A small, brownish toad is confounding recovery from the horrific fire in Bastrop County, Texas that torched 34,000 acres and destroyed 1,700 homes over last September’s Labor Day weekend.
Before rebuilding and landscape restoration can occur, Bastrop County must remove the mountains of charred debris on roads, rights of way, and on private property near roads.
Thousands of dead trees; some 40,000 tree stumps; crumpled shards of cars, roofs, and fireplaces: The grim remains of this fire must be removed and disposed at an estimated cost of approximately $16 million.
The Houston Toad has added a formidable wrinkle to the task. This federally endangered species lives – or lived – within the area totally devoured by the fire.
What biologists call the largest and “only genetically viable” population of the Houston Toad resides in Bastrop State Park, 98 percent of which was consumed by the fire.
According to the federal “biological monitors” who have descended upon Bastrop County in large numbers, the removal of dead trees or any “soil disturbance” may annoy the toads, a risk evidently heightened now during the toads’ breeding season.
Soon after the last flames were extinguished, the county’s efforts to remove debris were proceeding apace with completion anticipated by May or June.
The toads’ needs, however, began to slow and halt work when the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s (FEMA) funds began to flow in early February.
The conflict reached an impasse when the county’s contractor threatened to quit and some of the feds threatened to halt debris removal.
Since a major meeting of 40 federal, state, and local officials, the county’s work has picked up. At a much slower pace, however, the debris removal may take far longer than planned.
How in the world can FEMA – the federal entity whose reason-to-be is recovery from natural disasters – allow a toad’s needs to trump rapid, cost-efficient recovery actions for 1,700 homeless families and a county which has lost 8 percent of its tax base?
The answer is simple if wholly appalling. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) compels FEMA to put the needs of the toads – that may or may not still be hopping around the scorched moonscape that remains its “critical habitat” – ahead of the needs of Bastrop residents.
Expenditure of federal funds triggers broad authority under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act to insure that any “federal action” avoids jeopardizing the continued existence of the species.
Bastrop County has operated under the restrictions of a Habitat Conservation Plan for the Houston Toad approved almost 10 years ago, but FEMA’s environmental team apparently view their obligation under Section 7 to require tighter restrictions.
The ESA does have a couple of provisions allowing for limited mercy in “hardship cases” but the procedures involved are so cumbersome and time-consuming to be useless in a natural disaster like the Bastrop fire.
So in a pathetic irony, it looks like FEMA’s emergency response to human beings plays second fiddle to FEMA response to endangered species that may have been extinguished by the fire.
After the worst drought in Texas history and then the fire, have any of the Houston Toads in the burn area survived?
The fire consumed all plant growth, cover, and the insects on which the toads depend. Until recently, the federal biological monitors had not seen a single toad.
Now there are a few sightings or soundings as they say. How about a photograph of a single Houston Toad taken in the fire area?
Ironically, hindering the clean up not only delays restoration of the landscape and but also of the habitat of the toad.
The captive population of several thousand Houston Toads at the Houston Zoo provides a genetic safety net to restore the Bastrop County population after restoration.
The federal biologists, however, cling to the hope that some toads survived by burrowing deep underground.
This is a highly questionable supposition given that the ferocity of the Bastrop fire sent fire deep underground, melting tree trunks extending more than 10 feet below the surface.
Unabashedly, I posit that human beings are the most important natural resource. In a natural disaster such as the Bastrop fire, the well-being of animals and plants should bend to the fundamental needs of real people.
The FEMA should facilitate, not encumber, Bastrop County’s work to clean up the burn areas.
If debris removal and restoration is delayed, many property owners may decline to rebuild and move elsewhere.
Come eyeball, and thus absorb, the devastation in the Circle D neighborhoods of Bastrop County.
And yet see the hope emerging. Here and there, amidst the ash and rubble, is a brand new home shining in the sun.
The hope and courage of those property owners will spread to many others if FEMA will allow the county to swiftly complete its job of recovery.
Kathleen Hartnett White is a resident of Bastrop County and the director of the Armstrong Center for Energy & the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.