Take Back Texas, the property rights group I founded in 1994, was very aware of the stop-the-growth movement started by Austin’s Save Our Springs coalition. It was our opinion then — and it still is — that Save Our Springs was light-years ahead of developers and landowners. The coalition was able to get scientists and other interested individuals to agree with their no-growth policies and publish papers saying that certain creatures, such as the golden-cheeked warbler, were in danger of extinction and needed protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
It was brilliant. Targeting bugs, critters and birds in specific areas, such as Barton Springs and in the cedar breaks to the north and west of Austin, was the group’s start. Then, it got the right folks to state publicly that some species would be harmed by further or added development. Then, it petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency in charge of species protection, to come to Austin’s aid — and the federal agency agreed.
When Save Our Springs persuaded Fish and Wildlife to come to its aid, it hit a home run. It was their thought that if it could not get local officials to pass the regulations needed to stop all growth around Austin, then it would petition Fish and Wildlife to step in and bring with them the power of a federal agency.
Allowing this federal agency to come into Texas and dictate land-use policy here was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is by and large a federal game warden agency that began to come into its own during the administrations of Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Congressman John Lacey, an Iowa Republican, became alarmed over the killing of tens of thousands of plumed egrets in the Florida Everglades simply for their feathers. The Lacey Act of 1900 made it a federal crime to ship animals or animal parts across state lines. What would later become known as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was put in charge of enforcing the law.
Fast forward to 1994. Save Our Springs, or SOS, targeted areas of potential growth around Austin and the Hill Country that the group’s members did not want to see developed. They petitioned Fish and Wildlife to declare a critter or a plant endangered, and that triggered the federal regulations needed to stop development.
Fish and Wildlife then stepped in and established the federal ground rules that private property owners would be forced to use. So, in one fell swoop, a property owner in the state of Texas would no longer be able go through the normal channels of county and state regulations. He or she would be forced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to comply with the Endangered Species Act and with its onerous federal rules.
This move by SOS, in concert with the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy, to get little-known critters declared as endangered species was a stroke of genius.
Years ago, residents of Texas — the largest group of private property owners in the nation — were operating under county and state rules; the next day they suddenly were operating under federal rules. These new rules were dictated by the Endangered Species Act and the Fish and Wildlife Service, led by state administrator Sam Hamilton, who would be the new rules’ “enforcers,” swaggering into town carrying a big federal hammer. It was a new ball game for the private property owners of Texas.
Susan Combs, the former Texas comptroller and a rancher, was one of the few people who immediately recognized the impact of what the environmental groups had accomplished. No matter what was said or done by many in those early years in state government, nothing could stop the momentum that was created.
Combs never forgot what was done to damage private property rights in 1994. Now a private citizen, she and several groups have petitioned Fish and Wildlife for a change: to take the golden-cheeked warbler off the endangered species list because the bird does not belong on it.
That change should be allowed.
Kuykendall is a Hays County rancher who organized Take Back Texas in 1994 to protect private property rights.