- Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
The Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge grew by 520 acres this week with the addition of a coveted piece of Hill Country land known as Peaceful Springs.
The parcel, south of Liberty Hill about 45 miles northwest of downtown Austin, features rolling hills, steep limestone canyons, freshwater springs and an open oak savanna. It offers habitat for two endangered songbirds, the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo, and lies above part of the Edwards Aquifer, which provides drinking water to residents of Austin and San Antonio.
The Trust for Public Land purchased the property for $3 million from David Castleberry, who operated it as a private nature preserve for more than 20 years, documenting wildlife and managing invasive species that lived there.
Trust for Public Land officials say the acquisition is critical because it connects noncontiguous chunks of refuge land to the north and south in an area where residential development is quickly eating up the natural landscape.
“In doing that, it creates unfragmented habitat of nearly 7,000 acres,” said Scott Parker, state director for the Trust for Public Land.
As part of the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, which now covers about 25,000 acres, the Peaceful Springs property is permanently protected from development.
The refuge is authorized to purchase additional land offered for sale within an 80,000-acre footprint; its goal is to expand to about 40,000 contiguous acres within that perimeter, said refuge manager Kelly Purkey.
“This definitely was a really good strategic piece, because it connects with the refuge on three sides,” Purkey said.
The property will open to the public through guided tours until a management plan is developed, probably sometime in the coming year, she said. It is likely to be used for birding and hiking, except during the nesting and breeding seasons of the endangered songbirds. It already features a pavilion that could be used as a hands-on nature classroom.
“It’s a unique and a beautiful place just because of the way the private landowner has managed it for the last 20 years,” Purkey said.
Castleberry sold the land to the Trust for Public Land despite offers from developers who wanted to turn the property into a large lot subdivision.
“As the city grows north and west, more and more bedroom communities are springing up,” Parker said. “He didn’t want to see that happen but was relocating outside the country, so he needed a quick sale. He gave the Trust for Public Land approximately three months to do due diligence and come up with the purchase price.”
The trust scrambled to raise almost $1.6 million toward the $3 million purchase price by late 2014. Local partners, advocates and donors included the Friends of Balcones, the Damuth Foundation, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and private individuals.
That left the Trust for Public Land $1.4 million short, but the group’s leadership in California agreed to buy the property anyway and work to find the rest of the funding later. The group asked Congress for an appropriation but was initially unable to secure federal funding.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, using revenue generated by offshore oil and gas royalty payments and not general taxpayer dollars, provided enough money to close the acquisition and transfer the deed from the Trust for Public Land to the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge this year. The sale closed Thursday.
“We were thrilled that the landowner protected the property and demanded that it remain protected when he sold it,” Parker said. “I’ve never had a group of people come together to support a project like Peaceful Springs. It’s one thing for people to support conservation; it’s another thing entirely when they back it with their wallet.”
Dr. Benjamin N. Tuggle, regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, said in a news release that the acquisition will help protect one of the four major bird migration routes in North America, along with migration corridors for the monarch butterfly.