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Austin considers turning over management of Lady Bird Lake hike and bike trail to nonprofit

Nicole Foy
Austin American-Statesman
The Austin City Council is considering a plan to turn over management of the popular Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail to the Trail Foundation.

A nonprofit organization could begin taking over management of one of Austin's most popular trails.

On Thursday, the Austin City Council is scheduled to consider a plan to formally turn over management of the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail along Lady Bird Lake to the Trail Foundation. The nonprofit already works to maintain the 16-mile trail, which has a 10-mile loop around the lake along with six crossings, a few trail spurs surrounded by roughly 200 acres of parks, conservation easements and urban forests in Town Lake Metropolitan Park.

"The trail will always be public parkland and will always belong to the people," according to the draft plan. "To serve our city in all its diversity and strengthen our social fabric, the trail must be a welcoming and engaging place for all."

The Trail Foundation has been involved in the maintenance of the trail for years. The foundation, which formed with the express purpose of improving the trail and surrounding parkland, has raised more than $17 million for such park improvements as the boardwalk on the south side of the lake. The Trail Foundation estimates the trail gets more than 4.5 million visits per year.

The Trail Foundation has raised more than $17 million for such park improvements as the boardwalk on the south side of the Lady Bird Lake.

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department currently manages the trail, which would still be subject to Austin city codes, regulations and approval and permitting processes under the foundation's management. However, Trail Foundation CEO Heidi Anderson said that if the partnership is approved by the City Council, she hopes the public will quickly see improvement along one of the city's most popular recreational areas.

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"Hopefully, as we take on more support, the public will see less overgrowth and less trash and better maintained trees and more wildflower gardens, and just a safer, maybe cleaner space," Anderson said. "It's not at all out of criticism for what the parks department has been able to do so far. They just don't have the funding, and the real challenge is the usage of that trail is growing."

Daniel Dochen, a volunteer with the Trail Foundation, picks up litter from the shore of Lady Bird Lake next to the Butler Hike and Bike Trail in March.

The draft plan says that, over the years, the trail along Lady Bird Lake has been "historically maintained at levels that accommodate a limited municipal operations budget." Some costly damage to the trail over the years could have been prevented through investment in maintenance or mitigation efforts, the plan notes.

The Trail Foundation has previously worked with the city to identify and fund improvements to the trail, then gifted the results of those finished projects to the city. The cost to maintain new additions along the trail could be an increasing burden to the city's parks department, Anderson told the American-Statesman in 2019.

Cleaning and maintenance issues along the hike-and-bike trail have become a point of contention for some in the community in the past two years. 

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In 2020, the city rolled back some taxpayer-funded services aimed at keeping the trail clean and safe, including a significant reduction in trash collection. In the wake of budget cuts, the Austin Police Department also eliminated the parks unit that regularly patrolled the hike-and-bike trail.

Meanwhile, an abnormal amount of rain has dropped on the Austin area this summer, which has led to more trash in Lady Bird Lake, according to Austin's Watershed Protection Department. 

In March 2020, the Austin City Council approved a resolution directing the city to develop nonprofit partnership agreements like this one to "benefit the community." 

If approved, the hike-and-bike trail's transition to Trail Foundation management will occur in three stages over the course of 10 years. Initially, the foundation will be primarily responsible for its own infrastructure projects along the trail, while providing supplementary support to other parts of the trail and the surrounding parkland.

The foundation also would be responsible for park programs including free family activities, such nature-based programming as Trees of the Trail Scavenger Hunt and Wildflower Walks, cultural events, and public art and additional recreational activities like fitness programs conducted in partnership with other organizations.

"I hope that the public is able to see (the Trail Foundation) being more present out there in the next year or so, because that means we're achieving our goal and we're being able to do more to sustain and protect this space," Anderson said.

The City Council will be able to reconsider or adjust the partnership in two years. 

The Trail Foundation estimates the cost for planned maintenance and operations of the park in the first year and first phase of the new partnership agreement to be $847,420, according to the updated operations and management plan submitted to the city ahead of the vote. 

The plan also notes several recommendations to improve trail amenities such as lighting, bathrooms and trash cans along with extensive maintenance plans. Any infrastructure projects proposed by the Trail Foundation propose would have to go through the same community engagement process with the city. 

Hanna Cofer, chief operating officer of the Trail Foundation, picks up litter from the shore of Lady Bird Lake next to the Butler Hike and Bike Trail during a cleanup in March.

Anderson said the partnership agreement could empower the Trail Foundation to lead more volunteer cleanup efforts, tree plantings, invasive plant removals and creation of rain gardens meant to mitigate erosion problems along the trail. In 2021, volunteers helped the nonprofit install 71 nests intended for screech owls, according to the Trail Foundation.

"Volunteers are just going to be absolutely vital," Anderson said. "And it's a great win-win, you know. The trail is so beloved by the public, we just have no shortage of people who want to get out there and be helpful in return."