Winding and bumping up a crushed stone road in four-wheel-drive low, we watch an owl light out for higher ground. Red and gray pyrrhuloxia flit past; a lone javelina scurries for cover. As we come to a roundabout atop Carpenter Hill in far West Texas, the sun bears down on us. The road, whose intricate stonework stands out in the remote foothills of the Davis Mountains, was constructed at the same time as the spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park by the Civilian Conservation Corps—the Depression-era program designed to put people to work on maintaining and improving public lands throughout the United States. Standing on the hilltop with the Davis range at our back, we can see the iconic pool to the west and Balmorhea Lake to northeast. This piece of land was part of the park’s original design, but it has only recently been incorporated within park boundaries. We’re up here so that Nick Havlik and Price Rumbelow, natural resource biologists with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, can show me the land TPWD recently acquired, resulting in a seven-fold expansion of the park.
Like many Texans, I’ve traveled to the springs at Balmorhea since I was child. The white adobe buildings and towering cottonwood trees border the massive pool where, on a normal summer day, cooler-toting patrons rim the watering hole with towels and camp chairs, as swimmers and snorkelers splash in the clear, emerald water.
People have gathered on the land that is now Balmorhea State Park for thousands of years. The area is home to San Solomon Springs, an oasis in the surrounding desert ecosystem. Mescalero Apache are said to have watered their horses at the springs, and endangered species including the Pecos gambusia and the Comanche Springs pupfish swim in its waters. In the thirties, the CCC built the park and its beloved swimming pool with water sourced from the springs. When construction was complete around 1940, the park occupied just 46 acres. Between then and 2020, that grew to 108 acres. This year’s acquisition increases the park’s area to 751 acres, enabling future trails and campsites to stretch into the surrounding landscape.
From our perch on the hilltop, the usual late-summer crowds are conspicuously absent because the park is closed for maintenance. We begin to spitball ideas for how the additional land might be used. A multiuse trail from the park headquarters to the top of the hill? That’d be a fun ride on mountain bike. Hike-in campers could set up tents on the low-slung shoulder of the hill. “Maybe a zip line?” Rumbelow jokes, gesturing to the pool some three hundred feet below. “Some day, when it’s all figured out and finished,” Havlik adds, “it’s gonna be awesome.”
In mid-June, the parks department announced that it had purchased 643 acres at Balmorhea using money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the federal program that distributes proceeds from offshore oil and gas leases to conservation and recreation projects throughout the country. Thanks to two major legislative advances stemming from years of advocacy from conservation groups, the Balmorhea expansion turned out to be one of several desperately needed victories this year for land conservation in Texas.
During a year of pandemic, social reckoning, and economic upheaval, one unexpected bright spot has been lawmakers’ bipartisan support for conservation funding. In less than a year, advocates in Texas earned two major funding victories with the state’s passage of Proposition 5 and the enactment of the federal Great American Outdoors Act. It’s “really great news in a pretty terrible year,” says Jeff Francell, director of land protection at the Nature Conservancy in Texas.
In November 2019, voters in Texas approved Prop 5, which secured dedicated funding for state parks and historic sites through sales taxes on sporting goods. Those taxes had been intended for parks and historic sites under a 1993 law, but, through a loophole in the policy, state legislators frequently diverted large sums to the general budget. Prop 5 proposed closing the loophole and dedicating the funding to parks and historic sites. Eighty-eight percent of the Texas electorate voted in favor of the referendum—the widest margin of victory for a state conservation measure in U.S. history, according to the Nature Conservancy.
Then, in August 2020, after his administration initially proposed to gut conservation spending in the federal budget, President Trump reversed course and signed the Great American Outdoors Act. The law secures full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and addresses the maintenance backlog at national parks. Advocates had described the long-sought measure as “the holy grail of the conservation community.”
This progress may indicate (with many caveats) a growing consensus around the importance of public lands, but conservationists say the work is far from over. Texas has a lower percentage of public lands than almost every state in the country. Although Texas is, by many measures, among the nation’s fastest growing states, Texas’s opportunities for outdoor recreation haven’t kept up. In fact, a 2001 report commissioned by TPWD found that Texas state parks would have to add 1.2 million acres by 2030 to keep up with population growth. We’ve added only a fraction of that—about 200,000 acres, in two decades. Nevertheless, over the past fourteen years the state budget hasn’t allocated any funds to TPWD for land acquisition.
Like many state and national parks nationwide, Balmorhea’s visitation numbers have soared over the past decade. By 2016, in an effort to manage crowds, TPWD decided to cap daily visitors at 1,300. One benefit of this year’s added acreage will be to help the park manage those crowds. “This is going to allow us to have a different camping experience for people who want to stay at the park,” says Mark Lockwood, the recently retired regional director who oversaw Balmorhea State Park during the acquisition. “It’s going to give the people who visit the park for more than just day-use some other opportunities for recreation.”
