By LYNETTE HAALAND, Four Points News
The River Place Municipal Utility District has notified the federal agencies that it intends to reopen the upper trail prior to Golden-Cheeked Warbler nesting.
“The River Place MUD board is delighted to reopen the River Place Nature Trail on February 7,” said Jim Casey, president of the River Place MUD.
“We’re really excited for this,” said Sandy Perry, president of the advocacy group Friends of River Place Trail. “We are grateful for the MUD having hired the right people to get to this point.”
On Sept. 17, Alan Glen, noted environmental attorney with Sedgwick Law, on behalf of the River Place MUD informed the US Army Corps of Engineers and US Fish and Wildlife Service of their Notice of Intent to Sue both agencies.
The NOI stated that the agencies have no jurisdiction over the MUD owned, conservation land and there has been no harm of the Golden-Cheeked Warbler. Glen asked the agencies to respond within 30 days.
“I had a long series of conversations with their lawyers and they were very productive. They were listening and sensitive to all of the issues,” Glen said.
“They have made no formal response so we are going to open the trail,” he said.
Studies have shown the the Golden-Cheeked Warbler has not been harmed, which helped solidify the MUD’s case.
Friends of the River Place Trail obtained more than 1,100 signatures on a petition to re-open the trail.
“The federal agencies didn’t respond in writing so the MUD took the position that the feds didn’t have jurisdiction,” Perry said.
The MUD will soon be in the process of decommissioning the 1600 linear feet of the trail that was mistakenly built on the Cortaña tract under the jurisdiction of the Austin Water Utility.
“The workers who are restoring the 1600 feet need to be able to finish their work prior to March 1 (nesting season) and we need to stay out of their way,” Perry said.
“I want to stress as an advocate with Friends of the River Place Trail, pay attention to signage put up and stay away from Cortan. Trespassing will only hurt us in long run,” Perry said.
Why the trail closed
In Feb. 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service stated “the (River Place Nature) trail was constructed without the City of Austin’s consent and encroaches on preserved lands within the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.”
The USFWS instructed the city to close the portions of the trail located within the BCP. The city was obligated to remove the trail and restore the area back to a wildlife habitat, otherwise its federal permit to manage the entire preserve system would be in jeopardy. The city asked the River Place MUD to close the “illegally built” trail sections. In March 2012, the City of Austin Wildland Conservation Division closed a section of River Place’s upper trail.
Not long after that, cameras were set up on the trail secretly taking pictures of trespassing hikers. At times there were patrols on the trails. Casey cited one day a patrol dressed in camouflage stopped was a River Place psychiatrist and her husband who were on the trail and asked for their IDs.
Through this process, Casey said the MUD directors were told by presumed authorities in local and federal government several things that were inaccurate.
“(They said) we ought to have obtained their permission before building the trail, that the trail on MUD property was illegal, and that we had broken the law in a number of ways. The statements by these alleged authorities didn’t survive the test of rigorous legal research,” Casey said.
The only thing the MUD did wrong was to erroneously build 1600 linear feet of trail on the periphery of 1753 acre Cortana. But Casey added that this was done partly because the Balcones Canyonland Preserve would not provide the MUD’s trail builder with a map of the boundaries of Cortana tract.
“We have always said that if necessary we would deconstruct the 1600 LF and build a bypass on MUD property for hikers to use,” Casey said.
That is where this case is at today.
Next fall, a new bypass trail to connect the upper and lower trail will be built, after nesting season of the Golden-Cheeked Warbler.
“The MUD is committed to studying the impact of the trail on an ongoing basis to make sure it doesn’t harm the warbler,” Glen said.