Bumping over cattle guards and cruising down a dirt road on a hot September morning, I can see a narrow, shimmering band in the distance that looks like a gentle stream catching the early light. That can’t be right, I tell myself. Seasonal streams all over the Hill Country have long since gone dry. Here in Williamson County, as in most of Central Texas, the U.S. Drought Monitor has declared a state of exceptional drought—the most extreme category—after hardly any rain at all during some of the hottest months in Texas history. But I’m not seeing a mirage. Soon the road dips into a shallow valley and passes by a scattering of massive hardwoods—pecan, bur oak, live oak—and it becomes clear that I am seeing a rare holdout: a glassy ribbon of cool water, straight from the Edwards Aquifer. 

“There are three different spring areas on the property, and all three of them flowed the entirety of last year and this year, which is really exciting to see,” says Rachael Lindsey, the director of science and stewardship at the Hill Country Conservancy. She and her colleague Rich Kostecke are leading a tour here for myself and another journalist. As we hop out of Lindsey’s SUV, she and Kostecke describe the many kinds of wildlife found in this shaded valley, which is fed by a spring about fifty yards upstream. Frequent visitors include white-tailed deer, foxes, wild turkeys, and, of course, unwelcome feral pigs. After wandering slightly uphill, nearly stepping on a rough green snake and sending other fauna scampering off in every direction, we arrive at Pecan Springs, the namesake of the new Pecan Springs Karst Preserve

Located about forty miles north of Austin, these 1,205 acres of rolling hills, deep caves, and steady springs are home to a handful of threatened and endangered species, including the golden-cheeked warbler, the Salado salamander, and the tricolored bat. The HCC, an Austin-based nonprofit land trust, announced the new preserve in August and will open the land to the public for the first time on September 23, in celebration of National Public Lands Day. (The event is free, but an RSVP is required.) Though public access will be limited for the foreseeable future—the conservancy plans to offer guided events every few months or so—the sprawling parcel represents a significant victory for Texas conservationists. The new preserve is nearly the size of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area and roughly twice the size of nearby McKinney Falls State Park. As our state’s population booms and as climate change reshapes the landscape—threatening aquifers, native plants, and wildlife—sanctuaries like this one are urgently needed. 

Pecan Springs Karst Preserve was made possible by an anonymous donation. The previous landowners approached the conservancy in late 2021, seeking guidance on how to best manage what they knew to be a special piece of land. It’s a place where you can peek under the hood of the Hill Country and see the inner workings of many of the features that make the region so special. The property is situated five miles west of Jarrell, on the northeastern edge of the Hill Country. Here, the uplifted Edwards Plateau spills into the backland prairie. This is a rural place that can at first seem unremarkable but, upon closer inspection, quickly reveals a startling landscape. Sun-scorched oak- and juniper-dotted grasslands disappear into dark caverns, cool, wet, and pulsing with life. Meandering creeks drop into the earth and then reemerge miles away from beneath limestone fissures.

After a series of discussions, the landowners asked if the conservancy would be willing to accept the land as a gift, which the organization would be responsible for preserving in perpetuity. It was a “jaw-dropping act of generosity,” says Kathy Miller, HCC’s CEO. The land itself was appraised at around $25 million, but the potential to develop it, as many of the adjacent landowners are planning to do on their tracts, holds the possibility of significantly more money. 

Williamson County—home to two of the four fastest-growing cities in the U.S.—comprises no small share of the tremendous population growth surging across the state. The county is also underconserved. According to an analysis by Siglo Group, an Austin-based environmental consulting firm, only 27,620 acres have been set aside for conservation in the county, compared with 39,660 acres in the much-smaller Hays County and 95,040 acres in Travis County. It’s a region that will look completely different a decade from now. Indeed, a stunning 24,000 homes are slated for construction on the 12,000 acres immediately surrounding Pecan Springs Karst Preserve. 

