouldn't be the last time, it's not a one and only, at some point you need to continue that. What's the best way to do it; how do we use new technologies to help us out.
I know that Robin Riechers and my staff yesterday — Drew Thigpen set this up for us which I appreciate — there were some folks in town with some new technologies, some voice-operated technologies, so that at some point in the future we may be entering all of our data directly in the field by voice rather than computer.
Who knows where that's going to go. But clearly, if we're going to do all the work that we're doing and we need to continue with lots of it, we have to find ways to be efficient and do it so we can allow our biologists to go out and use the data. And also the resources are not growing in this area, our financial resources are tighter than ever, so we've got to be as efficient as we possibly can.
And the last one, of course, is looking down the future, what are those challenges that are going to face us in the future, a management decision. Are we collecting the data, are we gathering the data now that we will need to make those decisions, are we on the right path. That's a question that all of us are going to have to ask
Some of the divisions are already moving forward on that. I think one of the opportunities, for example, for Coastal Fisheries to get a look at that is the Gulf Summit that's coming up this fall that we're going to have an opportunity to bring a lot of great people together.
And I've been working on that committee. Our chairman is on the board there, and so we're trying to make sure that — I'm trying to make sure that summit has some of that in it so we can take a look down the road. So all of us will be looking for opportunities to make sure we're on the right path because it's a huge challenge.
AS I said when I began, we are a science-based outfit and we are only as good as the science that we do. And this whole process has been one that has not necessarily been enjoyable in some regards, but it's been, I think, helpful and I think it will certainly put us in a position where we need to be in the future when we make decisions and make recommendations all up and down the line from making recommendations to you all and to our actions at the legislature and in federal situations it will pay off.
So thank you, and with that, certainly any questions for any of us, we'd be glad to answer.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Good job. I tell you it really is nice when they ask you to be able to tell you yes, you do have the science to support that.
You guys have done a great job. And I'll tell you, the one I was mostly involved with in that in-stream, I just basically had it with bays and estuaries. Senate Bill 3 would be a lot shorter piece of legislation.
DR. McKINNEY: You're exactly on track.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: And I think there's a good chance we can get the same sort of review when we address a few issues.
DR. McKINNEY: When SB-3 moves forward, as it should, we're going to have the time, it's going to be another big asset. We need to do that, I do think we do, yes, sir.
COMMISSIONER HOLT: You mean to do a review?
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: On the bays and estuaries. The bays and estuaries is sort of ad hoc and came up with some significant criticism in the Environmental Flows Commission, the Scientific Advisory Council, I think they called it.
And ours is so good and we've had it so long that there's a lot to take shots at. In other words, we have things that are conflicting because we've been at it for so long and we've got more data than anybody else.
DR. McKINNEY: We're the only game in town.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: There's nobody else close to the amount of data we have.
DR. McKINNEY: And you can never be afraid of that type of thing. I welcome any kind of legitimate review of that type thing because it can always be improved.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: But because we didn't have that third party review at that you have with NAS on our in-stream, we're going to have to go back and work on that.
But in the end, Peter, the important thing is — Bob is tired of hearing me say this but unfortunately it's true — every single major natural resource issue in Texas sooner or later ends up in federal court because somebody is not happy. And if you don't have that sort of independent, objective peer review to back up your science, you're at risk.
MR. COOK: Let me tie a couple of ends together for you here, and it goes back to our discussion concerning managed lands, not just deer, not just quail, not just whatever.
If our techniques are good — I mean, the State of Texas and the millions and millions of acres of land that we try to survey, for example, and whether you're talking the Gulf bays or the land of Texas, a lot of the information upon which we make decisions is actually collected by someone else.
A fisherman, a commercial fisherman in some cases, a recreational fisherman in many case, and/or a hunter, a private landowner for instance int the Managed Lands Program is required to collect and report certain sets of data.
So if we are sure that those techniques are the best techniques available, that collecting that piece of information is the most critical piece of information to make some of those management decisions, by having landowners, hunters, fishermen involved in that collection process, they have bought into the program also.
And so that's part of what we're talking about here. It's not just a system where our biologist goes out there and takes his fly rod and sees what happens in some certain amount of time, or gets on a spotlight truck or in a helicopter or on the stocking boat or whatever it may be.
