Leon Creek flowing alongside the trail.
Leon Creek flows alongside the trail in Pearsall Park. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

In a previous reporting job in Scranton, Pennsylvania, I covered a heated controversy about the fate of a landfill in the middle of town. Many in the community fumed over a proposal to continue building trash mounds skyward for another 50 years.

I don’t blame them for not wanting to live near a trash mountain. But if their landfill expansion does get the go-ahead to grow for another five decades, I would point these Scrantonians to Pearsall Park as a possible source of optimism.

Pearsall is proof that the story doesn’t have to end with a dump. With enough time, money, and care, people and nature can eventually start to reclaim spaces once considered to be wasteland.

Pearsall Park is 505 acres of sloping hills on the Southwest Side, near Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. Its grand opening in 2016 introduced thousands of people to a new set of amenities at the park, including a splash pad, playground, skate park, zip line, traveling rings, disc golf course, and more.

I was there for that grand opening and was delighted to see people going wild for this former dump, an area once called Mount Trashmore. (Interestingly, the Scranton folks also called their landfill Mount Trashmore.)

Since then, I’ve visited the park again several times to play disc golf. I walked all over the former garbage mounds, now covered with soil and reseeded with grass and vegetation. One perk of walking on a former dump is that it provides some elevation in a typically flat area, offering a clear view of downtown.

But not until this week did I check out the trail at the base of these artificial hills. Starting with the trail parking lot off of Old Pearsall Road, a concrete path runs 1.5 miles past the former landfill area, following Leon Creek.

The path was like any other of San Antonio’s greenway trails, though the forest it traversed was pleasant and open, not choked with invasive trees the way some trails can be. The creek flowed with surprisingly clear water, likely the result of months of wet weather.

Another roughly half-mile trail loop near the entrance winds deeper into the forest. One startling sight comes when you hit the edge of the woods and find yourself in a denuded strip of bare earth, a CPS Energy pipeline right of way. This off-shoot trail then turns around and heads back into the woods.

This small trail network seemed like a pleasant place for people in the neighborhood to stop by for a little exercise and time outdoors. I passed a few joggers, an older couple holding hands, and two teenage boys with fishing poles.

I didn’t see them carrying any fish back to their car. If I did, I would have warned them about the unfortunate pollution problems that affect Leon Creek in this area.

The Texas Department of State Health Services has issued a warning not to eat any fish caught in Leon Creek between Old Highway 90 and Loop 410. This is the only water body in the San Antonio area that has such a fish consumption advisory.

Samples of several fish species caught in that section of Leon Creek have tested positive for unsafe levels of polychlorinated biphenyls. These are toxic, likely carcinogenic industrial chemicals that are difficult to remove from rivers and streams. The advisory does not specify where the pollution could have come from.

Nowhere at Pearsall are you far from the mark people have made on the landscape, but it’s obvious that nature is gaining a foothold. The woods along the concrete path twittered with birdsong. In the few hours I spent there, I saw a red-shouldered hawk, great blue heron, kestrel, and barred owl.

The trail ends at a turnaround area deep in the woods next to a 260-acre parcel known as the Cox tract, acquired by the City in 2013. If you want more adventure, the Trailist recommends following the dirt path as it continues onto the Cox tract. Make sure you follow the path when it hooks right near the railroad bridge that marks the end of the property line.

The path rises steeply onto a thickly forested plateau, covered in a diverse set of trees and brush typical of South Texas. Right now, the agaritas are in bloom, their yellow flowers giving off a honey wine scent.

Agarita in bloom.
Agarita in bloom Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

A network of double-track paths that wind through the brush could make it a good spot for walking and mountain biking. One trail offshoot leads to a hidden pond, where several ducks took off as soon as I reached the water’s edge. Other trails continue through the brush, interrupted by occasional prickly pear and cholla cactus.

The huge downside of this area is the deplorable amount of trash dumping. You can barely go 100 feet without stumbling upon a mound of bottles and cans or piles of shingles and other construction debris. It’s a shame because this part of town has so few public lands that are left as natural areas.

I have faith that the dumping problem can be fixed when more people start accessing and appreciating the site. A 2013 master plan by Bender Wells Clark Design calls for a set of athletic fields on part of the Cox tract, with a 10k trail that follows some of the dirt paths I traversed this week. More visitors would mean more people to shame potential dumpers, as well as a sense of ownership of this piece of land that could be a true gem.

Big turnarounds are possible, even for the most ravaged landscapes. Pearsall Park, where voters approved another $3 million in improvements as part of the 2017 bond, is the perfect example.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.