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Environmental, neighborhood groups call for ‘rewilding’ Zilker Park

Monday, October 18, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

One of the city’s main environmental groups hopes to increase biodiversity and reduce the impact of visitors to Zilker Park by pushing for more natural growth of trees and other plant life in the popular central city park.

The Save Our Springs Alliance recently released a report from restoration ecologist and park planner Elizabeth McGreevy that calls for “rewilding” 75 acres of Zilker’s 350 total acres, which would reduce mowing and other maintenance that clears the parkland. Instead, the alliance and three neighborhood groups want more trails, woodlands and water features to replace areas that have been planted as lawns and used for festivals, sports and other gatherings.

In tandem with the report, the Zilker Neighborhood Association has put out its vision plan for the park. Its 10 points include protection of water features, establishing and enforcing capacity limits on visitors, reducing parking and vehicle impacts, and reducing the number of events on park grounds.

The call for rewilding the park comes as the Parks and Recreation Department is set to hold its third virtual meeting to gather feedback that will lead to the creation of the first-ever vision plan for Zilker Park.

Bill Bunch, executive director of SOS Alliance, said issues such as erosion, overuse by pet owners and the lack of action related to securing the Butler Landfill located on the property need to be addressed.

“Nature is resilient and some parts of the park are pretty nice. The water is still beautiful and clean and that is the most critical element of the park, but a lot of it is hammered and the maintenance practices are not well managed or thought out and it could be so much more,” he said. “It’s a lovely place to go and the setting is spectacular at the confluence of Barton Creek and the river, but it could be so much more and we need to be a lot more for the community, with our exploding central city population and parklands not expanding to meet that challenge.”

There will be two more feedback sessions after Tuesday’s meeting, with the city expected to present a final vision for the park by April 2022.

McGreevy’s report said the rewilding efforts should begin immediately, with the growth of established forests being used to help decrease erosion into Barton Creek and improve groundwater quality.

Returning 20 percent of the park to a more lush, heavily vegetated state would almost certainly have an impact on popular events held in the park, including Austin City Limits Music Festival and the Trail of Lights that annually draw hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Bunch said the report was created with a “neutral” stance on ACL Fest and other events that have significant impacts on the park and the local economy. He said representatives from those events will need to participate in the new future of the park or find alternate sites if the rewilding effort is seen as the best move by residents and the city.

“Our goal with this was not to think about ACL, but what is the best use of this parkland for the public and frame it that way,” he said. “The issue then comes up of what does that mean for ACL, and I don’t have any idea of how creative they can be or adaptive … whether the park is already too small for their needs and if they’re thinking of going someplace else already or figuring out a way to do things differently, but certainly if the park is rewilded the way we’re proposing and some city consultants have proposed already, they would have to adapt and change the operations from how we’ve seen them.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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