AUSTIN (KXAN) — Construction is expected to begin this spring on the University of Texas’ newest field lab. The lab is being funded with a $50 million grant, the largest donation in UT’s Center for Biodiversity’s history. The lab will be constructed within Mirasol Springs, a conservation-scale development that has faced criticism from nearby landowners.

The Hill Country Field Station will help support the study of biodiversity and aquifers within the Hill Country.

“It’s a biodiverse region. There are a lot of species that occur there that don’t occur anywhere else in the world,” University of Texas Center for Biodiversity Director David Hillis said.

Renderings of the University of Texas’ new Hill Country Field Station. (Courtesy: University of Texas)

The grant, gifted by the Winn Foundation, will be used to support the new field lab as well as support the Texas Field Station Network, the University of Texas’ collection of field stations that includes the McDonald Observatory in West Texas and the Stengl Lost Pines Field Lab near Bastrop.

“We get support from private donors, quite often, but we don’t get ones of this magnitude,” Hillis said.

Benefits of UT’s field stations

According to postdoctoral researcher Colin Morrison, field stations provide a great benefit to scientists and students that classrooms don’t.

“I think that one of the biggest differences between doing work in a laboratory or discussing science in the classroom and coming to a place like this is that people get to realize their connection with nature,” Morrison said.

Morrison currently works at the Brackenridge Field Lab in central Austin, where he and Aaron Rhodes are studying invasive species like Guinea Grass.

“It has spread quite rapidly since the 70s, along riverways, along highways,” Rhodes said.

Researchers at the Brackenridge Field Lab in Central Austin are working to fight away to prevent the spread of Guinea Grass. (Credit: Eric Henrikson/KXAN)

The grass is prone to wildfires. This year, it was partially responsible for wildfires in Hawaii. Rhodes said the grass covers nearly a quarter of the islands and is found across Texas.

Morrison and Rhodes are currently looking at ways to control the grass, something field stations make doable.

“In field stations, we get the opportunity to do manipulations of nature under controlled circumstances that are really difficult to get permission to do in a state park, for example, or on someone’s private property,” Morrison said.

Mirasol Springs and the Hill Country Field Station

The new Hill Country Field Station will be located at Mirasol Springs. Located on the border of Hays and Travis counties, the development aims to set a gold standard for new developments in the Hill Country.

Steve Winn, founder of the Winn Foundation and a UT alumnus, began discussions with the university several years ago in regards to growing the Texas Field Station Network, according to a press release.

The $50 million grant will be divided up and used for construction, operating expenses and research projects. The university has agreed to match and raise more funds to support this effort. All told, $200 million is planned to go to the project.

Winn is also the CEO of Mirasol Capital, owners of Mirasol Springs.

“This is an area that’s under a lot of pressure from development,” Hillis said.

In an effort to protect some of this land, the Center of Biodiversity worked with Mirasol Springs to place 1,000 acres of land on the property in a conservation easement, which will prevent further development.

Roy Creek Canyon and concerns about Mirasol Springs

Mirasol Springs has faced criticism from neighbors in the past.

Landowner Lew Adams owns property within the development. The Roy Creek Canyon reserve has been called one of Texas’ “best-kept secrets.”

In August 2022, he told KXAN that Mirasol’s plans “will have a severe effect not only on this canyon, but can have effects on the neighbors and the watershed that they depend on.”

Roy Creek Canyon has been used by UT researchers in the past. Hillis said that one of the reasons they decided to build their field lab within Mirasol Springs and not at the canyon was due to the sensitivity of the environment.

Lew Adams’ family has owned the Roy Creek Canyon Reserve for 80 years. (Courtesy: Eric Henrikson/KXAN News)

He is hopeful that his researchers will continue to work at the canyon after the construction of the field lab.

“I think we have to start thinking creatively about how development will occur and finding new solutions for development that will protect the land to the best extent possible,” Hillis said.

Construction of the field station is expected to begin this spring.