The Strange Case of the Missing Parks
You’re taxed for parks, but you don’t get parks. Why? You guessed it: the Parks and Wildlife Department.
As with most bureaucratic fiascoes, the plot begins with good intentions.
Throughout the late Sixties and early Seventies, state Senator Don Kennard of Fort Worth had tried to convince his colleagues in the Capitol that Texas, the land of wide open spaces, was desperately short of parks. As late as 1961, the state was spending less than a nickel a year per Texan on the park system, and a grand total of exactly two parks had been purchased. (Several dozen others, mostly unsuitable, had been accepted as donations.) Kennard, an amiable ex-football player and outdoorsman, took as his forum a series of Senate interim study committees that documented the gaps and inadequacies of the existing parks. His committees were celebrated for their good work (one report* won a national prize for excellence), but no one paid much attention to their appeals for generous new parks acquisition funds.
Then, a warm March afternoon in 1971. More than a dozen state senators are gathered in a smoke-filled room to map strategy on the biggest legislative issue of the session: establishing a corporate income tax. They hold a signed, blood-oath list of fifteen senators who will support it. The Senate’s presiding officer, Ben Barnes, is flatly against the corporate income tax; but if these insurgents can pick up just one swing vote they can rewrite his well-greased tax bill and confound the Lobby. One of their leaders is Don Kennard.
Kennard is, astonishingly enough, also the sponsor of Barnes’ detested tax bill which he and his friends are at this very moment pledging to amend beyond recognition. He is explaining to his fellow senators that he will support the corporate tax amendment to the bitter end, but that if it fails, he will still try to pass the bill without it.
“Barnes asked me to,” he says in a soft voice wavering between apology and determination. “I said yes. I’ve got to do it.” His eyes show all the enthusiasm of a soldier who has just volunteered for a suicidal mission. And not without reason: regardless of what is included in the tax bill, everyone knows that at $864 million it will be the biggest one in the history of Texas. Political hemlock.
Barnes, angling for the governorship, is nothing if not cagey; it is clearly in his interest to have a liberal sponsor his gentle-on-business tax bill even if Kennard retains his right to vote for the corporate income tax amendment, which he does. But no senator would swallow that hemlock for nothing. Before Kennard agreed to carry the bill he extracted Barnes’ support for a penny-a-pack cigarette tax, dedicated expressly for “acquisition, planning, and development of state parks and historic sites” which is now known as Fund 31. “I wanted to carry the tax bill,” he would say later, “because I knew it was the only way we could pass that parks tax.”
That is something Kennard’s colleagues understand. When the day comes, they do indeed pick up the vital swing vote (Senator Bill Patman), but the corporate income tax fails anyway, 16 to 15, because one of their own blood-oath signers, (“Diamond” Jim Bates) switches to Barnes’ side. Amid the furor, it is obvious to all that a new era of corporate taxation is not about to begin. For Kennard, a twenty-year legislative veteran who will lose his race for reelection in 1972, the climax comes that afternoon as Barnes’ tax bill quietly passes, the cigarette tax intact.
It was the last chance, and he had made it. It might be years, perhaps decades, before a dedicated parks advocate would again have such leverage to exact major financial support for parks. What gives the victory its sweetness is Kennard’s conviction that a new era of parks acquisition, a massive preservation of the state’s history and its scenic wilderness, is about to begin.
This is the story of why it didn’t.
Governor Preston Smith’s signature was hardly dry on the 1971 tax bill before the Parks & Wildlife Commission began eyeing Fund 31 hungrily—but not for the purposes Kennard envisioned. “Our intent,” Kennard says, “was that the heavy part [of Fund 31 expenditures] ought to go into acquisitions. They’re not making any more land, and it’s getting more expensive all the time.” As the fruition of years of work by Kennard and the Senate interim committees, Fund 31 was designed above all else to rescue endangered scenic and historic sites: to save, in the words of their 1969 report, “some of our landscape in its true natural state” and to protect surviving aspects of the Texas past “from desecration.”* Instead, with breathtaking enterprise, the Department held back on acquiring such parks and energetically diverted its new-found wealth into whatever channels best promoted its own self-interest: development of pre-1971 parks, a new departmental headquarters building, employee salaries and operational expenses, pet projects for influential local politicians, and purchase of recreational parks where fees can be charged to swell the Department’s total budget. The Department has found Fund 31 such a fiscal windfall that of $53 million collected since its inception, less than $9 million has been spent to purchase land.
