On The Slaughter CreekTrail Again: Slaughter Creek Trail Partnership and Prescribed Fire

Jul 19, 2016 - 6:26 am

“Don’t tell anyone about this cool trail” is a common comment from folks biking, running or simply enjoying the Slaughter Creek Trail. It is understandable to want to keep a good thing a secret so this post isn’t about the how cool the trail is. Consider it a history of how the trail came to be and why trail closures are likely this summer.  

Slaughter Creek Trail winds through part of the City of Austin’s Water Quality Protection Lands.  This land was purchased for the protection of water quality and water quantity reaching Barton Springs through both the contributing zone and recharge zone.  So this lands primary purpose is to protect water quality with the trail as a secondary added bonus.

Slaughter Creek Trail History

Needless to say, it took a lot of work to make this trail a reality. Much of this work took place long before the trail opened in December 2005.  Planning for the trail began in 2001 as part of the Conceptual Plan for Public Access on the City of Austin’s Water Quality Protection Lands. In 2004 Austin Metro Trails and Greenways, Austin Ridge Riders Mountain Bike Club, the Hill Country Foundation and the Texas Equestrian Trail Riders Association Region signed a multi-party Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the City of Austin becoming formalized partners.

Partners received grants to help pay for trail construction and education along the trail. They worked to get clearances for permits and potential archaeological sites. They mobilized a lot of volunteers over many, many days to build the trail. (I hope that a lot of these volunteers are still users!) The trail is lucky to have dedicated trail stewards that still keep up with the daily operation and maintenance of the trail. These same trail stewards even update social media with trail closures.   

So why does the trail close?

You might have noticed that the Slaughter Creek Trail is closed more than other trails in the area. This is to help keep it sustainable, and thus ensure the land around it is protected. The most common reason the trail is closed is due to wet trail conditions. The backdrop of the trail is some of the most sensitive land in the City as it relates to Barton Springs. Even though the trail was routed and designed to avoid seeps and low spots as much as possible, there are lots of seeps in the contributing zone and these frequently keep the trail wet.

The best place to learn if the trail is open or closed is the trail’s Twitter or Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/slaughtercreektrail or @SlaughterCreekTrail

 When the trail conditions are good, an automatic gate opens and closes at dawn and dusk. Since these times change through the seasons, check the trailhead kiosk to see exactly when the gate will open and close.

This summer the trail may be closed more than usual and not because of rainfall.

This summer the Water Quality Protection Lands plans to burn 300 acres in multiple small prescribed burns around the Slaughter Creek Trail. 

The environmentally sensitive lands that surround the trail might look like they are left alone, but they are in fact managed to help water quality and quantity that flow over the land and into the Edwards Aquifer. This same water eventually emerges at Barton Springs. So protecting this land protects Barton Springs. One of the best ways to help the quality and quantity of water flowing over these lands is to encourage our native prairie and savanna ecosystems. This is a complicated subject, but in a nutshell there is an inverse relationship between the canopy cover of trees and water yield, such that as canopy cover goes up water yield goes down. 

Prescribed fire is the single best tool for restoring prairies and savannas. Fire does a lot of good work:

  • It reduces the density of brush species while improving the density of grasses and wildflowers. These grasses can then better hold onto soil and prevent erosion.

  • It also encourages greater biodiversity of vegetation (and subsequently wildlife such as pollinators, birds and others) It discourages exotic/invasive species. 

  • It improves habitat for a great variety of native species.

There is some carbon loss during a burn but the burned area will quickly recapture the carbon lost and then be capable of sequestering carbon at a higher rate than prior to burning.

A total of 5-10 burn days are expected between July and September. While burning a lot of acreage on one day is common on some on more rural lands, the many neighbors and roads nearby make burning smaller areas a better approach in this area due to the amount of smoke produced.

The trail will be closed during this summer’s prescribed burns. Only when the fire is completely out will the trail reopen (wood can smolder for several days). Please help create a safe environment for everyone by not entering the property when the gate is closed. Smoke is a real concern given the many neighbors and roads. We will work to provide as much notice as possible, but the weather is a fickle partner and drives if and when a prescribed burn will happen. Check social media sites to learn if the trail status.

What’s next?

It is fascinating how quickly plants thrive after a prescribed fire. We are excited to have your help documenting this change. There will be a new sign along the trail with a standard place to take a photo. We invite you to take photos and to share the story of the evolving landscape by including the #atxgoodfire and #slaughtercreektrail.

Even though the trail has almost no amenities: no trash cans, no water fountains, no paved surfaces, no playscapes and no dogs; users still love it.  It does have what so many places are missing: wildlife in a wild place, peace and quiet and a chance to be in what used to be the typical Austin environment; something that is rapidly disappearing.  This trail is an extraordinary example of how citizen groups and the City of Austin can work together to make something awesome.  Thank you for understanding and respecting this summer’s trail closures. And don’t worry your secret is safe with us.