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Shooting Blanks

Strapped for cash and confounded by our state’s changing demographics, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is hunting for a new mission.

By December 1996Comments

THE MOST COMPELLING EVIDENCE that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is an agency at a crossroads—maybe even in the cross hairs—was the annual public meeting of its nine-member commission in August. It was conducted under the sort of red-alert security usually associated with a high-profile murder trial: While an impressive number of law enforcement agents stood watch, disparate groups of hunters, animal rights activists, bikers, hikers, birders, campers, and rock climbers eyed each other suspiciously as they passed through a metal detector and were warned that rigorous rules of conduct were in force.

The added security was partly a response to a recent flurry of death threats against Parks and Wildlife’s executive director, Andrew Sansom, and the high-profile commissioners appointed by Governor George W. Bush in early 1995. In an apparent effort to play to the agency’s powerful but dwindling constituency of hunters and ranchers, Bush added three prominent conservatives—baseball star Nolan Ryan, billionaire Lee Bass, and actress Susan Howard-Chrane—to the commission’s mix. But more precisely, the siege mentality reflects the controversy generated by Parks and Wildlife as it very publicly grapples with its mission.

To be sure, Parks and Wildlife is beset with problems common to many branches of state government, such as a chronic financial crunch and the clash between public and private property. But its overriding affliction is that it can’t let go of the past: It’s a traditionally rural agency attempting to serve an increasingly urban state. For years it has catered to hunters and anglers, who admittedly have paid most of the bills, yet national trends suggest that blood-sportsmen are a vanishing breed. Seventy-five years ago, practically every male in Texas over the age of twelve owned a rifle or shotgun and hunted according to the season. Today, fewer than 6 percent hunt, and not many more fish. Texas is the number three state nationwide in “hunting opportunities,” but we’re number one in bird watchers. A hard-core rancher who makes ends meet by leasing acreage to hunters recently cornered Sansom and asked: “How can I meet some of those birders?” The rancher had come to realize that birders could be nearly as large a source of revenue.

Sansom believes the real issue isn’t hunters versus non-hunters but demographics. Only 3 percent of blacks and Hispanics in Texas have ever hunted or fished, for instance, yet by the year 2030, when the state’s population is expected to be twice what it was in 1990, blacks and Hispanics will constitute a majority. “If we can’t meet that challenge,” Sansom says, “we’ll be irrelevant.” Rather than promoting other recreational activities, however, the agency’s strategy seems to be to get women, minors, and minorities to hunt. Howard-Chrane—whose claims to fame are (1) that she played a stock character on Dallas, and (2) that she was a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association—is a leader in this effort. Last year, Parks and Wildlife sponsored hunts for inner-city kids and taught hunter education as part of agriculture science in two hundred public schools.

Whatever the problems and potential solutions, there’s no denying that Parks and Wildlife is fundamentally different than it was in the old days. Once upon a time, the agency was actually two separate entities: the Texas Game and Fish Commission, which thrived on hunting and fishing license fees, and the perennially underfunded State Parks Board. Until the Legislature merged the two in 1963, Texas probably had the worst parks system in America. Velasco State Park in Brazoria County, for example, was completely under water at high tide. The marriage of these basically alien cultures was a boon to parks, but it stirred up resentment among hunters and fishermen.

By law, the mission of Parks and Wildlife has been to “protect, manage, and conserve the state’s natural and cultural resources,” but critics say the agency has lost sight of its priorities. Animal rights activist Kathy Nevils of Austin-based Action for Animals told me that after the 1995 Texas Wildlife Expo—an annual festival conceived as a celebration of hunting and fishing—she cornered commissioner Dick Heath and demanded to know what he thought Parks and Wildlife was supposed to do. According to Nevils, Heath replied: “It’s our mission to serve hunters, much like welfare agencies serve welfare recipients.” According to Heath, the conversation never took place; for Nevils to say it did, he says, is “absolutely ludicrous and self-serving, typical of people with agendas of their own.” In fact, he notes, some of the harshest criticism of the agency “comes from hunters and anglers complaining that they’re paying more than their share so the non-hunters can ride on their coattails.”

Clearly, the agency is caught between competing interests. Consider these moments from recent commission meetings:
• At a May review of the Furbearers Proclamation, which regulates the “taking” of small creatures like otters and beavers, Parks and Wildlife was asked to ban the use of steel-jawed leg-hold traps. These traps, which are routinely used by private landowners, have been outlawed by 88 countries because they are both cruel and wasteful: Oftentimes, the animals caught are not the intended target, and many are left to die or chew off their limbs. “Are these traps legal in Texas?” inquired a commissioner who apparently wasn’t aware that they were. Two months later, the commission voted to keep allowing them.
• To address the problem of tame deer that are “menacing” urban areas in great numbers, the commission declared that white-tailed deer could be moved, but only to counties where hunting is permitted. One can only imagine how deer accustomed to eating corn from homeowners’ hands will fare in a hail of bullets.
• After noting that Texas’ mourning dove population had dropped 19 percent in each of the past two years, Nevils requested that dove season be suspended. While she knew the commission would never agree to such a drastic measure, she reasoned that if you ask for the moon you might get Lubbock. Yet the commission took no action.