(*Said the report: “Too much emphasis has been placed… on providing small areas of full development and tourist attractions;s too little has been placed on acquiring significant natural areas large enough to form self-contained ecological units, for preservation as wilderness… It is a tragedy to wake up and find the Texas parks system consisting only of a chain of reconstructed forts, some campgrounds in lovely settings with restrooms and snack bars, but no extensive sections of Nature’s Texas—not one place to leave your car and strike out on a trail or down a stream that will take you into a Texas without people and pollution. This is a sadness and a failure we simply must correct.”)
It is an axiom of political science that bureaucracies do pretty much what they want to do, regardless of what the lawmakers tell them to do. Fund 31 is a perfect example. In every instance where the Department could plausibly argue that the law allowed an option, it has invariably chosen the path that best advanced its own narrow institutional interests. Take “development”—one of the three purposes for which the Legislature has said Fund 31 money could be spent.
The language of Fund 31 left two key questions unresolved. The first was how expenditures should be apportioned among “acquisition, planning, and development.” The second was whether the Department could use Fund 31 to develop and improve its older, pre-1971 parks. These questions are not as dry and technical as they might seem at first glance. The answers determine what sort of parks the people of Texas will enjoy. Because park sites may be priced out of reach (or spoiled) by the time the Department gets around to buying them, money spent on development can represent acres of irreplaceable parkland lost to the future. Acquisition is more urgent than development. It was supposed to have priority. Nevertheless, the commissioners decided to pour Fund 31 into development of old parks and to buy only as much new land as they could afford to develop immediately.
“I can see why they’d want to beef up what they already had,” says Kennard. “A lot of parks were in pretty bad shape in 1971. But Fund 31 was for expansion, not overall development.” Kennard hesitates to condemn the commissioners’ decision, but others do not. Says San Antonio Representative Ron Bird, the current watchdog of Parks & Wildlife: “All the hearings show the entire intent was for it to be spent strictly on park acquisition in the beginning. It was only supposed to be used for development after the acquisitions reached a good level.”
Alas, once a law is passed, individual legislators’ protests about what it really means are as tinkling bells. In practice the unavoidable imprecision of language gives the bureaucrats the last word. At Parks & Wildlife that word happens to be “development.” The commissioners seem willing to coast along, unhurried, on the theory that it doesn’t much matter what they buy as long as they tend to their developing. “People are all the time telling us we’ve got to buy something because it’s unique, or because ‘they’re not making it anymore,’” says Pearce Johnson, the crusty, strong-willed chairman, whose term has five years to run. “Well, every grain of sand is unique, and they’re not making any more of that, but I don’t think we ought to go out and start buying up sand.”
For a bureaucracy, development is inherently more fascinating than mere acquisition. It generates all sorts of possibilities that keep people busy and fatten the annual report: planning, construction of facilities, staffing, budgeting—and soon, reappraisal of the plans, the facilities, the staff, the budget. It is multifaceted, as they say; and if handled skillfully, endless. Acquisition, by contrast, offers little more than some new pushpins in the map. The choice is easy.
The same Legislature that earmarked Fund 31 for parks also appropriated $8 million for the new headquarters “out of such funds as may be available” to the Department. Just as the Veterans Administration, when it received a large infusion of new funds to help Viet Nam veterans, proceeded to divert this tax money into the construction of a new building, so the Parks & Wildlife Commissioners enthusiastically concluded that Fund 31’s tax dollars were “available” for their 133,000-square-foot building.
It is hard to find anyone else who agrees. “It is certainly not what I had in mind,” says Kennard. Bob Burleson, a Temple attorney who helped draft Fund 31, says an office building “was not within our contemplation.” But Burleson, who was later appointed a Parks & Wildlife commissioner, hastens to add that “I’ve changed my mind, because we’ll have a better-quality operation if we get out of this utterly fragmented office situation.” Few would dispute that; the Parks & Wildlife employees are now scattered inconveniently around Austin in ten different locations. The question, however, is whether Fund 31 should be siphoned away from new parks because it is “needed” for something else, especially when that something else turns out to be office space for the bureaucrats who are supposed to be buying the parks.
