Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission
Conservation Committee Meeting

March 25, 2009

Commission Hearing Room
Texas Parks & Wildlife Department Headquarters Complex
4200 Smith School Road
Austin, TX 78744

BE IT REMEMBERED, that heretofore on the 25th day of March, 2009, there came 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 Complex, to wit:

APPEARANCES:

THE TEXAS PARKS AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION:

THE TEXAS PARKS AND WILDLIFE DEPARTMENT:

P R O C E E D I N G S

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: At this time I will call the Conservation Committee to order. The first order of business is the approval of the previous Committee meeting minutes, which have already been distributed.

Is there a motion for their approval?

COMMISSIONER FALCON: So move.

COMMISSIONER HIXON: Second.

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: Let's see, a motion made by Falcon, second by Hixon. All those in favor, please say aye.

(A chorus of ayes.)

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: All opposed, same sign.

(No response.)

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: Motion carries. Thank you.

Let's see, before we go to the agenda, I would like to mention that a Committee item, Number 3, acceptance of a land donation in Bexar County at Government Canyon State National Area has been withdrawn.

Committee Item Number 1, update on TPW progress in implementing the TPW Land and Water Resource Conservation and Recreation Plan. Carter.

MR. SMITH: Mr. Chairman, thank you.

And I first just want to thank you for making it to the Texas Chapter of the Wildlife Society meeting.

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: Absolutely.

MR. SMITH: I appreciate you representing the Commission there. I know our wildlife biologists and wildlife professionals around the state very much appreciated your presence. So thanks —

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: Impressive group.

MR. SMITH: — for coming down to Lubbock.

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: Very impressive.

MALE VOICE: They are an impressive group.

MR. SMITH: Always a good day to be in Lubbock, but that one in particular so.

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: I don't know about that.

(General laughter.)

COMMISSIONER HOLT: I know he's an Amarillo man.

MR. SMITH: He is. That's why I couldn't help but add that. I didn't think he was — I was going to get a concurring vote, but I thought I'd try.

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: Amarillo and UT. All of the above.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: All the above.

MR. SMITH: Speaking of all of the virtues of Lubbock, the second thing I want to mention, and I think this is germane to the conversation that we had on the lesser prairie chicken and the questions about wind, you all had a lot of discussion at the November Commission meeting about what the agency is doing to tackle these issues of wind and wildlife.

Just as a reminder, we're really focusing on this from a three-fold perspective. We have very active research projects underway at Texas A&M, Kingsville and Texas Tech, cooperation with landowners and wind industry. We have also put forth a suite of voluntary siding guidelines that we have now begun to update to provide eco-regional-based guidelines to help landowners and wind energy companies address more site-specific considerations, and that was a recommendation of our Private Lands Advisory Board.

And then thirdly we are very active on the extension and outreach. And so back in February, thanks to the work of Gene Miller and Heather Whitlaw, Commissioner Bivins and others, we hosted the third Wind and Wildlife Symposium, building on successful ones there in Amarillo and Abilene, very, very well attended by landowners and wind industry personnel, great partnership with the Texas Wildlife Association, and AgriLife and Bat Conservation International, just trying to bring the best available information as we have it to landowners who are considering this option on their property.

Again, Commissioner Bivins, appreciate your leadership on that front.

I know you all have been very interested in making sure that we are dong all we can to take our programs to where the people are in Texas, and, you know, 82-83 percent of them are in nine major areas. Our Wildlife Division, I think as all of you know, has a very strong urban program. We also have a lot more absentee landowners that are residing in those urban areas.

And so in Houston recently they sponsored an urban landowner workshop, had I think 130-140 landowners that attended that have land in 30 or 40 counties around the state. And so it's a great way to kind of get the word out to landowners that reside in those areas about what their wildlife management options are, wherever they reside and own land.

Last but not least, I'll mention the fact in February our Parks Division helped host the Texas Recreation and Parks Society annual meeting. It was in Austin. Walt and his team did a great job making sure that they were well taken care of, participated. Walt gave a great kind of a state of the state parks, which was a source of great interest to that group. Tim Hogsett, who runs our local Park Grant Program also very, very active in working with that group. They're a wonderful suite of partners. And so I just wanted to let you know it was a pleasure to have them here in Austin.

So with that, Mr. Chairman, I'll conclude and turn it back over to you. So thank you.

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: Thank you.

Yes, go ahead.

COMMISSIONER DUGGINS: Three things that I think fall in this area, Carter, I'd like to ask you to comment on. One, you recently noted that in the last couple of years there have been several sales by timber companies in East Texas of virgin tracts of land, and I wondered whether we're — what we're doing to identify potential opportunities to acquire land within those areas. That's the first question.

