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Government Canyon's Big Debut

Dotted with scenic vistas, caves and springs, the new state natural area is an 8,600-acre recharge zone for the spirit.

By Carol Flake Chapman

When you think of canyons, you might think of dramatic landscapes like the Grand Canyon or Palo Duro, where you can feel dwarfed by the deep gorges and precipitous cliffs carved out by water over the eons. By comparison, Government Canyon, which lies on the Balcones Escarpment northwest of San Antonio, is considerably gentler and more human-scaled, though it has its rocky retreats and panoramic vistas. The water that has flowed and seeped through the canyon over the centuries has transformed the hard Edwards limestone of the escarpment into a classic karst landscape of bluffs, sinkholes, crevices and caves. Water appears and disappears in a poetic rhythm of springs, ephemeral creeks and losing streams, eventually finding its way into the Edwards Aquifer below.

"Government Canyon kind of sneaks up on you," says Chris Beckcom of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, who has studied its terrain since it was first envisioned as a state natural area more than a decade ago by a consortium of citizens' conservation groups and government agencies. Its tranquil slopes and streambeds, shaded by stands of oak and cedar and the occasional mountain laurel, can come as a surprise, particularly if you've arrived there from busy downtown San Antonio, less than 20 miles away. "While you're down there below that green canopy, you'd never know you're so close to a big population center," says Bob Pine of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of the partnering agencies concerned with the future of the canyon and its resources.

Most of Government Canyon, with its porous and fractured crust providing so many conduits for surface water, is considered part of the recharge zone for the Edwards Aquifer. But when visitors arrive at the newly opened natural area, they'll find a mosaic of habitats and features, each of which has played an important role in the history of the natural and cultural resources of the area. After a stop at the visitors/interpretive center, designed for optimal water catchment, you can walk north from the partially restored grasslands at the entrance of the natural area, following the curving pathway through the canyon first used by Native Americans, who refreshed themselves at the year-round spring at the bottom of the canyon. Later known as the Old Joe Johnston Road, the trail became a supply route from San Antonio to forts farther west, hence the name Government Canyon. And if you take one of the side trails to Chula Vista or to Black Hill, the highest point within the boundaries of the natural area, you can see the whirling rides of Sea World and, even farther in the distance, the Tower of the Americas marking downtown San Antonio.

"From there, you can see tomorrow coming," says Beckcom, meaning the inevitable march of the city and its suburbs toward Government Canyon, around it and beyond. In fact, it was not merely the beauty of Government Canyon that brought it to the attention of so many different individuals and agencies concerned with protecting the natural resources of this area. It was also its strategic location near the city and over the aquifer that made Government Canyon such a compelling piece of land. San Antonio, which is one of the fastest-growing areas in the state, depends almost entirely on the Edwards Aquifer for its drinking water. "It's unusual for a large city to rely on an aquifer for its drinking water," says Calvin Finch, conservation specialist with the San Antonio Water System. And because of its porous karst recharge zone, he says, "the Edwards Aquifer is especially sensitive in terms of potential for pollution."

In the 1980s, the canyon had been slated for development as part of a subdivision called San Antonio Ranch. The developers went bankrupt, however, in the wave of bankruptcies at the time, and in the early 1990s, when the core area of 4,700 acres wound up in the hands of the Resolution Trust Corporation, concerned citizens formed an alliance called the Government Canyon Coalition and joined forces with the Trust for Public Land, TPWD, the Edwards Aquifer Authority, and the San Antonio Water System. Eventually, the total number of groups and agencies involved in acquiring and conserving land and resources for the natural area would number more than three dozen. With the Trust for Public Land working out the details, the original tract of land was purchased for $2 million, which now seems an astonishing bargain. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department took over the role of managing the land, and Government Canyon was designated a state natural area rather than a park. That meant a number of limitations were placed on the way the land could be used. Says Beckcom, "We came in with a very light environmental footprint on the site." As more land was added with additional purchases, along with additional deed restrictions, the natural area eventually grew to more than 8,600 acres.

