Since 1998, non-profit organization San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance has been working to preserve the natural beauty in and around the city. With Fall weather settling in, there is no better time to get acquainted with their work on the parks and trails.
Former Fire Chief of San Marcos and current president of the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance, Todd Derkacz, told Newstreamz, “we are a group that focuses primarily on two things. First, is the preservation and acquisition of natural areas, and the stewardship of natural areas in San Marcos and the surrounding area.”
“A lot of times, when you hear people say that,” continued Derkacz, “it has a spin or connotation that we’re opposed to development and all those kinds of things. We aren’t opposed to development at all. We think that development is going to happen, and as we grow we make sure that we keep natural areas within the developed areas. We keep a good mix so that people can walk from the door of their house, and within five minutes on a bike or walking, can reach a natural area if they want to do a hike, or go biking or whatever.”
The Greenbelt Alliance hopes to grant everyone easier access to local green spaces. “It turns out that it isn’t as difficult as it might sound, because if you follow the creek lines and the rivers and so on, you get these linear stretches which are a great habitat. These are areas that need our protection, anyway, because those areas clean the water that ends up going into the creeks and the river. We’d like to keep the river running clean, clear, and cool,” said Derkacz.
“Building back away from the center lines of these creeks and water features turns out to be win-win on so many different accounts. What you end up having is a kind of linear park, which, with a trail, provides great connectivity for off-road biking, running, and other activities like that. We think that’s a good way to go – as well as protecting those areas that are endangered species’ habitats and for a variety of other reasons. Those linear parks can then connect to bigger chunks of natural areas that we have.”
“Sometimes we will acquire larger parcels because they are really directly over the water-shed of the San Marcos River, or because it’s mitigation land, or somebody is a donor,” Derkacz went on. “For all those reasons, we want to make sure that we have those linear connections and protect our water-shed, but then also use that to connect the bigger parcels that may come our way.”
“That addresses the health of our natural world, and it also protects public health. It’s been shown over and over, and increasingly, that public health benefits tremendously when you afford people easy access to places like that – because then they use them however they want to. Hiking and biking are the ones that we can think of most readily, but there are so many different activities people create for themselves to do, with a group or as an individual.”
“Even if it’s just swinging in a hammock, I always say,” smiled Mr. Derkacz, “doing nothing, if you’re doing it in a green space you’re still far better off than if you did it in your back yard. You can feel more of that natural world and it’s just rejuvenating.”
“There’s a lot of public benefit to it, but it’s also good economic health. When you create a place that has that linear connectivity and has easy access to parks, the place itself becomes more valuable. It’s more of the kind of place people want to be in. Voters know this, people who have lived here know it, and we appreciate it very much. That’s why we get such broad support.”
One of the messages of the SMGA is that we all have a part to do. “It’s hard sometimes to convince people that it’s worth the effort and initiative to be deliberate about it;” commented Derkacz, “to plan things to make sure we include those kinds of features. It’s one of those things you end up doing for the residents, and in some ways it almost seems like it’s kind of selfish, but in the end it just makes places more attractive. Then it becomes a huge economic benefit as well.”
The benefits of preserving local green spaces are far-reaching. They include tourism, a rise in property values, and supporting healthy lifestyles just to name a few. The SMGA promotes all these things with their hard work and dedication. “We’re happy to have a lot of people in our group who enjoy doing trail construction,” Derkacz said, “and enjoy getting people into the green spaces and making projects out of doing stewardship or educational kinds of things. We have a regular Thursday morning crew of people who go out and do trail work.”
“We have an agreement with the City of San Marcos, the Parks Department, to create the challenge trails – basically just natural surface paths that can be used for adventure racing, cross-country running, hiking, biking, and even photography. We also lead hikes that we open up to the general public,” said Derkacz. “Many people in town don’t realize what we have. If you’ve traveled around a bit, you can tell those places that understood early on these kinds of values, and protected them.”
The SMGA has many goals regarding the state or the green spaces and existing parks. “Hopefully we’ll create a loop around the city, so that anyone that comes here can run or hike a ten mile loop without ever being too far from downtown so they can bail out if they want to. Anyone in the neighborhoods could get on that trail and circle the city and end up at the river for a good swim – if it’s a hot summer day.”
“We call it the Loop and Check plan because it’s got this loop,” Derkacz continued. “If we create an area that goes down the San Marcos River and up the Blanco to Five Mile Dam, then we’ve created an element that will ultimately be able to connect with the trail that’s coming down from Zilker Park to Kyle. That means that you’d be able to get on a bicycle in San Marcos and ride to Zilker Park without ever having to get on roadways. It would be off-road trail the whole way. It’s 30 or 40 miles but to bikers these days that’s nothing. It provides a kind of connectivity that we don’t even think about normally being possible in Central Texas. ”
A few of the SMCA’s current achievements include the approval and close completion of a trail. . “There are two major things that are happening now in terms of the trails and stewardship,” commented Derkacz. “One is that the city is just about ready to approve and open a trail that starts in upper Purgatory, and that should be open by Thanksgiving, and usable.”
“It could either be Black Friday, or Hike Friday,” he added jokingly. “The other one is Ringtail Ridge, we got a grant to do trail work and amenities improvements there. Most of the work has already been done, there’s just a few more things remaining. We’re just about ready to wrap that grant up.
“Something that has also recently happened and has helped is that the citizens of Hays County approved a parks bond last year, and some of that money has been disbursed to the City of San Marcos to make improvements to some of these areas.”
Hiking trails here are a great asset, but they can also present the occasional risk. Mr. Derkacz warns to “be ready with hard shoes, the trail can be a little rugged at times but not if you’re ready for it. Give yourself plenty of time, take water, and on some of the longer hikes up on Purgatory I think it’s always a good idea to get a map and know what you’re doing. You can get disoriented if you go off trail – which I do not recommend doing – and you can get lost easily.”
Flood control is an aspect of the preservation of water-shed and green spaces that the Greenbelt Alliance is very aware of. “We’re in a flash-flood alley,” stated Mr. Derkacz. “Anyone who was here in 1998 knows what I’m talking about, and that wasn’t even the worst flooding that we could see. Why on earth would we want to build in those places that are going to be most vulnerable?”
“Let’s back away from those spaces,” Derkacz urges, “and then develop them into something besides housing. Let’s make them recreational, make them part of our beauty, and part of our identity; which it already kind of is.”
The preservation of green areas is an action that has far-reaching effects. The SMGA hopes to keep these places in perpetuity. “I hope that 200 years from now, whatever San Marcos looks like, that there will be natural areas in and around the places that we’ve built. I think that will leave a really good legacy, and I think they’ll be glad that we did it,” Derkacz concluded.
For more information on the SMGA and for maps of the trails, go to www.smgreenbelt.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To visit the City of San Marcos Parks Department go to the city website at www.ci.san-marcos.tx.us.
by Sarah Stevens