Three years ago, Texas Parks and Wildlife was struggling to pay for necessary maintenance at its 140-plus state parks, historic sites and wildlife management areas. The idea of quickly transforming undeveloped properties into state parks, much less acquiring more land for conservation, seemed unfathomable.
That outlook has shifted significantly in the years since, especially with record demand for parks during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Rodney Franklin, the division director of Texas State Parks. The number of visitors to state parks increased 37% from 2020, reaching almost 10 million in fiscal year 2021, according to an Environment Texas report.
“We’re expecting that number to continue to grow because it was growing prior to that, and it just spiked up,” Franklin said. “We need more places for Texans to go.”
After a decades-long campaign by conservation groups and legislators, including Fort Worth’s own George Bristol, voters overwhelmingly approved a 2019 constitutional amendment dedicating all sales tax revenue from sporting goods to Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Texas Historical Commission.
Previously, lawmakers had the right to allocate that revenue to other uses. Local and state sporting good tax revenues generated nearly $100 million for the department in fiscal year 2021, according to the agency’s 2022 budget.
Now, with a mixture of tax revenue, private donations and potential funding from a record-high state surplus, Franklin has the agency on track to open six parks in the next 12 to 14 years.
The speed “is lightning compared to glacier,” Franklin said. “Some of the properties we’re going to be opening up in the next few years, we’ve had in our inventory for 10 to 20 years. We just haven’t had the funds to develop them. Now, we’re actually having conversations about, firstly, where campsites are going to go.”
The closest to opening is Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, which features 4,800 acres of hills, canyons, forest and a fish-stocked lake halfway between Fort Worth and Abilene. On Oct. 11, Texas Parks and Wildlife welcomed journalists to tour the property and announce a $1 million donation from grocer H-E-B.
The agency hasn’t set an opening date for Palo Pinto, which will become the first new state park in North Texas in 25 years. But state officials are planning a soft opening in late 2023, when Texas Parks and Wildlife will celebrate the 100th centennial of state parks.
The next year will be crucial in determining the future of Texas state parks, said Michael Lewis, a clean air and water advocate for the advocacy and research group Environment Texas. The state is set to receive millions in federal funds from the Great American Outdoors Act and the federal infrastructure law, and legislators must decide what to do with the 2023 budget surplus, he said.
“There is a ton of money coming in and, if we don’t take advantage of that, we’re just leaving money on the table,” Lewis said. “We’re coming up on a $27 billion budget surplus, and we’re going to have to spend it right. Why not spend it on something popular that has a nice anniversary coming up and that’s going to benefit huge areas of the state?”
In August, Environment Texas released a report finding that Texas ranks 35th in the U.S. when it comes to state park acreage per capita – about 636,000 acres of parkland for more than 29 million people, as of 2019. About 2.4% of Texas land is protected for parks, forests and recreational uses, with 97% of the state remaining privately owned, according to the report.
Lewis is confident in the bipartisan support for more investment in parks, especially because of their economic benefits to small towns like Strawn, which stands to see a massive boost in tourism from the opening of the Palo Pinto park.
During the 2021 legislative session, legislators also allocated funds specifically for park land acquisition. That funding will help Texas Parks and Wildlife compete with private developers to purchase land rather than relying on land donations or private philanthropy, Franklin said.
“We do still rely on willing sellers and people that want their land to go to state parks or conservation,” he said. “It’s still very difficult because there’s a lot of development going on in the state of Texas, so it’s hard to compete with all of the interests. But at least we now have a way to get it done.”
Inflation and rising construction costs are also impacting the state’s ability to move forward with park development, including paving new roads and building structures to accommodate visitors.
Palo Pinto is funded by a combination of private and public dollars, including $12.5 million from state appropriations and up to $13 million from the Texas Department of Transportation for roads in the park.
Anne Brown, the executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, said the nonprofit reached its fundraising goal of $9 million for Palo Pinto. But the foundation will need to generate more donations because of the rising cost of building materials and labor, she said.
As parks officials close in on finishing Palo Pinto, Franklin sees an opportunity to use the upcoming centennial celebration to bring in a new generation of Texans, especially from underserved communities and communities of colors, to state parks.
The state is planning large community events and media campaigns to reach markets they haven’t reached before, Franklin said.
“We know the demographics of Texas have changed, so in order to build our support base 50 years from now, 100 years from now, we’ve got to reach communities that are not engaged in the outdoors,” he said. “We’re out to reach these folks that are not aware of state parks.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.
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