By Mark Lisheron | Texas Watchdog
AUSTIN – Having not quite championed four little known, underloved and potentially endangered salamanders here in Central Texas, you can imagine my excitement at the mere mention of them in a new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service press release.
Fish and Wildlife was giving notice that its draft report analyzing the potential economic impact of protecting the habitat of the Austin Blind, Georgetown, Jollyville Plateau and Salado salamanders was now available to the public.
The estimated impact was $29 million over a period of 23 years, the release said, with little explanation of how the dollar figure was arrived at or why a federal agency chose to measure the impact over such an odd period of time.
The bottom of the release was studded with helpful links to find the Service on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, but nowhere a link to the report to which notice had been given.
Knowing the federal government to be logical and efficient, I clicked on a link promising more information at the Fish and Wildlife Southwest Region website. The site’s top story announces the availability of a brand new economic analysis for my four beloved and imperiled salamanders.
To learn more, the agency suggested I click “Learn More,” which took me back to the original press release.
Deeply rooted in investigative reporting, I dialed a local number provided at the top of the release. Adam Zerrenner, a spokesman for the Austin field office did not answer, and at 9:07 a.m. I left a message.
At 10:14 a.m. an apologetic Zerrenner returned the call. “The, the, the blame is all on us,” he said. Just Google our “Austin Ecological Services” field office and click on the first link that comes up, Zerrenner suggested.
But will I find the report? Will the $29 million be explained? The report will tell you all about it, Zerrenner said, with the reassurance of someone with a long experience of public service at the federal level.
As promised, Google did its job, delivering me to the field office, which provided a trove of information on Texas salamanders.
After nine minutes of careful perusing, I called Zerrenner again. The message I left begged his pardon for my stupidity and asked that, should he call back, he stay on the line and guide me to the report.
It might also bear noting at this point the Austin American-Statesman, perhaps having experienced some of the same technical difficulties, wrote a story based on the press release alone, leaving an explanation for the costs for another deadline.
At 10:33 a.m., the echo in the background of the return call told me Zerrenner was no longer alone. Two members of the field office information technology staff (one of them cheerfully admitting she was really half a position) had joined us on a conference call.
The 3 ½ of us returned to the field office website where, because it had just been added, I was asked to refresh my browser. Scrolling to the bottom of the page, under the Second Comment Period heading, second item, there it was. The Draft Economic Analysis.
According to the agency, designating as critical habitat dozens of sites totalling about 6,000 acres or about 9.4 square miles in Williamson and Travis County would cost $29 million with a favorable discount rate or as much as $40 million if the rate deteriorated.
The authors admit to many economic variables making this estimate a very rough one and confining themselves mostly to the costs one might have dealing with the federal government while trying to develop in and around the critical habitat area. (Please see page ES-4 of the report.)
The actual economic impact, when all is said and done, could be several times the Fish and Wildlife Service estimate, Kemble White, a member of a Williamson County group assigned to the issue, says.
White, regional scientist for SWAC Environmental Consultants in Austin, says among the many missing costs in the estimate is the cost in time lost complying with all of the federal requirements embedded in adding four salamanders, however deserving, to the Endangered Species list.
“Let’s just say these guys (Fish and Wildlife) have a pretty foggy crystal ball when it comes to figuring out what it’s going to cost,” White says. “This report excludes all kinds of economic impacts.”
For those costs, we’ll have to wait patiently for another press release.