BCCP Celebration

Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan Looks Back On 15 Years of Accomplishments

Preserve Still Short of Acreage But Provides a Lasting Legacy for Future Generations

Balcones Canyonlands Preserve: 15th Anniverary Hat from 2011 Celebration, Commemorative Cup from 1996 Celebration
Balcones Canyonlands Preserve: 15th Anniverary Hat from 2011 Celebration, Commemorative Cup from 1996 Celebration

Spirits were high on May 2, 1996, when Nancy Kaufman, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, signed the permit at 10:24am, the stamp of approval obtained through the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP). The plan called for the creation of a preserve system (the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve or BCP) to protect endangered and at-risk species. The overcast morning cooled temperatures and saved a lot of sweat for those who attended the invitation-only celebration, including Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, former U.S. Representative J.J. “Jake” Pickle, and other dignitaries.

Holding the permit aloft after signing it, Kaufman said, “It looks like it’s made out of paper but it’s really made out of blood, sweat and tears.”

That was not an exaggeration, considering the plan was eight years in the making. From 1988 through 1996, concerned citizens, business leaders, landowners, developers, environmental groups, scientists and the Fish and Wildlife Service collaborated to create a Habitat Conservation Plan that allowed the permit to be issued under the Endangered Species Act.

We were bussed in that morning amid tight security that blocked access by the protesters, who had massed outside the gate to Reicher Ranch on Ranch Road 620. Inside, we stood amid the junipers and watched turkey vultures coasting lazily on the currents overhead. Remarks were purposely kept short so that all in attendance would have time to sign the registry that would stand as testimony to this unique achievement, which Babbitt called, “the very first place in the United States we have produced an urban conservation plan.”

Kerry Tate, chair of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce said, “In developer’s terms, we could shout, ‘Done deal.’”

But Babbitt issued a warning: “I recognize this as the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. We’ve got a long way to go.”

The irony of this project being ramrodded by Babbitt, who said he was drawn to the challenge of working on the Endangered Species Act for President Bill Clinton, is that around here Babbitt wasn’t exactly thought of as a friend of the environment. As I later wrote in the July 2002 edition of The Good Life magazine, in a story titled “The Life and Death of Barton Springs,” it took two federal lawsuits filed by the Save Our Springs Alliance to force Babbitt to finally declare the Barton Springs Salamander an endangered species in 1997.

But then, theBalcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan was not simply about the environment. It gave landowners who wanted to develop or otherwise alter habitat for endangered species that’s outside the preserve boundaries an alternative to seeking an individual permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The FWS permitting process requires development of an individual habitat conservation plan tailored to the project and may require additional habitat to be set aside.

The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan offered landowners a faster process administered by Travis County in which they could buy participation certificates to allow development in habitat located outside the preserve.

On May 13, 2011, fifteen years after the BCCP permit was signed, there were no protesters at the gate and precious little cloud cover to ward off the heat, but the spirit of the event was again one of celebration.

Bad press, mea culpas

Negative national press coverage hit soon after the permit was issued. The September 1996 issue of Smart Money magazine carried a seven-page article that painted a sympathetic portrait of landowners whose property was devalued by the process of declaring it habitat for endangered species.

Most notable in that article was that people deeply involved in establishing the plan readily admitted it was deeply flawed.

Among those were Austan Librach, director of the city’s Environmental and Conservation Service’s Department, who was quoted as saying, “We never had the money to do this right. … The biology of the warbler is soft. … I never knew what was real, what was truth.”

Paul Hilgers, who had been district director for Representative Pickle, was quoted as saying, “We were in denial. … We were saying, ‘Oh, poor rich landowners. They’re not being hurt.’ Well, crap, they were being hurt.”

Sam Hamilton (now deceased, who was in charge of the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife office at the time, and was richly praised at last week’s celebration for his leadership in getting the BCP established) was quoted saying, “I feel sorry for the small landowners. They’re caught. The (plan) isn’t the best proposal for anything. It’s just the best we could do politically.”

Babbitt remained upbeat in the Smart Money article, however, saying that Austin’s growing economy would eventually overcome the financial shortfalls of the plan. “Give the plan 20 years,” he said, and “it will prove to be a monumental success story.”

