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Committee delays vote on update to Balcones Canyonlands Preserve access guidelines

Pam LeBlanc

A vote on updated public access guidelines at the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve has been postponed.

Dozens of mountain bikers, motorcyclists and other park users, concerned that a rewording of the guidelines might jeopardize future access to the preserve, spoke at a meeting Friday at which the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan Coordinating Committee considered the update.

“We obviously weren’t prepared to move forward with any action, especially since so many people who wanted to voice concern did that,” said Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, one of two voting members of the committee. Austin city council member Leslie Pool is the other voting member.

“Staff will tell you to your face boldly that nothing is afoot with regard to changing any sort of access from the public for the parks. But if you ask the (park users), they feel there have been omissions and there is obviously something at play here where they fear there could be a change,” he said.

Staff members have also said they are simply consolidating information already contained in a series of land management plans and don’t intend to change access rules.

The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan was created in the mid-1990s to ease rapid development in western Travis County amid concerns about harming the environment — particularly the habitat of endangered invertebrates, salamanders and songbirds. Federal and local officials struck a compromise. The city and county governments agreed to set aside land for preservation, creating the Balcones Canyonland Preserve, and development proceeded on a smaller scale.

Today the public can visit most of the preserve, a 31,780-acre non-contiguous collection of properties, only through guided hikes led by volunteers. But under an agreement struck at the time of the creation of the preserve, certain uses, including rock climbing and mountain biking on the Barton Creek Greenbelt, climbing at Bull Creek District Park, and motorcycling in a small section of Emma Long Metropolitan Park, could continue.

Those users, worried that access grandfathered under the original agreement might be restricted or revoked, attended last Friday’s meeting. They point to closure several years ago of some of the grandfathered motorcycle trails at Emma Long Metropolitan Park. City of Austin officials said the motorcycles were causing erosion in a creek bed; the motorcyclists said they were not causing the problem. The park has been open to motorcycling for more than 40 years.

“I just let it be known that there needed to be a little work done to salve the mistrust that there obviously is between the user community and staff,” Daugherty said.

The coordinating committee will meet next during the first quarter of 2018, but the agenda has not yet been set.

On Jan. 1, Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea will replace Daugherty as the representative for Travis County during 2018.

“Brigid will be lynch pin to what happens,” Daugherty said. “She and Leslie (Pool) will be ones to deal with it.”