On a crisp March morning, a group of biology students crosses the San Antonio River, on their way to The Headwaters Sanctuary. They carry tape, stakes, shovels, and hammers.
Their mission? Measuring four plots within the depths of the sanctuary, for ecological evaluation.
The plots, 30 meters by 30 meters, will be used to study the proliferation of non-native species on the 53-acre sanctuary, named for the headwaters of the San Antonio River, which emanate from a natural spring on the eastern end of the land.
According to Dr. Bonnie McCormick, biology faculty member who co-teaches the class with Environmental Science’s Dr. Bill Thomann, three species alone account for almost 90 percent of the growth on the land: cedar elm, ligustrum, and hackberry.
The plots will be cleared of invasive species. Two plots will be used for targeted plantings of indigenous species, including native grasses and wildflowers; the other two will be left as control plots, for later comparison.
The eventual goal will be to remove non-natives from the property, allowing a diversity of native species to gain a roothold. “Perhaps the upland areas were primarily savanna, with a mix of riparian forest found along the creek beds,” McCormick said.
McCormick and Thomann hope to gather 10 years of data on the soil and foliage, along with information on water quality. (Currently, classes collect soil data during the spring semesters, and water quality information each fall.)
Helen Ballew, who directs The Headwaters at Incarnate Word on behalf of The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, lauded the research project, saying it should provide additional information to use as the sanctuary is restored.
“These are test plots for our restoration work, and great hands-on, real world applications of field techniques for the students,” she said.
Ballew invited more participation from students and faculty in other aspects of work on the Headwaters.
“There’s potential for greater use and understanding of the Headwaters for many more university departments than we currently see,” she said.
She cited the Religious Studies department’s exploration of nature spirituality, the English Department’s ongoing water and culture curriculum, and the Art Department’s temporary natural sculptures as examples of other uses by the university.
“The Headwaters Sanctuary is in UIW’s backyard and is a tremendous asset to the university,” Ballew said. “In addition to preserving nature and serving the larger community as an urban nature sanctuary, the Sanctuary can serve as an outdoor classroom for students of all ages, at UIW as well as other schools and universities.”
The extension of learning activities from the classroom setting to the property is part of the larger effort to make both the university community and the San Antonio community aware of the Headwater’s existence, and cultural significance.
Archaeological studies on the property have dated human presence on the land back to Clovis Man, approximately 10,000 years ago. Native Americans have been visiting the site for thousands of years, as well, leaving artifacts and a cultural legacy.
More recently, Coahuiltecan Indians camped seasonally along the San Antonio River — which they called Yanaguana — both for the quality of the water and the abundant game the water source attracted.
“It is a tremendously important space that has a lot to do with the growth and development of the congregation, as well as the city,” Ballew added.
Collaborative educational efforts on the property also will involve other local universities, Ballew said. Current plans include adding signage to the property, and establishing additional foot trails to enable greater access to the land.
For the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the creation of the sanctuary fulfills part of their mission to care for the environment.
“This was the Sisters’ land to set aside for the benefit of nature and the larger community,” Ballew said. “They hope it is a place from which their own story can be told, along with the story of San Antonio.”