Emerald Necklace: San Antonio’s Howard Peak Greenway Trails were the result of tireless work

click to enlarge Salado Creek Foundation chief Sue Calberg examines a find along the greenway trail. - BILL BAIRD
Bill Baird
Salado Creek Foundation chief Sue Calberg examines a find along the greenway trail.
Former San Antonio mayor Howard Peak envisioned the greenway system bearing his name as an “emerald necklace” around the city’s perimeter.

Many miles ago, I set out to circumnavigate San Antonio on foot using the ever-expanding Howard Peak Greenway Trails. And while gaps remain, the portions completed so far have provided a revelatory experience — from Leon Creek’s Hill Country splendor and the Medina’s South Texas tangle to the calm meander of the Mission Reach.

The next leg to explore was Salado Creek, along the city’s east and north sides. Between the Mission Reach and Salado, however, lay another of the gaps in the emerald necklace — a long stretch along sidewalks.

From Hot Wells, I headed east up Southcross Boulevard to reconnect with the greenway system at Southside Lions Park.

Southside Lions was yet another piece of parkland once owned by San Antonio benefactor George Brackenridge. Originally purchased as a garbage dump, the park was saved from the, uh, trash heap thanks to the efforts of the Highland Park Lions Club, hence its name.

I ate my lunch in silence next to the park’s gorgeous, zig-zagging dam, which marks the beginning of the greenway heading north. Well, I should say “relative silence.” The sound from boom boxes and car stereos stacked the air like a spontaneously composed Charles Ives piece. It didn’t bother me, though. I love an unwittingly improvised post-modern experimental music composition.

Salado Creek was named in 1712 by Domingo Ramón, who also named many of the region’s other waterways, including the Comal, Guadalupe, Brazos rivers and Cibolo Creek. His 1716 diary is an interesting read, and he had wonderful penmanship. It turns out Salado Creek was so named due to the high mineral content in its waters.

Walking north, I passed by several farms on Roland Road, including the Granieri Family Farm, where visitors can purchase homegrown vegetables, pecans and firewood. Family-owned since the 1920s and directly adjacent to the trail, it’s open to the public, but I was told by the proprietors they don’t expect to have anything for sale until June.

Farther along, the invasive waxleaf ligustrum crowds out much of the native flora. It seems tempting to call in someone to rev up a chainsaw.

Not so fast, cautioned Sue Calberg, a KENS 5 journalist and the head of the Salado Creek Foundation, who was kind enough to meet me at Comanche Park and show me the hidden springs of lower Salado Creek

“If you cut down the shade canopy all at once, it’s a disaster,” she explained.
A passionate defender of Salado Creek, Calberg led me to the freshwater springs that gush from the ground within spitting distance of landfills and industrial waste dumps. The creek’s water table sits higher than those of other Bexar County springs, so even when other areas have gone dry, it still flows.
“Salado Creek is Bexar County’s last, best wild waterway,” she said.

As we walked the trail, Calberg caught me up on the decades-long battle to establish not only the Salado Creek Greenway, but the greenway system at large. State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon was among the concept’s early supporters.

“Going back 30 years or more, people have been saying we should do this,” Calberg said. “She was big on this concept before it caught on.”  Calberg also singled out San Antonio planner Dixie Watkins, who first advanced the notion of a linear park on Salado Creek in 1978. And, on the Leon Creek side, she mentioned the efforts of volunteer David Oberg. However, she saved most of her praise for the greenway’s namesake and visionary.

Peak was the city’s last Republican mayor who, in defiance of easy stereotypes, showed that Democrats don’t have sole ownership of going green. He received the State Trail Advocacy Award from the American Trails National Program for his efforts.

“We started agitating, and Howard Peak proposed the first section of trail for his council district when he was just a councilman,” Calberg said. “Initially, neighbors were resistant. But they came around.”

Peak shared funds from his own district’s trails to fund the Westside Creeks Restoration Project.

“That wasn’t even part of the plan,” she added. “There’s so many things he did that were just ... awesome. He was a bridge builder. Through quiet stewardship, he made it happen.”

The Salado project began after the massive flood of 1998, Calberg explained.
It began when Texas A&M got a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate whether educating people about water management issues could increase stakeholder involvement and increase water quality. The rationale?

“If they knew what they had, they’d work to protect it,” Calberg said. “We paid $50,000 for a study of best practices along our waterways. One of the study’s findings was that, for best water quality, creeks need a 75-foot buffer where we don’t mow.”

As if on cue, a nearby city worker fired up a weed eater and began mowing down a field of blooming wildflowers directly adjacent to the creek.

Shaking her head with a weary smile, Calberg began filming the worker and sent the video to Tommy Calvert, the Bexar County Commissioner whose district includes the park.

“I don’t get it,” she sighs. “It looked better with the wildflowers there, didn’t it?”
We continued up the trail to J Street Park, an access point to the greenway system for an underserved community.

In our short few minutes there, Calberg met several first-time greenway hikers. Her infectious enthusiasm seemed to literally rub off on the newcomers and they all posed for selfies.

I said goodbye to Sue and kept hiking north along Salado Creek, feeling even more grateful for the emerald necklace San Antonio can call its own.

The city owes a debt to Calberg, Peak, Oberg, Watkins, McClendon and others who worked tirelessly, often without fanfare, to protect its natural wonders.

These projects don’t just magically happen — they require fighters.

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