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Monday, July 10, 2017

Understanding the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve System

Fall Color in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP)

While we are not professionals or employees of the Wildlands Conservation Division, we have volunteered for them for nearly 20 years.  We are Texas Master Naturalists and the authors of two natural history books (with a third in the works).  We also own a private preserve named Woody Hollow that is part of the BCP, and for 10 years have written monthly Nature Watch columns for local neighborhood newsletters.  We have served on the BCP Citizens Advisory Council (CAC) and feel it is important to attempt to set the record straight regarding many of the issues that have been reported regarding the BCP.

In the 1980s, during a conflict that started between land development and enrivonmental conservation, it was discovered that the Golden-cheeked Warbler (GCWA), a bird species that is highly adapted to a very specific and essential habitat in Central Texas, was in peril due to habitat fragmentation and urban sprawl (all GCWAs are native Texans but spend their winters in Central America).  As such, it was listed as a federal endangered species in 1990.  Recognizing that the Austin area was going to continue to grow rapidly (in fact, it has grown over 350% in the last 45 years), the city decided to take action.

In 1992 voters in the City of Austin passed Proposition 10, approving $22 million in bonds for the sole purpose of acquiring and improving lands to be set aside to protect water quality, conserve endagered species, and provide open space for passive public use.  These lands, made up of several tracts in western Travis County, now make up the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP) System, and are jointly managed and owned by the City of Austin, Travis County, Lower Colorado River Authority, The Nature Conservancy of Texas, Travis Audubon Society, and various private landowers (expressly through permanent conservation easements).  Collectively, activities on these lands are governed by the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP) and operated on a permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS).  These activities are carried out by biologists that work for the city or the county, and augmented by corps of specifically trained volunteers.  The preserve system protects 8 endangered species (2 songbirds, 6 karst invertebrates) and 27 species of concern (those becoming increasingly rare).

The endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler (GCWA)

There are several important factors to note regarding the preserve system, which is federally protected.  While this is not intended to be an all inclusive list, it addresses some of the most misunderstood issues and rumors:

The USF&WS permit has several conditions that must be met, and they include total acreage acquired, amount of edge habitat, and number of karst features protected.  Currently, while progress has been made, not all conditions have been satisfied.

While the BCCP and resulting preserve system is the first of its kind in the nation (i.e. made up of several distinct tracts managed by a group of partners), it is not the largest preserve in the U.S.

The USF&WS allows for a concept called ‘take’, a federal term for harm, habitat damage, or other impacts to a species survival.  Developers must pay a fee and donate alternate and suitable acres of habitat commensurate with the acres of habitat they intend to ‘destroy’.  A key point is that the official agreement states that setting aside the 30,000+ acres of preserve was mitigation for allowing 70% of the GCWA’s habitat (non-preserve land) to be developed.  As such, this agreement would be breached if any kind development or other use were allowed in the preserve system.

There has never been an official promise by any authority to ‘open up the preserve to the public’.  In fact, ‘passive public use’ refers to the grandfathering of BCP several tracts included in the overall system that have always allowed public use: Barton Creek Greenbelt, Bull Creek Greenbelt & District Park, Commons Ford Park, Emma Long Metro Park, Mt. Bonnell Park, St. Edwards Park, Stillhouse Hollow Preserve, and Wild Basin.  These ‘public use’ tracts comprise 30% of the overall preserve acreage.  Additionally, unlike these public tracts, there are very few (if any) trails on many of the other preserve tracts closed to the public.  Two of the best ways to see some of these tracts is to sign up for a guided hike or sign up to become a volunteer (

Some of the larger preserve tracts that were deeded over to the City of Austin carried with them the legal requirement that they would not ever be open for public use.

Studies are being performed continually on preserve lands to understand what is necessary to optimize conditions for protected species.  For example, data has implicitly shown that the GCWA requires closed canopy and a mix of mature, unfragmented oak-juniper woodland for breeding and nesting success.   Care needs to be taken regarding publicly reported studies regarding the GCWA; many have been proven to overestimate current populations due to incorrect assumptions in the models and/or study constructs.  Additionally, several factors will determine success, including but not limited to the number of acres of protected habitat, long-term viability of the GCWA population, and the genetic diversity of that population.

Fences have been erected to protect preserve boundaries due to vandalism by neighbors and encroachment on preserve property (fence cutting, tree cutting, trail creation, homeless camps, etc).  Two notable examples include the high-profile River Place trail closure, where a section of the trail was constructed on preserve property with no authorization, and a neighbor in Jester Estates who was arrested by the police after being given a cease and desist order for cutting down large sections of trees in the preserve adjacent to his property (twice!).

The city and the county have been very attentive to recent concerns about wildfires, and have implemented shaded fuel breaks on urban-wildland interfaces.  Note that increasing human use of preserves would likely increase the chance of human-caused fires and other management issues.  One such issue is the management of feral hogs.  They are of increasing concern and elimination efforts would be such more complicated if tracts were open to public use.

Oak - Juniper Woodland is essential habitat for the GCWA

The benefits of the preserve system are not one-sided.  For humans, it protects our natural heritage by offering sanctuary to a wide array of native plants and animals unable to adapt to urban and suburban development.  Keeping the vegetation healthy helps minimize erosion, moderates urban heat island effects, filters air & water pollutants, and allows rain to slowly infiltrate into the ground to recharge our aquifers.  

One final point.  There is a distinct difference between a ‘park’ and a ‘preserve’.  ‘Parks’ are set aside for people and their recreational activities, while ‘preserves’ are set aside to protect habitat for rare or endangered species as well as the quality of our air and water.  We’re pretty sure most reasonable people would think that’s a fair balance, and one that contributes significantly to the high quality of life here in Central Texas.

P.S. For those who are looking for more trails to use for mountain biking, hiking, and running, consider these excellent alternatives in the area:

Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park (Austin):

Flat Creek Crossing Ranch (Johnson City):

Rocky Hill Ranch (Smithville):

Milton Reimers Ranch Park (Dripping Springs):

Reveille Peak Ranch (Burnet):