Head to New Wall on the Barton Creek greenbelt any warm afternoon and you’ll find climbers inching their way up the 50-foot limestone escarpment, using rocks shaped like chicken heads, elephant ears and cookies for handholds.
Climbers have been scaling these grayish-green cliffs for decades, even after the city parkland was incorporated into the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve in 1996. But now, as the preserve’s staff retools its public access rules, some climbers are worried that they could be pushed out.
They’re not alone. Motorcyclists who ride designated trails at Emma Long Metropolitan Park, climbers who scramble up chunky boulders at Bull Creek District Park, mountain bikers who pedal through the Barton Creek greenbelt — all uses barred in most sections of the preserve, but permitted in areas that already operated as city parks when it was created — say that the reworded guidelines could squeeze them out eventually.
That’s not the goal, according to staff members and the two voting members of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Planning Organization Coordinating Committee, who say they’re simply consolidating information already contained in a series of land management plans.
“The intent is not to change any grandfathered uses or close down any uses of those parks,” said Sherri Kuhl, the Wildland Conservation Division manager at the city of Austin.
The coordinating committee will meet 10 a.m. Friday at City Hall, 301 W. Second St., to discuss the issue, and many park users say they’ll attend.
“They say explicitly, ‘We’re not trying to change public access to parks,’” said Brian Tickle, an Austin climber and Texas director of Access Fund, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for climbing access. “Maybe the intent is not to change public access, but you’re changing the language and it kind of opens the door for increased restrictions. … They’re at the very least creating a lot of uncertainty about the intent. Is this an underhanded way to increase access restrictions? We need assurances.”
The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan was created in the mid-1990s to ease rapid development in western Travis County amid concerns about harming the environment — particularly the habitat of endangered invertebrates, salamanders and songbirds. Federal and local officials struck a compromise. The city and county governments agreed to set aside land for preservation, creating the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, and development proceeded on a smaller scale.
Today, the public can visit most of the preserve, a noncontiguous collection of properties, only through guided hikes led by volunteers. But under an agreement struck at the time of the creation of the preserve, certain uses — including rock climbing and mountain biking on the Barton Creek greenbelt, climbing at Bull Creek District Park and motorcycling in a small section of Emma Long Metropolitan Park — could continue.
Then, in fall 2014, city of Austin officials said federal rules obligated them to close some of the motorcycle trails that ran through a creek bed at Emma Long because the motorcycles were causing erosion. That reignited a long-running dispute about what people should be allowed to do within the 31,780-acre preserve.
The motorcyclists, including advocate Tomás Pantin, 66, who has been riding at Emma Long since 2011, said they were causing no harm and that the city closed the park’s most challenging and desirable trails. He’s now leading a campaign to get park users to submit letters in support of keeping access at all the grandfathered parks open.
The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan is administered by a coordinating committee made up of two voting members — one representing Travis County, another from the city of Austin — along with a representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a secretary. Today, county Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and Austin City Council Member Leslie Pool are the voting members, although county Commissioner Brigid Shea, who has long championed environmental causes, will take over Daugherty’s role in January.
The committee’s acting secretary, Kimberlee Harvey, was at a conference this week and unavailable for comment. But Kuhl, who served as the interim secretary on the coordinating committee before Harvey, said the park users are misinterpreting the proposed rewrite of the access rules.
“The most glaring piece of misinformation that we have seen was that the BCCP Coordinating Committee secretary is attempting to seize the power to close parks unilaterally. There is absolutely no truth to this assertion,” Kuhl said.
A section of the draft rules states that “any existing trails not approved by the Coordinating Committee Secretary will be closed.” That language was copied and pasted from another part of the management plan and refers only to trails created by the public without approval, Kuhl said.
“The intent there is to close social trails, and if we are going to put in new trails, to put in more sustainable trails,” Kuhl said. Still, officials must responsibly manage the land, she said, “so there may be an instance where an area is suffering from too much use or erosion or overuse, and our goal as a responsible landowner would be to close that trail and build a more sustainable one.”
Kuhl said staff members are looking at comments and are willing to edit the language of the rewritten rules so that’s clearer.
Pool, one of two voting members of the committee, said she does not intend to bar rock climbers or mountain bikers from the Barton Creek greenbelt or Bull Creek, as long as they don’t cause damage.
“I’m certainly not moving to change (the grandfathered uses) — I don’t see that they’re doing the level of damage that motorized bikes have,” Pool said. “We’re simply asking communities who want to use the preserve to do it within agreed upon parameters.
“No public access guidelines have been changed. We’re not planning to tighten them. We’re also not planning to loosen them. (Restrictions) could happen at any time if incursions into the preserve get to a point where we have a crisis and the preserve is damaged.”
Daugherty, the other voting member on the committee, said he understands why park users are leery.
He described Balcones Canyonlands Preserve supporters as “hard-core environmentally minded people,” and said, “If they could do it all themselves, they would have very, very, very limited access to the public because they are concerned about the fragile nature of the habitat.” He said that, although the original contract states that certain uses in parks were grandfathered, “they would like to try to change that, in my opinion.”
Daugherty said he has never supported restricting public use in the preserve, except in certain environmentally fragile areas.
“If anybody is trying to alter the original intent of it — which had very specifically stated that there were grandfathered uses in certain parks — I would not be supportive of altering that language at all,” he said.
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