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Bull Creek restoration sitting pretty while Turkey Creek project plays dead

Wednesday, March 31, 2010 by Laurel Chesky

The Bull Creek District Park restoration project will likely meet its April 2 deadline. Meanwhile, a plan to improve the Turkey Creek Trail in Emma Long Metropolitan Park has been temporarily shelved. Those messages were delivered Tuesday night to the city of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Board.


In separate presentations, Sheila Holbrook-White, vice chair of the Friends of Turkey Creek volunteer group, and Mike Kelly, an engineer with the city’s Watershed Protection Department and project manager for the Bull Creek Park restoration project, updated the board on the status of their respective efforts.


Holbrook-White told the board that, despite consensus among stakeholders for a draft trail management plan, the plan is on hold due to last-minute revisions from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


Turkey Creek lies within the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, which is jointly managed by the City of Austin, Travis County, and the Lower Colorado River Authority under a 30-year permit, issued in 1996, by Fish and Wildlife. The preserve provides protected habitat for eight endangered species as mitigation for development in other sensitive habitat areas in the region.


The lands around Turkey Creek provide habitat for some of those endangered species. Of particular concern there is the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. The trail also serves as a designated off-leash dog park and is heavily used by hikers and dog owners.


In 2007, a draft Balcones Preserve management plan proposed closing the trail to dogs because of concerns that they were damaging sensitive warbler habitat. The Friends of Turkey Creek formed in response to the proposal and helped quell it.


“We started as a loose network of hikers and dog owners who opposed the effort to close the trail,” Holbrook-White said.


The best way to preserve access to the trail, the group realized, was to protect its natural, fragile flora and fauna. So it became involved in the city’s trail master planning process in 2008 and subsequently helped spearhead and develop a management plan specific to Turkey Creek.


Built in the 1970s by the Boy Scouts, the hiking trail hugging the creek has eroded in some places, prompting hikers to trample adjacent flora. As a result, parts of the trail have gradually widened, encroaching on natural habitat.


The restoration plan entails closing off a 750-foot section of the trail and returning it to habitat by replanting it with native flora. The section would be re-routed along a newly constructed “sustainable” trail, a 1,015-foot winding path engineered to minimize erosion and prevent vegetation loss.


The plan also calls for community education – including an outreach campaign touting the slogan “There’s no such thing as the poop fairy” – interpretive signage, and ongoing maintenance to be performed by volunteers. The Friends have secured private funding for the project – including a $30,000 grant from the Austin Parks Foundation – and intend to implement it with volunteer labor, costing the city and county nothing.


The good news, Holbrook-White said, is that the plan was forged from months of agreeable meetings and collaboration between private citizens and multiple government agencies.


“Hats off – this is very spectacular,” said Parks Board Chair Linda Guerrero.


Sara Hensley, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, seconded her enthusiasm, calling the collaborative effort a “model” for other parks projects.


Then Holbrook-White delivered the bad news. On Jan. 19, just as the Friends were preparing to break ground on the 21-28 days restoration project, they found out that Fish and Wildlife might require changes in the plan. The news delayed the project for at least six months, Holbrook-White said, because trail construction and planting needed to be concluded before March 1, when the golden-cheeked warbler was expected to return to the area. The group hopes to resume the project in September, she said.


Meanwhile, restoration of the dog park along Bull Creek has moved forward swimmingly. Kelly told the board that he expects the project to meet its April 2 target for completion and that the park remains on track to reopen to the public on June 1. And he anticipates that the project, originally budgeted at $137,000, will wind up costing just $96,000.


“It’s a real pleasure to report a project coming in on time, under budget, and at a high quality,” he said.


Bull Creek Park, located along Lakewood Drive south of Loop 360, has been designated as an off-leash dog park for 12 years. However, concerns about water quality and soil degradation have put its off-leash status in jeopardy.


In the southern part of the park, which is heavily used by dogs and their owners, the trampling of flora along the creek bank had left a thin, hard-packed layer of soil over rock, leading to severe bank erosion and muddied creek waters.


“What we had over here was an area that was essentially loved to death,” Kelly said as he pointed to a photo of a particularly barren bank. “Nothing was going to grow there without intervention.”


Moreover, water quality tests showed levels of E. coli bacteria above what is considered safe for humans. The city closed that part of the park to all users on Dec. 1. When it reopens in June, dogs will be required to be on leashes. City officials are expected to revisit the park’s off-leash status in November.


The Bull Creek Park restoration project, begun in December, has replanted areas along the creek bank with native grasses, shrubs, and succulents to hold topsoil and prevent erosion. Wood fencing, limestone berms, and pathways lined with stone and juniper logs have been added to direct foot traffic around the plants.


The city hired young workers through the Austin-based American Youth Works’ Environmental Corps program to implement the plan. The organization, Kelly said, was key to the project’s success.


“What they were able to do with their expertise and their vision, I can’t speak highly enough of,” he said.

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