Work to restore the failing historic structures within Brackenridge Park has again stalled after a group of San Antonio residents convinced a state agency to hold off on issuing a permit that would have let the city get to work.

Meanwhile, a group of Texas wildlife organizations announced Wednesday that they are banding together to address the longstanding tension between urban life and avian wildlife in San Antonio — one of the central debates delaying the 2017 Brackenridge Park bond project.

Last week, the Texas Historical Commission tabled the possible issuance of a Historic Buildings and Structures Antiquities permit that would have allowed the City of San Antonio to remove 48 trees and start restoring historic walls, dam and pumphouse within the park after receiving roughly 50 comments on related agenda items.

It’s unclear when the item will be put back onto the commission’s agenda, said spokesman Chris Florance.

“We are going to table a vote while we recognize the community’s input, both for and against,” said Commission Chairman John Nau at the time. “We will certainly make it public when there will be a vote on the agenda.” Nau added that the public turnout for the meeting was the most he’d ever seen in his time on the commission.

The removal of trees from this area has been hotly debated for more than a year, in part due to its proximity to an established egret rookery near Joske’s Pavillion.

The city first claimed the tree removal was not related to the nesting birds, but then some residents found a Historic and Design Review Commission agenda that stated that an added benefit of tree removal would be dissuading birds from nesting in this area of the park. The city has since apologized but has continued to insist the tree removal is necessary to complete the project.

Despite the apology and a public meeting process that ultimately reduced the number of trees to be removed, some local residents remain convinced that the city is using the restoration of the historic structures as a cover to remove the trees as part of the city’s “war on birds.” Many of these were the same residents who attended the Texas Historical Commission last week to protest the permit applications, with the goal of saving the trees.

In February, the city resumed its annual efforts to dissuade birds from using the existing rookery, by thinning branches, removing old nests and making unpleasant noises. They have also sectioned off these areas with screened-off fencing — again igniting protesters who claim the city wants to hide its assault on birds.

While several of the new coalition’s members have said their group was not formed in response to the ongoing Brackenridge drama, they do seek to address concerns with the rookery at the historic park, they said. Calling themselves the Coalition for Sustainable Urban Rookeries, member organizations include Audubon Texas, the San Antonio Zoo, The Nature Conservancy in Texas, the Bexar Audubon Society and the San Antonio River Authority.

“This seems to be a perennial issue,” said Steve Graham, assistant general manager of the river authority. “It was brought to a head because of the bond projects the city has, but this issue has been out there for many, many years.”

Brackenridge is only the latest urban/wildlife battleground in the Alamo City, said Shaun Donovan, the river authority’s manager of environmental sciences.

For the last decade, the city, county and several local agencies have been trying to move the city’s migratory bird population to areas they deem safer for birds and humans alike — first from Elmendorf Park, and now at Brackenridge. Attempts to move migratory birds to Mitchell Lake by utilizing artificial nesting structures have thus far been unsuccessful.

The newly formed coalition hopes to address the issue more systematically, said Dante Fenolio, vice president at the San Antonio Zoo Center for Conservation and Research. Fenolio said the coalition has already met informally multiple times.

“The coalition members all want to see urban sustainable rookeries that balance the community’s needs and the wildlife’s needs,” Fenolio said. “The current location of [the Brackenridge] urban rookery has negatively affected the San Antonio River’s quality, and is affecting some of our endangered species at the zoo.”

The ideal would be to have the birds establish a rookery outside of the city’s urban center — such as on one of the lakes on the outskirts of town, Fenolio said. The coalition plans to try a science-based approach to getting the birds to relocate, he added.

Donovan added the coalition is not completely opposed to the rookery existing in Brackenridge Park, but said if it remains there it needs to be mitigated for the health of both humans and birds.

The coalition said it will get community input before it takes any actions. It has launched a questionnaire on its website, and will likely hold a public forum soon, Donovan said.

“The intention is not to completely get rid of a rookery in Brackenridge Park, but the population density and network right now isn’t healthy for the birds, it’s not healthy for the river, it’s not healthy for the park — so we are trying to get it back to a balanced position,” he said. “We want to make sure that the community is involved in this from all different aspects.”

Avatar photo

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.