At Government Canyon State Park, the historic stagecoach station that was the first stop after leaving San Antonio keeps a faithful vigil over the fading remains of the military road that once led to the frontier forts in West Texas. Behind the crumbling limestone structure, the only spring on the property bubbles out of the mud to feed Government Creek. Not too far down the hill are the limestone cliffs that give the park its name.
It is a rough, four-mile jeep trail through a thick oak and juniper ash forest and rocky creek beds from the former ranch headquarters to the scenic spot. Once you get there, if you get permission from the park manager, you'll find the 100-year-old building wrapped in bright orange plastic construction fencing and the windows and doors boarded up to prevent any more deterioration. It will be three to four more years before the park is open to the public and even longer before the historic building is open to a new era of visitors.
On the northwest side of San Antonio, at the transition point between the Hill Country and the plains of South Texas, the park is a geological wonder. The upper portion of the park is rough hills, while the lower portion is flat plains covered with mesquite trees. It is not difficult to see the transition between the two types of land.
The natural area is indicative of how new state parks will be built, with an obtrusive interpretive center, primitive camping area, and trails. Nothing will be built over the northern two-thirds of the property over the aquifer. It will be used only for trails. No RV campground is planned for the park. Hikers, bikers, and horseback riders make up the core users.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) executive director Andy Sansom calls Government Canyon the "park of the future" because it is close to a major metropolitan center, it is ecologically significant, its usage will have limited impact on the environment, and it was acquired with a variety of public and private resources.
If Government Canyon is the new kind of state park, then Deidre Hisler is the new kind of park manager. As the only full-time employee at the park, she has to wear many different hats. In a typical day she handles a variety of tasks, from running the office to directing the assignments of the work crews from the nearby state prison.
Not far from Seaworld and Fiesta Texas near Helotes, the new park is surrounded by housing developments. Unlike most state parks whose primary mission is recreation, this preserve's main benefit is to protect water quality. The area sets aside a large swath of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, San Antonio's primary source of drinking water.
The movement to save Government Canyon from the developers began in 1990, around the kitchen tables of San Antonio environmentalists. Danielle Milam, who was there, says, "While [President George] Bush was waging his war in the Middle East we were fighting our own war in our back yards."
A coalition of neighborhood organizations, small newspapers, environmentalists, and professional organizations embarked on the herculean task of preserving a large portion of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. The group had targeted 30,000 acres of prime real estate in northern Bexar County for preservation, much of it caught up in the savings and loan collapse of the 1980s.
By 1992, the efforts to buy 30,000 acres fell through, but the coalition of organizations and governmental entities found the scenic Government Canyon property a little more than three miles from Loop 1604 in 1993. The federal Housing and Urban Development agency had planned to build 20,000 homes over the site. A 36-hole golf course would have cleared out much of the natural habitat.
Using the Austin-based Trust for Public Lands as a broker, the coalition persuaded the Edwards Underground Water District, San Antonio Water System (city-owned water supplier), and other grantors to put up $3 million of $3.5 million for the 6,000 acres. None of the participating entities wanted to be responsible for holding the land, so they turned to TPWD. Offering the state the property for $500,000 sounds like it should have been a very nice little deal, Milam says, but the first year was marked by disagreements between the first park manager and the environmentalists.
"Until Deidre was appointed we had lots of little skirmishes," Milam says. "She has a way of taking the most hardcore bubba and making them respect the place."
The first 4,717 acres of the 6,643-acre nature preserve were purchased six years ago. The first years since acquisition of the former ranch have been spent doing baseline scientific studies. Soil erosion measurements, wildlife habitat studies, and water quality projects are nearing completion. The area is prime habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo.
Throughout the summer, Hisler will be holding work weekends for volunteers to help stabilize trails, clear brush, and other tasks to make the park ready for opening day. To volunteer for a work day, send your name, address, and phone number to: Government Canyon State Park, 12861 Galm Rd., San Antonio, TX 78254. Notification of volunteer projects will be mailed as they are planned.
Coming up this weekend ...
Texas Natural Festival and Western Swing Festival in San Marcos showcase Texan artists, cooks, and music, May 15-16. 512/393-8430.
Deutschen Pfest in Pflugerville presents fun for the entire family in Pfluger Park, May 15-16. 512/251-5082.
Celebration of the Arts in Wimberley shows off the works of local artists at Wimberley Square, May 15. 512/847-5010.
Tejano Conjunto Festival at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, 1300 Guadalupe St., in San Antonio presents the best Tejano groups, May 11-16. 210/271-3151.
Coming up ...
Houston Gay & Lesbian Film Festival presented by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts appears in six locations around Houston with award-winning selection of films and videos, May 29-31. 713/639-7531 or http://freeweb.pdq.net/quac.
"Night Lights on the Desert," tours of Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Arizona home in Scottsdale, Taliesin West, will be offered Friday evenings, June 4-Sept.17. 480/860-8810 or 480/860-2700 Ext.495.
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