Legally, the issue is not whether the commissioners should use Fund 31 for their headquarters, but whether they can. On that narrow issue they received the measured approval of Attorney General John Hill, who opined (in May 1975) that Fund 31 could be spent for office construction “to the extent that the building is related to or will be used in” the specific purposes for which Fund 31 was created. At a minimum, that meant Fund 31 could not be spent for anything on the Wildlife Division’s half of the building. But the Attorney General left vague, perhaps purposely so, the test for determining how much of the Parks half could be paid from Fund 31.
The Department thus had two possible choices to finance the Parks side of the building: one was Fund 31; the other was Fund 64, derived from park concessions and visitor fees, and dedicated by law to the very things that a headquarters building would seem to typify: “administration, operation, maintenance, and improvements” for the state parks system. So the Department chose to rely most heavily on Fund 64, right? Wrong. Fund 64 is “poor”—only about $1.2 million a year, while Fund 31 is relatively rich: upwards of $12 million a year. It was in the Department’s self-interest to find a way of calculating the Parks share that would minimize the bite on their scarce administrative and operational fund, and maximize the bite on the prosperous land acquisition fund. The more money left undisturbed for operations, the more resources available for the bureaucracy to do what it does best: operate. Fund 31 became the natural prey.
Faced with the problem of apportioning the Parks share of the building in a way that maximized the costs “related to” Fund 31, Parks & Wildlife Executive Director Clayton Garrison, an accountant, again had two possible choices. He could divide the share according to the proportion of the Parks Division’s total responsibilities accounted for by Fund 31, or he could divide it according to the amount of floor space used by employees whose work could somehow be described as having a “tie” to Fund 31. The first test was sadly unpromising: four years ago, before Fund 31 ever came into being, the Parks Division had accumulated 405 employees for the day-to-day business of running its system; with the added responsibilities of Fund 31, the current staff had only grown to 563. That test would take most of the Parks share from Fund 64.
The second test was far more attractive. Almost the entire Operations Branch was in the field, and thus (conveniently) did not actually occupy any floor space at headquarters. And since the Department had already assumed that Fund 31 applied to the “development” of all its old parks as well as any new ones, anything having to do with development could be described as “related to” Fund 31 and allocated accordingly. That left very little Parks activity unaccounted for. By choosing floor space as his formula, the adroit Garrison was able to draw two-thirds of the total Parks share, or about $2 million, from Fund 31.
The formula treats most of the parks’ manpower and activity as though they did not exist, and it rests on the implausible assumption that two-thirds of the work done at state park headquarters has suddenly been committed to the specific, narrow purposes of Fund 31. To assess only one-third of the cost of a new administrative headquarters against a fund designed for administration and operations, while assessing two-thirds against another fund designed to buy and open new parks, takes some fancy pencilwork. That is one skill the Department does not lack.
The whole experience is an object lesson about the ingenuity of a bureaucracy in manipulating legislation—by shades and degrees, in the privacy and quiet of its own chambers—toward the result that best satisfies its own needs. Wanting a new headquarters, the commissioners did not ask the Legislature for specific construction appropriations because they knew there was a path of less resistance: take the money from someplace else, from some accounts they already controlled. Never mind that the money had been dedicated to other purposes. The Legislature would not challenge them, they knew, because the politicians would rather see that money slip away than face up to the unpopular job of finding other taxes to pay the bill.
The Parks & Wildlife Department’s handling of Fund 31 is replete with other illustrations of a bureaucracy’s ability to reshape a law in the course of administering it.
