Balancing protection and public access for fragile resources.
By Carol Flake Chapman
There are certain special places in Texas, like Hamilton Pool, west of Austin, that remind me of paintings I’ve seen from the Middle Ages of the sacred space known as the hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden. When I’ve come upon these places, created by forces of nature rather than by artistic design, I’ve felt what I imagine to be the same sense of wonder and awe that those small but precious places must have evoked in medieval times. And the key for both kinds of places, whether natural or artificially ordered, is water, springing forth almost as though by miracle.
In the hortus conclusus, there was always water at the center, in the form of a well or a fountain, and the space was often surrounded by a rock wall or by a stone arcade. Water is the focal point of these special places in Texas, too, which I call water paradises. Most of these hidden retreats are sprinkled around Central Texas, thanks to karst formations that lend themselves to collapsed grottoes. At the heart of these places is water, in the form of pools, springs or waterfalls. And there is usually a dramatic backdrop of rocks, as well as the same feeling of sanctuary and seclusion as in the artful enclosed gardens. Those who have been fortunate enough to visit the Hill Country treasures of Hamilton Pool, Westcave Preserve, Gorman Falls, Jacob’s Well or Blue Hole may have felt the same way I did when I first saw them. After recovering my breath after first seeing them, I had contradictory impulses. The first was a protective feeling, of wanting to keep this secret place to myself so that it would remain unspoiled, and the next was a desire to tell everyone I knew about it so they could share the experience.
Obviously, keeping these extraordinary places to oneself is neither a realistic nor an admirable expectation. Most of them are on public land, of one sort or another, and questions of stewardship can get quite complex. Over the years, as pressures grow for access to such beautiful places, the caretakers of these water paradises, whether they are located in parks or preserves, have been diligently trying to balance the seemingly contradictory imperatives of public access and the protection of a unique resource. It’s a precarious balance that parks everywhere struggle to maintain.
As it happens, each of these unusual water resources in Central Texas has had a different history, but all incurred some form of ecological damage in the past as a result of overuse or outside encroachment. Each has been managed differently, and policies have shifted over the years as physical conditions and public attitudes toward fragile natural resources have changed.
A prime example is Gorman Falls, located inside Colorado Bend State Park. Powered by a spring-fed creek, and overlooking a pristine stretch of the Colorado River, Gorman Falls is an “advancing” falls, which means it is constantly adding travertine deposits that change its shape. Drought has recently reduced its flow. But when the falls are flowing at full force, with rainbowed mists veiling the underlying travertine, it is arguably the most beautiful place in the state. The falls were once easily accessible from a fishing camp, and old photos from that time show people clambering over its fragile overlooks, ledges and pools.
When the falls and the surrounding area known as Colorado Bend became a state park, the decision was made to close the falls to the public and restrict access to weekend guided tours. Travertine, as park ranger Kevin Ferguson points out, is soft and brittle when it’s wet. “It’s like walking on crackers,” he says. Another concern was the fragile vegetation. “A single step can destroy a decade of restoration,” he said. Dan Sholly, deputy director of parks at Texas Parks and Wildlife, explains that the department “had the mentality then that the best and easiest way to manage it was to close it.” Twenty years later, the department reevaluated that policy. “You don’t get supporters or a constituency for a place that way,” says Sholly. The trail to the falls was opened and improved, and railings were put up to prevent visitors from climbing on the falls or its pools. So far, according to Kevin Ferguson, park visitors have been respectful of the boundaries. “The great majority of people love this place and will help us protect it. We’re excited about having it open. It’s an opportunity to help the public to feel a sense of ownership.”
An added means of protection for fragile places often used in park management is providing access for the public to a “sacrificial” place, one similar to the restricted spot but less vulnerable to damage. In a sense, it’s a bait and switch technique, but with welcome benefits both for the public and for the fragile resource. At Colorado Bend, after gazing at Gorman Falls behind a protective railing, an activity that TPWD resource specialist David Riskind describes as “appreciative use,” you can hike along Spicewood Springs Trail and cool off in a series of inviting smaller waterfalls and pools. Similarly, at Pedernales Falls State Park the public is not allowed to swim in the pool beneath fragile Twin Falls, one of the park’s small, hidden gems that is still recovering from years of heavy recreational use. Visitors can still gaze at the falls from an overlook. However, if you want to take a dip in a beautiful place, you can hike along Wolf Mountain Trail to cool your heels in tiny, scenic Arrowhead Pool, where access is allowed. You won’t find any signs, however, to point the way to Arrowhead, indicating a subtle but effective policy of limiting visitors.