But there are a lot of people involved in our data collection sets, and it's critical that the basis for those systems, those data systems are valid, and that those folks understand how valuable it is.
So it's an important tool for us and I appreciate what these gentlemen have done.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Any other questions for Walt or Larry or Mike?
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Thanks, gentlemen. That's a briefing item, no action.
Next item 3, Ann Bright, designation of representatives to the Biological Advisory Committee.
MS. BRIGHT: Good afternoon. I'm Ann Bright, general counsel, and with me is Bob Sweeney, senior attorney in our legal division. We're going to be talking about Williamson County Regional Habitat Conservation Plan.
If you've driven north through Texas, you've driven north of Austin, you've noticed that there is significant development going on in Williamson County. The county seat is Georgetown, it includes Round Rock; it's one of the most rapidly growing areas in the state.
But it's also home to several species that are on the Endangered Species List, and I've listed five of these here: the golden-cheeked warbler, black-capped vireo, bone-cave harvestman spider, Tooth Cave ground beetle, and Coffin Cave mold beetle.
There are also some species that are on the Threatened and Watch lists.
Williamson County Conservation Foundation is a non-profit that was formed by Williamson County to develop the Williamson County Regional Habitat Conservation Plan. This organization received a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and those are administered through Parks and Wildlife, to develop this plan, and the plan is intended to allow development while complying with the provisions of the Endangered Species Act.
And you're probably all going what does this have to do with us. This is what it has to do with us — and we've talked about this a little bit with the Edwards Aquifer Authority.
There's a provision, a whole chapter, actually or a subchapter of the Parks and Wildlife that provides that if an entity is developing a regional habitat conservation plan, they have to form a citizens advisory committee, they have to also form a biological advisory team.
There's a requirement that the Parks and Wildlife Commission appoint a representative to the CAC and a representative to the BAT, and the Biological Advisory Team representative is to serve as the chairman.
So we're here today to recommend appointments to these two teams. One would be Dr. Duane Schlitter of the Wildlife Division to the Williamson County Citizens Advisory Committee. We'd also recommend the appointment of Dr. Schlitter as well and Dr. Andy Price — Dr. Price is in the Inland Fisheries Division — to the Williamson County Biological Advisory Team, and Dr. Schlitter would serve as the presiding officer of the BAT.
And then we're requesting that this be done by resolution, and here's the resolution that's also in your package.
Bob Sweeney has been working with Williamson County and has been attending a number of the meetings regarding the development of this regional habitat conservation plan, and we're both available to answer any questions.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: So these gentlemen drew the short lot, huh?
COMMISSIONER HOLT: Are these being established in other counties?
MS. BRIGHT: I'm not aware of any.
MR. SWEENEY: There are a few Chapter 83 plans out there. There's the one in Bastrop County that is with the Houston toad; there's the big one down in the Edwards Aquifer areas.
COMMISSIONER HOLT: And do we have people serving on them?
MR. SWEENEY: Yes, we sure do.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: That's why the joke of that's been a long one.
COMMISSIONER HOLT: Don't you end up being on these things forever, don't they go on forever?
MR. SWEENEY: Roughly.
MS. BRIGHT: We actually ended up having to replace the two gentlemen on the Edwards Aquifer Authority because it went longer than they stayed here.
COMMISSIONER HOLT: So we'll always have to be supplying people.
MR. SWEENEY: Pretty much, supplying or replacing, just as a requirement of the statute that the Commission take the action to make these appointments.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: These processes are interminable, it seems, but it beats not getting everybody at the table early. The advantage is it really does get a lot of these issues worked out and then you just fight about the ones you can't work out.
Where is the Edwards Aquifer one? I know that's off-agenda, but is it coming to us?
MR. SWEENEY: We expect that we will see a grievance. The Edwards Aquifer Board has approved, I believe, their EIS and habitat conservation plan for submittal to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the ball is going to be down to the court of anyone who wants to file a grievance over the development of that plan under Chapter 83.
And so I'll just say don't be surprised if we see something like that come down the pipe.
