When The Nature Conservancy (TNC) acquired the 1,521-acre Galo tract adjacent to Bracken Cave in the Texas Hill Country on Halloween last fall, it brought to a happy conclusion an at-times frantic, 21-month effort to prevent 3,500 homes from being built under the nightly flight path of Bracken’s 15 million-plus Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis).
BCI Bracken Cave Preserve Manager Fran Hutchins learned in January 2013 of Galo Properties’ new plans for a proposed subdivision, known as “Crescent Hills.” Earlier attempts to meet company representatives had gone unanswered; there things stood until Galo Properties came forward with its ambitious plan.
For BCI, it was a challenge like no other in its history: prevent development of a vital tract of land, twice the size of Bracken Cave Preserve and many times more expensive—not that the land was even for sale. But its protection was critical. Each night from March until November, Bracken’s bats—the world’s largest gathering of mammals—stream out of the cave at tree-top level, taking three to four hours to empty the cave. And almost every night, their path takes them over the Galo tract.
The developer had assumed—correctly—that his proposed houses would not interfere with the Cave per se, being no closer than 1,000 yards from its mouth. He offered to create a buffer strip along his common boundary with BCI. But free-tails love bridges and buildings and will congregate around street and porch lights catching moths, notes Hutchins. “For a bat that flies more than 100 miles each night in search of food, a thousand yards means nothing,” he adds. “The houses would have been a magnet for bats seeking new roosts, learning to fly, hunting insects or wanting a drink from a swimming pool.”
Put simply, placing 10,000 people under 15 million bats was sure to lead to trouble. A child playing with a sick or tired young bat—a likely occurrence with 5 million-plus baby bats nearby—found in a yard or brought into a house by a cat or dog would have to get rabies shots (which though no longer an ordeal, are nonetheless expensive: $900 to $1,000 for the series). A steady stream of such children and adults would lead to increasing resentment and fear in the community and ever-stronger efforts to remove the bats.
BCI also worried that curiosity would get the better of the 3,000 kids growing up in the neighborhood.
“Imagine if you were 13 and heard you lived next to the coolest cave in the world. Wouldn’t you want to go explore it?” says BCI U.S.-Canada Director Mylea Bayless. “But ammonia and carbon monoxide levels in the cave are dangerous to people, not to mention having to walk over or wade through ten thousand years of guano. It’s an extreme environment requiring special clothing and breathing devices.”
Grassroots Advocacy Fuels Action
To make matters more challenging, it became clear that under Texas state law, local jurisdictions had little authority to deny or alter development plans that did not violate current zoning. In the quiet ranchland corner of Comal County where Bracken and the Galo tracts are located, there is no zoning.
“We went from jurisdiction to jurisdiction looking for the place in the process where we could raise environmental concerns,” says Bayless. “It turned out there was no place.”
So BCI turned to its members. In just three weeks, more than 20,000 people signed a petition urging protection of Bracken Cave as a site of global importance and packed a May 2013 San Antonio City Council public forum. BCI’s social media followers jumped from 20,000 to 60,000. Other organizations began to help, including Taking Care of Texas, a conservation group founded by former First Lady Laura Bush; the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance; and the Texas chapter of The Nature Conservancy, which had bought land from Galo Properties in the past. Mrs. Bush advocated publicly for protection and introduced BCI staff to other key individuals in Texas. TNC and BCI, meanwhile, began meeting quietly with representatives of Galo Properties to see what could be done.
The media also took a strong interest. The New York Times and National Public Radio ran stories. Regional and local coverage were extensive, with San Antonio’s major daily, The Express-News, running a series of influential articles and editorials throughout the nearly two-year effort.
The next ingredient, influential political leadership, was provided by both sides of the political aisle. State Rep. Lyle Larson; Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus; Bexar County’s Kevin Wolf and his father, Nelson Wolf; and others were all instrumental in bringing public and government attention to the issue. U.S. Congressman Lamar Smith was equally supportive—and a lover of Texas’ bats.
But it was then-San Antonio Mayor Juan Castro and the San Antonio City Council, including a recently elected first-time politician, Council Member Ron Nirenberg, who provided the final piece of the preservation puzzle. Nirenberg and the City recognized something else about the Galo tract: It was enormously important for recharging the Edwards Aquifer on which San Antonio, Austin and other Hill Country communities depend for drinking water and irrigation. With Texas in a multi-year drought, which climate change models suggest is only a foretaste, saving the Galo tract took on new significance.
Mutual Interests Find Resolution
TNC, the City and BCI redoubled efforts to acquire the 1,521-acre property and over the summer of 2014 struck a $20.5 million deal. BCI pledged to raise at least $5 million in charitable gifts if the City of San Antonio would provide $5 million from its aquifer-protection fund. Forestar Real Estate Group, wanting to build a retirement center on a nearby golf course-residential complex, purchased what’s known as “impervious cover credits” from the Galo Tract for another $5 million. The Department of Defense, Bexar County, the Edwards Aquifer Authority and Green Spaces Alliance also contributed funds.
By closing, $16 million had been raised, enough for TNC’s international headquarters to approve a bridge loan allowing the Texas chapter to buy the property on Halloween. BCI and TNC are now working together to raise the final $5.5 million to repay the bridge loan. The two organizations will co-own and manage the land.
“Without Ron Nirenberg in particular, the project would probably not have happened,” says BCI Executive Director Andrew Walker. “He showed extraordinary leadership and patience throughout, bringing all parties ever closer together. It would have been a remarkable accomplishment for any politician, but for a newly elected leader it was almost unthinkable.”
But for San Antonio’s District 8 councilman it was a natural choice. “I think the entire public understood what the right thing to do was,” Nirenberg says. “The challenge for policymakers was there was no blueprint or game plan about how to make it happen.”
Often overlooked in these situations, however, is the role the landowner plays. Brad Galo saw that San Antonio was growing rapidly in the direction of Bracken Cave and sought to capitalize on that trend when he purchased this property more than 10 years ago. “It’s understandable that the complex issues regarding bats would not have been immediately apparent to him,” says Walker. “We owe him a debt of gratitude for selling the property at a fair and achievable price.”
“After years of work, this highly complex conservation deal came together with decisive action and investment from a broad spectrum of trusted partners,” says Laura Huffman, Texas state director of The Nature Conservancy. “Our collective efforts have resulted in a trifecta of conservation success for the entire region: safeguarding Bracken Bat Cave, preserving important habitat for warblers and safeguarding Texas’ most valuable resource: clean, fresh water.”
BCI and TNC, in addition to collaborating on fundraising, are beginning ecological management of the tract, removing junipers and other brush in advance of future controlled burns, which will benefit the federally endangered golden-cheeked warbler (Setophaga chrysoparia) and enhance the insect population on which Bracken’s juvenile bats depend as they learn to forage and fly. Planning for passive recreational use by the public is also underway. BCI will eventually build an interpretive visitor pavilion near the cave to accommodate the thousands of BCI Members, school and church groups, families and individuals who come to watch birds and, of course, bats.
“Working with BCI on the Crescent Hills/Galo acquisition has been a highlight of my career,” says TNC’s Jeff Francell. “I’ve never been involved in a local land acquisition project with such a range of support—from grassroots to local government to private philanthropy. The best part of the entire transaction has been the outcome, removing a serious threat and ensuring that Bracken Cave will never be surrounded by incompatible development.”