Designing a Landscape for McDonald Observatory

McDonald Observatory

Despite a remote venue—McDonald Observatory is 450 miles west of Austin—Star Parties often draw about 400 revelers who drive into the Davis Mountains to look up into some of the darkest skies in the U.S.

But while it hosts 80,000 annual visitors as well as astronomers looking for exoplanets and dark energy, the Observatory is also a unique place here on Earth, and Jason Sowell and Matt O’Toole are working to better understand that landscape and develop a plan for careful ecological improvements.

“We have a unique opportunity to turn the lens of the observatory from the sky to the Earth and develop recommendations to improve the facility,” says Sowell, currently an associate professor at Texas Tech.

Exploring landscape design for the McDonald Observatory started in a studio class at The University of Texas at Austin taught by Sowell and staff from the Department of Ecological Research & Design at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Charging their students to think of the university as a set of unique ecological zones, designers proposed plans that enhanced the surrounding landscape and educated visitors.

The team applied for and was awarded a Green Fund grant to take the exploratory ideas to the next level.

“Green Fund allows us to translate research from the studio into something usable for different stakeholders,” says Sowell. “Without Green Fund, the scope and scope of support is difficult to undertake because few venues provide funding for this kind of work.”

The McDonald Observatory Framework Plan is currently in Phase III of development. The Davis Mountains are prone to drought and fire, and key components of the plan are to increase resiliency and adapt to climate change. The Observatory, for example, could be a seed source of trees that inhabit sky islands on mountain tops nearby; these unusual plant and animal communities have unique ecological pressures that could be alleviated. 

In addition, work is underway to increase safety and protect the landscape from fire. A careful analysis of the topography, plant communities, and a vegetation management regime are some of the many tools being used.  A Community Wildfire Protection Plan is being completed for the satellite campus.  “Staff from Texas A&M Forest Service, Austin Fire Department – Wildfire Division, and Lake Travis Fire & Rescue provided expert opinion during a site assessment last December,” says O’Toole. “The Observatory has initiated protection measures for some time, and we wanted to build on that work towards a resilient landscape that maintains its character and can function after a disturbance.”