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UT expected to double size of field station in Bastrop County

A University of Texas biological field station in Bastrop County would more than double in size under a plan expected to be approved by the university’s governing board this week.

UT-Austin would use donated funds to purchase 368 acres of undeveloped land to supplement the 208-acre Stengl Lost Pines Biological Station. Both tracts survived recent fires that devastated much of the area’s pine forest, making them important sites for long-term study of plants, animals and the ecosystems they inhabit.

“This is the last large block of unburned Lost Pines. The last two big fires missed both areas. We’re sitting there with a real treasure,” said Lawrence Gilbert, a professor of integrative biology.

The UT System Board of Regents, meeting in Galveston on Thursday and Friday, will also discuss proposed tuition increases for its academic and health institutions. However, any action on tuition would take place at a later meeting.

UT-Austin is proposing to raise academic charges, which include tuition and fees, by 3.1 percent, or $152, for the fall semester this year. Another increase of $152, or 3 percent, is proposed for fall 2017. If approved, the semester charge for an undergraduate from Texas would rise to $5,207, up from the current $4,903.

The university hasn’t raised tuition since fall 2012. The additional revenue would be used for initiatives intended to boost the four-year graduation rate, for need-based student financial aid and for “faculty recruitment and retention strategies with a focus on gender equity,” according to university documents.

The additional land for the Stengl Station is situated adjacent to and just north of the current property. The expansion would help the university compete with Stanford University, Harvard University and other schools with field stations, Gilbert said. Stengl is a satellite of the Brackenridge Field Laboratory, an 82-acre parcel along Lady Bird Lake and Lake Austin Boulevard in Austin.

“With climate change and other things going on, having secure places you can study is important,” said Gilbert, who directs the Brackenridge lab. The parcel to be acquired is “a relic patch of East Texas and Southeastern pine forest,” with orchids, flying squirrels and other interesting species, he said.

The current owner of the parcel is PK Row Ltd., according to the UT board documents. The purchase price, which has not been disclosed publicly, cannot exceed fair market value.

Funds for the acquisition are being donated by Lorraine “Casey” Stengl, a retired physician who donated land for the field station in 1991. A graduate of UT, she has contributed $1.95 million over the years to endow graduate student fellowships, professorships and excellence accounts that provide discretionary funding for the Brackenridge lab and the Stengl Station, said Christine Sinatra, a spokeswoman for UT’s College of Natural Sciences.

During its meeting this week, the UT board will also consider allocating a total of $30 million in proceeds from endowment-backed bonds to campuses for recruiting or retaining top researchers and outstanding entry-level faculty members.

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