Chalk Mountain is an important local landmark, compatible in its pristine state with area businesses like the nearby wildlife refuge, Fossil Rim, which harbors white rhinoceroses, cheetahs, addax and other endangered animals; and a state camping area with ancient dinosaur tracks known as Dinosaur Valley Park, Best said.
“We are about renewable tourism that benefits the many, not about rock crushing that will destroy a mountain, destroy tourism and enrich a few at the cost of the many. That’s why we’re passionate about Chalk Mountain,” he said.
The group understands that gravel is a commodity needed for gas drilling and for rural roads, he said. “We’re not fighting rock crushers…What we’re saying is you don’t need it from Chalk Mountain, a place of scenic beauty.”
Larry Parham, the landowner who has applied for permits to mine and crush rock from Chalk Mountain, is legally free to sell or lease mining rights on his unzoned property. According to the Chalk Mountain group, he has already begun preparation for the digging initially at the site of a decades old Caliche (soft rock) pit. (See aerial photo.) But the mining is expected to expand outward into bordering forest and downward, as crews seek out the mountain’s hard rock bed.
Parham did not return phone calls for this article. He could face civil or criminal charges if he is later found to have heedlessly harmed the warblers or vireos that nest in the area between March and June each year. But he can take steps to reduce the threat of law enforcement by filing a conservation plan ahead of time showing how he will minimize or reduce potential loss of wildlife habitat, said Elizabeth Slown, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Such conservation plans, which Parham has been apprised of, allow for a certain amount of “take” of the endangered species on private lands involving private business operations, but exactly how much destruction is permitted remains an open question, she said. Protecting wildlife on public lands is much more clear cut.
Those opposed to the gravel pit operation would like Parham to simply have an epiphany; see the big picture. Encircled by angry neighbors and hemmed in, however vaguely, by two endangered species “it seems to me he should listen to those around him,” Best said.
State Rep. Sid Miller (R-District 59) recently moderated two town meetings so citizens could express their concerns, and brainstorm solutions.
Miller thought he had a trump card in his hand. Under a recent Texas law, people with lands meriting conservation can be paid to keep their lands in a natural state. Last week, Miller met with Parham and offered to help him secure $37,500 a year for five years under the conservation plan, roughly what Parham could expect to get annually from the 75,000 tons of rock his permit applications propose to take from the mountain.
But Parham rejected the offer.
Miller was floored. “Apparently there’s no amount of money I could offer him. He said, ‘I’m so tired of these people telling me what to do with my land, I’m going to crush rock’,” Miller recalled.
Miller has now asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to intervene, and expects the struggle to drag on for months, if not longer. The Chalk Mountain preservation group, meantime, has peppered the TCEQ with questions about air pollution and other environmental impacts, which the agency is legally bound to answer.
If all goes well for the group, the TCEQ will call for a hearing in Austin in which both sides can present their case, said Best, the owner of a software firm who moved to the area from a Dallas suburb. He remains hopeful. The dust-up over the gravel pit is turning some area citizens into budding conservationists, opening their eyes to the beauty and fragility of their surroundings.
“We had 250 people at this meeting the other day…a lot of people were talking about how this conservancy could be a real feature of Somervell County,” he said. “But if this guy puts a gravel pit right in the middle of it, then it won’t work.”
Asked what the citizens are most concerned about – the dust, the noise, the property values, the birds — Miller answers with a single, weary “Yes.” It’s the birds, the noise, the rural character of the mountain and fears about dust exacerbating asthma.
“Urban encroachment is what we call it,” Miller sighs, “and this (conservation payment plan) is a means the legislature came up with to deal with it. And it works beautifully when an agreement can be reached.”
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