2017 State of Our Environment Report

Wildlands

Importance

Austin is known and celebrated for its protection of open space and habitat. Austin’s open spaces and preserves shape city planning, reduce infrastructure costs, and provide recreation, clean air and water, cooler temperatures, biodiversity, and cultural preservation.  
Figure 1. Wildland Conservation Division properties including voluntary conservation partnerships and dual managed tracts 
Austin prioritizes the protection of open spaces and environmentally sensitive areas through Austin Water’s Wildland Conservation Division (Wildlands). Wildlands encompasses two programs: Water Quality Protection Lands (WQPL) and Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP). The primary goal of the WQPL is to produce the optimal level of high-quality water to recharge the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer by restoring prairie-savanna ecosystems and healthy riparian corridors.  The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan provides a fast-track solution to habitat mitigation for Endangered Species Act compliance. Through the permit issued by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the City of Austin and Travis County, development in the potential habitat that dominates the western portion of the county is permitted. The goal of the BCP is to protect and enhance the habitat of endangered and rare species as mitigation for that development.
Figure 2. WQPL Land Stewards contributed to grassland diversity by increasing the mix of ten grass species typically purchased to more than sixty species this year.

Status and Trends 

Volunteer Land Stewards help tremendously on the Wildlands. A native plant nursery is up and going at the Vireo tract to support bird habitat on the BCP. WQPL Land Stewards contributed to grassland diversity by increasing the mix of ten grass species typically purchased to more than sixty species this year. Thanks to many volunteer hours of hand-harvesting out on the grasslands, staff can use these seeds to spread biodiversity native to the WQPL more quickly than it might on its own, allowing greater protection of land during drought, fire, and flooding. These savannas may be a source of additional biodiversity to surrounding lands, as they keep native plant genes flowing in disparate areas.
Figure 3. A portion of the Slaughter Creek Trail on the Mary Gay Maxwell Management Unit – covered in snow on its first morning under the new name. Photo by: Tom and Toni Guckert, WQPL Land Stewards. 
As snow began to fall on December 7, 2017, the Austin City Council recognized the legacy of Mary Gay Maxwell by renaming the Water Quality Protection Lands along Slaughter Creek that protect Barton Springs in her honor. As a long time Environmental Commissioner and volunteer, Maxwell collaborated in many roles to resolve sensitive ecological issues, and pioneered volunteer steward and hike guide programs to connect citizens with the lands she loved.
The community will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Water Quality Protection Lands in 2018. Find out about special hikes focused on native plants, restoration, and recharge at      www.austintexas.gov/wildlandevents

Annual Focus

Restoring caves increases aquifer recharge for wells and springs, reduces flooding, can increase rare karst species habitat, and returns a heritage of education resources and natural landscape features back to the public.
Historically, most caves in the Austin area were filled in and residents sought to keep water at the surface for livestock and to maintain flow to mills. Seen as potential falling hazards for livestock, caves were regularly used to dispose of ranch trash. Filling in caves was also seen as a solution by landowners and agencies in places where caves became a magnet for trespassing. A common perception held by landowners was that caves devalued lands intended for future development. Urban expansion covered many known and unknown caves. From the 1960s to 1990s, the Texas Speleological Survey documented 163 caves in Travis County, most of which were excavated of fill and 20 percent of which were re-filled in or destroyed by 1990.
Figures 5 & 6. Bucket by bucket, fill comes of out Wade Cave.
Goat Cave Karst Preserve provides a connection between the citizens of Austin and the underground frontier. This small strip of land has at least four caves within its boundaries, ranging from a nearly 25-foot sinkhole that provides the preserve’s namesake, to a little underground room called Hideout that seems right out of a yarn about Tom Sawyer. Like nearly all of Austin’s caves, Wade, Hideout, and Maple Run caves were all filled in with trash and ranch fill prior to City acquisition in the early 1990s. From 2012 through 2016, the Watershed Protection Department excavated Wade and Hideout caves. 
Figure 7. The new handrail and steps make it easier for educational groups to visit Wade Cave’s underground habitat.
In 2017, Balcones Canyonlands Preserve staff contracted an environmental consultant to remove the remaining ranch fill and trash, stack rock steps, and install handrails for safer access into Wade Cave. Balcones Canyonlands biologists will continue monitoring these underground habitats for invertebrate species unique to Austin, and programs staff from Austin Parks and Recreation, Watershed Protection Department, and Wildland Conservation Division hope to provide more opportunities for the public to experience and learn about these dark and amazing corners of Austin’s wildlands. 
Figure 8. For years before Wade Cave was restored, broken glass and ranch trash filled the entrance. Now the entrance is filled by big limestone steps leading to this underground habitat.
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