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Austin's Caves, Flyways Become Development Targets

WHEN Dallas billionaire H.Ross Perot announced plans to develop a 330-acre tract in western Travis County, he stepped into an environmental battleground. Mr. Perot's new property turned out to be a prime breeding ground for the golden-cheeked warbler, a rare migratory songbird environmentalists say should be on the federal endangered species list.

The land, directly east of a new research and development facility belonging to Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company, is located near the scene of several recent demonstrations by the radical environmental group Earth First!

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Perot wound up agreeing to set aside 90 acres of his property to protect the warblers, but some environmentalists fear that may not be enough. The problem is that Austin's drive to become the high-tech capital of the Southwestern United States has run smack into a passel of migratory songbirds and endangered multi-legged cave creatures.

The intersection of Ranch Road 2222 and Farm-to-Market Road 620, adjacent to the Perot property, is one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the US.

``It's a war zone,'' said David Braun, of the Texas Nature Conservancy. ``We've had lawsuits and people chaining themselves to bulldozers and occupying caves.''

``That's where the battle lines are drawn,'' said Jane Lyons of the National Audubon Society. Ms. Lyons says there are more endangered or threatened species in Austin than in any city in the US. Six endangered species are found within a 1.5-mile radius of the intersection.

Austin is loaded with animals and plants from two major ecosystems, says Dr. Charles Sexton of Austin's environmental protection department. The city sits on the Balcones Fault dividing the black land prairies and piney woods of east Texas from the rugged limestone peaks and cedar-choked valleys of the Texas hill country.

Bald eagles, whooping cranes, and Mexican free-tailed bats migrate into Austin, along with rare songbirds like the golden-cheeked warbler and the endangered black-capped vireo. There are roughly 200 caves in the Austin area, some of which are home to 25 tiny creatures that scientists say cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

But since the late 1970s, Austin's economic boosters have brought in 270 technology companies. They range from giants like IBM and Motorola to mom-and-pop software entrepreneurs to mega-research consortiums like MCC and Sematech. During the 1980s, the city's population shot up by 200,000, to 749,000. Most new housing has been built on the west side.

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During the real estate boom of the early 1980s, development drove out warblers and vireos. Austin builders dumped cement into sinkholes and fissures, threatening not only cave creatures but the water supply as well.

``You can't pave over these sinkholes. Every time you build on limestone, you reduce the amount of water that goes into the aquifer,'' says Dr. James Reddell, a specialist in cave fauna.

``We are paving over the sponge that collects our rainfall. As the vireo and the warbler go, so goes our water supply,'' Lyons says. ``None of us are against progress and none of us are against development. But we're selling our soul.''

The Texas Nature Conservancy is working on a regional peace plan with developers, the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, and others. Mr. Braun says the conservancy wants to raise money to buy some of the land, allowing reasonable development on the remainder. It has already raised $200,000.

John Joseph, Perot's Austin lawyer, is working with Braun. Mr. Joseph says it is unrealistic to ban development entirely, but that Perot does not oppose preservation. He advocates a ``joint venture'' with environmentalists and says Perot plans to set aside 300 or more acres of a 490-acre site on the west side of FM 620.

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