Bull Creek Foundation - Water Quality Protection Lands - Plan Article
Updated 29 August 2004

City OKs building of hike, bike trails

Plan will transform environmentally sensitive land southwest of Austin into a subdued playground for the public

By Stephen Scheibal
American-Statesman Staff

Friday, December 14, 2001

Trails for hikers, bicycles and horses will gradually spread over a city-owned patchwork of hills running southwest from Austin, according to a plan passed by City Council members Thursday.

The plan envisions trails on about 2,500 acres that had been in private hands until the last few years and that have never been available for public use. The acreage represents about 40 percent of the environmentally sensitive land purchased by the city with $65 million in bond money approved by voters in 1998. An additional 3,100 acres could be opened to the public over the next several years.

The land all lies in the Barton Springs watershed. It is not parkland per se -- city officials have been more focused on preventing development that could send pollution into the Edwards Aquifer and Barton Springs.

But recommendations by a coalition of about 20 environmental, recreation and neighborhood groups will turn the land into a subdued playground for thousands of people.

The plan allows hiking trails on the 1,700-acre Rutherford Ranch tract that Austin owns in Hays County. The property is considered among the most visually stunning pieces of land the city acquired after the 1998 election. "It has all kinds of fairy-book settings," Council Member Jackie Goodman said. The remaining 800 of the 2,500 acres are in the Stenis, Baker, Haif and Hielscher tracts.

The groups that submitted the plan also accepted responsibility for building new trails. City officials said Austin lacks the resources to build access to the land.

"You have to figure out how to do it, how to pay for it, how to monitor it and how to keep it up," said Steve Windhager, director of the landscape restoration program for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, who helped draw up the plan.

The first trail plans could be submitted to the city within a few weeks, said Willie Conrad, a water utility official overseeing management of the lands.

With the bond money, the city bought about 6,300 acres and acquired development rights, but not outright ownership, over an additional 8,700 acres. The development rights severely limit future building on the land.

After the first round of trails are opened on the 2,500 acres, city officials will review the effects and consider opening 3,100 additional acres over the next several years.

An additional 750 acres near Upper Bear Creek are probably too delicate for anything more than tours or scheduled field trips, Conrad said.

The basic goal of managing the land will be to maintain it in its current natural state or return it to past conditions, Conrad said. The overarching goal is to project the Edwards Aquifer, which feeds Barton Springs and provides water to roughly 45,000 well-dependent residents southwest of Austin. It is refilled from rainwater filtered through caves and other fissures in the ground.

Goodman said most voters who approved the bonds in 1998 understood that preservation of the land would take precedence over public access.

"I think it's the best we can do right now," she said.

You may contact Stephen Scheibal at sscheibal@statesman.com or 445-3819.

Copyright 2001, Austin American-Statesman.

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