The added land will also insulate the park from recent expansions in oil and gas development in the region that have riled some environmental groups. Ensuring the health of the springs requires more than simply protecting this additional acreage, but “in general,” Lockwood says, “when the department has the opportunity and the funds, it’s not uncommon to look for ways to buffer parks.”
Although the federal program that provided crucial funding for the Balmorhea expansion was designed to funnel $900 million per year to such projects, Congress has only twice allotted the full amount since the fund’s 1964 inception, and the average yearly allotment has been about $450 million. That changed with the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act. Not only does the new law fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, but it also provides $9.5 billion over five years to address overdue maintenance projects at national parks. (It’s worth noting that the Trump administration has dragged its feet in implementing the new law.)
After Congress appropriates LWCF funds, they are divvied up among federal, state, and local programs in all fifty states. When the Outdoors Act was signed into law, Texas Parks and Wildlife tweeted that the department could receive approximately $20 million for state and local projects. “We give away several million dollars a year to counties and cities for local park grants, improvements, acquisitions, trail development, things like that,” said Ted Hollingsworth, head of land conservation at TPWD. “But we always try to maintain a bit of balance that can be brought to bear when we have these truly strategic opportunities like we had at Balmorhea.”
In addition to Balmorhea, in the last several years TPWD has added acreage to Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, Bastrop State Park, and Goose Island State Park, among others. “We see our role as putting those larger spaces on the ground and making them available,” Hollingsworth said. “That’s really what we specialize in—those big space, ecosystem-scale outdoor opportunities for people.”
Neither the 2019 referendum nor the new federal law secures state funds for land acquisition, though, so despite the good news the department will still struggle to cobble together funds when it sees an opportunity to expand public lands in Texas. Francell says it’s possible the Legislature will recognize the opportunities presented by the new laws, and will finally allocate some funds to the parks department for land acquisition.
Back at Balmorhea State Park, the Parks and Wildlife biologists and I make our way down Carpenter Hill, driving along a ranch road through low mesquite and yucca. Havlik tells me that some people may look at the scrubby desert surrounding us and find it boring. It’s dry, dusty country that looks the same for miles around. “Look a little closer,” he says. “You’ll see something.”
We make one last stop on the way to the highway, scampering over a locked gate into a dry irrigation channel. A nighthawk startles us when it takes off from the branches of a nearby desert willow. Rumbelow and Havlik say the willows, which are normally small, pink flowering trees, are among the biggest they’ve ever seen in the area. We linger in their shade, but not for long, because Havlik gets a call that he and Rumbelow need to respond to a wildfire on the Devils River, near Del Rio. It’s a four-and-a-half-hour drive from our location, so we part ways hastily, and, on the way out, I take a final, longing glance at the shuttered springs.
The day after visiting Balmorhea, a friend and I drove to Big Bend National Park. Along the way, we passed the Fulcher Ranch, near Terlingua. Big Bend’s superintendent, Bob Krumenaker, recently announced that the owners of Fulcher Ranch informed park management that the family wanted their property to be incorporated into the park. It takes an act of Congress to modify the boundaries of a national park, so in August, Representative Will Hurd, the Republican lawmaker who represents the area, introduced a bill that would enable 6,100 acres in the Terlingua area to be added to the park. If the bill becomes law, it’s possible Big Bend would draw on newly secured LWCF funds to pay for the acquisition.
Big Bend officials don’t know yet how the GAOA maintenance funds will be distributed, but their impression is that the park service will prioritize large-scale projects. With about $90 million worth of deferred maintenance work, Big Bend is in the top 35 of more than 400 National Park Service–managed areas in terms of deferred maintenance dollars. “I don’t know that that’s a good thing,” Krumenaker said. “But nonetheless, we do expect a lot of support from our regional and national offices to try to address some of the big issues that are here.”
Texas is overdue for a reckoning over public lands: To whom did the land belong before? Who has access to it now? And how do we fund expanding and maintaining it? Some have argued that funding conservation efforts with money from the oil and gas industry turns a blind eye to climate change. Francell notes that the funds secured in the past year are still inadequate. “I don’t think that this alone is going to be enough to keep up with the growth in Texas,” he says. “But it sure is good news, and it sure is the right direction going forward.”
Big Bend was open for day hikes when my friend and I visited, but camping was prohibited because of the pandemic. It was the emptiest I’d ever seen the park. There were a few other cars in the Chisos Basin parking lot, but once we reached the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains, we didn’t see another hiker all day.
Sitting on the edge of the Southeast Rim looking out over the distant river valley stretching into Mexico, we watched a pair of peregrine falcons soar for miles, effortless, over the jagged desert. We watched them spin, and drop, and call out, as the smaller birds—potential prey—in the grassy meadow behind us chattered. We took in the display, stunned by the falcons’ nimble speed in the air, then wandered back down through the pine, madrone, and juniper. As we descended from the rim we considered that there are very few places we know of where one can see hundreds of miles without any clear sign of human development. That Texas’s wild places demand to be preserved and maintained goes without saying, and recent policy advances are a promising sign, but whether we’ll ultimately meet that demand remains to be seen.