Regional Conservation Effort Full Steam Ahead

written by Business View Magazine November 20, 2014

$20.5 million purchase labeled “a true conservation partnership”

The city of San Antonio, Bat Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy had a major breakthrough in efforts to keep a highly sensitive natural area near San Antonio free from development. The Nature Conservancy, backed by the city, the Edwards Aquifer Authority, Bexar and Comal counties and Bat Conservation International entered into a contract with Galo Properties to purchase 1,521 acres in the Texas Hill Country for $20.5 million.

The San Antonio City Council authorized $10 million toward the purchase price in October.

The city, BCI and Conservancy and San Antonio leaders worked together with other local organizations to prevent a 3,500-home development on the property known as Crescent Hills. The land is adjacent to BCI’s Bracken Cave Preserve, the largest colony of Mexican free-tailed bats in the world.

“This deal has been no small task – the city of San Antonio has worked with Bat Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy for more than a year to coordinate what, at many times, has felt like an uphill battle. But I am confident this all-in approach was the best way to achieve success,” said Ron Nirenberg, the District 8 city councilman who led the city effort. “San Antonio is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, in part because of the vast natural resources of the region. It’s our responsibility to ensure we protect and conserve what makes this region incredibly special.”
The Conservancy’s Cibolo Bluffs Preserve is also adjacent to the property. The area lies within the highly sensitive recharge zone for the Edwards Aquifer, from which San Antonio, New Braunfels and other communities draw their drinking water. This acreage, along with surrounding lands owned by BCI and the Conservancy, are also home to federally endangered golden-cheeked warblers which nest only in the Texas Hill Country. In addition, rain falling on the property percolates into the porous limestone soil and rock, contributing to groundwater-fed spring flows for endangered species found within Comal and San Marcos springs, two major aquatic systems within the Edwards Aquifer.

“Working to secure Crescent Hills was actually one of the more complex conservation deals we’ve done in San Antonio, but our collective efforts will result in incredible dividends: safeguarding Bracken Bat Cave, protecting the Edwards Aquifer and preserving important habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. It’s a conservation trifecta,” said Laura Huffman, Texas state director for The Nature Conservancy.  “Once this contract closes, nearly 5,000 contiguous acres will be protected by the Conservancy and its partners. We’re practicing smart conservation on a scale that truly makes a difference.”

Crescent Hills is located in a rural portion of the Texas Hill Country that is experiencing extreme pressure from development. While experts have long agreed that conserving this region is important for safeguarding regional water quality and habitat for multiple endangered species, the movement to protect the property recently garnered national attention because of its proximity to the globally renowned Bracken Cave. From spring to fall every year, this cave harbors not only the world’s largest bat colony, but the largest concentration of mammals anywhere on earth.

“For 10,000 years, Bracken Cave has been a sanctuary for millions of Mexican free-tailed bats. Bracken’s bats consume more than 100 tons of agricultural insect pests, mosquitos and other insects each night, saving Texas farmers millions of dollars annually in reduced crop damage and lower pesticide use,” said Andrew Walker, executive director of Bat Conservation International. “It’s a true natural treasure.”
Bat Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy will own Crescent Hills in fee title and the city of San Antonio and other public entities will hold conservation easements on the property.  The public will be invited to hike, bird watch and engage in other low-impact recreational uses during hosted events.  In addition, the many high schools, colleges and universities that use Bracken Bat Preserve and Cibolo Bluffs Preserve for education and research will have an opportunity to expand their work to this newly-protected area.

San Antonio is providing $10 million toward the purchase price of the property using $5 million in Proposition 1 funds, a voter-approved program designed to protect water quality in the Edwards Aquifer by protecting land within the aquifer’s recharge and contributing zones. The additional $5 million in funding was provided by the developer, Forester, in exchange for impervious cover credits.

Additional public funding for the project includes $100,000 from the U.S. Army, to advance its goals to protect habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler, a $500,000 contribution from the Edwards Aquifer Authority and a $500,000 contribution from Bexar County.

The Nature Conservancy and Bat Conservation International have raised an additional $5 million toward the purchase price through private donations — including donations from life-long Texas conservationists Tim and Karen Hixon, the San Antonio-based Kronkosky Charitable Foundation and the Mays family.

With three-quarters of the funding identified, the two organizations have secured bridge loans — short-term loans that allow conservation entities to move swiftly to protect critical conservation properties even when full funding has not been secured — to close on the property. Fundraising efforts are ongoing.

“We couldn’t have made it past this significant hurdle without the support of those who helped draw national attention to this issue — including state representative Lyle Larson, Texas house speaker Joe Straus, Congressman Castro and the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, and nearly one dozen individuals, organizations, municipalities and foundations that provided essential funding for the acquisition,” said Nirenberg. “This is a true conservation partnership.”

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