Balcones Canyonlands – Preserve vs. National Wildlife Refuge

Balcones Canyonlands in Central Texas

Many people don’t realize there’s a difference between the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve and the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. Although their close proximity to each other adds to the confusion, the Preserve is located in western Travis County while the Refuge is located in Central Texas where Travis, Williamson and Burnet Counties meet. The Balcones Canyonlands Preserve is managed by the City of Austin and Travis County while the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge is operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The Preserve can easily be found bordering neighborhoods in urban areas such as northwest Austin, Lake Travis, Leander and Lago Vista while the Refuge is in a more rural setting mostly surrounded by acreage type properties.

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The Preserve and Refuge both focus on land conservation, protecting the area’s natural resources and providing a habitat for endangered species. Central Texas residents enjoy an improved quality of life by protecting the habitats native plants and animals contributing to cleaner air and water.

Balcones Canyonlands Preserve

When scientists and community leaders came together to create a plan that would protect this natural heritage while allowing economic growth and development to continue, the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP) was created. In addition to providing landowners with locally managed solutions to address endangered species concerns, the BCCP called for the creation of a system of habitat preserves known as the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP).

The BCP is currently 30,444 acres of acquired land in western Travis County. The acreage is not a single tract of land but multiple pieces of preserve land that exists as a multi-agency conservation effort operating under a regional permit issued under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The City of Austin owns and manages 13,608 acres dedicated to the BCP, some of which are dual-management lands jointly managed with the Parks & Recreation Department. A number of cooperating partners own and manage land dedicated to the BCP, including several private landowners, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Nature Conservancy of Texas and the Travis Audubon Society.

The BCP was created to protect eight federally listed endangered species, including two songbirds and six invertebrates. In addition to protecting these especially vulnerable animals, the Preserve protects the habitat for other native plants and animals of the Texas Hill Country and contributes to clean air, clean water and quality of life for all Central Texas residents. Aquifers in the Preserve and Refuge include the Edwards Aquifer which provides drinking water for over 1.5 million Central Texans.

Below ground level of the BCP, animals have adapted to the network of springs, caves and sinkholes. Above ground level, the BCP has unique environments including wetlands, grasslands and woodlands.

Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve

One way to enjoy the BCP is to go to the Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve off Loop 360 in northwest Austin. Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve is managed as part of the BCP and consists of 227 acres of beautiful Hill Country woodlands owned jointly by Travis County (164.4 acres) and St. Edwards University (62.6 acres). Wild Basin is open to visitors who can hike the 2.5 miles of trails and visit the Wild Basin Creative Research Center. The Creative Research Center, which is owned and operated by St. Edwards University, functions as the information and welcome hub of Wild Basin. It serves both the visiting public and facilitates student education and research at Wild Basin. Wild Basin provides habitat for the endangered Golden–cheeked warbler as well as many other native plant and wildlife species.

Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge (BCNWR) is located in the Texas Hill Country, northwest of Austin and west of Cedar Park and Leander. The BCNWR was formed in 1992 to conserve the habitat for two endangered songbirds including the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo as well as preserve Texas Hill Country habitat for numerous other wildlife species. When the Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler were first listed as endangered species in 1984 and 1990, respectively, they came under the protection of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which made it illegal to harm the birds or destroy their nesting habitat.

Currently, the BCNWR is about 24,000 acres in size and is managed by the federal government under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is the only national wildlife refuge in Central Texas. The BCNWR is located within an acquisition boundary set by Congress that extends into parts of Travis, Williamson and Burnet counties. The eventual goal is for BCNWR to acquire a total of 46,000 acres within that boundary. Since the boundary also contains parcels of land that are privately owned, the refuge is not contiguous. Landowners within the boundary maintain all property rights, including the right to sell or donate their land to the BCNWR or private buyers. When private landowners decide to sell or donate their property to the refuge, it is often because they want to see the land preserved for generations to come.

The BCNWR is located within a portion of the Edwards Plateau that contains many steep-banked streams and canyons. Beneath the surface of the Edwards Plateau lies an underground labyrinth of caves, sinkholes and springs. Various spiders, beetles and other creatures inhabit this below-ground world and are unique to this area of Texas. Even deeper below the surface lies the Edwards Aquifer, which stores billions of gallons of water and supplies drinking water for almost one million people. The aquifer is also the source of many springs that feed Hill Country rivers which eventually flow into the marshes, estuaries and bays along the Texas coast.

Recreational opportunities include hiking, wildlife photography and observation including birding and environmental education. Shin Oak Observation Deck, Doeskin Ranch Trailhead and Warbler Vista are a few areas on the BCNWR designated for public use.

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