Disinformation had its day at City Hall on Tuesday when City Manager Erik Walsh announced via press release that Phase One work in the 2017 Brackenridge Park Master Plan involving the restoration of the park’s most historic elements will be delayed this year.

In a park with thousands of significant trees (6″ trunk diameter or more, or 2″ trunk diameter or more for trees in the flood plain) and hundreds of heritage trees (24″ trunk diameter or more), only 105 significant trees, many not much more than saplings, and 10 at-risk heritage trees, are scheduled for removal.

All but a few of those trees stand along the steep riverbanks where erosion has exposed their root systems, putting them at risk of collapsing. Some have caused historic stone walls to collapse, which cannot be restored with tree root systems protruding along the river banks. Some of the trees are not native. A few are clearly in declining health.

A coalition of local activists who oppose the tree removals met with first-term City Council members Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Mario Bravo (D1) who then met with Walsh and won the delay. Meanwhile, the individuals the council members advocated for are openly engaged in a disinformation campaign. They have tied ribbons around a line of heritage cypress trees that are not at risk and erected a sign on tree that misleadingly reads, “Please Please SAVE ME! I have no voice”.

City and Brackenridge Conservancy staff have told council staff and activists in the park who have been proselytizing to visitors, that the signage and ribbons are deceptive, but to no avail. I am at loss to understand why the city’s parks and recreation staff has not removed the misleading signage and ribbons from the protected trees.

The historic pump house and Lambert Beach at Brackenridge Park are flanked by retaining walls that are crumbling due to encroaching tree roots and other factors. Some trees mislabeled by activists to be removed sit across the river.
The historic pump house and Lambert Beach at Brackenridge Park are flanked by retaining walls that are crumbling due to encroaching tree roots and other factors. Some trees mislabeled with red ribbon by activists will remain in place across the San Antonio River. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The delay ordered by Walsh permits the continuation of design work by landscape architects and others, but the actual restoration work of historic Lambert Beach, now the site of collapsed walls and protective fencing, of Pump House One and restoration of the Upper Labour Acequia will likely not begin until year’s end or early in 2023.

Parks staff had a short window of time that will soon close to remove the heritage trees before migratory birds arrive to roost from March to November. The birds likely would have established roosts in other heritage trees within the park, but once they settle into the targeted heritage trees where they have traditionally roosted they cannot be disturbed.

That means the $13 million of restoration work, most of which was funded in the 2017 bond, cannot begin until the birds depart in the late fall or early winter months.

City and park conservancy staff cited several elements in the disinformation campaign they are working to counter:

  • Heritage trees are not being removed to make way for an events center, a false claim repeated in an email last week announcing a “Stop the Chop” gathering in the park sent out by the Alamo Group Sierra Club.
  • City and conservancy staff are not removing the heritage trees to eliminate the migratory birds roosting sites. There are countless other heritage trees along the riverbanks the birds can and will use.
  • There has been ample opportunity for the public to engage in the project’s development over the last decade, going back to initial efforts to study the long-neglected park and devise restoration plans. Media coverage has been significant. The planned tree removal, however, was not widely known until now and has sparked a backlash.

There could be value in subjecting the city’s 2022 tree preservation inventory to further scrutiny, and examining why staff have identified the 105 trees for removal. It’s possible some of the trees can be left standing, although that risks restoration work later being undermined.

It’s a false assumption to cloak the opposition as the “enviromentalists” in this fight when almost everyone involved in the Brackenridge Master Plan self-identifies as pro- environment.

I’m an ardent lover of trees and defender of urban nature, but I am also a realist. Trees succumb to age or disease and fall down all the time within the park. Some of the trees targeted for removal should never have been allowed to root so closely to historic structures. Many trees have been removed within the park over the years to make way for new roads and parking lots, or because they were in poor health — to zero public outcry.

From the 18th century Upper Labour Dam to the 19th century Lambert Beach, the 6.5 acres of the park included in the Phase One work holds some of the oldest, most significant historic structures in San Antonio. The plan to restore them has been many years in the making. That planning has been thoughtful and inclusive, with stakeholders engaged along the way.

A conceptual rendering of the historic pump house at Brackenridge Park. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

That good work is being lost in the noise of protest.

Respectful disagreement should always be welcomed, and thus an audit to the tree survey makes sense. But a campaign of disinformation undermines the credibility of protesters and any elected official who turns a blind eye to such deception.

Correction: This column has been updated to correctly state that the trees are being measured by diameter, not girth.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.