Since moving to San Antonio five years ago, I have watched the San Antonio Zoo grow. I spend lots of time exploring nature, particularly birdwatching around Brackenridge Park, and see and hear a lot from visitors to the park. Many are residents, but there are a lot of out-of-town visitors. The most common question I get is about how to get to the zoo. 

Signage on the new parking garage in Brackenridge Park that would point visitors toward the zoo has become the subject of a dispute between the zoo and Brackenridge Park Conservancy. The conservancy argues that the signage unfairly gives prominence to the zoo over the park.

The $12 million garage is maintained and operated by the zoo on its campus within the park, but it was built with public money and serves the visitor base of the park. San Antonio Zoo President and CEO Tim Morrow noted that the zoo will spend about $220,000 annually to manage the garage and $473,000 for recurring maintenance every three to five years.

Looking at this from a public view, if the zoo is going to be spending their funds to maintain the garage, thus saving the City money, particularly public funds, it sounds like it would be a prudent and thrifty move for the City to give the zoo a thumbs up for their sign. 

According to a recent study completed by Impact Data Source, the zoo’s economic impact for the city in 2016 was $85 million. The zoo’s taxable sales alone contributed $7.6 million to the city. The anticipated increase in attendance from this garage will result in even greater economic advantages for the zoo and the city. With the zoo funding the maintenance of the garage, it seems like it would be a good return on the investment. 

But with all this talk about signage, I must ask if attention should be focused elsewhere in the park. While we put $800,000 in funding toward signage, the main area of the park sits neglected. The park, founded in 1890, is showing its age. As I walk the footbridge I see where the concrete is cracked and showing a possible safety issue. Floating debris along the river and trash can be seen scattered alongside the sidewalks. A table has been missing a plank for over a year. It will take more than a sign to reinvigorate the park. 

With the pandemic shifting our lives, city funds, and agendas, maybe this sign issue is the perfect time to revisit the Brackenridge Park Master Plan regarding the wilderness area. According to the master plan, maintaining and enhancing the character of the wilderness area in the park is a critical part of what makes the park special. Bring nature back to the park. Birdwatchers and photographers come to the park to capture nesting birds. Birds in our urban forest provide an opportunity for teaching about conservation and can provide a unique outdoor classroom setting, a part of the park’s master plan.

Nature is important to children’s development – intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and physically. Children develop knowledge and skills as they undertake exciting, real-life projects. By studying science, math and related subjects through outdoor experiences, students can connect to their local environment and become stewards of their community’s natural resources.  

Hidden within the wilderness of the urban forest is a nesting habitat used by migratory waterbirds from March until July. The birds migrate from as far away as South America to nest in the park. Four birds that nest in the park – the snowy egret, little blue heron, green heron, and tricolored heron – are listed on the State’s Conservation Action Plan as Species of Greatest Conservation Need. 

Let’s join the ranks of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Bird City Texas Program that in early 2020 certified the cities of Bastrop, Dallas, Houston, and Port Aransas, recognized as the leaders in community action and bird conservation. These certified communities took action in three categories: community engagement, habitat management, and threat reduction for birds. By undertaking these actions, these newly certified communities help their residents and their birdlife. Bird City Texas communities can use their bird-friendly designation to attract more of Texas’ 2.2 million birdwatchers who are major drivers in the state’s $1.8 billion wildlife-viewing industry. The city can apply for conservation grants for the birds. The zoo gets their sign, we get the benefits of an outdoor classroom teaching about conservation and wildlife, and nature gets a helping hand. 

Alesia Garlock

Alesia Garlock is a birdwatcher and citizen scientist originally from Rockport.