COMMISSIONER HOLT: Oh, you will see it.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: And we'll supply some more people.
COMMISSIONER PARKER: Who heads up this advisory team, citizens advisory committee, for instance, in Williamson County?
MR. SWEENEY: In Williamson County, the organization that is really running the show up there is the Conservation Foundation which is really a couple of county commissioners and representatives of the cities up there, and I believe somebody from the school district.
It's really sort of the local government that is running the show.
And what they're trying to do is get a plan in place that's going to meet the approval of the Fish and Wildlife Service so they can free up development without having to go through individual permitting process for every little project up there. They want these issues resolved for good and all for the whole county
And then our role in the process is really very much, in the CAC and BAT, these are kind of support roles of the overall function of the county that's going forward and saying we've got schools that are growing, we've got roads we need to put in, all these things, and every one of these has to get an individual permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service. It's just terribly, terribly slow and expensive.
COMMISSIONER PARKER: To your knowledge, is the Greater Austin Homebuilders Association, are they represented in an advisory capacity?
MR. SWEENEY: You know, I don't know. The people who are really running the program from a legal perspective for this thing are Alan Glen who has been very involved with it, represents development interests primarily in Austin
I can't speak to the exact composition of it. In fact, I'm not sure that the whole citizens advisory committee is even formed yet, so we're still in the formative processes there. I don't know the exact composition.
COMMISSIONER PARKER: The perpetrators a lot of times are developers and homebuilders.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: You're the bad guys.
COMMISSIONER PARKER: Yes, we're the bad guys.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: You're not going to be allowed on that committee.
COMMISSIONER PARKER: So that they're included so that they know the parameters that are being. I would say if you have any influence along those lines.
COMMISSIONER HOLT: That's an elected situation, isn't it?
MR. SWEENEY: Well, the Aquifer Board is. And in this case, in Williamson County this is a very sophisticated group, and they're all about bringing in all the right people.
But we're supposed to meet next Wednesday, the Conservation Foundation, and I'm going to ask for a list of the CAC members that they've chosen and see what the group is.
COMMISSIONER PARKER: If everybody that's going to be involved in the deal can be sitting at the table from the get-go.
MR. SWEENEY: Absolutely.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: That's good advice.
Any other questions for Bob or Ann?
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Thank you.
I'll place this item on the Thursday Commission meeting agenda for public comment and action.
And last but not least, Jack Bauer. This is a really important issue, shouldn't have put it at the end. Land Acquisition Selection Criteria, how we spend the money.
MR. BAUER: Jack Bauer, director of Land Conservation.
This item really has come about through your direction to come back and give some more information after the January meeting on land conservation strategy where you asked some really good questions and for me it was a very interesting discussion.
Really what we want to do here is focus on those two things that you asked us to go over in more detail. One, the planning techniques that we use to identify priority lands for conservation, and we'll look specifically at an ecological health model for that.
And then in regard to our conservation strategy, what are the benefits to the State going to be by using the conservation strategy that we're recommending where we would hook mitigation with conservation on large public works projects.
In January we looked at this slide and it spawned a lot of interest. What we were trying to do is in lay terms describe to you what we think about when we look at a piece of property that we think needs to be conserved.
That property is probably going to have some attributes of large in size, significant resource threats on it, very representative of the ecological area that's it in, and have outstanding habitat values.
And with those kind of attributes, then we start looking at it real serious as a piece of property that might be worthy of conservation.
Well, really what we're doing here, if you get away from the lay view and you really look at this from in terms of ecological health, you're really looking at those ecological terms of diversity, sustainability, and rarity, and looking at how those can be quantified to develop land conservation priorities.
And this diversity, sustainability and rarity is usually the three attributes that all land conservation groups are going to use to look at the ecological important properties, whether they're in private hands or public hands.
So in regard to that, as a method of explanation, I'm going to take an ecological assessment tool that our Agency participated in with several other agencies but primarily Environmental Protection Agency, and also giving some data layers from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Corps of Engineers, and TxDOT and Federal Highways.
The investment into this data system was primarily to help us identify for Interstate 69 where not to put the highway. In other words, the first step in defining routes for a highway are to be avoidance of those highly significant resources, and this is what this model would do as a planning tool.