• “Operational Expenses.” The legislative authors of Fund 31 knew perfectly well what “operational expenses” were, and they carefully avoided including them among the three purposes of Fund 31. Yet the Department defiantly sought, and received, an Attorney General’s opinion approving the use of the fund for operational expenses, including salaries and overhead. Like the opinion dealing with the headquarters building, this opinion restricts the use of Fund 31 money to operations “referable and allocable” to the Fund’s original purposes, but it does not try to tell the Department what criteria to use in its referring and allocating. Paul Schlimper, the capable but extremely cautious director of the Parks Division, thinks “all of the things that lead up to” the direct cost of land and improvements can be fairly charged to the Fund. “Anything we spend prior to the date a park is actually turned over to the Operations and Maintenance Division,” he says, “would probably be allocated that way.” In Fiscal 1974, about $1 million of Fund 31 money was spent for salaries; other substantial amounts went for office supplies, furniture, and the Centrex telephone system. By way of comparison, only about $2 million was spent acquiring land in 1974.
• BOR Funds. Since 1966, Texas has received more than $10 million in grants from the U.S. Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (BOR). The money, which comes from offshore oil revenues, can be spent for either state or local park projects. The Parks & Wildlife Commissioners decide who gets how much. Before Fund 31 existed, they channeled 60 per cent into state parks and 40 per cent into local parks. After the advent of Fund 31 they progressively reduced the state’s share to zero.
As a result, Fund 31 is indirectly subsidizing local parks. Last year, 50 communities received BOR funds for such things as barbecue pits, picnic pavilions, tennis courts, parking lots, restrooms, goal posts, baseball fields, “tot lots,” and horseshoe courts. Part of that money came from the “lost” state share, which the commissioners surrendered willingly because they knew they could replace it from Fund 31.
From the bureaucratic point of view, it is bad politics to make the local folks angry, which they tend to become when their pet projects are turned down. The genius of the Department’s technique is that it gives the local people every available cent of BOR money. Only the acquisition fund loses.
• Recreational Parks. For most of its history, the Texas parks system was third-rate because it consisted of tiny bits of land on which recreation was overemphasized to the exclusion of almost everything else. Kennard’s interim committees, and later Fund 31 itself, represented the view that the state needed something more than these postage-stamp recreational parks: it needed wilderness and elbow room. At the old-style parks, very little that was naturally significant or scenically worthy was being preserved. Recreation and preservation are often mutually exclusive uses, as anyone knows who has seen the smoothly worn land at places like Uvalde’s Garner State Park (416,777 visitors last year on 630 acres). There are times in summer when the state’s recreational parks approach the population density of Northpark Mall. Fund 31 was designed to give Texans something else.
That design failed to take into account the Department’s own determination to insist on recreational parks. Since 1971, Parks & Wildlife has spent a total of $33 million to buy or develop recreational parks, $9 million on scenic parks, and $1 million on historic sites. The statistics reflect the attitude of Chairman Johnson: “I’m a country boy, and I love the scenic and all that. But you’ve got to provide for the people.”
Providing for the people means giving them as much revenue-producing recreational park development as the Department can get away with, while stalling wilderness and historic acquisitions for as long as possible before conceding as little as possible. In the first three years of Fund 31, the Department bought only three historic sites (at a cost of just $564,000). Others, like the old ghost town of Shafter, were lost while the commissioners procrastinated. Not until Truett Latimer, the executive director of the Texas Historical Commission, provoked a short-lived legislative inquiry into the use of Fund 31 on the new headquarters building, did the Department agree to acquire 28 more sites at a cost of $2 million.
The scenic natural areas have fared less well; only three have been purchased, and the bulk of their acreage (86 per cent) is located in a controversial marsh called Sea Rim near Sabine Pass. Under intense pressure from Beaumont and Port Arthur sportsmen, the commissioners have agreed to permit recreational duck hunting at Sea Rim this winter, an unprecedented step which erodes the very purpose of a scenic wilderness. Despite the Department’s plans to install birdwatching platforms, a sightseeing boardwalk, and trailer hook-ups, Sea Rim is primarily a wildlife preserve in disguise—except during duck season, when it will become a public hunting lease in disguise. But by calling it a “park,” the commissioners were able to buy and develop it with Fund 31 money—$5.5 million.
To justify its indifference to scenic and historic parks, the Department has even published its own official version of the “intent” of Fund 31, which contends that the Legislature’s primary purpose was to create “major recreational parks which would increase entrance fee revenues”—precisely what the Department itself wants.