Hamilton Pool and Westcave Preserve — collapsed grottoes of astonishing beauty and delicacy located just miles down the road from each other — provide contrasting images of managing a similar resource, one for recreation, with certain restrictions, and the other for education. Before Hamilton Pool was acquired by the county, recalls Travis County park manager Dan Perry, “it was a pretty wild place.” Located three-quarters of a mile upstream from its confluence with the Pedernales River, Hamilton Creek spills out over limestone outcroppings to create a 50-foot waterfall as it plunges into the head of a steep box canyon. In the 1970s, when the pool was privately operated for recreation, says Perry, young people would jump off the cliff into the pool. He even tried it once himself back then, he admits. The area had been nearly “loved to death” by over-enthusiastic visitors. The riparian area of the creekbed had been denuded of plant life by people straying off the trails.
The county turned the property into a preserve and set guidelines, says Perry, that were “strict but fair.” He recalls, “We closed it for a year and cleaned it up. And we made the decision to bring it back to its natural state. We weren’t about to turn it into a Disney kind of park.” The county kept the pool open for swimming, but formalized the trails and the stair rails around the pool. The decision was also made to limit the capacity of the park to the 75 cars that fit in the parking lot.
As with state parks, the key to protecting the resource, says Perry, is education. “We explain why we need to protect this place, and people respect that. Visitors accepted it right off the bat, and we haven’t had negative comments.” The problems with the pool have not come from visitors, he points out, but from elements outside the park, including run-off from farmland and from development upstream. The pool is regularly closed after heavy rains when the level of coliform bacteria rises to unacceptable levels. Nearly two years ago, sediment believed to come from a nearby road-building project rushed into the pool after a torrential rainfall, leaving the water with far diminished visibility. The county is still working on a mitigation plan to deal with the damage, says Perry.
By contrast, the area that is now Westcave Preserve has remained closed to the general public, with visitation by guided tour only. Visitors to the preserve begin their tours at the Warren Skaaren Environmental Learning Center, a model of sustainable building design that has exhibits showing how the forces and cycles of nature have interacted to create and sustain the preserve. Although the land is owned by the Lower Colorado River Authority, the preserve is administered by its board of directors, comprising longtime and passionate devotees of the site.
Within its small core space of 30 acres, the preserve encompasses a grassland with wildflower meadows and a limestone crevice leading to a sheltered canyon with a pool and waterfall created by the collapse of a giant cave. Westcave’s fragile travertine columns and plant life were seriously threatened in the 1960s and early 1970s by trespassers onto the then-private land.
“This canyon was trashed,” says preserve manager John Ahrns, who has been there for 35 years. But the ecosystem has rebounded under the strict guidelines of visitation. And the preserve just added 44 acres around the canyon rim to establish a zone of protection. Nowadays, when Ahrns leads tours down into the canyon, he points out the almost bewildering array of plant life that thrives along the canyon and even grows on and between the rocks in the grotto. When schoolchildren arrive at the cave, he asks them to sit quietly and just sense everything around them. “So many of us never get a chance to be in real silence,” he says. “Some places are for recreation. But a place like this is to look, listen and smell.”
The lessons from managing these fragile and pressured places over the years have proved valuable for two water paradises near the city of Wimberley that have recently come under new stewardship: Blue Hole and Jacob’s Well. The health of these two places is closely entwined, as Jacob’s Well, the natural spring believed to be the longest underwater cave in the state, is the primary source of water flowing from the Trinity Aquifer to form Cypress Creek, the beautiful stream that winds through Wimberley and that forms the oasis of Blue Hole, where swimmers splash beneath towering cypresses. These places are at “ground zero” in determining the balance between access and protection, observes Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University—San Marcos and a board member of the Friends of Blue Hole. Policies can be affected, he observes, by the “peculiar artifacts of their origin that complicate protection,” including previous easements or deed restrictions. In May 2005, the Village of Wimberley completed the land acquisition portion of the Blue Hole project with grants and donations from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Hays County, the Lower Colorado River Authority and The Trust for Public Land and with the help of private landowner Peter Way, who bought and held the land in trust until the purchase could be completed. Long-term plans call for the development of the property into a regional park, and the city is weighing competing interests in the way the land surrounding the pool will be used.
The Jacob’s Well Natural Area Trust was recently awarded a grant from Hays County parks and open space bond funds to purchase the 55 acres around the well and to establish a research and environmental education center.
“Jacob’s Well is the heart and soul of Wimberley Valley,” says David Baker, head of the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, who has dedicated much of his life to preserving the site. When the well dried up for the first time in history, during the summer of 2000, and again in October of 2008, the events were considered by many as symbolic of the region’s increasing water shortage and quality problems.
“Jacob’s Well is the canary in the coal mine,” says Baker. He hopes that Jacob’s Well will become a center for teaching visitors how to live responsibly on an aquifer. “This is a place that we feel inspires stewardship, of showing the connection between choices and actions and the health of the water.”
Jacob’s Well, like other water paradises, appears to offer in its beauty and serenity a respite and refuge from the noise and problems of the outside world. But these beautiful, unique places of safe haven are inextricably connected to that outside world. And their safety and security are only as strong as the commitment of their human caretakers.