If you choose to live around Lake Travis, chances are you appreciate the area’s natural beauty. Your eyes feast on verdant hills in the distance. Your ears thrill to the insistent songs of springtime birds.
As more people move to the area, though, things change. The hills get bulldozed. Squares of St. Augustine replace native trees and grasses. Wildlife has nowhere to go.
Between Lago Vista and Marble Falls along 1431 lies a national treasure: the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge.
But it’s not all refuge, at least not yet …
From Private to Public: Peaceful Springs
That’s where the Friends of Balcones come in.
“The refuge is a large area that was designated as habitat,” explains Sharon Macut, a Friends member and chair of the Songbird Festival. “And we’ve been trying to buy up more and more land.”
That large area covers 80,000 acres of the Edwards Plateau. The refuge currently owns 27,500 acres.
The most recent acquisition came just last year. Peaceful Springs, at 520 acres, links other parcels owned by the refuge, providing an important corridor for wildlife.
Like most of the refuge’s land acquisitions, the process wasn’t easy. Owners Cynthia and David Castleberry had managed Peaceful Springs for habitat conservation. They didn’t want to sell to a developer.
The Friends of Balcones applied for grants and gathered donations — including one very generous round number — striving to reach the $3 million price tag. Even that was a bargain, negotiated down from the developer’s offer.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Damuth Foundation awarded grants. A loan from the Trust for Public Land rounded out the necessary amount.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service was able to pay off that loan at the end of the fiscal year from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That money comes from offshore oil and gas royalties, not your income tax.
The refuge is home to two rare bird species — the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo — along with a host of other flora and fauna, including monarch butterflies. At least one-third of the threatened or endangered species in Texas live or move through the Edwards Plateau.
Jane Brunclik, now president of Friends, helped found the group in 1992. She’s also a master naturalist. She notes that every Golden-cheeked Warbler is a native Texan; they nest nowhere else in the world.
If you suffer from cedar fever, you’ll be sorry to hear that mature Ashe juniper trees are crucial to these tiny birds’ life cycle. Think of the birds next time you sneeze!
The Black-capped Vireo has another claim to fame: its bubbling songs, which make use of more varied syllables than other vireos. Black-capped Vireos nest in scrubby shin oak stands.
If you haven’t visited the refuge, you’re not alone. “Parks are for people,” Brunclik points out. “Refuges are for wildlife.”
Still, out of 27,500 acres, the public has access to 3,000 acres of the refuge. Here you’ll find people hiking, hunting (in season, with a special permit), birding, and trail running. Maybe even practicing yoga on Sunset Deck, a sheltered pavilion high above Lake Travis.
Warbler Vista, refuge headquarters, and Doeskin Ranch all have accessible restroom areas with well-groomed trails. Shin Oak Observation Deck doesn’t have restroom access.
The public areas are open from sunup to sundown, and there’s no entry fee.
If you hanker to explore beyond the public areas, become a volunteer with the Friends.
Brunclik keeps track of volunteer hours to report to Congress every year. Strong community support of the refuge makes it look good to elected officials.
“The trail committee is going to be more and more important,” Brunclik says. “One of our goals is to create some longer trails. Right now all our trails are fairly short. They can be kind of rugged. But before they create a bunch of long trails, they want to make sure there will be help to maintain them.”
Brunclik points out that “voluntourism” boosts the economy, too. “Six people are paying good money to spend their vacation to work on the trail at Doeskin Ranch,” she notes. “The same weekend they get there, Central Texas Trail Tamers will work on the crossing at the creek at Doeskin.”
“We’ve got volunteers who dig holes,” Macut says, “and volunteers who go to Washington and lobby.” Everything in between, too: the Friends’ site lists over thirty different volunteer positions to choose from.
Become a Friend
It’s easy to help out, even if you don’t want to volunteer right away. Become a member and donate what you can to the next purchase of habitat. Individual memberships start at $15 a year for students, $25 for a family.
“Five, ten, fifteen dollars, it all mounts up,” says Brunclik. “We’ve had a lot of donors, large and small, and we put it all together.”
Members will get to visit Peaceful Springs, which is not yet open to the public, during the next meeting on April 30.
Will you be there? Come and say hello.