To be fair, the state does need more (and bigger) recreational parks to compensate for the decades of neglected acquisition and to give its burgeoning urban population an escape, no matter how crowded and noisy, from the hectic pressures of everyday life. The money the commissioners have spent on recreational parks since 1971 has, by and large, been spent carefully and well. The question is whether their willingness to flout Fund 31’s real purposes by emphasizing recreational parks is just a short-run policy. “They wanted to take a good look at the various natural areas before rushing into any purchases,” says Kennard, whose Natural Areas Survey Project at the University of Texas has been doing exactly that with the aid of Fund 31 money. “Their formula [favoring recreational parks] is okay for a couple of years. But if they plan to keep it, someone ought to raise cain.”
In the end there is nothing unusual about what the Department has done with Fund 31; inventiveness in promoting their own desires and interests is an abiding, characteristic of bureaucracies everywhere, of which these examples happen to be timely illustrations worth remembering when the Legislature gets around to enacting your favorite law. But considering the many ways the Department has found to divert Fund 31 from its intended purposes, it is surprising to learn that there is a large and growing surplus in this account designed to get land while the getting was good. At the beginning of September Fund 31 had an unspent cash balance of more than $17 million. And that is the most revealing fact of all. For if the various diversions are no more than standard bureaucratic behavior, the surplus is something entirely different: the result of a thoroughgoing timidity that makes the Parks & Wildlife leadership the least enterprising of any major department in Texas.
The Texas land ethic is basically hostile to the idea of public parks; private landowners usually resist attempts to create them far more vigorously than the general public demands them. The commissioners (who are, after all, unpaid and largely unthanked) have enough hassles without looking for more. As a result, they seem to lack the spirit to wade into the midst of controversy and buy new parklands. The unspent balance in Fund 31 and the skimpy scenic and historic acquisitions themselves suggest the commissioners find it easier to cultivate their own bureaucratic garden.
This timidity is apparent in their attitude toward the state’s waterways, whose channels and banks constitute the most attractive aspects of Central and West Texas. The Department’s handling of such rivers as the Guadalupe is a depressing case in point. Canoeists attempting to use it are harassed by local landowners, sometimes at the point of a gun. Local lawmen have intimidated them so frequently that state Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong has taken a canoe down the river himself to reaffirm, symbolically at least, the public’s rights.
Lacking any safe public access points, the Guadalupe has been a hazard to users during the past decade of its growing popularity; but the Department has still not acted to help the public get on and off the river, even though nothing more elaborate is needed than a half-dozen quarter-acre plots of riverbank access points. A promising 1900-acre tract along the Guadalupe, suitable for campsites, was finally purchased this year, but the commissioners—in a direct contradiction of their usual policy—have budgeted no money to develop it, and there are no immediate plans to let the public in. “It’s still just in the planning stage. That takes a long time,” says Chairman Johnson, who describes canoeists’ well-documented trouble with landowners as “an over-exaggeration.”
A two-year, $72,000 study by the Parks Division which recommended that the state protect a canoe trail along the Guadalupe by purchasing a scenic easement was rejected by the commissioners in 1972. In response to the demands of landowners, they also turned down a proposed hiking trail along an abandoned Southern Pacific railway track near Boerne. Lamented Commissioner Burleson, who deplores the decision: “If they could put up with a damn railroad, they could have put up with a few hikers.” (When the project fell through, the adjacent landowners carved up the railroad right-of-way and took it for themselves.) The Department has given up the idea of buying riverbanks, or even of acquiring scenic easements along them. A 1973 waterways report recommended that landowners be “encouraged to restrict development” (voluntarily?) while public authorities “concentrate their efforts on reducing conflicts” like trespass.
That raises the question of precisely what responsibility the Department has to protect and support the public’s right to use its rivers. Says Parks Director Schlimper: “Our position has been, rather than aggravate the situation by encouraging people to get on the river, we’d just better leave it alone. If you make access easier, you’re compounding the problem.” Since canoeists are using the river anyway, as they have every right to do, doesn’t that mean that the Department has chosen to actively discourage the public from using what belongs to it? “We’re not making it hard on anybody to get on the river,” Schlimper responds. “We’re just not making it easy.” That comes very close to saying that you can’t encourage the public to enjoy its rights, because the public will make waves.
