Group forms to represent landowners in potential salamander listing

A group of landowners in Williamson County have formed the Texas Salamander Coalition, a nonprofit organization to represent people whose property value could be affected if United States Fish and Wildlife Service lists certain salamander species in the area as endangered.

"The landowners need a voice, and the Texas Salamander Coalition is providing that," said John Lewis, president of the group, which began meeting in January.

Lewis said the goal of the TSC is to educate property owners on what is taking place and to also fund studies of the salamander that USFWS could use in making its determination. He said the group also hopes to mitigate the affects of any land use restrictions.

Lesli Gray, public affairs specialist for the state of Texas with USFWS, said USFWS could publish a proposed rule to list the salamanders in late spring or early summer, after which there would be a 30 to 90 day public comment period. USFWS would have 12 months before making a final decision.

There are four Central Texas salamanders under consideration—the Georgetown Salamander, the Jollyville Plateau Salamander, the Austin Blind Salamander and the Salado Salamander.

The salamanders were put on a fast track to consideration after environmental group Wild Earth Guardians sued USFWS last year, saying the agency was not evaluating species in a timely manner. As a part of the settlement, USFWS agreed to place a timetable on making a determination on about 250 species throughout the nation during a period of six years, Gray said.

Lewis said developers are worried that if the salamanders are listed as endangered, development regulations would be implemented that are similar to the Barton Springs Recharge Zone rule adopted by the City of Austin in 1992. That rule allows for only 15 percent impervious cover, the percentage of a lot that is covered by structure or pavement, within the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.

Lewis said the TSC has contacted property owners in the potentially affected area who own 100 acres or more.

Rick Castleberry, vice president of the Texas Salamander Coalition, said development has started west of I-35 near Hwy. 29, and more is planned for the future.

He said if development costs become too high, the homes in the area would be too expensive for the average Williamson County resident to afford.

The group has hired a scientific team that is working on a report to file with USFWS. Castleberry said the group is not against protecting salamanders if they are endangered, but it just wants ensure it is done in an efficient manner.

"What we're trying to find is better science than is currently available and see that it is applied in a responsible way," TSC Treasurer Matt Harriss said.

The Williamson County Conservation Foundation is already studying the Georgetown Salamander as a part of its Regional Habitat Conservation Plan. In January, it also authorized new research funds for the Jollyville Plateau Salamander.

The TSC is in the process of applying for nonprofit status, Harriss said.

For more information, call 476-7011.

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