To Love the Beautiful:The Story of Texas State Parks
“The greatest happiness possible to a man . . . is to become civilized, to know that pageant of the past, to love the beautiful, to have just ideas of values and proportions, and then, retaining his animal spirits and appetites, to live in a wilderness.” – J. Frank Dobie
The Rio Grande River flowing through the Grand Canyon Saint Helena in Brewster County, Texas, circa 1929. This area is known today as Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park.
Review of Texas Wild Life and Conservation, 1929. Departmental history project research files, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department administrative records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.
Texas, like other parts of the arid Southwest, resisted easy settlement. The rugged characteristics of the frontier were retained in some parts of Texas as late as the 1960s. But in most places, the taming of the frontier had a dramatic effect on the land and wildlife. In the natural course of events, the pioneers cut down the forest. They plowed the land and cleared out the brush from ditches, ravines, and woodlots. They drained the swamps and built mills on the brooks and streams.
Texans were not blind to the changes in their state. As early as the 1860s, Texas and several other western states passed the first laws to protect fish and wildlife against commercial killing. In 1907, under pressure from sportsmen, the Texas legislature followed the lead set down by other states and created a game agency to protect the state’s wildlife resources. The Texas Game, Fish, & Oyster Commission faced many obstacles in protecting Texas wildlife. Both funding and legal authority were lacking, and county after county was granted exceptions to the laws that did exist. It seemed that neither the people nor the legislature took the commission very seriously, even as fish and wildlife populations continued to decline.
At the same time, Texas stood outside the romantic impulse that was giving birth to the first national parks. By the late 19th century, some Americans had realized that wild places would soon be gone if they were not protected. With them would die a part of American greatness. National concern over the threats to natural wonders led Congress to set aside land at Yosemite and Yellowstone. By the 20th century, under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt, the national parks movement exploded. Roosevelt used his power to create 18 national monuments, including Mesa Verde, the Petrified Forest, and the Grand Canyon. Yellowstone, the first national park, was joined by new parks at Yosemite, Sequoia, and Mount Rainier. Roosevelt also moved to protect historic sites, including ancient Indian ruins and Civil War battlefields.
No Texas sites were included or even considered for federal protection as national parks or monuments, and the reason was simple. Unlike other western states, Texas had retained control of its public lands when it was annexed to the United States. The federal government had no say over what Texas did with its land. Only Texans could decide that.
Hunters with a jaguar killed near Goldthwaite, 1903.
Year Book on Texas Conservation of Wild Life, 1929. Departmental history project research files, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department administrative records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.
By 1895, overaggressive harvesting and disregard for the animals’ breeding habits had caused noticeable damage to the oyster population of Texas. With almost no funding and no staff or enforcement capabilities, early commissioners traveled among the oystermen and tried to persuade them to join a voluntary lease system by which oystermen developed and protected their own oyster beds. The devastating Galveston Hurricane brought temporary success to the program, but as long as public beds were free to exploit, private beds never really took off.