The Department’s timidity is also apparent in its reluctant use of condemnation, a power that other public agencies use freely; in its continued willingness to grant easements across parkland; and in its halfhearted resistance to various schemes that involve placing someone’s pet project in a state pafk (of which the most recent example is the Galveston Chamber of Commerce’s plan to construct an amphitheater “for historical pageants” in a state park ten miles from downtown).
The commissioners also show a continuing reluctance to acquire large parks—parks on the scale of 20,000 acres and more, an objective which Kennard once described as “the whole point of Fund 31.” Texas now owns no parks larger than 16,100 acres, and most are less than one square mile. New York’s Adirondack Forest Preserve, by contrast, covers 2.3 million acres. Commissioner Burleson, who as the principal parks advocate on the board dissents from the dominant postage-stamp park philosophy, says, “What we ought to be doing is telling the staff to go out and start looking up six 20,000-acre Edwards Plateau [Hill Country] sites and one 100,000-acre Trans Pecos site. That’s what we’re not doing.” The commissioners seem desperately eager to blend in with their surroundings, as though their job existed to avoid controversy rather than to promote parks. Chairman Johnson, no shrinking violet himself, has expressed that timid attitude as well as anyone. “We want to be good state citizens in the community,” he says. “We at Parks & Wildlife want to be good neighbors. We don’t want to force ourselves on anybody.” And so the big parks remain unbought all over Texas, lying behind locked gates bearing No Trespassing signs. Good fences, after all, make good neighbors.
That attitude causes the commissioners to refrain, time after time, from acting as protagonists for the public interests they are supposed to represent. Conflicts between public and private interests are an unavoidable part of their agenda; too often, the commissioners try to resolve them by compromise when they should be defending to the full the public’s rights. At a public hearing in May, fishermen complained that a landowner had fenced off part of a river. Not a riverbank—a river. It was a clear violation of law. One commissioner, Louis Stumberg of San Antonio, seemed primarily interested in helping the landowner, not the fishermen. For a time it appeared that his colleagues might actually acquiesce in the fence; the public was thrown on the defensive, forced to justify its own use of its own water. One could not help asking; who else does the public have to defend its interests? After lengthy discussion, the commissioners decided to order the fence removed—they realistically had no other choice—but the fact that the incident rose all the way onto their monthly agenda is the kind of thing that builds the Department’s reputation as a friend of private interests working to keep the public out. Parks advocates have found through long experience that the Department is much readier to tell the public why it can’t do things than to figure out ways it can.
Such passivity and lack of assertiveness is not lost on the Legislature, whose members’ political antennae are carefully attuned to the power signals broadcast by various bureaucracies. Unlike the leaders of most state agencies, the commissioners seldom stand before the Legislature as advocates of the interests they administer—at least when the interests involve parks. (“All they ever talk to us about is wildlife,” says Ron Bird.) “When I proposed Fund 31,” says Kennard, “the Parks & Wildlife board thought I was crazy.” Except for Pearce Johnson, none of the commissioners even appeared to testify on its behalf, and Johnson did his energetic work only in his individual capacity. For their reticence, the commissioners have paid the penalty that politicians customarily inflict on supplicants who have no clout: they are kicked around. If a legislator stepped to the microphone demanding that the Highway Department build a freeway in his home district, his colleagues would hoot him down. But when Joe Wyatt, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, threatened to withhold $23 million of parks acquisition money last session unless the Department agreed to buy a bayshore park in his district, he got his way. No matter that the spot Wyatt wanted is utterly impractical as a park (“It’s under water at high tide,” says Parks Director Schlimper); his colleagues knew a good logroll when they saw one, and they agreed to give him $350,000 from Fund 31 to buy it. Urban legislators are becoming bolder in their efforts to force Parks & Wildlife to use Fund 31 money for municipal parks that the cities themselves ought to build; one such special-interest bill (for Dallas) passed the House last session. The formidable authority of the Highway Department has taught the Legislature that highways ought to be above politics, but the complaisance of the Parks & Wildlife Commissioners, still uncorrected after many years, subjects them to a different tradition. They—and public parks—are kicked around because they show up wearing a Kick Me sign.
