For the hundred-year anniversary of the Texas state parks system, lawmakers have come up with a generous gift. In late May, Governor Greg Abbott signed legislation authorizing a billion-dollar fund to buy land for new parks and expand existing ones. The measure still needs voter approval, but given the popularity of the state’s 87 parks, Texans have permission to begin imagining what natural wonders can be added to the public-lands portfolio. Double the size of the super-popular Enchanted Rock State Natural Area? A new destination park in the wilderness of West Texas? A little slice of Piney Woods heaven in East Texas? Miles and miles of riverfront paradise an hour’s drive from San Antonio or Houston or Dallas–Fort Worth?
Personally, I would love to see Texas Parks and Wildlife expand its footprint in the Davis Mountains, find a way to give the public access to the Pecos River, and buy a big chunk of land in the rapidly developing eastern fringe of the Hill Country. But I was also curious what other parks enthusiasts, both insiders and regular outdoorspeople, have on their wish list. I asked a handful of folks—a state official, a longtime East Texas conservationist, a conservative activist and political donor, and an executive with the Nature Conservancy—to do some “informed daydreaming” about what Texas can do with this historic investment in public lands.
Nearly everyone I spoke to stressed the transformative nature of the Centennial Parks Conservation Fund, as it’s called. “It kind of blows my mind that we have this opportunity staring at us,” said Jeff Francell, the director of land protection for the Nature Conservancy in Texas. For decades, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) lacked the funding to buy land and to open new parks. In 2001, a Texas Tech study found that the state needed to add 1.4 million acres of state parkland by 2030—the equivalent of 852 Enchanted Rocks. Needless to say, that hasn’t happened.
Later this year, TPWD will open the first new park in more than two decades, Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, a surprisingly hilly wonderland between Fort Worth and Abilene. Since 2001, Texas has added about nine million residents. As a result, the most popular parks—little Garner State Park on the spring-fed Frio River, for example—are overcrowded. “Our state parks are almost to the point of being loved to death,” said Francell. But the Centennial fund can go a long way toward closing the gap, if officials spend it right.
“We need to make sure that we’re adding to state parks all over the state,” said Francell. “And we need to make sure that those parks have features that will pull people in. You know, people don’t just go to a park because it’s outside. It’s got to have a river or some topography for mountain biking or horseback riding or trail running, or habitat that is interesting to go look at or scenic like Palo Duro Ranch or Big Bend Ranch.”
Like Francell, TPWD parks director Rodney Franklin was careful not to get too specific about particular locations. Negotiations with landowners are sensitive affairs, and even the mere whiff of state interest in an area can send real estate prices soaring. Also, TPWD will have to balance competing demands from different regions of the state. “I would say that the entirety of the state is in need,” Franklin said. But he added that proximity to major urban areas is a critical factor. While folks may be willing to drive hours for a destination park with a big wow factor (think: Palo Duro Canyon), they might only travel an hour for day use. One “very cost-effective way” to increase access near cities is to add land to existing state parks, such as Pedernales Falls State Park, west of Austin; Lost Maples State Natural Area, in the western Hill Country; or Brazos Bend State Park, southwest of Houston.
Janice Bezanson, executive director of the Texas Conservation Alliance, said she wants to see the state buy big chunks of land, regardless of proximity to population centers. Many existing parks are small and centered on boat ramps that offer access to lakes and rivers. Others are crowded and stressed by too many visitors. Significant acreage is better suited to preserving meaningful amounts of habitat and offers a wider range of recreational opportunities. She cites the 17,000-acre Powderhorn Ranch State Park along Matagorda Bay as an example. Set to open in eight to ten years, the huge swath of unspoiled coastline includes coastal prairies, wetlands, and sand dunes.
I asked Dana Falconberry, an artist and musician whose work focuses on wildlife and nature, where she’d like to see more parks. “I’d love to see especially fragile lands become parks, like wetlands and grasslands,” she said, pointing out that these often underappreciated ecosystems harbor many threatened and endangered species. The West Texas desert and the Hill Country are big draws for tourists, but these charismatic destinations represent only a small fraction of the state.
Bezanson also daydreams about protecting vanishing habitat, disappearing prairies, and forests in particular. She is an East Texan, with a deep knowledge of, and affinity for, the bottomland hardwood forests that have nearly vanished from this well-watered part of the state. “The total biodiversity of a major river in East Texas is . . . just breathtaking,” she said. The Neches River and the Big Thicket deserve special consideration.
Luke Metzger, the longtime executive director of Environment Texas, seconds the need for preserving East Texas forests. “I’d love to protect the bottomland forests along the Sulphur River, habitat for black bear, that are threatened by the proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir,” he wrote in an email. “I’d also love more state parks in the lower Rio Grande Valley. The ocelot desperately needs more habitat, and South Texans need more campsites—there are only five state park campsites for the entire [lower Rio Grande Valley] region!”
Metzger helped lead the charge at the Legislature to create the Centennial Parks Conservation Fund with an unusual ally: Doug Deason, the son of billionaire Darwin Deason and a Trump-supporting GOP donor who has an intense dislike of renewable energy. But Deason has a love of the outdoors and agreed to help Metzger secure funding for new state parks. The Dallas businessman told me in an email that he got involved because “he loves the many natural springs we have in Texas,” adding that he would like to see the state “build parks around some of the more beautiful springs and natural pools and lakes similar to Balmorhea, Pedernales Falls, and Caddo Lake state parks.”
Even with a billion-dollar bank account, the state will face challenges. In Texas, 96 percent of the land is privately owned, so any new public land will have to be purchased from a willing seller at a fair price. “When the United States created national parks, for the most part, in the Teddy Roosevelt days, they could just look at a map and say, ‘Oh, we’ve got all this federal land that we control out west like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, and we can just designate it,’ ” said Francell. “But we’re going to have to work with private landowners, and that can alter the best-laid plans. So we’re going to have to be nimble. We’re going to have to be a little opportunistic.”
Still, the potential to transform the hundred-year-old state park system has veteran advocates in an almost giddy mood. “The word celebration comes to mind,” said Bezanson. “We’re celebrating the hundredth anniversary of state parks. And we’re celebrating having this money to spend on state parks. And what we’re really celebrating is how terrific Texas is and how many fabulous wildlife habitats and different kinds of eco-regions this state encompasses.”
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