When most people think of protected areas in the US, they think of National Parks, of Yosemite, Yellowstone, Big Bend, and other sublime landscapes. The US model of national parks has been exported to many areas of the world including India, Kenya, Mexico, and South Africa. It has long been argued that the model is inappropriate for densely populated landscapes, or landscapes in which people have a less antagonistic relationship to the natural world . There is little reason to doubt the soundness of this argument and, during the last decade, there has been a worldwide trend to move management options for protected areas away from the national parks model, according to which humans are only temporary visitors to an area, to one that calls more integration between biodiversity conservation and social development. It has also been pointed out that the US National Parks do a poor job of representing biodiversity in spite of occasionally containing large populations of endangered charismatic species, for instance, grizzlies in Yellowstone. This is also correct but not really unexpected because, until the 1980s, biodiversity representation was not an explicit criterion used to select areas for National Parks. Scenery mattered most . But this “failure” of our National Parks is irrelevant to the question whether the US is doing an adequate job of representing biodiversity in protected areas. For the primary vehicle of protecting areas relevant to biodiversity in the US consists of our must less-known system of National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs).
Earlier this month I reported on visits to the Laguna Atascosa and Santa Ana NWRs. Last Sunday it was the turn of one much closer to home, the little-known Balcones Canyonlands NWR barely fifty miles northwest of Austin and north of Lake Travis. This NWR is still in the process of being created and the problems it faces are daunting. Its primary mission is to protect the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia) and Black-capped Vireo (Vireo atricapillus), both of which have premium nesting habitat within its confines. The landscape is varied—as it has to be if it is to contain nesting habitat of both of these species, which have rather different preferences—and provides a representative sample of the variability of the Edwards Plateau.
There are at present only three points of public access to Balcones, and no real visitor facilities. To the north is the Shin Oak Observation Deck, in the middle of excellent habitat for the Black-capped Vireo. There are no trails here, and the observation deck is only a few feet above the ground. Birdwatching is not at its best, and though we occasionally heard the vireo (Trevon Fuller was with me), we never saw it. To the west, and at a much lower elevation, is the Doeskin Ranch Public Use Area with several kilometers of well-marked trails through fairly degraded habitat. There’s some interesting pocket prairies here—and an eruption of wildflowers—but much of it will require a lot of patient restoration. The Creek Trail (about a kilometer each way) meanders along a slowly-flowing creek, thrives in plant diversity ranging from several species of fern and cactus a few meters apart. The Rimrock Trail (three kilometers each way) takes you up to the top of the plateau, and offers panoramic views of the Hill Country. In the heat of the afternoon we didn’t attempt to complete it though some of the views were breathtaking—uninterrupted vistas of oak juniper forests that may yet be saved from sprawling residential developments.
The most impressive trails, and the only ones that take you well into the Refuge, are at Warbler Vista to the south. This is prime warbler habitat with, as expected, lots of mature Ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei). This is a finicky bird. For evolutionary reasons that remain completely obscure this bird constructs nests of strips of mature Ashe juniper bark. Young Ashe juniper is not good enough nor is any of the other two juniper species found in the its range. Young, second-growth juniper stands or grassland recently invaded by juniper (typically as a result of overgrazing) do not constitute adequate habitat. We explored the Vista Knoll and Cactus Rock Trails both of which provided shade that was a relief from the heat of the afternoon. These are only of slight difficulty; both take you well into the forest and meander up and down the hillside. We passed through mountain grape (Vitis monticola), endemic to the Edwards Plateau, as well as Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa), Texas mountain-laurel (Sophora secundiflora), besides the usual wide variety of oaks.
The Refuge was first established in 1992 with a prospective boundary that was supposed to include over 80 000 acres. The goal was to acquire at least 46 000 acres just to conserve the nesting habitat of the Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo. When the Refuge was legislated into existence, nothing like the resources required to achieve it was allocated to it. Some fifteen years later, it contains only about 20 000 acres fragmented into 42 pieces. Meanwhile, we drove by many advertisements for land for sale as part of new residential developments inside and along the putative protected area. At the eastern edge, the somewhat snooty city of Lago Vista continues to expand, with all its resorts and as a bedroom community for Austin. Almost all the land that the Refuge needs is owned by ranchers but available for sale . The total amount needed is over $ 80 million. Ever since the Republicans took over the Presidency in 2000, annual allotments for land acquisition in this area had degenerated to about $ 1 million. (The Clinton era saw allocations of about $ 2 -3 million.) Well, I suppose that we should be grateful that the Bush Administration is not selling off already acquired land.
Even with such limited resources, the Refuge staff have done a remarkable job of assembling information about the diversity within its limits, including lists for plants (722 species), insects, birds (260 species), reptiles and amphibians (52 species), and mammals (over 40 species). The species richness is remarkable, but how important is the Refuge to the representation of biodiversity in our region? Unfortunately, we don’t really know, and the answer would be the same for almost any NWR almost anywhere in the country. In the US we have virtually no integrated projects that assess how the different types of protected areas in a region are jointly performing at representing and maaintaining a region’s biodiversity. In our region besides this Refuge, we have the various State Parks studded across the Edwards Plateau, besides the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, another fragemented conservation unit maintatined by the City of Austin and Travis County. How all our endemic and threatened or endangered species are doing in the entire set of conservation areas is something we simply don’t know. It’s conceivable that the Refuge is overkill and the other conservation areas are doing all that is needed. But I seriously doubt it. From what we saw, there’s better quality habitat in the prospective Refuge boundary and around it than in almost any other type of protected area that I’ve seen in Edwards Plateau. And the spate of prospective development we saw should give all of us ample reason for worry.
If you wish to help Balcones NWR, the time is now. Surely, raising the requisite $ 80 million from private sources, especially in our area, should not be unthinkable?
 Sarkar, S. 1999. “Biodiversity Conservation and Wilderness Preservation: Keeping Divergent Goals Distinct.” BioScience 49: 405 -412.
 Brulliard, N. 2003. “Baclones Wildlife Refuge Faces Cutbacks.” Daily Texan. 14 August 2003.