The sound of conjunto music and the smell of smoking barbecue pits filled the air at Brackenridge Park on Easter Sunday. Children raced along the trails near the river on bikes and scooters, and a friendly game of kickball took place on the nearby baseball diamond.
The weather was nearly perfect for the festivities that drew hundreds of San Antonians to the park, an annual tradition at Brackenridge Park going back decades. Even with the large turnout of the weekend campers and visitors, the amount of litter throughout the park during Sunday's early afternoon appeared to be more under control than most seasoned Easter campers anticipated.
"This year is pretty clean," Jason Bernal said on Sunday. Bernal has been camping at the park during Easter weekend for years. He and other campers said members of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy as well as the City Parks and Recreation Department frequently visited campsites throughout the weekend to distribute large trash bags for litter and clear, plastic bags for recyclables.
But as the Easter afternoon light began to fade into darkness, and families began packing up their campsites to return home, it became more clear that the weekend's celebrations at Brackenridge would, once again, leave its mark on many of the park's green spaces.
Monday morning around 7:30 a.m., volunteers and City employees arrived at the park with trash pickers in hand and began collecting stray soda cans, plastic bags, leftover food, and other items strewn about the park into large trash bags. Cascarón confetti covered the ground, a sight that will be more common as Fiesta celebrations start in April, and islands of trash blown out of cans overnight floated in the river nearby. Opportunistic birds and wildlife lurked around garbage heaps, picking at half-eaten barbecue bones.
While some campsites had contained their garbage in distinct areas near the trash cans, others were left as is, with plates, napkins, cans, and food left on the picnic tables as if someone would soon be returning.
But, except for the park's cleanup crew, no one did.
Considering the more than 40-year tradition of Easter camping at Brackenridge Park, one might think a better trash strategy or awareness effort would be deployed by now.
"I'm not exactly surprised (about the amount of trash), I was warned about it," said Laura Gomez, a City Special Projects employee. "Our parks are enjoyed by our constituents, but then they leave them all trashed, so we're out here with a whole army of our employees (to help clean)."
Other City employees like electricians and plumbers also took part in Monday morning's clean-up, she said. "It's a team effort."
According to Homer Garcia, City Parks and Recreation acting assistant director, the department has held community-wide meetings in the past to raise awareness of the importance of controlling litter during Easter weekend at the park, but this year they focused most of their awareness efforts on social media. They also made sure their volunteers frequently distributed trash and recycling bags around the park throughout the weekend, he said. Judging by the park's condition on Monday morning, people either ran out of bags, or simply didn't care about properly disposing of their waste.
Mike Creese heads out to Brackenridge Park twice a week to birdwatch in the early mornings. As someone who comes to enjoy the park and its inhabitants in their natural beauty, he thinks more can be done to control the large amounts of garbage littered throughout the area after the Easter weekend camping.
"I think (the Parks and Recreation department) ought to charge campers for tables and all, so that way they'll have a little bit more control (of the trash)," he said. "They should take a deposit and if the people didn't clean up after themselves then they lose their deposit."
At least one Parks and Recreation employee at the park said that this year appeared to be better in terms of the amount of garbage left on the park's open fields, but not by much.
"Every year is the same thing," he said.
Garcia did not know the amount of trash collected from last year's Easter celebrations, but in 2012 they collected a little over five tons of trash and 1,000 pounds of recycling, he said.
By Monday afternoon, almost all of the trash left by Sunday campers will be gone, and the 340-acre green space will be largely restored to its previous condition.
But the sight of the park in the early Monday morning light made it clear that decreasing such widespread littering will likely take more than providing free trash bags for park campers. A shift in culture in regards to respecting natural areas is essential, Gomez said.
"I think a lot of it has to be education, especially with the younger generations," she said. "They need to enjoy the parks, but also be aware that they need to clean up after themselves."
Top image: Community service volunteer John County throws another bag of trash on top of others at Brackenridge Park. Photo by Scott Ball.