Planting the first of what will eventually become sprawling groves of trees on a former Southeast San Antonio golf course is still at least three years in the future.

But the group behind a proposed arboretum introduced its plans to the community on Thursday, saying the time has come for San Antonio to create its own public garden of trees.

The vision is for a preserve celebrating the native trees of South Texas, said Arboretum San Antonio CEO Tom Corser.

“San Antonio Arboretum will be a leading recreational, ecological, educational resource for residents and visitors of all ages in the greater San Antonio area,” he said.

“We will promote health and wellness — both physical and mental — through that communion with nature, champion environmental sustainability and promote tree canopy expansion.”

The arboretum will provide outdoor education and highlight the cultural connections of trees, he added, and it will contribute to the economic vibrancy of the region. It will be located along Salado Creek at the former site of the Republic Golf Club, less than two miles from the Brooks campus.

Late last year, the Brooks Development Authority authorized the purchase of 170 acres where the golf course had been, and Arboretum San Antonio plans to buy an additional 18 acres outside the floodplain to build the arboretum nature center. Bexar County allocated $7.3 million in its 2021-22 budget for the arboretum.

Next up is the master planning process and determining the full cost of the project, Corser said.

Assisting in that effort is Richard Olsen, executive director of the 451-acre United States National Arboretum, a research-focused site administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Established in 1927 and funded with a $300,000 appropriation by President Calvin Coolidge, the arboretum today has an annual budget is $11 million. One feature of the National Arboretum is the Grove of State Trees, which showcases each state tree (pecan for Texas) or a tree representative of the state.

Olsen told the crowd of about 200 gathered Thursday in a Brooks hotel ballroom lined with potted oaks, willows, cypress and other trees that planners need to think about all the reasons people will visit an arboretum.

“Ninety percent of your visitors will not come there to geek out on plants,” Olsen said. “Only about five to 10% will [do that]. And what I mean by that is, think about an art museum. It doesn’t cater just to artists. So how do you reach and engage them?”

He also challenged the arboretum’s organizers to consider the cultural and historical context, restoring the land to something more authentic.

“We’ve been pushing nature away. … We’ve destroyed a lot,” Olsen said. “So what was at the arboretum before the golf course? What was there before the cattle ranch? What was there before the missions? What was there before the Indigenous and the first peoples. How can you reconnect and reestablish that?”

Henry Cisneros, a former San Antonio mayor and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is the founder of Arboretum San Antonio. He noted that there are arboretums in nearly every state. In Texas, one of the largest is the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden.

“Having this can be a real asset for San Antonio — a beautiful piece of green space located on the South Side, an opportunity to build something really world-class at the same time,” he said.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said an arboretum would add to the 100-plus-mile linear creek trail system in use throughout the city.

“We have countless areas of parks, neighborhood parks where children and families can recreate,” he said. “What we don’t have is an arboretum that pays careful attention to the historic and natural heritage of the trees.”

Local business owner Evangelina Flores is chairwoman of the 14-member Arboretum San Antonio board of directors. She asked for support from the community and repeated the words of the late Lady Bird Johnson: “The environment is where we all meet; where all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share.”

A board of advisors includes representatives from Texas A&M University-San Antonio, the City of San Antonio, the San Antonio Water System, the San Antonio River Authority, landscape architects MP Studio and others.

Credit: Courtesy of Arboretum San Antonio

Along with master planning, the project needs funding, Corser said. He is working to raise money for operations of the arboretum development but also for the project itself which will require “tens of millions of dollars,” he said.

County Commissioner Tommy Calvert, whose precinct includes the arboretum site, said the project is timely given climate change and the need for tree canopy and shade.

“There are climate scientists who say that in my lifetime here in San Antonio and Bexar County, the average summer temperature will be about 108 degrees, making our summer temperatures equal to that of Dubai [in the United Arab Emirates],” he said.

“What that means about the timeliness of your investment and the arboretum and in planting trees is that we have a limited window to plant these trees now.”

Clay Thompson, director of conservation and stewardship at Green Spaces Alliance, said his organization is enthusiastic about the arboretum project, the potential for greater tree canopy and the protection of open space.

As for trees, the newly certified forester said the plateau oak, cousin of the live oak, is one of his favorites. “It’s a really unique tree, and a lot of the trees that are taken out when they develop the lands up on the North Side are plateau oaks,” he said

They grow when an acorn falls into a crack and the roots grow, “and then 100 years later there’ll be a small tree relative to what you’d expect for a live oak.”

That makes them nearly irreplaceable. “You can plant trees but you can’t really get those back,” he said of the species.