Great Springs Trail Project From Austin to San Antonio Chugs Along

After identifying ideal plots, it’s time to acquire them

Part of the Violet Crown Trail, near the entrance on Slaughter Lane. The Great Springs Project should eventually connect to Violet Crown. (Photo by John Anderson)

Preserving Texas land for ecosystems and future generations is no easy feat in a state that's 94% privately owned – especially in the two fastest-developing counties in the nation: Bexar and Travis. But the Great Springs Project is trying. Started in 2019, GSP is building a 100-plus-mile trail from San Antonio to Austin, with a land conservation goal of 50,000 acres over the Edwards Aquifer in Hays, Comal, Bexar, and Travis counties by 2036. To reach that goal, the project is about to begin its second year of an all-important landowner outreach initiative.

Four years into the project, GSP has already done feasibility studies and mapping for where the trail will go, after determining which lands around the trail have "high conservation value." Priorities are areas in the Edwards Aquifer's recharge and contributing zones and endangered species habitat. Now that that land has been identified, "we have to have boots-on-the-ground, kitchen table conversations with those landowners," says Chief Development Officer Emma Lindrose-Siegel.

“We think of Texas with wide open spaces and the opportunity to get outside and have access to parks. If we don’t protect it, that can go away.” – Chief Development Officer Emma Lindrose-Siegel

GSP is in the process of courting landowners who own 1,400 parcels comprising 283,000 possible acres to be conserved. Conservation is expensive, and Lindrose-Siegel says, "GSP is not a land trust, we're not built to buy land and hold it in perpetuity." But they can connect landowners with public funds from local city and county governments, public bonds, state and federal grants, and private philanthropy.

Some partners are odd bedfellows. At Camp Bullis, a military training base in San Antonio, GSP was able to partner with the Department of Defense to designate the base a Sentinel Landscape for land conservation, as the military "has a very vested interest in dark skies and limiting developments around military bases," says Lindrose-Siegel. Other funding opportunities include the National Resources Conservation Service, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's recreational trails grant, and the $1 billion centennial parks fund recently passed by Texas voters.

As GSP works to complete the 100-mile trail piecemeal, by connecting to existing trails like Austin's Violet Crown Trail, they're opening new outdoor recreational areas along the way. In November, the city of Schertz announced a new 10½-acre park. In October, GSP held their first 13-mile race around Purgatory Creek Trail in San Marcos to showcase newly constructed trail: "The goal is to eventually have a race from the Alamo to the Capitol, and do like an ultramarathon of the 100-mile trail," says Lindrose-Siegel.

This project was always going to be expensive, but GSP now expects it'll cost even more than the original $1 billion estimate. Because the project will rely partly on public funding, which comes with longer timelines and more due diligence, GSP will have to prime landowners for longer returns on investment, while other developers might offer them quick cash: "So getting those deals in the hopper is a big priority."

This development pressure is the central battle of the project. "Since the land is so expensive, most people aren't in a position to give us a deal or donate it outright," says Lindrose-Siegel. "But the conversations we're having are really focused on legacy and heritage and what kind of Central Texas we want to have for future generations. We think of Texas with wide open spaces and the opportunity to get outside and have access to parks. If we don't protect it, that can go away."

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