director Blog: We Can Balance Endangered Species, Development; Look at Balcones Canyonlands

We Can Balance Endangered Species, Development; Look at Balcones Canyonlands

Black-capped vireoBlack-capped vireo

When you are negotiating, it is often very easy to stand firm, unwilling to make any deals. Even if you lose the negotiations, you can still say you didn’t cave.  Unfortunately, this tactic often means little gets done and in the long run both sides are hurt.

It is much harder to sit down at a bargaining table and work together in the spirit of shared sacrifice to reach a compromise that benefits everyone.  But that’s what good leaders do.

And that just what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Travis County in Texas, the city of Austin there, numerous conservation partners, private landowners AND developers did almost 17 years ago.

The result was the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP), among the first regional multi-species federally protected habitat conservation plans we ever issued.

What the BCCP does is allow development in the area, even when that development results in incidental “take” of an endangered species. In return, the developers agreed to set aside 30,428 acres of endangered species habitat in western Travis County, the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.

It has not been easy or simple – few things worth doing are. It’s like former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said: “Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.”

But the parties to the BCCP did set aside 30,428 acres … and kept going.  As of last June, about 30,444 acres had been incorporated in the preserve for the conservation of eight endangered species, including the black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler, as well as 27 other species believed to be at risk. 

The BCCP and resulting preserve has been a great partnership to protect endangered species and balance development in one of the fastest growing areas of Texas.  At the risk of leaving someone out, I’d like to thank the Austin Ecological Services Office, Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, Travis Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy of Texas, Travis County, City of Austin, Lower Colorado River Authority, private landowners, and developers. Their cooperation has helped protect portions of the Texas Hill Country and keep Austin a green city with numerous parks and preserves.

The black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler certainly owe thanks to the BCCP and the preserve it established. The Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, whose primary purpose is to protect the nesting habitat of the warbler and vireo, also benefits.

Golden cheeked warblerGolden-cheeked warbler. Credit: Steve Maslowski/USFWS

The endangered birds don’t care whether their needs are met by the preserve or by the refuge, and the land managers of the preserve and the refuge meet regularly to discuss how to best manage for these species. They also discuss such common management concerns as invasive species, over-abundant deer populations, public use and wildfires.  And they work together on research projects to better understand the birds.

By working together the refuge and the preserve accomplish so much more than either could alone. Throughout the nation, we are working with local partners to share information and learning, and achieve more for conservation than any one group could achieve on its own.

I joined the Service in 1995 and was leading our External Affairs team in Washington, DC, when the BCCP was announced, so I didn’t have anything to do with it. One of our brightest stars, Sam D. Hamilton, was in Texas at the time. Sam went on to lead the Service although his time here was cut tragically short.

We are still following through on many of Sam’s ideas, and the lessons of BCCP show up in them. As he said in his nomination hearing: “The conservation challenges of the 21st century can only be successfully addressed through collaboration among stakeholders, government and nongovernment, public and private.”

We are committed to helping local stakeholders “conserve the nature of America.” The best wildlife conservation often grows from the ground up, nurtured by people who have worked the landscape and conserved and protected it for future generations … people who see tangible benefits from the natural world every day, including jobs, food, clean water, clean air, building materials, storm protection and recreation.  

The Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, for instance, sits atop and helps protect a series of aquifers, including the Edwards Aquifer that is the primary drinking water source for more than 1.5 million central Texas residents.

The wildlife of Travis County, including the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo, have a protected area to call home; development in the area continues; the people of Travis County have a beautiful and lasting connection to nature; and the conservation world has working partners in the developers and landowners in Travis. What could be better?

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Last updated: August 31, 2011