Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan
Looks Back On 15 Years of Accomplishments
Preserve Still Short of Acreage But Provides
a Lasting Legacy for Future Generations
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011
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