What makes the Parks & Wildlife Department and the Highway Department so different? Both are big bureaucracies; both must contend with a Texas land ethic hostile to public intrusion onto private property. Yet the Highway Department has overcome these obstacles; Parks hasn’t. Why?
When Governor John Connally told the 1963 Legislature that the parks system was “sick to the point of dying” and prescribed a merger of the nearly moribund old State Parks Board with the Game & Fish Commission to form the present-day Parks & Wildlife Department, parks advocates applauded his proposal. They hoped that some of the largesse bestowed on Wildlife would rub off on Parks, a benefit that was worth the risk that parks might be overshadowed in the new agency by the far more powerful hunting, fishing, and wildlife interests. At first it seemed a good bargain; the bond program, bigger legislative appropriations, and Fund 31 raised the Parks Division to the fiscal status of Wildlife’s equal partner. But after twelve years, it is increasingly apparent that money is not everything: submission to a Wildlife-dominated department has sapped the Parks Division’s vitality. The Texas parks system is trapped in a bureaucracy whose leadership is basically at cross-purposes with the parks’ best interests.
Because the political weight—the public pressure—in Texas comes from hunters and other sportsmen rather than from people who want parks, the merger has ensured that the parks would be run by a board dominated by the hunting point of view—what some have disparagingly called the Great White Hunter mentality. Although the stable tenure of Executive Director Garrison since 1972 has diminished the internal dissension and backbiting that wracked the Department for years (largely to the detriment of Parks), there has been no cure for Parks’ essentially political predicament. Parks proponents have never had a majority of the board, and they never will; since 1963 their high-water mark has been to have one commissioner whose primary interest is parks: Burleson, a savvy politician who is influential because of his dogged persistence, his Good Ol’ Boy nature, and his sanguine sympathy for Wildlife demands. Members like Joe K. Fulton (Lubbock), Jack Stone (Wells), and the chairman, Pearce Johnson (Austin), are sometime-allies but far from stalwart parks advocates. And the remaining members are even more wildlife-oriented: Stumberg (a big-game hunter whose office is stocked with African taxidermy and whom a friend described—fondly but ruefully— as “someone who would probably kill the last animal of a species to mount it as a trophy”), and John Green of Beaumont (an avid duck hunter who testified last session in favor of a Senate bill designed to open Sea Rim Park to hunting).
People like Stumberg and Green are decent, hard-working, and honest men. They personify an attitude on the Commission that preceded them and will be there when they are gone. They—and others of like mind—will always be on the Commission because they belong there: the state’s hunters will see to it that hunter-oriented people will be sitting in the chairs at Parks & Wildlife where the decisions that affect hunting are made. Other special-interest groups in Texas watch “their” boards with exactly the same hawk-like vigilance. For better or worse, that is the way Texas politics works: the interests who are regulated make certain they have a major voice in the regulation. The special predicament of Parks is that the Parks staff must draw up their plans to satisfy a majority of commissioners who are not primarily concerned with parks in the first place, and who are on the Commission precisely because they are not.
The result of this built-in hunter bias can be seen not only in the commissioners’ choice of Sea Rim, a hunter’s paradise, for their major “scenic park” purchase under Fund 31, but also in their handling of the abandoned Matagorda Island Air Force Base. The U.S. Department of the Interior wants the former bombing range for a federal whooping crane refuge; the commissioners want it for the state—ostensibly in part for a park. Both, fortunately, want to preserve the uncluttered, undeveloped barrier island near Port O’Connor as a primitive stretch of seacoast instead of building a causeway and opening it to motorized visitors. But there the similarity ends.
The commissioners’ preliminary proposals, issued in September, propose to divide Matagorda into a wildlife management area and a park. The “park” will consist of the beach—but only as far back as the primary dunes—and about one-eighth of the remaining acreage. The other seven-eighths will be set aside for “wildlife management”— read, hunting. The small non-beach “park” section will include such unpark-like attractions as the runways from the abandoned air base, a mess hall, a water treatment plant, the headquarters for the wildlife management employees, and “a walk-in refrigeration unit for temporary storage of game.” Campers and sunbathers will be free to use the beach—provided gunfire doesn’t make them uneasy; just over the first row of dunes, hunters will have the use of the island five months out of the year. The “park” section is so skimpy, in fact, that two-thirds of the “primitive beach” illustrated on the Department’s own planning map turns out to be the Gulf of Mexico.
