Search Nature Watch

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Preserves Around Us

Golden-cheeked Warbler, Setophaga chrysoparia
One of the main reasons Austin is such a wonderful place to live is because it is interlaced with a patchwork of preserves, which together comprise the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP) System.  In 1992, voters in the City of Austin passed Proposition 10, approving $22M in bonds for the sole purpose of acquiring and improving lands to protect air and water quality, conserve endangered species, and provide open space for passive public use. Jointly owned and managed by the City of Austin, Travis County, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Nature Conservancy, the Travis Audubon Society, and private landowners, the BCP’s ultimate goal is to set aside 30,428 acres that contribute to the quality of all life here in Austin. 

A multi-agency conservation effort that operates under a regional permit issued under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the BCP consists of several tracts of land in western Travis County.  It is important to note that a ‘preserve’ is different than a ‘park’, and is set aside for the purpose of maintaining a natural state rather than developed for recreational use.  The BCP protects prime habitat for the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler, a bird species that is found only to breed within Central Texas’ specialized mix of native, mature Ashe Juniper (often incorrectly called ‘cedar’) and stands of Live, Spanish, and Shin oak trees.  This type of mixed oak-juniper woodland grows mainly on our moist steep-sided canyons and slopes, providing the warbler with the food, water, and nest-building material it needs to breed.  

Black-capped Vireo, Vireo atricapilla
In addition to the Golden-cheeked Warbler, 7 other endangered species make the preserve system their home, including the Black-capped Vireo, Tooth Cave Ground Beetle, Tooth Cave Pseudoscorpion, Tooth Cave Spider, Kretschmarr Cave Mold Beetle, Bone Cave Harvestman, and Bee Creek Cave Harvestman.  These last 6 species are called karst invertebrates, arthropods that spend their entire existence underground in karst formations.  These karst features, such as caves, sinkholes, cracks, and crevices, were formed by the dissolution of calcium carbonate in limestone bedrock by mildly acidic groundwater.  Over 70 other rare plant and animal species also exist on the preserves, making this region one of the most biologically diverse areas in the country. As such, Central Texas is happily home to more habitat conservation plans than any other region in the United States.   

These wild and beautiful areas require management plans in order for them to remain pristine habitats.  This includes establishment of secure boundaries and rules for access control, maintenance of appropriate trails, species monitoring, habitat enhancement, and – last but not least – public education and outreach to promote good neighbor relations.  As Austin residents, we can do our part to become stewards of these unique habitats.  While in the preserve system, we can stay on marked trails, travel only on foot, and “take only photographs, leave only footprints.”  In our neighborhoods, especially those that border preserve tracts, we can landscape with native plants, remove invasive plants, eliminate pesticide use, be responsible pet owners, practice water conservation, and always respect preserve boundaries.

Most importantly, we can all minimize further negative impacts on the fragile habitat that surrounds our neighborhoods by caring for the preserves through volunteering.  Some of the activities you can become involved with in the preserve system include long-term habitat restoration, gathering and planting native seeds, removing non-native invasive plants, leading guided hikes, and learning about and sharing your knowledge of the native plants and animals that make this such a special place to live.  For more information, visit the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve website at