Nearly as remarkable as the canyon's natural history is the way it evolved into a state natural area over the last decade, with an extended family of individuals, groups and agencies watching over it, each with their own concerns and visions of the way the land and its resources should be managed. "I think the social-administrative side of Government Canyon is as unique as its natural features," says George Veni, a hydrogeologist who was a member of the original Government Canyon Coalition, and who has continued as a volunteer with the Government Canyon Historical Society. "It should serve as model for other parts of the country as an example of how to make the most of the limited amount of money available for conserving land by sharing the load."

The Trust for Public Land, for example, became involved for a number of reasons in saving Government Canyon from the auction block, says TPL spokesman James Sharp. "Government Canyon is very special to us not just because of its beauty, its historic value and its proximity to a large population of people. One of our most important goals is to protect our sources of drinking water, and Government Canyon is crucial to the health of the aquifer." For TPL, says Sharp, it was important to keep going after the first major acquisition, "to keep the momentum going in acquiring more land and bringing in more agencies and volunteers. We wanted to make sure it didn't stop at 4,400 acres."

For the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, protection of Government Canyon's endangered species, from the blind invertebrates living in the caves below its surface to the golden-cheeked warblers nesting in its cedars, was paramount. Consequently, the most severe deed restrictions within Government Canyon are on the 1,100 acres that include a dedicated karst reserve and golden-cheeked warbler habitat. "The canyon is unusual because of its listed karst and bird species," says Pine. "It's rare to get a combination of so many high-quality habitats combined in one area." At least eight of the canyon's listed cave invertebrate species, he says, appear to be unique to Bexar County. The invertebrates, he says, also serve as canaries in the coal mine: "If the karst species can't survive, it can be a warning sign of the state of the aquifer."

For the San Antonio Water System and the Edwards Aquifer Authority, the canyon represented not only a chance to protect the aquifer, but to educate citizens about water conservation and the nature of aquifers. "We're really excited about the educational exhibits in the interpretive center," says Calvin Finch. Those exhibits include panels describing the Edwards Aquifer as well as ways that water can be carelessly wasted or thoughtfully conserved. For the city of San Antonio, says Finch, "protecting land over the recharge zone maximizes the recharge and assures the water will be in as pure a state as possible, with minimal pollution." It's important, he says, that visitors learn about how aquifers may become polluted and about how they can help to conserve water. "The more visitors learn about protecting natural areas, the better off our water resources will be."

For TPWD, Government Canyon represents an extraordinary opportunity to carry out the directives of its Land and Water Resources Conservation and Recreation Plan. The plan calls for acquisition of land close to urban areas, as well as increasing the opportunities for improving land stewardship for the benefit of water quality and wildlife. "I wish we could do this all around the state," says Cindy Loeffler, water resources manager for TPWD. "We're protecting habitat, watershed, parkland and endangered species, and demonstrating for landowners the benefits of good land stewardship."

With so many goals to consider and so many resources to protect, the business of planning and managing Government Canyon State Natural Area has proved a considerable challenge, as park manager Deirdre Hisler can attest. Hisler compares the canyon to an onion, with an almost infinite series of layers and complexities. "Every time you learn something, you realize there's a lot more to learn," she says. Something as simple as bringing in fresh soil, for example, can disturb the balance of native species of grass in the canyon because seeds of invasive species might be hidden in the soil. A brush-sculpting project in an area of the canyon known as Laurel Canyon has required years of preliminary study there and in the Honey Creek State Natural Area, located to the northwest. As her crew was working nonstop to get the area ready for its grand opening, there were times, Hisler says, when she thought of having T-shirts made up proclaiming: "Government Canyon: Where Nothing Is Easy."

For Hisler and all the other managers, volunteers and guardians devoted to Government Canyon, "the resources come first," as she puts it. And that means that the way visitors experience the area has been determined by the need to protect those resources. All of the facilities have been built on the lower 700 acres, away from the recharge zone. And for the six months of the year that golden-cheeked warblers are in residence (typically March to September), their habitat will be closed to visitors.

And yet, the area's 41 miles of trails offer urbanites a chance to get away from it all, just minutes from busy streets. For a visitor who climbs to Chula Vista on a clear day, to see "tomorrow coming," it's apparent that Government Canyon offers a kind of protective habitat for its human visitors as well as its resident species. As highways widen and new developments spring up like new-growth cedar in the Hill Country surrounding it, Government Canyon, with its bubbling springs and its precious tranquility, is a recharge zone for the spirit.

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