A few steps beyond the trailhead, I’m surrounded by dense tree canopy and a varied palette of greens. There’s the glossy, lime green of new growth Yaupon Holly; the red-tinged green of climbing Virginia Creeper; the deep blue-green of the Ashe Juniper needles that cling steadfast all year long. Traffic noise stays with me for a while. But as I descend into the canyon, accompanied by cheery birdsong and the occasional footfall of trail runners, the urban interference gradually fades. The sound of cars disappears completely once I’m at the water’s edge, watching Barton Creek rush and tumble over smooth limestone boulders.
It’s hard to imagine Austin without the Barton Creek Greenbelt. Often described as an “urban oasis”, this 7-mile wilderness park meandering through a major metropolitan city is part of what makes Austin feel like “Austin”. Nestled between overhanging limestone ledges, the shady trails and seasonal swimming holes welcome more than 100,000 visitors each year, making room for everyone from shirtless rock climbers to hand-holding toddlers, motionless bird-watchers to overexcited canines, novices to experts. To many of us, places like the Greenbelt are central to the quality of life that compels us to make this city our home. Yet the protection and public accessibility of these natural areas was not always assured. Passionate citizen advocacy was essential to the establishment of the Barton Creek Greenbelt, and ongoing environmental advocacy is another all-important part of what makes Austin feel like Austin.
Although Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) was established over 90 years ago, the Barton Creek greenbelt did not officially open to the public until 1985. In the early 1970s, a group of concerned Austinites organized as the Citizens for a Barton Creek Park (CBCP), calling for limits on land development within the Barton Creek watershed. They proposed that the city purchase, protect, and make public 13 miles of undeveloped Hill Country along Barton Creek, stretching from Zilker Park to Highway 71. The CBCP hoped to create more than “just another park”, writes William Scott Swearingen, Jr., author of the thoughtful and thorough history of Austin’s environmental movement, Environmental City: People, Place, Politics and the Meaning of Modern Austin. In the face of rapid urban growth and environmental degradation of the Barton Creek watershed, they hoped to “preserve a slice of the wild in the urban”.
I never tire of exploring and examining the Greenbelt’s rock features. Along the upper trail, flat slabs lie like interlocking puzzle pieces with an occasional bumpy surprise waiting to trip me up. Descending, I come across larger boulders, irregular and porous. Each little rock cavity seems to hold just enough soil to support tiny green sprouts of spring. At the base of the canyon, the steep rock faces running parallel to the water reveal the geologic drama of Central Texas, with stratified layers of limestone – upthrust, tilted, and fractured.
Also voicing public concern for the health of Barton Creek in the 1970s and 80s, the Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA) and the Zilker Park Posse played important roles in the establishment of the Greenbelt as well. Forming as a nonprofit citizen group in 1979, the SBCA focused on educating the public about the need to protect and preserve the six watersheds contributing to the Edwards Aquifer, including Barton Creek. The Zilker Park Posse organized as a Political Action Committee, energetically lobbying on behalf of water quality issues as city officials considered significant land planning decisions.
Unfortunately, Austin’s City Council rejected CBCP’s initial proposal to buy and protect the land. Not until five years later were funds finally designated for land purchases. But because of an increasing influence of private land developers on city politics, another five frustrating years dragged by before the city actually bought any property. And because these years also saw dramatic increases in the price of real estate, the funds set aside in 1975 no longer covered the cost of the originally proposed 13 mile corridor. By 1980, the city could afford less than 8 miles along Barton Creek.
With the water running high on my visit, I see only the tops of the largest boulders in the creek bed. Rushing water from recent thunderstorms has reshaped the shifting gravel bars and left brush snagged and tangled in low, overhanging willow branches. But the water runs clear and slow enough today, so that I can look below the surface to see jumbled rocks and boulders of various sizes – boulders that kids of all ages love to scramble up and over when the rain becomes infrequent and the water disappears.
Today, PARD and the City of Austin Watershed Protection Department manage the Barton Creek Greenbelt for habitat and water quality, as well as protect endangered species/species of concern and conduct public education and outreach.
PARD also collaborates with a variety of public partners such as the Save Barton Creek Association, the Austin Ridge Riders Mountain Bike Patrol, the Austin Parks Foundation, the Greenbelt Guardians, Keep Austin Beautiful’s Adopt-a-Creek program, and the American Youthworks E-Corps/ Barton Creek Trail Corps. And the Greenbelt continues to grow. Thanks in large part to multiple, generous donations from the Trust for Public Land over the last two decades, more than 1,000 adjoining acres have become protected public land, known as the Barton Creek Wilderness Park.
Although it is now a well-established part of what makes Austin feel like Austin, and although it provides valuable environmental benefits such as water filtration, flood control, carbon sequestration, and wildlife habitat, the Greenbelt also faces ongoing challenges. Off-leash dogs and uncollected dog waste contribute to trail erosion and water pollution – I came across almost ten left-behind bags on my short morning hike. Invasive species threaten the existing diversity of native plants – I saw escaped landscape favorites, Nandina and Ligustrum, almost everywhere I looked. Visitors too often neglect to “pack out” everything they “pack in” – I found an odd assortment of litter including smashed confetti eggs, orphaned flip-flops, band-aids, and a brand new baseball. Overall, in order to prevent the parkland from being “loved to death”, greater public awareness is still needed to help people recognize the connections between their personal habits at play and at home, and the potential for damage to Barton Creek and its entire watershed.
Austin’s demographics have changed significantly since Citizens for a Barton Creek Park organized, yet the sentiment that moved that group to work for safeguarding urban green space in the early 1970s is still felt today by Austinites working hard to establish new public greenbelts and trail systems. The Hill Country Conservancy is currently leading a successful community-based effort involving many public and private partners to develop the 30-mile Violet Crown Trail in Central Texas. And the SBCA remains active as they partner with the City of Austin, Austin Ridge Riders, the Barton View Neighborhood Association and others to create the Shudde Fath Trail on a 77-acre tract of land bordering the Barton Creek Greenbelt.
The much-loved Barton Creek Greenbelt took “hard work to establish, [and the development of] new greenbelts like the Violet Crown Trail and Shudde Fath Trail will continue to be hard work”, says Olivia Hayden, former director of development and community relations at the Save Barton Creek Association. And yet, while Austin’s growing population continues to face environmental challenges, it also continues to create a community of environmental advocates working hard to maintain and create public and protected green spaces for their city. Today’s Austinites are an essential part of ensuring that Austin continues to feel like “Austin.”