Balcones Canyonlands gets ready to welcome a new visitor center

Wednesday, May 24, 2023 by Ava Garderet

The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP) Coordinating Committee heard an update from Travis County on May 12 about the plans for a new visitor center at the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP). 

Kimberlee Harvey, the committee’s secretary, delivered the update, which was initially created by Melinda Mallia, director of the county’s Natural Resources and Environmental Quality Division. 

The visitor center will be located in a transformed three-story office building on a 94-acre site – a property purchased by Travis County.

“It was really a remarkable opportunity for us to be able to acquire the site,” Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea, co-chair of the BCCP committee, said, “because that land would have been pretty significantly redeveloped if the county had not been able to purchase it.”

Shea said the land on which the building sits consists largely of endangered species habitat. When it was built, she said, developers worked with BCP staff to add trails and take into account the significance of the surrounding land.

Harvey then showed the committee a presentation of the schematic design of the new center, while describing some of the plans for the building’s features. The facility will have innovative exhibits to showcase the region’s unique ecology, as well as family-friendly environmental educational programs. The surrounding grounds will be open to the public so that visitors can view the nature of the preserve land, hike and attend special events.

On the back side of the building is a three-story observation tower, accessible from both inside and outside the building. It will enable visitors to view a large portion of the BCCP’s preserve land. 

Adjacent to the tower will be an amphitheater that can seat 150 visitors, along with restrooms accessible to those using the hiking trails.  

Most of the first floor will be used as exhibit space to tell the story of the preserve, with descriptions of each species found on the preserved lands. It will also serve as a gathering spot for staff and visitors embarking on hikes on the property. 

Beneath the building, but visible from the entrance, are several large rainwater collection tanks. All of the water used in the gardens and the landscape around the building will be harvested on-site, and the BCCP Coordinating Committee decided not to build anything at the center that requires additional water.

The tanks will also be used as teaching tools for visitors to learn how to harvest and use rainwater at their own homes or workplaces.

The entrance to the facility will open up into a three-story atrium, where planners envision a walk-in cave replica with a giant juniper tree extending all three stories, as well as life-sized models of the various animals protected by the BCCP, such as the Texas native golden-cheeked warbler.

The area extending past the entrance will feature a “living wall,” made of native plants and stone from the area, which will use the natural display and informational kiosks to tell the story of the caves and cave species protected in the area.

The offices for all of the BCP’s biology and natural resources staff will be located on the second floor of the building. The intent is that visitors will be able to get sneak peeks at what the biologists are working on, in addition to seeing the exhibit space.

According to Harvey, the center is still about three to four years away from opening to the public, but the plans for construction, engineering and permitting are underway. 

“There’s about a year’s worth of construction permitting that still needs to happen, and then they will start on construction, which will take another couple of years after that,” Harvey said.

The BCCP committee said it hopes to keep some of the space on its third floor compatible for other environmental entities or operations.

“This visitor center will be a great way to tell our story,” Harvey said. “Because I continue to run into people who have no idea what a national leader we are in the area of habitat conservation, or how many endangered species we have in this mashup of ecosystems. Hopefully, this will allow us to invite the public in to learn more about the unique place they live in.” 

Rendering courtesy of the BCCP Coordinating Committee.

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