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Government Canyon State Natural Area Opens Oct. 15
SAN ANTONIO — The much-anticipated opening of the newest member of the Texas State Parks family — Government Canyon State Natural Area — will take place Saturday, Oct. 15, on the northwestern fringes of the state’s third most populous city.
Government Canyon SNA, which sits only 16 miles from downtown San Antonio, has been 12 years in the making. The 8,622-acre state natural area at the edge of the Edwards Plateau represents one of Texas’ most significant conservation stories resulting from a public-private partnership involving municipal, state and federal government agencies, as well as a host of community and environmental organizations. Up until now, it has been accessible on a limited basis for volunteers and special guided tours.
What started out in 1993 as 4,717 acres of ecologically critical habitat overlaying San Antonio’s sole source of drinking water has almost doubled since then as adjacent ranch lands were acquired. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which manages the state natural area, has spent about $5.7 million for archeological surveys, design, construction, signs and other infrastructure to get the natural area open for day use.
Initially, visitors will be able to picnic, bird watch, shop for souvenirs, view exhibits explaining the natural area’s unique geology and natural and cultural resources, and explore roughly 40 miles of trails available to hikers and cyclists. For now, Government Canyon will be open for day use only, but Superintendent Deirdre Hisler expects to be ready to accommodate overnight guests at primitive tent camping sites sometime next year.
“The community has been waiting — and waiting patiently — for a long time for Government Canyon to open,” Hisler said. “We are a work in progress. Our primary concern as a state natural area is protecting valuable cultural and natural resources in the sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.”
Government Canyon SNA sits at the confluence of three distinctly different eco-regions, where the blackland prairie and the mostly flat, mesquite-dominated savanna south of the Balcones Escarpment meets the rugged oak- and ashe juniper-covered hills and rugged canyonlands of the uplifted Edwards Plateau along the Balcones Fault Zone. Along this fault zone lies the primary recharge zone where water enters the Edward Aquifer that serves as the source of drinking water for millions of central Texas residents.
For the purpose of natural area management, Hisler explained, Government Canyon SNA has been divided into two sections: the “backcountry” and “frontcountry.” The much larger environmentally sensitive “backcountry” is accessible to the public only by foot or bicycle. Multiuse trails for hikers, cyclists and equestrians are located off the recharge zone in the relatively flat “frontcountry” where natural area facilities for the visiting public are located.
Some 7,500 acres of the state natural area’s backcountry make up one of the nation’s largest and most unusual karst preserves where water “recharges,” or enters the Edwards Aquifer through sinkholes, caves and fractures in the porous limestone surface that predominates in the more rugged part of Government Canyon. The Tim and Karen Hixon Visitor Center, which includes offices, a gift shop, interpretive exhibit hall, restrooms and two classrooms, is located in the minimally developed southern portion of the natural area where ranching operations once took place under prior ownership. Here too, is a group picnic pavilion with fireplace, 20 picnic sites, a maintenance facility and composting toilets.
The state natural area derives its name from the canyon used as the Joe Johnston Route, a westward route up and across the Edwards Plateau blazed in the 1850s by a U.S. military survey crew stationed at Fort Government Hill, known today as Fort Sam Houston. It is via this historic route that hikers and cyclists can readily access backcountry trails leading to scenic vistas and other points of interest.
Government Canyon SNA’s diverse habitats harbor seven creatures which are on the federal endangered species list, including the six of Bexar County’s nine protected karst invertebrates — cave spiders and beetles — as well as the golden-cheeked warbler. The warbler’s critical habitat in the backcountry will be off limits to visitors during the breeding and nesting season from March 1 to Sept. 1.
The October opening of Government Canyon fulfills several major goals of TPWD’s strategic 10-year initiative set forth in its Land and Water Resources Conservation and Recreation Plan in that it: 1) protects significant water and wildlife resources, 2) establishes a recreation area easily accessible by an urban population, and 3) embodies a partnership of state agencies, city government and other public entities, and the private sector.
Because 88 percent of the state natural area sits atop the Edward Aquifer recharge zone, the City of San Antonio, San Antonio Water System and Edwards Aquifer Authority are ensured that a crucial watershed remains undeveloped. Government Canyon also conserves a large parcel of the rapidly disappearing wild and scenic Texas Hill Country for recreational and educational pursuits.
Government Canyon serves, too, as a model for future public land acquisition. The purchase and preservation of the various tracts comprising the natural area resulted from a unique collaboration of dozens of community organizations, government agencies, corporations and individuals. Their efforts preserved thousands of acres once slated for residential development, thus protecting the Edwards Aquifer from environmental degradation, conserving habitat for endangered songbirds and cave invertebrates, and preserving precious pieces of Texas’ prehistoric and historic past.
Equally significant is Government Canyon’s role as an outdoor classroom. Interpretive programs will help educate school groups and others about the importance of land conservation and stewardship, biodiversity, endangered species, sustainable building practices, alternative energy and the vulnerability of local aquifers to contamination in the face of Texas’ unprecedented growth and resulting pressures on its natural resources.
Visitors also will be able to learn about the area’s ranching heritage and prehistoric and historic importance. They will discover, for example, that Government Canyon SNA has 100-plus recorded archeological sites. Furthermore, history records that from 1860 to 1967, the ranch land that makes up the core of the state natural area belonged to only two families — the Hoffmans and Lytles. It was during the Hoffman’s tenure that Government Canyon’s iconic Zizelmann House, dating from 1882, was built. It still stands in the backcountry.
In the 1970s, a development company bought the property with the intent of turning the former ranch into a mixed-use community for 80,000 people. But the property was foreclosed on during the Texas real estate bust and was acquired by the Resolution Trust Corporation, which put it up for auction. In a move to protect the important watershed, a grassroots community organization called the Government Canyon Coalition, now known as the Friends of Government Canyon, joined forces with the Trust for Public Land, SAWS and the Edwards Underground Water District (today, the Edwards Aquifer Authority), to facilitate the purchase of 4,717 acres by TPWD.
In the coming months, Hisler said, Government Canyon and its partners will be employing brush removal and prescribed fire to restore the front country to pre-agricultural conditions and emphasizing the “Leave No Trace” ethic that teaches visitors how to minimize their impact on the outdoors.
Government Canyon SNA is located 3.5 miles northwest of Loop 1604 on Culebra Road (also known as FM 471), then 1.6 miles north on Galm Road. The entry fee for persons age 13 and older is $6.
For more information about Government Canyon, call the park at (210) 688-9055.
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