Although park visitors and hunters can coexist on the island at some times and some places (a goal the Department is anxious to promote), their interests are basically dissimilar. Theoretically, the question of who gets the land should be resolved by negotiation between two agencies, each committed to promoting the needs of those it “represents.” But because of the merger of Parks & Wildlife, the question is always resolved within one agency—by a single group of people who owe their collective job to the fact that they tend to be more sympathetic to the concerns of hunters and wildlife interests. There is no agency to speak for parks alone. Commissioner John Green was recently quoted in opposition to the Interior Department’s plan to add 4000 acres of Matagorda to the whooping crane refuge because, he said, the area happens to be the best “duck hunting area in the Gulf Coast” and “we’ve got to protect the rights of that man who buys a hunting license.” There seems to be a direct connection between this line of thinking and the plan that will let hunters take seven-eighths of the acreage, except for the sandy shore that hunters don’t want anyway. At Matagorda, as elsewhere, merger means that the Parks side of the Department never gets a clean shot at land because its main rivals control the Department and thus are in a perfect position to make certain they win any contests that matter—including the constant tug-of-war for the same land.
Parks’ predicament resembles that of mass transportation in Texas, whose commission was swallowed whole by the Highway Department* last session after it began to show feeble signs of independence. (*The new agency is officially named the Texas Department of Highways and Public Transportation.) Henceforth, mass transit plans must meet the approval of the automobile-oriented Highway Commissioners; so much for innovative mass transit plans. Similarly, park development must pass muster before the attitudes and the power of a permanent Commission majority not particularly interested in parks. Because the Parks Division staff know they must constantly justify their plans to this essentially unsympathetic point of view, a chilling influence seeps down through the bureaucracy. There is a failure of energy and drive obvious in contrast to an agency like the Highway Department, which owes its vitality to the fact that its staff know the commissioners wholeheartedly support their goals. If a bright, young parks-oriented employee, a believer, say, in backpacking and birding, is assigned the job of carrying around a Parks & Wildlife film on why we ought to love hunting, something in the Department suffers. That is where merger hurts morale; the Department’s responsibilities are repeatedly at cross-purposes in a way that far exceeds any managerial reasons for operating them together. After twelve years, merger is an example of how the passage of time—and a few budget changes—can make a reform into a reaction. It is an idea whose time has come, and gone.
If the state parks can’t get a fair shake in the Parks & Wildlife Department, should they again be entrusted to an agency of their own? Many of the strongest parks proponents inside state government and outside, including Kennard himself, seem to feel that while division might be a good idea in theory, the political fight required to accomplish it would produce too much agonizing turmoil in a Department that is only now beginning to emerge from years of internal troubles. Others want to keep things as they are. “If you get a parks board that’s just thinking parks,” says Chairman Johnson, “they wouldn’t be good. They should mirror public sentiment around the state, not just the segment that’s interested in parks.” Burleson himself thinks that most of the same parks problems would continue to plague an independent agency because the Texas land ethic, which makes private land ownership “almost sacrosanct,” is so pervasive. Separation “won’t help a bit,” he says. “It won’t increase your chance of getting better appointees. The one’s we’ve got are qualified; the problem is the things they want. The only improvement will come through greater political and staff pressure for parks.”
Perhaps. But as long as decisions affecting parks must be filtered through the judgments of a wildlife board, that pressure will have a hard time making itself felt. Appointees to a purely parks board might conceivably be, as a group, even less interested in parks than the current commissioners; but if so, their indifference would be more conspicuous, and parks advocates could do something to correct it without having to overcome the massed might of the hunters’ lobby. The Texas land ethic and routine bureaucratic ways might indeed stifle a new group of parks commissioners. But the only way to find out is to create that board, give them Fund 31, and turn them loose.