The second is, you also — I saw where you mentioned that there's a large amount of CRP land in the Panhandle that will be coming up next year, and I'd like to know if we can be doing things to promote renewals of that, since that's beneficial, I think.

And thirdly, on the invasive aquatics, is there a way we can use the boat registrations, which I understand from Gene, are now available, or soon to be available online, which is a great move, to inform people as they register boats about the dangers of aquatic species and what they can do to minimize the transfers.

MR. SMITH: Sure. Absolutely. And three items there, and what I propose so we can have a little longer conversation on the first two is that we kind of tee those up for May on the East Texas timberland divestitures and the CRP conversion. Our Wildlife Division has been very, very active up in the Panhandle on addressing that issue, working with NRCS and so I want to update you on that. And then what our land acquisition team has been doing with this huge amount of divestiture that we've seen in the last five years and the opportunities that may present itself for us to be able to see additional land acquired or protected to the benefit of the fish and wildlife, and so we'll make sure we get those on the agenda to talk about.

On the invasive aquatics it's a real simple answer. We have the brochure that I think Robert Goodrich presented at the last meeting and worked with Lydia and Phil and their team, and so kind of a multi-division effort. That is now being mailed out to folks as part of their boat registration information, and so they're getting information about those aquatic invasive species with that mailer. So I think that's going to be a very, very helpful tool there.

COMMISSIONER DUGGINS: Great.

MR. SMITH: Also, as you know, we're doing some things, or will be doing some things, assuming the sunset bill passes, in which aquatic invasive species were mentioned very, very prominently, and some things we're going to be doing on the establishment of a white list, and also elevating our awareness, the public's awareness.

COMMISSIONER DUGGINS: Thank you.

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: Okay. Thank you. Committee Item Number 2, wildlife management area briefing. Mr. Donnie Frels and Mr. Jeff Gunnels.

MR. FRELS: You have to thank Gene for this choice time slot, right before lunch, with all those students behind us, knowing they're starving to death.

(General laughter.)

MR. FRELS: I'm going to try to make this brief.

Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman —

COMMISSIONER HOLT: It may be better than after though, we'll all be falling asleep.

(General laughter.)

MR. FRELS: Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and members of the Commission. My name's Donnie Frels. I'm the Project Leader for the Edwards Plateau Ecosystems Management Project.

MR. GUNNELS: Mr. Chairman and Commissioners, for the record my name is Jeff Gunnels. I'm the Project Leader of the Middle Trinity River Ecosystems Project.

MR. FRELS: We also have in the audience David Synatzske. He's the Project Leader for the South Texas Ecosystems Project. We're here on behalf of the 10 Wildlife Division project leaders across the state to give you an update and briefing on the current status, goals, direction, and priorities of our Wildlife Management Areas.

Parks and Wildlife began Wildlife Management Area, or WMA, acquisition in 1946 in an effort to protect the remaining population of native Texas bighorn sheep and critical sheep habitat in the Sierra Diablo Mountains of West Texas. Since then WMAs have been acquired by various means for specific purposes across the state. The strategic goals for our WMAs are primarily research and management purposes. Part is served as a site for landowner demonstrations and field experiments, but many serve as outdoor classrooms for universities, school groups, and other conservation organizations to protect critical habitats or as public hunting sites.

Originally Parks and Wildlife Department strived to acquire major research and demonstration sites within each area of the state to serve as experiment stations for biologists, and to specifically target habitat management practices applicable to each in order to assist private landowners. Listed here are the original six sites, Sierra Diablo, the Matador, the Kerr, Gus Engeling, J.D. Murphree, and the Chaparral WMA.

Since the 1950s, we've acquired an additional 45 WMAs with acquisition efforts significantly increasing in the late '80s and early '90s. Many of these sites during this time were acquired as a result of increased awareness of the importance of wetlands and bottomland hardwoods, loss of dove nesting habitat in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and our ability to partner with other organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, in acquiring property for mitigation purposes. Today we have 51 sites across the state representing almost ever ecological are, and each acquired for specific purposes.

As a result of the new sites in the '80s and early '90s, the Wildlife Division began grouping WMAs into clusters, or projects, in response to insufficient staffing, and to attempt to coordinate activities and personnel in a more efficient manner under a single project leader position. To day we have 10 of these projects across the state, and just to give you an idea, on average we have about five WMAs per project, only 10 FTEs, and we manage about 70,000 acres per project, on average.

Although similar to state parks in many ways, our Wildlife Management Areas face unique challenges and responsibilities. Wildlife research is a prime consideration on most of our major WMAs. Our staff conduct a wide variety of research themselves, but also assist with projects conducted by universities or other conservation organizations. Today we currently have about 28 ongoing research projects on our WMAs.