The boxes underneath the major titles of diversity, sustainability and rarity represent an existing data set in the public domain that can be looked at and programmed into a model that will give an inference to either diversity, sustainability or rarity.
And some of these would be appropriate under more than one major category. I've highlighted a few of them for consideration.
The historical land cover comparison is an index that relates what the land cover is — and when I say land cover, we're talking about satellite imagery and manipulated into geographic information system kind of system. So these are pretty sophisticated things.
The historical land cover comparison looks at the landscape today as it would compare to pre-European human influence. In other words, a landscape that is not impacted by man and looking at that.
And if it reads identical to what it would be 200 years ago, it would max out on the scale, and if it were a cotton field, it would rank very low on the scale.
Another attribute of data that we selected to give an inference to diversity is our ecological significant stream segments, because we as biologists are quite aware that in this state repairing corridors and the habitats that are associated with them are probably some of the most significant in the state, and by the way, also in some instances, the most impacted.
Under sustainability, one of the conditions that we would like to look at is fragmentation, and that can be done, again by the amount of contiguous land cover of one type, and there's a data set for that, road densities per unit area and things like that will give you an inference to that major attribute of sustainability.
On the rarity side it's primarily looking at the Threatened and Endangered species data to look at those components of taxonomic richness and species richness. In other words, the number of taxa and number of species that might occur per unit area in an area or on a landscape.
So these are the kind of things that this assessment model uses, and when ran through the model and then mapped in a composite way for the State, you get something that looks like this.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: So you score each one of those criteria?
MR. BAUER: Yes. Each one of these criteria the model will rank it and it has to be done in a mathematically correct way so that the highest rating in each category is equivalent and the lowest ranking in each category is equivalent.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: They have a numerical score based on the priority of each one of those criteria.
MR. BAUER: And it computes this and spits it out and voila..
And here if in all of those attributes that you looked at you had many of them that ranked very high, you would then accumulate that value and have a picture, an output that would have areas that were kind of the best of the best.
And those are what we're talking here colored in this red color, this rust color, as the top 1 percent, and the white areas are those areas that are kind of a summation of all the bad places, significant development, and they come out at the bottom of the list.
And if you noticed in our Land and Water Plan, if we're looking at some of the new site priorities, certainly on the wildlife management side, we're looking at a High Plains site and a Cross Timbers site, and also we have our Neches Tract in East Texas that we're working with, and then our triangle of primarily focused areas. So you can see how this kind of data would help us a lot.
Since you're familiar with the Neches Tract in East Texas, I wanted to pull up the Mid Coastal Plains or the Piney Woods eco region and look at the level of detail that this data set computed here. And you will note that if you were a highway planner, this could be very helpful in trying to figure out where not to put a highway. I think you can all see that.
I put a circle around one area. This is the confluence of Piney Creek on the Neches River and this is where the 33,000 acre Neches Tract resides.
And if you go kind of upstream on the top stream — I have actually on one of these files another area circled and it is now off the file — but if I may take the pointer, if we took a similar circle and we placed it right there, that's the International Paper tract that proposed for a National Fish and Wildlife refuge.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: That's on the Neches also?
MR. BAUER: Yes, that's on the Neches also.
And the circle that we have on the Piney Woods tract, that's Diboll, that's not quite as red.
And you know, when we think back about trying to select a location for conservation that would meet the needs of the Agency and meet the needs of TxDOT for mitigation purpose, we would not want the best tract, we would want a tract that had room for improvement because that's the mitigation credit that you sell. So you don't want a perfect tract, you want a tract that you could make perfect.
So that was a logical component in our decision process of selecting this tract versus the more northern tract.
But when I think back about many of these areas, many of these globs of green and red are in conservation, Big Thicket and others, and many of them are in private hands. So they are getting good conservation management.
Now, that model is a modern way of doing things but we have always looked at land much in the same way but using a variety of sources of information to help us make decisions on what needs to be conserved.
A lot of that in the past has come from our own staff and the information that they have, and we have tracked properties in the Cross Timbers based on our staff's knowledge of land ownerships and the resource values that are associated with them.
