Photo by Christopher Zebo/Courtesy The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy and Hays County are purchasing 530 acres of the former El Rancho Cima Boy Scout Camp—a scenic Hill Country site along the sparkling Blanco River 18 miles west of San Marcos—with plans to manage the land as a nature park.

“This is one of the Hill Country’s most significant aquatic systems,” said Jeff Francell, associate director of land protection for The Nature Conservancy, a global conservation organization that manages nearly 40 preserves in Texas. “We’ve been interested in conservation of land and water within the Blanco River watershed for a couple of decades, and this aligns well with our existing work.”

The organization already has five conservation easements in the river basin, totaling more than 4,000 acres.

Hays County is contributing $7 million and The Nature Conservancy $6 million toward the purchase, which received approval from the Hays County Commissioners Court on Nov. 19. Previously, the Sam Houston Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America operated El Rancho Cima as a camp for more than 60 years. The scouts sold it to a developer, who is selling the riverfront parcel.

Located in Hays and Comal counties along the Devil’s Backbone, El Rancho Cima contains Edwards Plateau and Blanco River habitat. Preserving the riverfront from development contributes to water quality and increases its resilience, particularly during flooding.

Photo by Christopher Zebo/Courtesy The Nature Conservancy

“There are multiple benefits to protecting this property,” Francell said. “It has one of the largest stretches of riverfront on both sides, more than a mile.”

Texas has seen some of the country’s highest growth in population and development, and the Blanco River watershed is among the fastest-growing areas of the state. This puts enormous pressure on natural resources and leads to increased land fragmentation, which is a threat to wildlife and habitat. The El Ranch Cima property is home to several native species, including the federally endangered golden-cheeked warbler.

The purchase is scheduled to close on Friday, Nov. 22, at which time The Nature Conservancy will become the owner. Francell said the agreement calls for Hays County to pay the organization back. “Once the county does that, in the next year or two, they will own it.” TNC will retain a conservation easement on the property, which restricts development.

After Hays County acquires the property, it plans to implement a reservation system for park visitors similar to one in use for Jacob’s Well Natural Area, also created through a partnership between the county and TNC. Limiting access to a small number of people at any one time protects the natural resources in the park. Once open, the park will offer swimming, picnicking, and hiking. The property is not expected to open to the public for a few years.

“Ultimately, the public access component is important,” Francell added. “Providing appropriate public access to the river, so people can see and understand how special this place is, is of benefit to everybody.”

The land includes all of the original property’s riverfront. Francell said Hays and Blanco counties and conservation groups are working to preserve other portions of the El Ranch Cima property, which totals 2,300 acres.

The March 2024 cover of Texas Highways Magazine

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