“It’s just astronomical,” says Lindsey. “And it makes it even more important that we understand what all these resources need in order to be sustained, and how to manage for the wildlife.” The conservancy is in the early stages of developing a master plan for the property. HCC will partner with schools and nonprofits on educational programs, and there may one day be a nature center, staffed by HCC employees and volunteers who can point you to a hiking trail or tell you about the migrating birds. However, that infrastructure would take years to prepare, and it’s not the conservancy’s top priority. Unlike a state park, which prioritizes human use, this preserve will focus primarily on protecting and restoring the ecosystem. The conservancy has already begun restoration efforts. Cattle no longer graze on the land, and workers have removed debris from caves and sinkholes, making it easier for rainfall to recharge the Edwards Aquifer below. HCC has also partnered with local researchers at the University of Texas, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bat Conservation International to monitor the sensitive species living on the property and to restore some of the habitat they rely on.

After driving across the preserve, through open pastures and dense juniper woodlands—prime habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, which Kostecke has spotted on the property—we come to a second spring. It emerges from underneath a pockmarked mass of limestone, and the steady flow disperses over a wide field of rocks and boulders, forming a kind of wetland. The landscape here is completely different from where we started our tour. Towering sycamores, interspersed with an occasional cottonwood or black walnut tree, obscure the sky, and a dense understory takes the place of open grasslands. This section of the preserve, which was historically known as King’s Garden, is a vital habitat for Salado salamanders. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists these pinkish-gray amphibians as a threatened species due to their limited habitat, which depends almost entirely on healthy springs in Williamson and neighboring Bell County.

Several feet downstream from the spring, Lindsey and Kostecke set about picking up stones, studying the very shallow water beneath them, then putting them back in place. “Okay, I got one,” Kostecke says a couple of minutes into the process. Salado salamanders and their relatives throughout the Edwards Aquifer system are known as indicator species. These creatures use the springs as passageways between the streams and the underground aquifer. If the salamanders aren’t doing well, it’s generally a sign that the aquifer is in bad shape below. Likewise, if these springs dry up, the salamanders will disappear. Beneath the upturned rock in Kostecke’s hand, curled up against a smaller, submerged shard of limestone, the salamander stands stock-still, waiting for the interlopers to move on.

In the last legislative session, the state could have done more to protect fragile ecosystems like this one. On the whole, environmentalists had a lot to celebrate: Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas, helped lead the successful push to pass legislation that will, pending voter approval in November, establish a $1 billion endowment fund to create new parks and expand existing ones. But both Metzger and Miller are quick to point out that the Senate failed to vote on HB 3165, which would have created a Texas land and water conservation fund to, among other things, establish more conservation easements on private land. These easements are a crucial part of the land-conservation formula in a state that is more than 96 percent privately owned. “Texas is one of only fourteen states without such a fund,” says Miller. In the case of Pecan Springs Karst Preserve, that state funding wasn’t necessary. “The owners were just incredibly generous and gave the land outright,” Metzger says. “But for many people, that’s not possible.”

The final stop on our tour of the preserve is the Elm Bat Cave. We trudge through dense brush down into a sinkhole that’s ringed by a large limestone overhang, creating a kind of amphitheater. The temperature drops precipitously once we’re inside the cavern. A sizable anteroom gives way to a narrower passage, on the ceiling of which heaving clumps of harvestmen—better known as daddy longlegs—bounce up and down. Cave crickets huddle together in a furry mass just steps away in a darker crevice. As we duck through the passage into a room roughly the size of a basketball court, a lone bat flickers away from the light. It’s most likely a tricolored bat, says Lindsey, a species that the USFWS has proposed listing as endangered due to its susceptibility to white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that’s decimating bat populations across the country. This cave is a crucial haven for the struggling species.

Many caves like this one have been destroyed over the last several decades as suburban sprawl has taken its toll. But here, all around us, tiny droplets of water form soda straws on the cave’s ceiling, then drip down onto the floor. Despite the prolonged drought, water is still making its way through the ground, and then into the cave, on its way to the aquifer. That drip, drip is the sound of resilience.