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Texas PEER Uncovers Misuse of Federal Funds by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department: Criminal Complaint Filed

Black Hawk

Common Black-Hawk

Photo by Helen & Noel Snyder

In June 1998, Texas PEER was contacted by several citizens and independent researchers about unusual land clearing activities along Limpia creek near Davis Mountains State park. The bulldozing alarmed these citizens and scientists because the clearing was removing vegetation and channelizing a stream next to one of the best-known Common Black-hawk nests in the United States. The Common Black-hawk is a Texas state threatened species and this nest contained at least one nestling at the time of the clearing.

Texas PEER discovered that this work was funded by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's (TPWD) Landowner Incentive Program (LIP), a state program financed by federal funds for promoting the conservation of federal endangered, threatened or candidate species on private property. Problems with this program have come to the attention of Texas PEER because of allegations of bias in the awarding of LIP grants.

In response to the citizen complaints, on July 1, 1998 Texas PEER filed a formal complaint alleging criminal violations of the Federal Clean Water Act, National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Migratory Birds Treaty. Texas Peer also filed an Open Record request with TPWD that sought all records concerning the Landowner Incentive Program (LIP).

Texas Parks & Wildlife Fights Open Records Release to Cover Misuse of Funds

TPWD staff responded publicly that the level of destruction was minimal, and refused to release a number of documents, supposedly in the interest of protecting the confidentiality of the landowner who sponsored the project.

Texas PEER filed a lawsuit to force release of these documents in February 1999. TPWD officials recently released the requested documents and have agreed to pay attorney's fees of $6,500.

What did the TPWD internal documents disclose?

The documents released by TPWD disclosed that members of the LIP review committee had expressed reservations about this particular project. In particular, William Sewell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service felt that the Common Black-hawk was ineligible for LIP funding "because it is not a federally listed or candidate species (and never was and not likely to be)." Mike McMurry of the Texas Agriculture Department recommended against the removal of old trees in the area and questioned the necessity of bulldozing. Gary Graham of the Wildlife Division of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department expressed concerns that this project would not result in increased numbers of Common Black-hawks, which was the specific purpose for the federal funding. Despite these concerns, the review board voted to approve Limpia creek project, with Sewell, the FWS representative, apparently abstaining.

Project Mismanagement or Special Interest Deal at Limpia Creek?

Sixty-six percent of the Limpia Creek project budget was designed, not for habitat restoration, which was the expressed purpose of the funding, but for clearing of vegetation for primitive trails, alteration of Limpia Creek for flood control, and construction of observation blinds. Local citizens alleged that this work was linked to plans for a trailer park facility rumored to be in the works for this site. (These rumors, in fact, match a secondary stated objective of the project: to assist the sponsoring landowner with an ecotourism project. )

The bulldozing greatly exceeded the original project plans that restricted bulldozing to construction of one primitive trail. A map and photograph taken of the site from a nearby highway suggested that 11 to 22 acres of land and a minimum of 6 acres of the stream channel were impacted by bulldozing. Both estimates exceed TPWD and the U.S. Corps of Engineers public estimates of only one-third of an acre. This difference is important because modification of over three acres is the threshold for triggering a violation of the Clean Water Act.

A critical feature of the initial proposal was to promote growth of cottonwood trees by excluding cattle, and by planting cottonwood saplings. Cattle exclusion is critical for the restoration of southwestern streams and forests because of the sensitivity of seedling cottonwoods and shrubs to browsing and trampling by cattle. Despite this requirement a performance report for the project describes the landowner planting grasses at the site. This suggests that the net impact of this project has been to improve grazing conditions for cattle and increase human access at this site while doing relatively little to benefit the black-hawks.

Proper Employee Action Results in Accusations of Betrayal

Two detailed memos and one letter retained by TPWD disclosed how employees at Davis Mountain Sate park had notified the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of the habitat and stream floodplain destruction in June while not realizing that this project had been funded and approved by their own department. These employees were then subjected to internal accusations of betraying the identity of the sponsoring landowner and of attempting to undermine the LIP. These records also disclose that TPWD failed to conduct an archeological review of the project site as required by the National Historic Preservat ion Act. One internal reviewer pointed out that restoration of this area could have been accomplished more efficiently simply by fencing the area to exclude cattle.

Limpia Creek Shows Need for Independent Review of Federally Funded Projects

Our tax-dollars must be spent efficiently and fairly. Limited funds for endangered species conservation must be directed entirely toward those species in greatest need of assistance. Our trust and the welfare of endangered species is abused when funds for wildlife conservation get diverted to other uses via secret deals with landowners. The Limpia Creek episode emphasizes the critical need for such projects to be managed and reviewed by competent biologists and independent experts. The current LIP committee has no experts on target species, just agency staff and representatives of influential non-governmental organizations. TPWD in the past has used national experts on rare species to help write management guidelines and status reports for rare and declining species. Why not use these same experts to provide quality control for the Landowner Incentive Program? The Limpia Creek fiasco also points out the need for better federal review of LIP projects. This would at least provide a second chance to catch any inappropriate or poorly designed projects approved by TPWD.

These findings also heighten our concern that a much larger problem may exist at TPWD with its other private lands-oriented federal aid projects. Although Texas PEER has begun an investigation of this larger issue, determining the full extent of this problem will be difficult as long as Texas limits citizen review of taxpayer-funded, state-run wildlife management projects.

Supporting Documents

  1. Common Black-Hawk Habitat Requirements and Status
  2. PEEReview Article of Summer 1998
  3. July 1, 1998 Complaint of Violations of Federal Laws
  4. July 26, 1998 Addendum to July 1, 1998 Complaint
  5. Limpia Creek Press Release February 19, 1999
  6. PEEReview Article of Fall 1999
  7. LIP Review Board review of 1998 LIP projects
  8. Limpia Creek Project budget and specifications
  9. November 30, 1998 performance report for Limpia Creek project
  10. Public Lands Division Complaint about the bulldozing
  11. Wildlife Division complaint about interference from Public Lands
  12. Wildlife Division memo response to Public Lands
  13. Limpia Creek Map and Photos

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Tel: (512) 441-4941 · txpeer@PEER.org 
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