Living on the Edge

One of the ironies of the birds-vs.-bikes debate on Forest Ridge is that mountain bikers are being punished for the same sort of habitat fragmentation that has occurred on a larger scale throughout the whole Balcones Canyonlands Preserve matrix. A glimpse at any map of the BCP confirms that rather than being one big, safe area for the birds, "The Preserve" is instead a patchwork of discontinuous properties. So while Dr. Don Koehler is concerned about the impact of biking, and points out that illegal trails have sliced and diced Forest Ridge and surrounding areas into pieces too small to be used by songbirds as nesting habitat, he acknowledges that development is having the same effect across Travis County.

This pattern is commonly referred to as "the edge effect" -- because many animals will stay away from areas bounded by humans. Koehler says that though development patterns in greater Austin generally outweigh concerns over renegade bikers, he must address both issues if the endangered species are to survive. "These birds need large blocks of land," says Koehler, noting that if Austin and Travis County had been able to attain all the parcels targeted back in 1996, "we would stand a great chance of saving these species."

Koehler explains that subdivisions and their attendant infrastructure needs, such as roads and power lines, don't just take the land on which they sit out of the designated preserve -- they also decrease the likelihood of endangered birds nesting nearby. As it stands, developers have been snatching up land hard by the park-like preserves near Bull Creek and elsewhere, leaving behind a conservation plan that looks like a jigsaw puzzle with several pieces gone. For the warblers especially, who prefer territory at least 100 yards from human development, this means that a sizeable portion of the acreage outlined as part of the BCP (which critics believe is already insufficient to guarantee the bird's survival) must be considered a buffer zone and not even true habitat.

"The preserve has been set up to allow development, which is essentially the same thing as saying it allows for fragmentation," says Koehler. In addition to city and county lands, the LCRA, Travis County Audubon, and The Nature Conservancy also own tracts of land considered part of the BCP. Because of continued development, meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which had initially targeted about 45,000 acres for a separate federal preserve, has upped its acquisition goal to nearly 70,000 acres in Travis and Hays Counties.

Travis Co. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner puts a more positive spin on the impact of fragmentation on the conservation plan, noting that real-estate agents can virtually guarantee that folks who purchase sites abutting preserve boundaries will never have to worry about additional development. "It adds value," she says. "Some developers recognize that the preserves can be a good thing."

In the meantime, Koehler notes that nearly 25% of the BCP remains open to cyclists, having been grandfathered in as traditional park use when the city chose to include parklands to augment the federal habitat requirements for endangered species. These areas include the Barton Creek Greenbelt and Wilderness, Bull Creek District Park, the Bull Creek Greenbelt, St. Edwards Park, and Emma Long Park, where mountain bikers and off-road motorcyclists share the trail. Public access has also been maintained at Mt. Bonnell Park for hiking and picnicking, while various other public areas can be accessed for education or research purposes. (For a full breakdown of BCP access, see www.ci.austin.tx.us/preserves/access.htm.)

Of course, there are those in the mountain bike community who reject the argument that the edge effect from biking compares with industrial parks, trophy homes, and strip malls. Austin Ridge Rider Britt Jones and Hill Abell, owner of the Bicycle Sport Shop, say that cyclists should be seen as potential stewards of the land, and beyond that, argue the scientific evidence linking biking to bird mortality is scant at best. "We had done hundreds of hours of work up there, and were taken aback when we were told we would no longer have access," says Abell. "As far as we're concerned there's no science behind this decision."

Koehler indicates that he's willing to yield some ground on the question of access to Forest Ridge, and suggests that if a legal agreement can be reached -- and the feds go along with it -- perhaps cyclists won't have to wait five years before returning to this favored spot. Essentially, if riders were willing to take an ecology course, Koehler says, he can imagine a day in the not too distant future when they might be allowed to pedal this BCP fragment during the nine months a year when the birds aren't there. "As long as they stick to the existing trails and don't open up the canopy," Koehler says, "I have no heartburn letting mountain bikes on that land." More details concerning access and general management of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve can be found in the BCP Land Management Plan. Drafts of this plan have been approved by the BCP Coordination Committee and are now under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Print copies of the Plan's final draft are available for public review at these locations:

Kinko's, 327 Congress Avenue

Austin History Center, 810 Guadalupe

Spicewood Springs Branch Library, 8637Spicewood Springs Road

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