As with any site with infrastructure, facility maintenance is always a priority, and manpower and funding always an issue. WMAs often employee the assistance of TDCJ inmates where possible.

Our Fish and Wildlife technicians, and many of our own biologists are very talented individuals who possess many skills and abilities, but most importantly they have a can do attitude when it comes to getting the job done and working with limited resources. We currently have many capable carpenters, plumbers, electricians, welders and heavy equipment operators on staff, even though they can make considerably more money in the private sector. Retention of these employees has recently become an issue.

On most of our WMAs conservation takes precedence over preservation, which means we pursue a very active role in habitat management while following Aldo Leopold's five basic tools of wildlife management: utilizing the ax, cow, plow, fire and gun. These sites allow us the opportunity to experiment with various techniques and passing on that information to private landowners. Oftentimes, our only interaction with many of our constituents comes through our public hunting program. Our WMAs continually struggle with the issue of providing a quality hunting experience while attempting to maximize public hunting opportunity and expanding youth hunting efforts.

Unknown to most folks, we also provide many non-consumptive use activities on our WMAs, such as biking, hiking established nature trails, camping and wildlife viewing. Again, we must be cautious to protect the attributes for which the property was originally acquired and should be careful to basically not love them to death. As biologists and resource managers, this is a critical issue for us.

Probably one of the most overlooked aspects of our jobs on WMAs is the amount of technical guidance we provide. Often conducted in the form of landowner field days, or school groups using our sites as outdoor classrooms. Oftentimes our WMAs serve as demonstration sites, or for other activities such as shooting sports events, or as a site to train our own staff members.

In addition to these duties we must also address a wide variety of other issues specific to WMAs, such as archeology, property easements, endangered threatened species management, control of noxious vegetation and exotic species, or natural disasters such as the recent wildfire on the Chaparral WMA, or the hurricanes affecting our coastal WMAs.

We continue to face many challenges for the future such as declining operational budgets, lack of capital equipment money, and we are now dealing with recruitment and retention issues, which is new to the Wildlife Division. We also deal with conflicting priorities for our site such as maximizing public use while protecting sensitive environments, our cultural resource concerns, and the impact this has to habitat management practices.

Our main concern for the future is our ability to maintain the current level of service to our constituents, given these recent challenges. As a strategy to deal with this, our WMA staff have been forced to consider the option of reducing services on some of our smaller, lesser utilized sites in order to better manage our priority sites.

As a result, we are currently considering nomenclature changes to specific sites in order to set visitor expectations, clarify the purpose for which it was acquired, and describe what amenities and activities may or may not be available.

Another strategy that was recently done in state parks is to consider whether or not we're the most appropriate steward of certain properties. Therefore, we must consider the option of divesting specific WMAs, or pursue transfer to another more appropriate entity as outlined in the Land and Water Resources Conservation and Recreation Plan. Also as outlined in the plan, we stress the importance of exercising caution when acquiring new sites, preferring the option to acquire land adjacent to existing priority sites, or in holdings, as this is more cost efficient, rather than to develop infrastructure and add staff to entirely new sites.

In a study recently conducted in conjunction with Texas Tech University, it is clear Texans enjoy and appreciate wild places and quality outdoor experiences. It is our desire and goal to continue to provide such sites for future generations through careful conservation and future management of our Wildlife Management Areas.

We thank you for your time and allowing us the opportunity to present this to you, and we'll gladly attempt to answer any questions that you might have.

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: Any questions?

(No response.)

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: Thank you very much.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: Well, wait now. If I can make a few comments.

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: Absolutely.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: I want to make sure the Commission understood that the wildlife group has been really — division — has really been putting a focus on this and doing a lot of evaluation. What you're seeing is this report, it's kind of a quick culmination of that. And so I want to thank all of you for that. The WMAs are important to us, and I think in some ways relative to at least the Commission, which I've now been on four or five years. Sometimes you've got to just kind of decide a little bit as we had to focus so much on parks.

So we're now trying to raise the focus on the WMAs, and this evaluation is a big first step in that. Where do we go with these? How do we best make use of them? And obviously they do have conflicting sometimes focuses.

The one thing I want to talk about quickly, just so you do understand, is that I'm considering my primary job in the legislature, and as you saw is kind of our number one exceptional item, is this salary equity issue. Because of your issue of personnel recruitment and retention.

