How do you say goodbye to a state park? On Monday, which was most likely Fairfield Lake State Park’s last day open to the public, hundreds of visitors poured into the 1,420-acre green space to experience the place for one last time—or for the first. Some hiked the forested, lakeside nature trails in the park, which is about a hundred miles southeast of Dallas. Others tried to catch their limit in the 2,400-acre lake, one of the hottest bass lakes in the state. Some grieved. Some raged. Some still couldn’t quite wrap their heads around how the state could allow one of its 89 parks to shutter at a time when more public land is direly needed. But by 10 p.m., when the gates closed, all the visitors were gone and the park was nearly silent.
Unless the powers that be can come up with a Hail Mary solution, the park will become part of a high-end residential development, with a private golf course and a private lake. For more than fifty years, the state has leased the property from Vistra, the energy giant that traces its history back to Texas Utilities. In 2018, Vistra shut down its coal plant—the reason for the lake in the first place—and invited the state to make an offer on the entire 5,000-acre property, a parcel that includes the state park. Texas Parks and Wildlife neglected to do so, saying it was short on funding and only wanted a portion of the property. In February, Vistra told TPWD it wasn’t renewing the lease. Soon, it came to light that a Dallas developer, Todd Interests, had struck a deal with Vistra to privatize the property.
I, too, had come to see the park before it was too late. When I arrived on a gorgeous early spring morning, the redbuds were blooming and the cars were queuing up at park headquarters, a small building decorated with lake-themed kitsch and staffed by TPWD personnel as busy consoling visitors as taking payment. “I’ve been coming here for forty-five years,” said one white-bearded man towing a glittering bass boat. “I just want to get one last day in.” The TPWD worker empathized. “It’s my happy place too,” she said. In 2022, a record 82,000 visitors stopped by the park.
I sat down with superintendent Daniel Stauffer outside headquarters. The last few weeks had been a whirlwind, with record visitation—more than six thousand people visited from February 14–23 alone, he said—and the stress of planning for an uncertain future for him and his seven employees. But, he said, it finally dawned on him that morning, as he made his rounds, that he might be doing so for the last time. Though he’s optimistic that the park can somehow still be saved—either through eminent domain or dealmaking with Vistra and Todd Interests—he has to contemplate the next chapter of his life. He got his first superintendent gig here in 2019. Fairfield Lake is also where he met his wife, made lifelong friends, and settled into the community. “It would break my heart to leave Fairfield Lake,” Stauffer said. The idea of privatizing the park for a golf course and multimillion-dollar second homes, he said, is “sick” and a “visceral gut punch.” The park, he said, lies in a “Goldilocks zone”—an hour and a half from the Metroplex, two and a half hours from Houston, and just off busy Interstate 45. Just far enough to get away for the weekend. It’s also integral to the town of Fairfield, a struggling community of 2,850 that offers few other reasons to get off the interstate.
“By and large, the response that we’ve had from the general public has just been outrage,” he said. “The folks that have been coming out here for decades are losing a part of what kind of makes them them, a piece of their personality, a piece of their life.”
At Stauffer’s recommendation, I spent much of the morning on a slow two-mile loop hike through the thick forest on the north end of the park. After the billboard–and–fast food blur of Interstate 35—that weird combination of boredom and anxiety induced by Texas’s most hideous highway—trees and birdsong were just what I needed. Fairfield Lake State Park lies at a crossroads of ecoregions: the Post Oak Savannah, the Blackland Prairie, and the Piney Woods all converge here. This is reflected in the mix of timber. I spied eastern red cedar, wearing its year-round suit of green leaves, brushing up against pines, surrounded by towering post oak. I found myself looking up a lot, at the open winter canopy, the tiniest of buds announcing spring’s imminence, the rustling of last year’s crop of dead leaves, the strange cankers on the oak trees, and the green lichens clinging to branches.
