Government Canyon State Natural Area wants more visitors. In addition to trail runners and mountain bikers, park rangers want toddlers as well as visitors in wheel chairs to make the short trek out on Bandera Highway to reconnect with nature and see what makes this near-Hill Country retreat so special. Officials have begun fundraising for two projects that will open the 8,622 acres of protected land to populations at risk for “nature deficit disorder.”
Friends of Government Canyon (FGC) will host two events to learn more about special needs groups and the potential impact of the projects: Sept. 23, 6-8 p.m. at Liberty Bar in Southtown, and Sept. 27, noon-6 p.m. at Alamo Brewery in Dignowity Hill. Special edition Friends of Government Canyon Pint Glasses will be available at Alamo Brewery.
When Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” in his 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods,“ he called attention to a growing epidemic. Personal screens and electronic devices grow more ubiquitous every year. Many children spend hours in front of screens every day, and seldom venture outdoors, much less into the great outdoors.
San Antonio landscape architect Larry Clark, principal at Bender Wells Clark Design, sees an ominous future in this trend. He’s not alone.
“We’re impoverishing the health of our kids and decreasing their potential creative invention and development,” Clark said.
With adult and adolescent obesity on the rise, and more learning and behavioral disorders diagnosed every day, parents and physician across the country are rethinking how kids play, learn, and grow. Clark believes that reconnecting to nature and outdoor play will put kids on a path – or trail – back to health.
When Friends of Government Canyon called with an opportunity to draw more kids to the outdoors, Clark jumped at the opportunity. The nonprofit volunteer organization responsible for the creation of Government Canyon SNA, now seeks to create a 1.25-mile ADA-compliant trail and natural playscape. Volunteers want to connect kids of all ages and people of all modes of mobility to the important educational resources of Government Canyon State Natural Area.
It’s a noble cause.
FGC targets visitors of every speed. The Friends schedule frequent hikes and nature walks and an annual race for the trail running community, many of whom frequent Government Canyon. The Recharge Run 8K and 15K will be Nov. 7. They cap the race at 350 runners to preserve an authentic trail running experience.
Government Canyon sits at the confluence of three of the region’s five converging ecosystems, and it contains multiple archeological sites, as well as the only known dinosaur tracks on public land in Bexar County. It’s home to the endangered Golden Cheeked Warbler, and has been designated a “globally important bird area” by BirdLife International.
“Every year (the significance of Government Canyon is) becoming more of a conversation,” said Peter Grojean, president of Friends of Government Canyon.
The natural area sits on the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. Visitors have the opportunity to learn more about the topography of the aquifer and why water conservation is so vital. For children, this narrative is not only interesting, it’s also essential to their appreciation of future water conservation and security.
Government Canyon is less than 20 miles from downtown. Few major U.S. cities can offer a comparable experience so close to the urban core, so it’s no surprise that visitation has increased dramatically in the past two years. Hikers, mountain bikers, and geochachers have been flocking to the natural area’s rugged and challenging trails for several years now.
It’s not Brackenridge Park. Government Canyon is not a leisurely stroll in an urban park. Most of the trails are too challenging for the littlest hikers.
Gentle trails and natural playscapes can open the natural area to a wider audience, and provide an interface with nature for those who would be deterred by rugged terrain. It’s about the long view: if kids have a pleasant and gratifying experience in nature, they are more likely to want to go back, more likely to seek it out, and more likely to reap the benefits of physical activity and interaction with leaves, dirt, and fresh air. And talk about it to peers.
FGC said a playscape has always been part of the master plan, but Texas Parks and Wildlife has been unable to fund it. The $91,000 project ($16,500 of that is in-kind costs) has a committed matching grant from the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation for up to $38,000. The interpretive trail, which cost $141,000, is moving forward, with a coalition of support from volunteers, in-kind donations, and grants, including $19,000 from Impact San Antonio, and $84,238 from Texas Parks and Wildlife.
For Grojean and Clark, these projects align with their personal and professional missions.
Grojean, a registered accessibility specialist and founder of Accessibility Unlimited, knew the potential impact of an ADA compliant trail. He is lending his personal expertise to the project, ensuring that the trail will be a genuine resource for those with limited mobility.
Clark has become an advocate for reintegrating nature and outdoor play into schools. He cited studies that show students who return from time spent outdoors are more relaxed and ready to learn compared to students who spend the entire day inside. He’s also incorporated rain gardens, and worked with Green Space Alliance to teach kids about gardening. Clark believes that natural literacy is something that must be developed for the good of the planet and the individual. Kids need to understand how the natural world works. They are part of it.
“(Outdoor learning space) becomes an extension of the classroom,” Clark said.
The playscape Clark has in mind will be constructed out of natural elements, very close to their original form. Hideouts, “forts,” and shelters are hugely appealing to children, giving them an outlet for the evolutionary instinct to seek “prospect and refuge.” Opportunities to jump, climb, and balance allow kids to exercise in fun and natural ways. Interpretive elements will educate kids using games and activities, for independent or group play.
Clark even plans to include elements that appeal to different ages. Pre-school and early elementary school children play in nebulous, inclusive groups, perfect for classic central playscape activity. Older kids (ages 7-12) who want to break into friend groups and assert some independence will enjoy more peripheral, free-form spaces where they socialize.
The ADA compliant trail has been deliberately mapped to hit the highlights of Government Canyon. It will include spurs to access points of interest and interpretive elements along the way. Opportunities to stop and rest make it a great option for those aspiring to start an exercise regime who may not have the stamina for the more demanding trails. The accessible trail will create an all-weather option as well, so that anyone considering a visit does not have to be deterred by sudden showers or looming storm clouds.
A visit to Government Canyon will expand any local’s appreciation of a sensitive ecosystem and the rugged native landscapes of the region. It is one of our greatest resources for a healthy population of environmental stewards, and FGC would like to bring that resource to everyone.
*Top image: A vista in Government Canyon State Natural Area. Photo courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.