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Cyclists, motorcyclists get committee to postpone update to Balcones conservation plan

Monday, December 4, 2017 by Jack Craver

Dozens of mountain bikers, motorcyclists and others who enjoy using trails within the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve showed up at City Hall Friday ready for a fight over an update to the preserve management plan that they said endangers their access to the parks and trails.

In response, members of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan Coordinating Committee, who were scheduled to vote on an update to the 1999 Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan, insisted there was nothing to fight about.

The 1999 plan was the result of a compromise between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department and city and county officials, who agreed to set aside land to protect the habitats of eight endangered species, notably the golden-cheeked warbler.

Kimberlee Harvey, who is the environmental conservation manager for Austin Water and serves as secretary of the committee, attributed the controversy to rumors spread online about parks being closed to the public.

“This draft chapter did not say anything about park closures,” she said. “There are no changes to the permitted land uses.

“I do not have the power to close your beloved parks,” she added. “We do not intend to do that.”

One after another, however, citizens begged to differ. They pointed to new language in the plan that would give staff the discretion to bar certain uses in “grandfathered” areas of the preserve that have long been open to motorcycling and biking.

Indeed, while the document states that grandfathered areas “allow continued public access at the same levels as were occurring in 1996,” it adds that “the number of existing roads and trails on these ‘grandfathered’ tracts may be decreased” and that land managers should “proactively increase management and access restrictions” if they determine it is necessary “for the benefit of the species and their habitats.”

Chris Fields, a mountain biking and motorcycling enthusiast, said the changes make it clear that “efforts are underway again to remove the very specific grandfathered land use conditions that were originally established.”

Another concerned neighbor, Ron Hensley, equated staff’s assurances that nothing would change to “the foxes telling the hens, ‘don’t worry about changes to the barn.’”

Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, one of the two voting members of the committee, emphasized that he was not supportive of any new recreational restrictions on the grandfathered tracts, but said that he took Harvey at her word.

“I certainly believe you when you say there are no changes,” he said.

However, he added that he was troubled by the disconnect between staff’s claims and the concerns expressed by the public.

“I think I understand people are concerned there is some sort of effort being made so that the grandfathering will be not adhered to,” he said.

Council Member Leslie Pool, the other voting member of the committee, also said that the new document did not represent an attempt to make a major change, but rather was an effort to “consolidate” language from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife permit and the 1999 conservation plan into one document.

However, in response to the complaints, Pool said the committee would not take action on the document immediately and would further examine the areas of concern highlighted.

She encouraged park users to “stay on the trails” but to respect the environment. A camper herself, Pool referred to one of the guiding camping principles: “Leave no trace.”

The “grand compromise” between recreation and preservation, she said, would not be able to continue if “it becomes damaging to the environment.” If trails show signs of serious degradation, she said, “we will close access to those sections down in order to allow them to come back.”

“I would ask everybody to understand why we do that. That is to be able to continue to provide access,” she said.

Daugherty assured the crowd that its complaints had not been in vain.

“I think that staff is hearing loud and clear that there are people who are not willing to just sign off and simply trust (management),” he said.

Photo courtesy of ATXN: Council Member Leslie Pool addresses citizens at the most recent meeting of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan Coordinating Committee.

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