Permitting fee funds land acquisition for conservation
Travis County, Texas is on year 27 of a 30-year conservation plan for Balcones Canyonland, a 50-mile square urban preserve.
Launched in 1996 to protect eight endangered bird species, the 140 individual tracts managed by both public and private entities have contributed to the protection of seven still-endangered species and 27 species of concern.
Public Lands Policy Steering Committee
July 21, 2023
NACo Annual Conference - Travis County, Texas
Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea noted the revolutionary reassessment it would take to preserve endangered species.
“When I first moved to this community in 1988, there were people who were passionate about preserving the endangered bird species and other creatures and they were chaining themselves to trees and chaining themselves to the bulldozers and there was a huge fight between the environmental community and the development community,” she said.
The county’s conservation plan, “I think, is a tremendous example of a win-win. We’ve been able to both preserve incredibly beautiful land, which is treasured by this community, but still allow responsible development to take place.”
In addition, Shea said, limiting development in and around the preserve has helped slow the growth around the Austin area that has contributed to traffic long before the infrastructure has matched the demands.
“You think traffic’s bad now? Imagine what the traffic would be like in your area if all of this land around you were to get developed,” Shea said.
The county facilitates that by charging a fee for a permit to mitigate for the removal of habitat covered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the proceeds of which fund the purchase and management of land in the preserve.
Since 1996, more than 1,200 private landowners and developers applied to develop more than 70,100 acres.
“The plan was simply to find a way to allow development to proceed while protecting enough of the remaining habitat for these species,” said Natural Resources Program Manager Melinda Mallia. The program provides a streamlined way for landowners to comply with the Endangered Species Act, while protecting high-quality habitat.
“What we’re really proud about with the habitat conservation plan is we were able to take an intractable problem — which was the fight between the environmental community to preserve the endangered species and the desire by developers to build homes — and I think what we were able to create is an enduring success story.
“If you talk to developers seeking permits to develop in areas adjacent to the preserves or endangered species habitat, I think they will all tell you our system works. We’ve been able to strike a balance that allows approvals [for development] and we’ve been able to preserve truly beautiful areas of our community.”
On November 14, Fremont County, Colo. Commissioner Dwayne McFall testified before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Federal Lands in support of the Locally Led Restoration Act, sponsored by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.).
County officials from across the country traveled to Washington, D.C. to advocate for federal public land policies, sharing stories with members of Congress of how the PILT and SRS programs help counties fund essential services.