There are universities that are working in the Cross Timbers to identify those areas that have pre-European post oak forests on them that verifies that these are very high value properties with very little impact to them over the last couple of centuries. And that kind of information is quite helpful to us in determining whether they would be good candidates for conservation.
But you can identify high value sites relative to putting them in the public domain. That still does not conserve them. In our environment we have eminent domain authority but choose not to use it. We still need willing sellers and a method of finance, so that's where the challenge comes
A set of documents that I wanted to bring up here that has been extremely important in East Texas was the Fish and Wildlife Service Report done in '84 that has been a report that identified many of the bottom land hardwood sites of significant conservation value 20 years ago.
That report, done primarily by Jim Neal, has been a source in the past 20 years of many sites coming into our inventory.
The first mitigation bank that we generated for the use by TxDOT was Old Sabine Bottom, a site that was identified as a very high value site in this report.
Tony Houseman Blue Oval Swamp was another one and became our second TXDOT wetland mitigation bank for the Beaumont District. Big Lake Bottom came under that list; Alice Ann Bayou was a mitigation tract for reservoir construction.
And both Neches tracts, the one that the Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing for conservation as a refuge and the 33,000 acre tract that's in ownership now that we're under contract to deliver a mitigation document for were all identified in this document.
So it's nice to look at this new information in the way of looking at data and going back to the old way we used to do things and see the overlap. We knew then and could verify what were high value tracts, what were high value pieces of the landscape, and this new data mechanism of looking at things is complementing that.
Relative to our Agency's conservation strategy, we're still trying to look at key conservation sites, aggravate mitigation needs for applicable public works development projects, gather all the funding sources that would be possible, and then try to conserve lands for their ecological value and for the public recreation opportunity that they would provide.
The second portion of this briefing I'm going to try to focus on what we think the benefits would be in looking at conservation in this way.
And I think the first one that's the most significant is the cost savings that can be realized for mitigation in the instance of our sister agency TxDOT, how that can be done and what those benefits really look at form the standpoint of financial dollars.
I looked at some of the numbers that went into our early banks when we didn't have management paid for then, we were basically just putting land in conservation and converting them to credits.
In 1995 at Old Sabine Bottom, TxDOT acquired land for us at a value of about $1,200 a credit for 2,200 credits. Again, that was the raw value of the land but on modern day standards, those are very inexpensive wetland mitigation credits.
In 1999 we permitted for TxDOT in the Houston District Nannie M. Stringfellow Wildlife Management Area. By that time we had reached a level of sophistication to where we were putting into the cost structure of a bank the value of the land, the value of the habitat improvements that were going to go on it, and staffing and operation and maintenance to run it. What was not included in that bank was an operational endowment.
But even with those additional costs attributes, we still delivered about 1,400 credits at $3,400 a credit for TxDOT.
And today when many mitigation situations where new wetlands are required to be developed, a value of $25- to $50,000 an acre are not unusual, and modern Piney Woods and Trinity River Valley mitigation credits are going on the open market for $20- to $25,000 these rates seem like a pretty fair deal for the State.
I think in our Piney Woods proposal we will include all cost attributes to put it together, include the land, the habitat development, operation and maintenance and an endowment, we're still looking relative to that open market for habitat credits about 30 cents on the dollar, and we think we can deliver that.
In addition to the benefits of just the cost structure in putting large banks together, the economy of scale that is realized by that certainly from the development side and TxDOT side.
It would seem like having the predictability and knowing that those mitigation needs are being met and that likely construction and development will not be held up by the environmental delays that might with it from not having that developed in advance, cost savings will also be incurred by the development of those projects by having that work done out front of the highway project in the case of TxDOT.
Certainly these large landscape scale mitigation areas are much more effective for fish and wildlife conservation, and I think the synergy that was realized by having and doing things in this way from I guess associated but not directly associated things like watershed management are a great benefit. And certainly also putting together a piece of property where there can be public recreation at no additional cost to the State I think is a significant benefit.
That covers my briefing unless you have questions.
COMMISSIONER PARKER: Has TxDOT seen this presentation?
MR. BAUER: No, sir.
