Bracken Cave, home to the world's largest colony of Mexican free-tailed bats, is no longer threatened by the development of a 4,500-unit housing development over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone in the direct flight path of the mammals.
City Council gave unanimous approval on Thursday to a public-private partnership forged by District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg that will purchase and protect the 1,521-acre Hill Country tract for $20.5 million from its owner, Galo Properties. The unprecedented habitat protection measure will be jointly funded by six separate entities:
The City of San Antonio is contributing $10 million, including $5 million in voter-approved Proposition 1 funds, and another $5 million secured through the sale of impervious cover credits to Forestar Real Estate Group (formerly Lumbermen's).
Bexar County contributed $500,000.
The Edwards Aquifer Authority contributed $500,000.
The U.S. Army/Camp Bullis contributed $100,000.
The Nature Conservancy and Bat Conservation International (BCI) has raised $5 million of the remaining $9.4 million balance, mostly through private contributions, with the Nature Conservancy financing the balance until additional fundraising efforts can retire the remainder.
Among the private gifts were $1 million from Lowry Mays, the founder of Clear Channel Communications; $1 million from Tim Hixon, chairman of Hixon Properties and noted philanthropist and conservationist; $1 million from the Kronkosky Foundation; $1 million from the Bass Foundation in Fort Worth; and $500,000 from the Brown Foundation.
The protected tract will remain undeveloped with a permanent conservation easement, and will be owned, managed and maintained by the Nature Conservancy.
The deal is expected to close by the end of October.
During the past year there was an effort led by the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance to block San Antonio Water System from servicing the development, in-depth scientific aquifer investigation, and countless meetings and discussions between stakeholders aimed at preventing the housing development.
"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," Nirenberg said, reading from a prepared statement. "San Antonio is one of the fastest growing cities in the county, 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."
After investigation into the how groundwater interacts with the Edwards Aquifer, it was found that the Crescent Hills tract of land – so named after the would-be housing development – does indeed have a critical interaction with the Edwards Aquifer.
"It (was) not in our standard target zone, so what we had to do is go in and meet with folks at the EAA (Edwards Aquifer Authority) and SAWS to determine exactly what sort of interplay there was with the recharge zone in Comal County and the impact on the City of San Antonio," said Grant Ellis, special projects manager of the EAPP. "There is some interplay due to the fault system there."
Once Crescent Hills is acquired, the EAPP will have more than 128,347 protected acres over the recharge zone. The program has spent about $183 million since its inception in 2000, which will jump to $188 when this deal closes.
"Councilman Nirenberg came to talk to (the Conservation Advisory Board) in January and we had a lot of doubts and a lot of concerns and it wasn't until August that CAB actually reassessed (buying the property) and voted on it," said Francine Romero, CAB chair and associate dean for the College of Public Policy at UTSA. The nine-member, council-appointed CAB oversees the EAPP. "It took a long time for scientists to gather the data and present it to us."
The Nature Conservancy and BCI will jointly own and manage the property until the debt is paid off, but will continue to combine programming.
"You'll see us do some development of the property ... we think it's important to have opportunities for passive recreation," said Laura Huffman, Texas state director for The Nature Conservancy. "You'll see a pavilion, you might see some trails, you'll see us actively seeking ways that we can provide access for citizens because this is one of the greatest shows on earth and it's just outside the city limits of San Antonio."
Read More: Member’s Night at Bracken Bat Cave
The property will also be available for use by high schools, colleges, and universities to expand their research around Bracken Cave for research. It is the world's largest gathering of mammals, after all.
"Every night, 15 to 20 million bats stream out of the cave for three to fours hours and head south over Texas' cotton, corn and other agricultural fields," said BCI Executive Director Andrew Walker. "And this one colony of bats – which has been there, we think, for at least 10,000 years – will eat more than 100 tons of insects each and every night ... they're saving farmers millions of dollars here in Texas alone."
In our region, bats save farmers about $700,000 a year on pest control and crop damage – and recent studies estimate a range of $3 to $53 billion saved in the agricultural industry nationally. The wide range of estimates stems from the complicated natural systems that bats inhabit – the true impacts of a species to an ecosystem is always hard to measure.
"We'll enhance our programs at Bracken Bat Caves so more and more people can see this natural phenomenon," Walker said.
BCI already owns Bracken Cave and the surrounding 697 acres adjacent to Crescent Hills. The Nature Conservancy maintains the nearby 1,245-acre Cibolo Bluff preserve. The addition of the Crescent Hills property adds up to nearly 5,000 acres of contiguous preservation easements over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone – the most sensitive areas in terms of surface-to-groundwater conversion and water quality. More than 2 million people are provided drinking water from the Edwards Aquifer in the greater San Antonio area.
The U.S. Army's contribution comes as an effort to protect the habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler.
That leaves a more than $5 million funding gap that will likely be temporarily closed by short-term bridge loans taken out by the Nature Conservancy and BCI.
*Featured/top image: The Bracken bats. Photo by Jacqueline Ferrato, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.