Dreams of the late Gay Dahlstrom for turning part of her family’s vast ranch into a space for ecological stewardship and education is slowly coming to fruition.
With the help of $100,000 in state grants, Hays County earlier this year began construction on a public 3.15-mile trail system located within the 384-acre Gay Ruby Dahlstrom Preserve. The preserve is part of a 2,254-acre conservation easement, or protected natural land, located along FM 967 that’s owned by the Dahlstrom family.
Clint Garza, Hays County Development Services coordinator, said moving forward with the preserve “means a ton,” as it will provide more open space to Hays County residents.
“That’s the direction our commissioners court has wanted to go toward and that’s great,” Garza said. “It’s going to give folks access to venture out in to nature and for us to hang on to the things that make this area so great.”
Origins of the Gay Dahlstrom Preserve began in 2007 when Hays County voters approved a $30 million bond for parks improvements.
Part of those improvements were to create more open space areas and parkland for residents. But a major component was securing land with the help of willing landowners, whether through its outright sale or through a conservation easement.
In 2010, Hays County, along with the city of Austin and the Hill Country Conservancy (HCC), agreed to purchase a conservation easement for the Dahlstrom Property. According to the HCC, the agreement was the first of its kind to involve a private landowner and local and state government.
Frank Davis, Director of Land Stewardship at the HCC, said Gay Dahlstrom, who passed away in 2015, was “integral” to making the preserve a reality.
Dahlstrom also insisted on making part of her ranch accessible to the public for educational purposes. That includes the trail system, which has a total price tag of $200,000, Garza said.
“She (Dahlstrom) told us, the whole step of the way, to provide limited access for folks to see the legacy of this ranch,” Davis said.
Dahlstrom’s mentality also strayed from what typically occurs with a conservation easement. Davis said most conservation easements are purchased from private landowners who have “good reason” for wanting to maintain privacy on their ranches.
Davis said the conservation easements provide benefits to water quality protection and the protection of wildlife. In the case of the Dahlstrom Ranch, Davis said the goal was to preserve karsts, or small caves, that are critical for recharge of the Edwards Aquifer.
A steering committee was formed a decade ago to start the planning process, Davis said. The committee included all stakeholders.
Starting the project, however, has taken some time. Garza said recovery efforts stemming from the 2015 Memorial Day flood led to the delay of the Dahlstrom preserve.
Davis said deliberation also centered on ensuring the trail was done correctly and wouldn’t impact the water quality aspects of the ranch.
“It’s been a slow process to make this a reality, but it will be a huge benchmark to have the groundbreaking,” Davis said.
Public access will have its limitations. Unlike other area trails, such as the Violet Crown, only a certain number of people will be allowed in the park at one time, Davis said.
The preserve will also only be open during certain seasons. The preventive measures are to ensure the habitat remains as unspoiled as possible.
“The idea is basically, as a team, we’re all ensuring the land is protected while allowing folks to enjoy the beauty of it at the same time,” Davis said.
Part of that process is ensuring the construction of the trails, as well as a parking lot for visitors, is done in an environmentally sensitive manner.
Brooke Leftwich, Hays County natural resource manager, said the county has employed Blair Wildlife Consulting, as well as Plateau Wildlife Management as a third-party to oversee trail and parking lot construction.
Hays County, along with Austin, HCC and the Dahlstrom family are also involved in the construction process.
“It’s a nice partnership,” Leftwich said. “We’re working to build a new green space for people.”
The challenges of protecting greenspace in a rapidly growing county is ever present, Davis said. While he believes area governments are doing “quite a lot” to preserve green space, these entities are not keeping pace with growth.
The HCC holds 10,000 acres of easements in Hays County, with plans to work on another 1,000 or so acres of land near the Blanco River in Wimberley in the future.
Davis believes focusing on green infrastructure, or land that assists with flood mitigation is needed.
Garza said Hays County asks developers to dedicate green space for future subdivisions or properties.
“It will not be a desireable place to live if we don’t pick up the pace of protecton,” Davis said.