COMMISSIONER PARKER: I think they should.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Well, we've had meetings with the Governor's Office and TxDOT, all of us around the room, and we're chipping away might be the nice way to put it.
MR. COOK: Chipping would be generous.
COMMISSIONER HOLT: What would this be relevant to the Trans-Texas Corridor and what they're going to do?
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Well, it's not really the Trans-Texas Corridor issue. There's been plenty of federal money that's on the table right now.
MR. COOK: First, I don't have my commissioner here who's been running this show for me.
MR. COOK: I think, Commissioner Holt, they've got to have mitigation.
COMMISSIONER HOLT: I know they do.
MR. COOK: And we've been involved in this , the people in our Wildlife Division, Inland Fisheries Division, Resource Protection have been involved in this, Some of these folks their entire career.
And yet the mitigation process is often driven by Corps of Engineers is a main major player, Federal Highways is a main major player, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, water board, TCEQ, and to get it done, to get a bank put together can potentially: A) hold up a project for ages; B) be incredibly expensive.
And this goes back for us a long way but is really presented to the public in the Land and Water Plan that look, these things are going to happen, there are going to be a lot of them happen in this part of Texas, and voila, it is right where we recognize the need to provide parks and public lands and wildlife management areas and those kind of things.
So instead of having that 50 acres here or 100 acres there or 20 of those tracts scattered all over at a cost way beyond, if we can put the thing together and work very closely and cooperatively with these people out front, we can be their banker at no cost to them until they need the credit.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: And you know, the ad hoc approach just doesn't work. I mean, it makes no sense, the public gets no real benefit from these little postage stamp tracts that really don't amount to anything, and it's a great opportunity to consolidate our parks needs, wildlife management needs.
The Governor's Office has been very helpful.
MR. COOK: TxDOT has been very helpful.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Yes, TxDOT has been very helpful.
MR. COOK: When we get to working with staff, sometimes we balled up, just being up front about it. Same way with Fish and Wildlife, Corps of Engineers is probably the toughest, Jack, to work with?
MR. BAUER: As we've done our thing since early '90s, we started this at First Bank, it wasn't even called a mitigation bank. The Corps of Engineers developed the opportunity to have a mitigation bank and then they went back and said, Oh, let's call that one.
And then there's been policy developed, federal policy for this over the last 15 years and it's changed significantly.
But I think the reality is that we're seeing from both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Corps of Engineers is this way of doing things, the way we want to do it, they are realizing that it is the only way that it's going to work and it's the only way that's going to get a project like a Trans-Texas Corridor or an Interstate 69 done.
And it's the reality that the Corps of Engineers and the mandate of no net loss of wetlands — which is not working — it's going to have to be concepts like mitigation banking and aggregating impacts into larger contiguous properties that is going to make that work.
I know that Fish and Wildlife Service, the people that we work with here in the Austin Ecological Services Office, are very supportive, they understand this concept and they're now seeing their own policy that's starting to mimic doing business in this way.
So I think it's come a long way.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: The Governor's Office has assigned a staff person to this, they keep it pushing forward. They are people at TxDOT assigned to this.
One of the important points that was made was that — Phil Montgomery knows more about this than anybody.
COMMISSIONER HOLT: I know.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: His background with the North Texas Tollway.
But the important point that he made was we're not asking you to guarantee Parks and Wildlife gets all this money, give us the first shot. If we can't deliver the credits that are required for the project in a timely manner, go somewhere else, but give us the first shot.
And that makes sense and there's no doubt in my mind these guys can deliver on the first shot.
COMMISSIONER HOLT: Yes, but you've got to get the other group to accept or to agree.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: It involves change.
Thank you, Jack.
Nothing more to come before the committee?
MR. COOK: No, sir.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: We stand adjourned. Thank you very much.
(Whereupon, at 4:00 p.m., the meeting was concluded.)
MEETING OF: Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission Finance Committee
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
DATE: April 6, 2005
I do hereby certify that the foregoing pages, numbers 1 through 54, inclusive, are the true, accurate, and complete transcript prepared from the verbal recording made by electronic recording by Penny Bynum before the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.
On the Record Reporting, Inc.
3307 Northland, Suite 315
Austin, Texas 78731