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Nature center is back in business


San Antonio Express-News (04/25/2004)
By Roger Croteau

SAN MARCOS — An unusual partnership between the city and Texas State University-San Marcos has given new life to the former San Marcos Interpretive Greenhouse Center, an ecological awareness project marked for extinction last year when its operating revenue dried up.

When the center opened four years ago it was hailed as a way to educate the public about the importance of the San Marcos River and the San Marcos springs.

Teach people about the unique ecosystem, the thinking went, and they'll support its protection from pollution and overpumping of the Edwards Aquifer by San Antonio and other cities.

But as stagnant sales tax revenue caused a budget crunch last summer, the city closed the center and laid off its three-person staff.

"It was very distressing," said Jenna Winters, one of the fired city employees who now volunteers at the renamed San Marcos Nature Center, which reopened this month. "It seemed like a waste to have this wonderful resource with a padlock on it.

"The San Marcos River is a very special ecosystem, and a lot of people who live here don't realize how special it is. The river is a lot more than a place to go tubing."

Formed by the second-largest set of springs in Texas, the river harbors five endangered species, ranging from fish and salamanders to Texas wild rice. Archaeologists believe its headwaters have been continuously inhabited by humans for 12,000 years.

Within weeks of the center's closing last year, Mayor Robert Habingreither, a Texas State technology professor, contacted colleagues in several other departments, looking for a way to reopen the facility.

"We became interested in it this past fall when we realized what an opportunity it was," said Hardin Rahe, chairman of the university's Agriculture Department. "Our students can get experience planning programs and teaching them."

The city and university agreed in February to a plan in which graduate students in horticulture, biology and geography would staff the center — a somewhat rare example of cooperation between a city and university that more often seem to find themselves at odds.

"I think this is the most exciting thing the city and university have done together in a long, long time," Rahe said.

The center opened for its first big event April 15 — a field trip for more than 100 local elementary school students — and last weekend the local Master Gardeners Club held a plant sale.

"The field trip went really great," said Andrea Dravigne, an agriculture graduate student who coordinates activities there. "It's our first big youth activity, so we were a little nervous."

The field-trippers went through several activities, including composting, observing watershed models, making bird feeders and going on a scavenger hunt for native plants.

"It's cool," said fourth-grader Jonathan Villalpando. "My favorite thing was learning about animal footprints. We had this sheet that shows the footprints, and we went outside and found tracks for some of them."

Ryan Ashley, another fourth-grader, learned about a wildflower called Indian blanket, which is the name of the street he lives on.

The center is on the southbound Interstate 35 access road on the north bank of the San Marcos River. It is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and for special programs.

In addition to growing native plants, the center serves as a trailhead for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Central Texas Birding Trail, and it provides educational programs for schoolchildren and area residents.