Staying the Course Environmentalists Continue the Long Pursuit of a Rivers Protection Act BY G. K. SPRINKLE DON GREENE loves Buffalo Bayou. To Greene, the president of the Bayou Preservation Association, the 49-mile-long stream that flows through Houston is “a unique classroom of history, biology, botany, geology, and even several kinds of engineering.” Starting just south of Katy and moving through the ritzy suburbs and inner-city neighborhoods of Houston, the river empties into Galveston Bay. In the midst of urban blight and crowded freeways, people can float down the Bayou under a leafy canopy of huge trees or raft on fast-flowing water past the Astrodome. It’s a surprising bit of wilderness nestled inside the sprawling concrete of Houston. Greene wants to keep Houston’s development in the background and protect the Bayou, not only for its environmental value but also for its use as an educational and recreational resource. He was one of four speakers at the Second Rivers Congress, held in San Antonio in August, who described a specific stretch of a Texas waterway that should be included in a Texas Rivers Protection System. The River Congress was organized to discuss a new rivers-protection bill to be introduced in the 71st Legislature when it convenes in January. Legislation to protect Texas rivers is not new. After passage of a bill establishing the Federal Wild and Scenic River System in 1968, many states attempted to establish their own river protection plans. Texas rivers and streams are, in most cases, owned by the state and are a key growth and development resource. In some other states, where water policy is considered important, river plans were developed as a means of preventing rivers from becoming part of the national system. But in Texas, river protection proponents were worried that because the state had so many valuable streams it would be difficult to get federal protection for them all. In fact, only 191.2 miles along the Lower Rio Grande, out of Texas’s 13,000 river miles, is in the federal system today. Former state Senator Don Kennard passed a resolution in 1969 which mandated a Parks and Wildlife study considering the possibil G. K. Sprinkle is a lobbyist for public interest and nonprofit groups who come before the Texas legislature. In 1987, she represented the National Audubon Society. ity of a Texas River System, and an analysis of two major rivers for inclusion in such a system. The resulting publication is still an important reference on Texas waters. Additional studies mandated by later legislatures provided analysis of other state rivers and streams. Development near rivers has reduced many natural habitats But legislation introduced in the early ’70s to establish a Texas system was not passed because of strong objections of riverfront landowners. One of these early bills allowed the condemnation of land for conservation easements and public access, as in the federal legislation. Although only one percent of all lands along the federal system of protected rivers was acquired through condemnation, landowners were concerned that any right to move private lands into the public sector in Texas would lead to widespread loss of their lands. They also worried that more traffic on the rivers would increase litter and trespassing problems. In all the rivers bills, however, the key issue was not condemnation of land. Rather, it was the establishment of a mechanism to protect rivers and parts of rivers from the effects of reservoir building \(damming digging out recreation. River shoreline environments are essential in maintaining ecological balance in many areas. Speaking on the effects of river development at the Congress, Dede Armentrout, Regional Vice-President for the National Audubon Society, said, “The construction process [for reservoirs and channel alteration] is very rapid in biological terms, and there’s no opportunity for biological organisms to adapt.” Any change in depth, temperature, oxygen, and food supply can make a big difference in the survival of river animals. Construction also effects animals living near rivers. Population growth and agricultural development around rivers has significantly reduced many habitats for these animals. “In the past,” Armentrout said, “there was a lot of habitat for these organisms to retreat to during construction on rivers, but that’s no longer possible. White wing dove nest in many wooded areas in wet years, but in dry ones, 80 percent are found in the first ten to twelve feet of river shoreline.” INCREASING DEVELOPMENT among rivers, which effects both recreational use and river environ ments, moved river protection supporters, who had been inactive since 1975, to propose new legislation for protecting Texas rivers. The 1987 bill, drafted by conservation and recreational groups, had strong provisions to prosecute people who trespassed on or trashed private property, as well as wording to prohibit condemnation of private lands along the rivers. The groups talked with former opponents of earlier legislation, such as Senator Bill Simms, DSan Angelo, and Rep. Dudley Harrison, DSanderson, to head off their opposition to the new bill. The coalition brought together a wide range of supporters including Temple-Eastex, a forest products company which plants and harvests trees on a million acres of East Texas land. Michael Harboldt, Temple-Eastex’s Director of Energy and Environment, explained why the company supported last session’s bill. “Our company has a good record in support of environmental concerns. We thought [the bill] would be helpful in protecting the integrity of the rivers.” The legislation received positive support, at first. Senator Tati Santiesteban, D-E1 Paso, and Rep. Fred Agnich, R-Dallas, who chaired the House and Senate committees likely to hear the bill, agreed to sponsor the legislation. Even after House Speaker Gib Lewis appointed Robert Saunders to head the Environmental Affairs Committee instead of Agnich, supporters found that Saunders wanted to sponsor the legislation. Later when the bill was referred to the House Natural Resources committee, Republican Rep. Terral Smith agreed to support it as well. But then things started going wrong. 14 OCTOBER 14, 1988
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