Hunters and animal rights activists may be the most prominent combatants in this long struggle for the soul of Parks and Wildlife, but all the divergent users of our parks system have their own agendas and axes to grind. A big part of Sansom’s job is resolving conflicts between rock climbers and hunters, mountain bikers and equestrians, fly fishermen and motorboaters. “We are evolving too fast for some,” he says, “and too slow for others.” Even critics acknowledge that under Sansom, the agency is getting better. Funding for non-game activities has increased by at least 300 percent since 1990. At this year’s Texas Wildlife Expo, the featured events were bird banding and kayaking. It’s hard to believe that only a few years ago, the agency’s celebrity guest at the festival was rock star and devoted bow hunter Ted Nugent.

As with so much else in state government, changes at Parks and Wildlife have been made with an eye on the bottom line—though they haven’t always turned out as planned. When Sansom assumed his post six years ago, for instance, he devised a strategy that would remove his agency from the political arena, where agencies challenge each other for a share of the general revenue fund; instead, he wanted to be entirely financed by users fees—the only state entity with such an arrangement. In Sansom’s grand scheme, Parks and Wildlife would receive 70 percent of its income from hunting and fishing licenses and state park entry fees and the remainder from the federal excise tax and the state sales tax on sporting goods. Unfortunately, in 1995 the Legislature put a cap on how much the agency could draw from the sales tax, so most of the money never came. Then the rains never came. Increased park fees, which took effect last spring, were supposed to generate up to $7 million in new revenue—yet largely because of the drought, attendance at some parks was down 80 percent this summer.

The funding crisis is so severe that when the Richard King Mellon Foundation offered to donate some 40,000 acres in the Chinati Mountains near Big Bend, the state at first refused to accept it. In terms of conservation, the gift was a windfall: It traverses six biotic zones, from the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert to the Chinati mountain peaks, and includes dramatic canyons with seasonal waterfalls, grasslands, and oak forest with abundant wildlife. So what was the problem? Governor Bush worried that Presidio County would lose $7,000 in property taxes if the state took ownership of the land. A deal was cut to cover the tax loss by soliciting a private donation, but some of the commissioners still wanted to refuse, citing the cost of maintenance and upkeep. In the end, the commission agreed to accept the 40,000 acres but voted to keep the area closed to the public until a means could be found to make it pay for itself. “How could we take on a new site,” Sansom asks rhetorically, “when we can barely afford upkeep on the two hundred sites we already have?”

He’s not kidding: Parks all across the state are sorely in need of maintenance and repair. Some of the older ones, like Garner, Blanco, and Palo Duro, were built during the Depression. Water and sewer systems and roads designed to accommodate crowds one tenth the size of those today are wearing out. To appease the hunters, who are finding fewer and fewer acres of available private land, Sansom opened some of the parks to them on selected weekdays—which meant they were closed to non-hunters, who were in turn infuriated. In a further attempt at appeasement and balance, he then opened 700,000 acres of wildlife management areas once reserved for hunters to birders and other non-sporting types.

In January, Sansom may ask the Legislature to remove the cap on sales taxes, but it’s doubtful he’ll get his way. Representative Rob Junell of San Angelo, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told me that he never liked the idea of dedicating a part of the sales tax to any particular agency. “I’m sure Parks and Wildlife thinks it’s nice getting a percentage of our main source of revenue,” Junell says. “But until we get the schools taken care of, that has to be at the top of our list. Parks are important, but not as important as public schools.”

So what to do? For the sake and safety of the general public, maybe it’s time to admit the marriage has failed and file for divorce. Though users fees work fairly well in some areas of state government, such as the highway department—gas guzzlers expect to pay extra and don’t demand exclusive rights on weekends—it isn’t working at Parks and Wildlife. People whose idea of recreation is climbing rocks or banding birds will never be comfortable in the same agency as those whose idea of sport is using steel-jawed traps or stalking and killing deer and small birds with high-powered weapons. The main argument against the divorce is that it runs counter to Governor Bush’s smaller-is-better philosophy. Transforming one agency into two means two directors, two legal staffs, two bureaucracies. Still, we ought to think about it before somebody gets hurt. A first-class parks system for Texas is infinitely less expensive than civil war.

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