I stopped for a rest on a bench at the lake’s edge, framed by two Texas yaupons hanging on to the last of their red berries. Reeds lined the shore, their tassels heavy with seeds. I scanned the water for river otters and the sky for a resident nesting pair of bald eagles. When I left, a thorny greenbrier vine grabbed my ankle as if in an aggressive invitation to stay. The roar of a bass boat reminded me that this park isn’t just about solitude in nature. The tree-lined lake is the park’s main attraction. Formed in 1969 to provide cooling water for Big Brown—Texas Utilities’ coal-fired power plant, one of the most notorious polluters in the state—the reservoir today is a red-hot bass fishery. When the power plant was decommissioned in 2018 and the lake was no longer artificially heated by the plant’s discharges, the aquatic ecology improved immensely. Vegetation proliferated, baitfish followed, and so did largemouth bass and the anglers who chase them. On the day I visited, a man from Arkansas bragged to me that his five-fish limit weighed in at 24 pounds. Another said he’d had a “pretty good” day with nine keepers in three hours of fishing.
Almost everyone I met on the trail was a first-time visitor. It seemed half of the retired population of the Metroplex had emptied out for a first-time, last-time hike at Fairfield Lake. David and Rebecca Wilson, a couple from Flower Mound, clutched their walking sticks as they vented. “It breaks our hearts,” said David. “We wish we had come before. This place is more beautiful than we thought. The state has to step in and do something.” Farther down the trail, I met Steve and Christy Brewer, a retired couple dressed in camouflage who live near Palestine. “We’re here to have a good cry,” said Steve, who spent his working years as a full-time cowboy on ranches in the Hill Country. “It’s a shame.” When they were dating, the couple spent all their free time in state parks. He proposed to her at the top of Main Dome at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. They honeymooned at Lake Palestine. “Thank God for our state parks,” Steve said. Christy said that as far as she’s concerned, the folks who will live in Todd’s private Shangri-la are “interlopers.”
After my refreshing hike, I drive to the south boat ramp. The parking lot was nearly full at noon on a Monday. Within minutes, a local fisherman, Forrest Dean Chap, offered to give me a tour of the lake in his boat. Chap has been coming to Lake Fairfield since 1975; he taught his three boys to fish and water-ski here. Retired from the Nucor Steel plant in Jewett, Chap is on the water three days a week now. As he took me around the lake, it was clear he knew the place like the back of his hand. He pointed out the precise locations of submerged timber that holds big bass, a bald eagle nest, the haunts of the river otters, the best spots for water-skiing. He was furious at the privatization of what amounts to his second home. “I’ve been working all my life, since I was sixteen years old,” he said. “Now, if you’re not rich you won’t be able to come out here and enjoy it. I know people have to make money, but to come in here and do this to us working-class people—it hurts.”
As I talked with Chap and the others, a hearing at the Texas Capitol, in Austin, underscored just how much the future of Fairfield Lake State Park turns on money. When TPWD had the chance to buy the whole five-thousand-acre property, it balked—in part, officials say, because it didn’t have the money. For years, the Legislature used the revenue from the sales tax on sporting goods to balance the state budget, instead of sending the money to TPWD to repair state parks and open new ones. That changed in 2019, when voters approved a constitutional amendment fixing the issue, but TPWD didn’t submit an offer. Vista wanted to sell the five-thousand-acre property as a whole, and TPWD said it only wanted a portion of it.
This confusing saga received deeper scrutiny on Monday. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission chairman, Arch “Beaver” Aplin III, the founder of Buc-ee’s and a major GOP donor, told a House subcommittee that the state had more recently offered Vistra $60 million for the property, which had been listed for sale online at more than $110 million. Vistra rejected the offer. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Todd Interests complained that the state hadn’t come close to offering fair market value and called the negotiations “difficult” and “haphazard.” First the state had tried to just acquire the parkland portion of the five-thousand-acre property, which Vistra rejected, and then, as the development deal with Todd Interests unfolded, the state changed course, insisting that TPWD was only interested in acquiring all the acreage—a negotiating tactic that confused lawmakers. But Aplin explained that he had learned of the developer’s interest in using its water rights to sell water to the Metroplex, which would have “devastating effects” on Fairfield Lake. Only by purchasing the entirety of the property could TPWD ensure the viability of the park’s key feature, the lake. Earlier that day, superintendent Stouffer had insisted that there was reason for optimism, but in the harsh glare of the Capitol committee room, it was hard to see it.
As I left Fairfield Lake State Park on Monday afternoon, I noticed some workers with welding equipment at the park entrance. They were installing a new, permanent gate.