West of Leander and Cedar Park, the expansive vistas at the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge reflect the long view taken by those who work to conserve the unique landscape.

The primary purpose of the BCNWR is to protect and conserve the specialized nesting habitat of the black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler, two highly endangered migratory songbirds, Refuge Manager Deborah Holle said.

Currently about 24,000 acres in size, the refuge is managed by the federal government under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is the only national wildlife refuge in Central Texas.

"Our reason for being here is to protect the nesting habitat, but our refuge is much, much more," Holle said.

Recreational opportunities are wildlife–oriented and include hunting and fishing as well as wildlife photography and observation including birding and environmental education.

"We get more than 25,000 visitors a year," Holle said, adding that hiking is also a popular activity and is available on a variety of trails that total almost 8 miles in length. Visitors are not permitted to bring dogs or ride bicycles or horses on the property.

In addition to the visitors center located about 5 miles west of Lago Vista on the north side of FM 1431, three other public use areas are accessible to visitors free of charge: Warbler Vista and Sunset Deck, Doeskin Ranch and the Shin Oak Deck. Other areas of the property are closed to the public because of the rough terrain, the expense of keeping those areas open and to maintain visitor safety, Holle said.

When the black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler were first listed as endangered species in 1984 and 1990, respectively, they came under the protection of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which made it illegal to harm the birds or destroy their nesting habitat.

"That really threw a big monkey wrench in Austin's development," said Jim Nosler, the current government relations director and a former board member for Friends of the BCNWR, a nonprofit group that supports the work of the refuge.

In order to preserve enough land for the birds while still allowing for economic growth in the area, a habitat conservation plan was put in place, Holle said.

"[It] says if you destroy X number of acres, you have to preserve that same number of acres [elsewhere]," she said.

When the refuge was established in 1992 it helped meet the need for protected habitat, which Nosler said also allowed for a more streamlined permitting process for developers in the Austin area.

"[The refuge is] protecting land so that other land can be developed without concerns over loss of habitat every time you want to build an apartment complex," he said.

Holle said people sometimes confuse the BCNWR with the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, which also protects about 30,000 acres of additional habitat under a habitat conservation plan. The BCP is locally managed by Travis County and the city of Austin in cooperation with other agencies and partners, according to the Travis County website.

The BCNWR is located within an acquisition boundary set by Congress that extends into parts of Travis, Williamson and Burnet counties. Holle said the goal for the refuge is to eventually acquire a total of 46,000 acres within that boundary.

Since the boundary also contains parcels of land that are privately owned, the refuge is not contiguous, said Scott Parker, the Texas director for The Trust for Public Land, a national land conservation organization. Landowners within the boundary maintain all property rights, including the right to sell or donate their land to the refuge or private buyers.

Currently the BCNWR owns approximately 20,000 acres in fee title, or full ownership, plus another 4,500 acres in conservation easements, Holle said.

In a conservation easement, a private landowner voluntarily agrees to sell or donate certain rights, such as the right to subdivide or develop the land in the future. The landowner can continue to live on and use the property and usually receives a tax advantage because the market value for potential development of the property can often be written off as a tax deduction, Nosler said.

"A conservation easement is a very good option," Nosler said, because the USFWS has a limited budget for land acquisition and can only buy land from willing sellers for the price determined by a specific appraisal process.

When private landowners decide to sell or donate their property to the refuge, it is often because they want to see the land preserved for generations to come, Parker said.

"[These are] landowners who see the value of the land more for its resources and more for what it represents than for its actual dollar value," he said.

The preservation of the refuge is likely to continue in the future, especially because it is a public resource supported by the federal government, Parker said.

"You can never say never, but the public process that you'd have to go through to reduce the [size of the] refuge or eliminate a property is really extensive and unlikely," he said.

Holle said to shrink the refuge, "It would take an act of Congress."

"I think in the future when all this area is developed and the only things ... left are the preserves, maybe a few private ranches and the refuge, [people] are going to be disappointed that we didn't preserve more of it," Holle said. "But you don't ever miss what you have until it's gone."

Contact information

24518 FM 1431, Marble Falls, 512-339-9432, www.fws.gov/refuge/balcones_canyonlands Hours: Refuge headquarters and visitors Center—Mon.–Fri. 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

Doeskin Ranch, Shin Oak Observation Deck and Warbler Vista are open free of charge during daylight hours every day.