Bolivar project held up by rare turtle

HOUSTON Highway 87 is the lone single lane road off the Bolivar Peninsula. Even in a minor storm, the highway becomes the wrong way.

"You can't get in or out," said High Island resident George E. Kahla.

Hurricane Ike trapped Kahla for 10 days. High water trapped dozens of people from getting off the peninsula, some likely drowned.

So when a Texas Department of Transportaion contractor laid down concrete barriers to keep high water off the highway, there was some hope it was about to get better.

However, this is as far as work crews made it. Just 11 days into the project, with tons of work left to be done, the feds told TxDOT to stop it all. They found something they needed to protect more than the lone evacuation route off the Bolivar Peninsula.

"A Kemps Ridley sea turtle," said Steve Parris of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It's true. The Kemps Ridley turtle is small and endangered and protected by friends in high places.

"That's real good. I am proud of the turtles. To hell with the people," said Kahla.

For more than a month now, this potentially life-saving project has been stalled while biologists come up with a plan to protect turtles. Now keep in mind, the turtles haven't been spotted in the construction zone or crossed this highway in years, but may nest on the Bolivar this summer.

"That doesn't make any sense at all," said Jeff Johnson.

But it's federal law, which isn't really supposed to do this.

"We never compromise human safety when we're dealing with an endangered species. Humans come first," said Parris.

On Thursday, the feds told TxDOT it can get back to work if there are wildlife observers on the job. It will be weeks before work starts again and after hurricane season before it's done.

"The turtles take priority over the people," said Kahla.

However, Kahla agreed that's not a very comfortable feeling.

When the project is finished this fall, the entire highway will be at least five feet above sea level. Not enough to stop Ike, but it could be enough to buy some time to get out.

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