Money was always a problem

Over the next couple of years I wrote 13 articles that mainly reported the lack of progress, the fundamental concerns that the financial plan to generate funds for land acquisition was not working. At $5,500 an acre for habitat occupied by the Black-capped vireo or Golden-cheeked warbler, and $2,750 an acre for those species’ potential habitat, the participation certificates were barely selling. Financial problems persisted for years as developers bypassed paying these fees for participation certificates—money that was supposed to help fund more land purchases for the preserve—and instead opted to go directly through FWS at a far cheaper rate. As I reported in April 1998, two years after the preserve was established, the BCP had collected just $177,121 in cash.

Austin voters did their share initially in funding the preserve long before the permit was signed. On August 8, 1992, 65 percent of voters who cast ballots approved $22 million (Proposition 10) in tax supported general obligation bonds to help pay to acquire and improve land—the same election in which 64 percent voters approved the Save Our Springs Ordinance (Proposition 1) that was put on the ballot by a citizen petition to regulate development throughout the Barton Springs Zone of the Edwards Aquifer.

Travis County voters did just the opposite, defeating a 1993 bond election that would have earmarked $48 million for the preserve.

Grants obtained over the years have taken up the slack. Information provided at last week’s celebration indicates that the permit holders have received a dozen grants totaling more than $81.2 million from 1996 through 2010. Rose Farmer, Travis County’s program manager for natural resources, said these federal grants required local matching funds varying from 25 percent to 40 percent.

At last week’s celebration I could not help but think of how true Babbitt’s prophesy turned out to be.The Balcones Canyonlands Preserve was to total 30,428 acres. Today, with five years of Babbitt’s 20-year forecast remaining, a minimum of 1,500 acres still need to be procured for caves and bird habitat, Farmer said. The permit holders added 1,555 acres to the preserve in 2010 and are continuing to acquire land that is increasingly costly.

“The birds like expensive land,” Farmer said, citing as an example a 19-acre tract called Lake Travis Bluff, located on Comanche Trail with views of Lake Travis, that was purchased recently for the independently appraised value of more than $5 million.

A lasting achievement

The painfully slow progress in completing the preserve pales, however, when considering all that has been accomplished. The Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (see map) provides protection for two endangered species of birds (the vireo and warbler), five cave bugs, and 27 additional species of concern throughout seven watersheds in western Travis County. Some 246 participation certificates have been issued for 11,856 acres of land mitigated under the permit.

The BCP continues to be explored by students ranging from elementary school to graduate school, and the public is acquainted with the preserve through a hike and lecture series. About a third of the preserve is currently open to the public, which also serves as a living laboratory for research. Over the past 15 years American Youth Works has invested more than 21,500 hours in restoring hundreds of acres of habitat while developing our future workforce and conservation leaders.

A separate protective area, the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, was established by the Interior Department, and currently has 23,000 acres under management in Burnet, Travis and Williamson counties, said Refuge Manager Deborah Holle.

Meanwhile, Austin voters have approved $210 million for Water Quality Protection Lands to preserve water quality in the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer. So far, the city has acquired 23,577 acres (9,050 acres fee simple, or outright ownership, and 14,527 acres in conservation easements). These funds were approved by voters in bond elections of May 1998 (Proposition 2, $65 million) and November 2006 (Proposition 2, $145 million).

The Hill Country Conservancy has acquired conservation easements totaling 8,121 acres, said Frank Davis, director of land stewardship. Of that total, 5,033 acres were funded jointly by the city and are also counted in the city’s acreage. Those easements were appraised at a total value of $78.5 million, although landowners donated a share of that amount and were paid for the remainder, Davis said.

Collectively the actions of the City of Austin, Travis County, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Hill Country Conservancy have resulted in approximately 79,000 acres of land in Central Texas being preserved in perpetuity, for the survival of the birds, bugs, plants, and wildlife; for the preservation of water quality; and for the enjoyment of us all. That’s a rich legacy indeed.

This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help to sustain The Austin Bulldog’s reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.

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