A popular Austin-area hiking trail is about to reopen nearly two years after it was shut down amid concerns about violating federal endangered species protections.
On Friday, the agency that owns the River Place Natural Trail will officially open up a roughly 2-mile segment that has been closed since March 2012, after a biologist determined hikers pose no threat to the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and other critters in this stretch of the Balcones Canyonland Preserve. Still, a 1/3-mile segment that runs through land owned by the City of Austin will remain closed until officials can reroute it.
“We’re thrilled that they’ll be reopening the trail,” said Sandy Perry, the immediate past president of the Friends of River Place Trail.
The controversy stems from a major conservation agreement the city and Travis County made with the federal government in the 1990s. That agreement formed the Balcones Canyonland Preserve, a series of publicly and privately owned tracts in the Hill Country area of Travis County meant to protect rare and endangered species while still allowing development.
The River Place Municipal Utility District owns a small piece of land in the preserve where most of the trail was built, but the MUD’s president said it also mistakenly built a 1/3-mile segment of the trail on a city-owned piece of the Balcones preserve, known as the Cortaña Tract.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which issues the permit for the Balcones preserve, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the trail would harm species such as the warbler and ordered the trail closed in December 2012, according to a letter from the MUD’s attorneys. The attorneys wrote the feds in September 2013 saying the MUD will sue if the authorities try to shut down the trail, arguing it was not harming species.
Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Leslie Gray said the agency is still reviewing the case and has no response. Casey said with no official opposition from authorities, the MUD will go ahead and open the trail.
The MUD also plans to replace the 1/3-mile segment originally built on city land with a new chunk of trail nearby at a cost of $100,000, which includes deconstructing the old section and legal fees, said MUD president Jim Casey. That work can’t start until the fall when permits clear and the warblers’ nesting season is over, he said.
That portion led to a contentious relationship with the city’s water utility, which manages all the city-owned preservation properties like the Cortaña tract. In 2012, after telling the MUD to shut down the part of the trail on city land, the city hired off-duty state troopers to occasionally patrol and has ticketed about 12 to 18 people and seen 40 to 50 people trespassing on cameras, said Willy Conrad, the water utility’s division manager of wildland conservation.
With the trail being decommissioned, the city-MUD dispute appears to be over.
“We no longer have a stake in that game. That trail is not on our property,” Conrad said.
A popular Hill Country hiking spot, the trail has attracted regional attention, even having a Yelp page that gives it largely positive reviews. Much of it runs along a gently trickling creek and includes kiosks with maps and information about the environment. The roughly 2-mile upper segment of the trail remains closed until Friday, but the lower segment, roughly a mile, has been open all along and attracting a steady flow of hikers.
“It’s a wonderful service to the citizens of Central Texas and we hope that the full trail can be reconnected with deliberate speed,” Perry said.
Trail reopening celebration
The Friends of River Place Trail will host a grand reopening “hike-in” at 10 a.m. Saturday, meeting at the trail’s uppermost entrance on River Place Boulevard near Treasure Island Drive.