MR. FRELS: Yes, sir.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: And the Wildlife Division probably has been hit the hardest with this right now. And so we're putting that — that's kind of our — not kind of, it is our number one focus. So I just wanted to let you all know that, because at the end of the day we can have how many thousands of acres of WMA, but if we don't have the personnel out there to accomplish the goals that we want to accomplish, then it's going to — I won't say it's worthless, but I guess in a way to us it would be, and then that means to the citizens of the State of Texas.

MR. FRELS: Yes, sir.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: And so I really appreciate you all taking this time.

MR. FRELS: We're kind of at a critical juncture —

COMMISSIONER HOLT: Of course.

MR. FRELS: — with that right now, but with operational budgets declining —

COMMISSIONER HOLT: Right.

MR. FRELS: — and retaining qualified staff —

COMMISSIONER HOLT: Yes.

MR. FRELS: — we're still getting applications, we're probably getting about half the applications we were five years ago, and we just don't see some of these really skilled craftsmen in our technician ranks as we used to, and on WMAs they're very critical to have folks like that.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: Yes, you have to have those folks and then you've got the wildlife biologists issue. I mean we've got issues across Wildlife, I think, that we're really focusing on the salary equity situation going on in areas that we're trying to resolve with the help of the legislature. So there is a big emphasis on that, and I wanted to let you all know that.

MR. FRELS: We appreciate your efforts.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: Thank you.

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: Thank you very much.

Committee Item Number 4, land acquisition, Houston County, Mission Tejas State Park. Mr. Corky Kuhlmann.

MR. KUHLMANN: Good afternoon. For the record my name is Corky Kuhlmann with Land Conservation Program. This is an acquisition at Mission Tejas State Park in Houston County, which is kind of northwest of Lufkin, that quarter acre acquisition right at the entrance to the park, and we are doing this — we're migrating away from our usual two meeting process for acquisition for two reasons: one is, is that it's a very small amount of money, and the second is that the owner is leaving the country April 10, so.

(General laughter.)

COMMISSIONER HOLT: Leaving the country? What — should we worry about that, Corky? I mean is he on the lam, he or she?

MR. KUHLMANN: We'd kind of like to get it done before then. But the parcel that we're looking at is the small yellow parcel there, and it's right past the entrance. There's two other parcels there that kind of lay between Highway 21 and the park that we hope to obtain in the future also. One of them has been taken for back taxes and we're working with the county to try to get that tract. This is a motion that we'll present to you tomorrow. I'll take any questions.

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: Any comments?

COMMISSIONER HOLT: Straightforward, I mean we can do this — this is an appropriate manner I assume. Ann Bright's —

MR. KUHLMANN: Yes. Yes.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: Okay. I just want to make sure we're within all the guidelines —

MR. KUHLMANN: Yes, sir.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: — the legal guidelines. Okay.

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: Hearing no further questions, I will place this item on the Thursday Commission meeting agenda for public comment and action.

Conservation Committee Items Numbers 5 through 9 will be discussed in executive session. We will now recess for executive session. Therefore, I'd like to announce that pursuant to the requirements of Chapter 551, Government Code, referred to as the Open Meetings Act, an executive session will be held at this time for the purpose of deliberation of real estate matters under Section 551.072 of the Texas Open Meetings Act, and deliberation of a prospective gift or donation under Section 551.073 of the Texas Open Meetings Act, and seeking legal advice from general counsel under Section 551.071 of the Open Meetings Act.

We now are adjourned. Thank you.

(Whereupon, at 12:25 p.m., the Commission met in executive session.)

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: At this time we will reconvene the regular session of the Conservation Committee. Regarding Committee Item Number 5, update on possible land acquisition and development in Palo Pinto County, no further action is required. Regarding Item Number 6, land exchange, Galveston County, Galveston Island State Park, I authorize staff to begin the public notice and input process.

Regarding Item Number 7, land transfer, Taylor County, Abilene State Park, I authorize staff to begin the public notice and input process. Regarding Committee Item Number 8, land acquisition, Bandera County, Lost Maples State Natural Area, I authorize staff to begin the public notice and input process.

And regarding Item Number 9, acceptance of conservation easement, Harris County, San Jacinto Battleground Monument State Historic Site, no action is required at this time.

Mr. Chairman, this Committee has completed its business.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: Very good, Commissioner Bivins. I appreciate that.

(Whereupon, at 2:50 p.m., the meeting was concluded.)

C E R T I F I C A T E

MEETING OF: Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission
Conservation Committee

LOCATION: Austin, Texas

DATE: March 25, 2009

I do hereby certify that the foregoing pages, numbers 1 through 21, 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.

4/09/09

(Transcriber) (Date)
On the Record Reporting, Inc.
3307 Northland, Suite 315
Austin, Texas 78731


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