It’s hard to imagine summer in Texas without a visit to one of the state’s world-class parks—whether it’s hiking along a sun-drenched trail at Enchanted Rock, boarding the Texas State Railroad for an afternoon jaunt, or camping out under a star-studded sky at Dinosaur Valley, the state park system has become a staple of outdoor life in Texas. These natural treasure troves are just a few examples of the eclectic character of the state’s more than 120 parks, natural areas, historic sites, and recreation areas that together form the fourth largest park system in the country; covering around 600,000 acres, the Texas state park system is outsized by only the National Park System, California state parks, and Alaska state parks.
The task of preparing Texas’s back yard for an annual flood of visitors—more than 20 million in any given year—is no walk in the park, but Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW) is up to the challenge. Since its formal creation in 1963, when the State Parks Board and the Texas Game and Fish Commission were consolidated into one overarching agency, TPW has managed public recreation areas, developed and maintained parks, and served as a guardian of Texas’s natural resources and wildlife for the enjoyment of future generations.
The park system in Texas didn’t always form such a well-oiled machine. In fact, as recently as one hundred years ago, few state parks even existed, and no standing government agency oversaw public recreational facilities; state funding for parks was practically unheard of. It wasn’t until 1923 that the State Parks Board, a panel of six unpaid members, was created by the thirty-eighth Legislature at the behest of Governor Pat M. Neff. His campaign to develop an organized network of parks in Texas, however, was stalled soon thereafter; the parks board was able to accept only charitable land donations and received zero dollars in funding from the state for new land acquisitions and park development. Indeed, it’s no surprise to learn that during the Roaring Twenties, resource conservation was the last thing on the minds of Texans. It would take a time of national hardship, desperation, and solidarity to fuel the genesis of an organized state park system.
When the stock market crashed in October of 1929, the immediate chaos left in its wake a tarnished national morale and unprecedented levels of unemployment. Texas was no exception: Plummeting oil and farm revenues had wreaked sudden havoc on the unstable Southern economy, and countless families found themselves with empty purses and barren pantries. The crash would leave an indelible scar running across the cultural landscape of the country.
Then, in 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ensured that the country’s physical landscape, too, would be transformed during his twelve years in office. On March 31, he signed into law the Emergency Conservation Work Act, promising to ease unemployment through an intense stint of public works and conservation projects, including state and national park development.
The act called for the immediate establishment of a domestic workforce, known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), to carry out public works projects. The response was overwhelming, and the CCC grew into a veritable army of 17-year-old to 25-year-old men who had come from dark alleys and food-bank lines to journey into the heart of America. Workers earned $30 paychecks from the federal government each month, $25 of which was sent directly home to their families. Over the next nine years, the CCC would employ more than three million eager young laborers. Waves of CCC companies swept across the countryside in a torrent of sweat, muscle, and discipline. When the dust finally cleared, Roosevelt’s youth army had left behind many invaluable legacies, one of which was the foundation of the modern park system as we know it.
Caddo Lake became Texas’s first CCC work site in June, 1933, when Company 889 set up camp and began to craft a park out of the cypress swamps on the state’s eastern border. Many other companies would follow in its footsteps; at any given point between 1933 and 1942 in Texas, about three thousand men in sixteen separate park-development camps were busy at work, shaping and molding the state’s public lands into the trails and campgrounds we still enjoy today. By the end of the CCC’s first year in existence, the federal government, in cooperation with the State Parks Board and the Texas Legislature, had spent more than $1 million in labor and supplies on the construction of Texas state parks.
The lasting impact of the CCC is evident throughout the facilities at Texas’s state parks. If you’ve ever admired the Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park, the stone water tower at Mother Neff, the miles of groomed trails at Bastrop, or the spring-fed swimming pool at Balmorhea, then you’re looking at the handiwork of CCC members. The dam across the Navasota River at Fort Parker State Park was constructed by one of the CCC’s 150 all African American units, company 3807 C, in 1939.
The advent of World War II drew the nation’s attention, manpower, and funding away from land conservation and public improvement efforts. In the early forties, the importance of the CCC declined, and the corps was discontinued in 1942. Still, its legacy remains intact; of the 56 state parks the CCC developed in Texas between 1933 and 1942, 31 remain open to the public, including Palo Duro Canyon, Davis Mountains, Goliad, Bastrop, Big Spring, Garner, Palmetto, and Tyler, to name a few. On a less tangible note, the boys of the CCC also bestowed upon the country a renewed appreciation of the wondrous American landscape; their drive and energy would pave the way for the future of park development and conservation efforts.
If the Depression era was the infancy of the modern-day park system in Texas, then the sixties, the seventies, and the eighties represent what could be called its adolescent growth spurt. A 1966 amendment to the state’s constitution established a ten-year, $75 million state park acquisition and development program, and TPW wasted no time cashing the check. Over the next decade, the agency snapped up thousands of acres across the state. As a result of the aggressive land acquisitions program undertaken by TPW, park acreage jumped from about 63,000 in 1972 to nearly 130,000 in 1977, with more park openings on the horizon.
In 1988, TPW negotiated the purchase of the 215,000-acre Big Bend Ranch in Brewster and Presidio counties for $8.8 million. The ranch was the largest single tract ever acquired by the agency; it effectively doubled the acreage of the Texas state park system, raising the total to more than 400,000 acres. Big Bend Ranch State Park was just one of 22 new state parks opened in Texas between 1984 and 1992.
The expansion of the state park system did not come without growing pains. Appropriations from the state failed to keep pace with the burgeoning number of parks overseen by TPW, and as a result, the nineties were marked by intradepartmental struggle and fiscal crises. The agency hit rock bottom in 1993, when it nearly had to close several state parks because of budget shortages.
Today, TPW is back in the black thanks to a reformed appropriation system and Proposition 8, passed by Texas voters in 2001, which allotted more than $100 million in state dollars for park maintenance and development. With continued financial and public support, TPW stands ready to usher in an era of renewal for state recreation facilities, protecting both the legacy established by the CCC and the long-standing tradition of outdoor life in Texas state parks, a quintessential part of the Lone Star State experience.