Austin's hike-and-bike trail: A treasure worth protecting
Updated 11 Dec 2004

Susan K. Rieff and Dan Garrison, LOCAL CONTRIBUTORS

In the early 1970s, Lady Bird Johnson, with the help of then-Mayor Roy Butler, city parks Director Beverly Sheffield and other local visionaries, launched the Town Lake Beautification Project to reclaim and improve the Colorado riverfront.

Their energy and commitment gave us the Town Lake hike-and-bike trail. Today, the trail is Austin's true town square, beloved by Austinites and admired by visitors. The diversity of the trail's users Ñ joggers, walkers, bikers and stroller-pushing parents Ñ is matched only by the beauty of the water and the majestic oak, cypress, pecan, sycamore and other trees that line its banks.

But in recent years, it has become harder to appreciate, or even to see, these remarkable trees. The woodlands along the banks of Town Lake, and the wildlife habitat they provide, are in jeopardy. Century-old trees are struggling under the weight of enormous vines, and some have died and fallen, posing a hazard to trail users. Poison ivy and poison oak have taken over some areas.

One reason for this is Town Lake's relatively stable water levels. Since the building of Tom Miller Dam, the river no longer experiences the real, old-fashioned floods that once regularly swept the banks clear of many aggressive plants that maintained the conditions supportive of a native, riverside woodland.

The pervasiveness of non-native, invasive plant species along the river is another threat to the trail's ecological health. These plants, introduced by well-meaning citizens and spread by birds, water and wind, have crowded out native plants and trees.

And like other parks and public spaces, the trail has also suffered from a combination of high use and inadequate resources. Recent Parks and Recreation Department funding and personnel cuts have made it even more difficult to find money to protect the trees along Town Lake.

The good news, however, is that local business and nonprofit leaders are again stepping up to protect one of Austin's crown jewels.

The Town Lake Trail Foundation and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center have joined forces to develop and oversee a comprehensive woodlands management program. This program Ñ called Healthy Trees for the Trail Ñ is designed to ensure that the magnificent trees lining the trail are protected and to prevent more serious decline in the wooded areas around Town Lake.

Funded by the Temple-Inland Foundation, the Austin Community Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation Ñ and blessed by the Parks and Recreation Department Ñ the two organizations have already begun initial survey work. Over the coming months, specialists will remove non-native trees, poison ivy and poison oak and vines that are suffocating native vegetation in key areas along the trail.

This partnership represents a natural alliance between the Town Lake Trail Foundation, founded to improve and protect the trail and its environs, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which works to promote native plants and protect native landscapes.

In the spirit of Mrs. Johnson and the trail's other original supporters, we are dedicated to making this Austin treasure even more beautiful, more natural and more enjoyable.

Rieff is executive director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Garrison is director of the Town Lake Trail Foundation.

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