By LYNETTE HAALAND, Four Points News
The Friends of River Place Nature Trail Rally brought out many supporters who want to see their nature trail reopened with the help of legal maneuvering against the two federal agencies that are challenging the trail.
“My goal is by the end of the year to get the trail open. Endangered species and people get along,” said Alan Glen, a preeminent environmental lawyer.
“This is excellent news,” said rally organizer Kimberly Ohlson, who said she hopes the trail, which was closed March 2012, will be reopen soon.
Several neighborhood children held signs showing support of the trail at the rally at Sun Tree Park in River Place on Saturday. Abigail Naden’s sign read “Help Save our Trail”.
Jim Casey, president of the River Place Municipal Utility District, was pleased with the rally turnout and the direction Glen is taking. “We needed outside expertise,” he said.
The rally stemmed from legal action last month. On Sept. 17, the River Place MUD served the US Army Corps of Engineers and US Fish and Wildlife Service a Notice of Intent to Sue both agencies asserting that neither has jurisdiction over the MUD owned conservation land, and there has been no harm of the golden-cheeked warbler.
“We’ve had to take the hard line with Fish and Wildlife and Corps of Engineers. We will claim victory for endangered species and people,” Glen told supporters at the rally.
There are two issues: the endangered golden-cheeked warbler’s well being, and the MUD accidentally building a portion of the trail on the Balcones Canyonland Conservation Preserve.
The two federal agencies told the River Place MUD to close the trail claiming that the trail hurts the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.
But the most recent biological study, completed in June, shows that the warblers are nesting and breeding, evidenced by fledging chicks in numbers that are as great or greater than they were in the years immediately following the development of River Place in the 1990s, said Sandy Perry, Friends of RP Trail president.
So this naturally built, dirt path with wood supported steps has not harmed the warbler, Perry said.
River Place resident Steve Snodell jogs in the open River Place trails and would like to see the closed trail reopened. He said one of the reasons the golden-cheeked warbler is doing so well is because the trails are beneficial for them. “It gives them a path to to fly and feed,” he said. Studies show without trails, it could become too thick and dense, keeping them out, he added.
Trail built on BCCP
The other issue River Place is facing is that a small section, 1,600 linear feet, of the trail in question was inadvertently built on part of the BCCP.
The City of Austin asked the MUD to close this part of the trail and it did so on March 2012.
The MUD has already agreed to restore that part of the trail to its natural state, and to move that section to MUD land.
“No one is contesting this, and the trail can be relocated,” Perry said.
But in the meantime the city is trying to make sure no one uses the trail. In addition to the city-installed camera to help police the trail, it is thought that the city has hired off duty law enforcement agents to patrol the trail at times, Perry said.
On Sept. 7, several people received written warnings while hiking from the Fern trail branch on up, Perry said.
“These hikers did not cross any city boundary yet two men, one in civilian clothes, the other in camo jumped out of the bushes, startling them. They asked for ID and were rude,” Perry said.
Glen urged the group to report it if an incident like that happens again. “I’m horrified about hearing that.”
Likelihood of a lawsuit
In the NOI document filed in September, Glen asked the federal agencies to step away from the issue and allow the MUD and the city to work out the details amicably.
The federal agencies were to respond within 30 days and the deadline is approaching this week. Ohlson asked at the rally if more time would be given for the agencies to respond since the government shutdown is affecting the process. Depending on what the MUD wants him to do, Glen said he hopes to carry on and not let them have more time to respond to the NOI.
Bryan Goodwin and other rally attendees asked about a timeline, and if Glen thought the MUD would end up in a legal battle with the two federal agencies.
Describing the Corps of Engineers duties related to managing wetlands and other things, Glenn said. “They don’t want to be in a fight with the golden-cheeked warbler.”
“The Fish & Wildlife Service is different,” he said. It used to be an agency that blended human activity with wildlands but a few decades ago, it shifted focus with certain issues. Now they take more of a stance that humans and wildlife do not blend well, he added.
Glen does not want to have to sue these agencies but will if that is what it takes. “We say endangered species and humans can get along.”
“We want to be done by the end of the year. We are hoping they give up or shut up,” he said.
One point, among many, to bolster the MUD case is that USF&WS has a 2.5 mile trail in endangered species habitat at a refuge in Burnet County, he said.
Rally organizers were adding signatures to the 1,200 or so already gathered on their petition to reopen the trail. Additionally they are urging people to write their congressmen and senators.
“Trails and endangered species and people can all co-exist,” Glen said.