Just over the county line in Comal County is a creek that’s small but full of wild character. Here, cypress trees, dotted with the green new growth of spring, tower overhead where curtains of Spanish moss, still dormant gray, flutter in the wind. Fish dart through pools fed by the gurgling Honey Creek.
Just over that same county line, the suburbs of San Antonio continue to expand northward. In fact, the potential impact of this encroaching development on Honey Creek has been a concern for years for those who desire to conserve the pristine character of the stream.
“When the property was acquired back in the ‘80s…by the Nature Conservancy, I don’t think anybody could have foreseen or certainly wasn’t thinking about the level of growth that we’re seeing now in the area,” said Jeff Francell of the Nature Conservancy. “And that’s just based on its proximity to San Antonio and Boerne and New Braunfels. You know, some of the fastest growing areas in the country.”
The Nature Conservancy has been involved in the conservation of Honey Creek and its surrounding landscape since the 1980s when they acquired and transferred the property to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Lately, they have been assisting landowners along its streambed to keep their land free from development.
A big announcement was made back in February when the owners of the Honey Creek Spring Ranch decided to put 621 acres of their land under conservation easement. This voluntary legal designation prohibits development on their property in perpetuity.
In addition, the upstream property bordering Honey Creek Spring Ranch (confusingly titled Honey Creek Ranch) is now in negotiations with The Nature Conservancy and Texas Parks and Wildlife to sell their property so that it is eventually transferred to the state parks system. That’s after several years of plans to turn this land into a housing development with schools, which caused public outcry. Especially since part of the original plan had a sewage treatment plant that would drain the treated water into the creek.
One big reason that the conservation of the land surrounding the creek is notable is because so much of Honey Creek actually flows below ground through a cave. Its entrance happens to be on Honey Creek Spring Ranch and is often used for cave and aquifer research.
“The Honey Creek Cave is the largest underground cave in Texas,” Brandon Lopes-Baca said of the largest surveyed cave in the state. He is the superintendent of Guadalupe State Park, of which the Honey Creek State Natural Area is an adjoining unit. “The last time it was surveyed,” he added, “I think it was a little over 20 miles.”
This is typical of the Hill Country’s karst landscape, or one that is characterized by highly soluble bedrock. All that dissolving rock — in this case limestone — creates typical landforms such as cracks, caves and sinkholes. (In fact, the steep hillsides of the Hill Country are an act of eroding down, not of lifting up.) These holes and crevices provide direct access to water naturally stored within the rocks’ cavities.
As a result, the Hill Country has “a lot more sensitive landscape than people realize,” Jeff Francell cautioned. This is exacerbated, he noted, by the fact that the “Hill Country in particular has very thin soil,” which reduces its capacity to slow down rainfall or filter it before it reaches an aquifer.
Though a mere fraction of its actual flow, the stream above ground is a key indicator for what’s going on beneath. If low quality runoff percolates into the cave, that directly leads to what flows out of it.
Luckily, Superintendent Lopes-Baca explained that testing of the creek’s water typically comes back very clean.
“A few years back, (the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) came out and did three surveys of water quality out here along the creek, including the cave system, which is actually off-property…but at every single point it was just off the charts. It was exceptional,” Lopes-Baca said.
And where that exceptionally healthy water flows above ground is some of the most picturesque 1.5 miles of stream in Texas. As the name implies, it helps that the management strategy of the Honey Creek State Natural Area is to leave it in as natural a state as possible. That’s also why public access is by scheduled tour only.
To illustrate this management priority, Lopes-Baca narrated a time when park officials debated on what to do with a tree that had fallen into the water. If this would’ve happened on the state park side where visitor recreation is prioritized, he explained, they most likely would have cut up and removed the tree as a safety hazard. Instead, they decided, “OK, no, let’s go ahead and keep that there. It’s a natural occurrence. And now over time, it’s become a home for fish.”
On a day in late March, fish swayed through transparent aquamarine pools. Lopes-Baca explained that one of the fish seen here happens to be on the list of Species of Greatest Conservation Need – the Guadalupe Bass. Other species that live in the creek that are a conservation priority because of their rarity include the Cagle’s map turtle, two types of salamander, and two types of freshwater mussel.
Like any water source, the creek isn’t just the basis of life for creatures that live within it. Game trails scratched into the dirt by various paws and hooves crisscross the sloped banks. The endangered Golden Cheeked Warbler has been observed nesting in its vicinity. Even beavers have been known to visit.
“Yeah, you don’t really see them that often,” Lopes-Baca said of the bucktoothed mammals. “But one of our park police officers said that when he did a round over here within the last couple of months, he actually saw two. And as soon as they saw him, they took off.”
Of course, an ecosystem is not comprised of animals alone. During TPR’s visit, wild grapevines were seen weaving together neighboring branches of cypresses, sycamores, pecans, and cedar elms. At one point, a fuzzy vine as thick as a fire hose hung from high above to dip into the water below.
Where water collected in calm pools, clusters of waxy leaves floated the surface. They’re not lilypads, though; they’re called spatterdock, so named because the seeds allegedly burst out of their pods. During wetter times of the year, ferns would be visible.
As the water escaped these pools, it riffled over smooth stone, in some places creating a stair step-like descent. At its confluence with the Guadalupe River, the flow poured over a limestone ledge that offered a stark visual divide between the two streams.
It’s not just the immediate stream that this 2,293-acre property keeps as natural as possible. Climbing uphill from the creek banks, the denser woods gave way to a sunlit live oak savanna. Here, dried out native grasses — most notably the rust-colored little bluestem — awaited the rains of spring. The gnarled branches of oak trees had room to extend outward. As an intact ecosystem, such land acts as a buffer for the creek within.
Which is why there has been outcry in the past few years about what will happen to the Honey Creek Ranch along Highway 46, which contains part of the dry creek bed upstream of the park.
This outcry over the potential damage to the creek spurred court cases and settlement deals, which eventually halted the plans. Now, however, the tide seems to have turned as the owners are exploring the possibility with The Nature Conservancy to gradually transfer their land to the state park.
Suzanne Scott, the state director for The Nature Conservancy’s Texas chapter, explained the status of the deal via email.
“The role of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) as it relates to the Honey Creek Ranch project is that TNC is assisting Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) to negotiate the purchase of the property and is partnering with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation to fundraise for the land itself…Once the details of the transaction are finalized, TNC will purchase Honey Creek Ranch from its existing owner and transfer it to TPWD for eventual integration into the Honey Creek State Natural Area. TPWD would then oversee planning for its development as part of the state park system.”
She added, “We recently extended the purchase option for the property and all parties remain actively engaged in the negotiations to finalize the transaction.”
One of those negotiations that parties have had to navigate is what to do with a water supply contract that the land owner previously signed when he was more intent on turning the property into a housing development.
With the promise of two new properties to add to the zone of conservation for Honey Creek, a significant buffer is now in place for the bass, salamanders, deer, grapevines, and occasional human against the pavement and concrete to come.