To Love the Beautiful: The Story of Texas State Parks
As it moved through the last of the 20th century and into the 21st, TPWD confronted a very different recreational environment than the one that had given birth to the Texas State Parks Board back in 1923. The original vision of wayside parks had given way to a far-flung system of historic sites, scenic areas, and rugged natural areas. The clientele had expanded from auto travelers to include hikers, campers, canoeists, photographers, birdwatchers, climbers, and those looking for a good place to run a jetski or an ATV.
Technology fueled an enormous demand from the public for wilderness experiences. Ordinary people could now buy kayaks, backpacks, sleeping bags, tents, hiking shoes, and dried food that adventurers of the past could only have envied. And they could ride into the wilderness on paved highways in SUVs, armed with information—downloaded from the Internet—that once would have taken a lifetime of experience to accumulate. As these changes accelerated, some said that both state and national parks were in danger of being “loved to death.”
The Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park provides a case in point. Between 1869 and 1940, a total of 73 people rafted through the canyon. By 1952, the number had risen but still stood at a total of 19 for the entire year. Today, the number stands at 20,000 annually, most on commercial float trips. Individuals who wish to paddle the river on their own must go on a waiting list of an astonishing 20 years for a permit to be issued.
Like the national parks, Texas parks faced soaring popularity that ran headlong into a governmental era that asked state agencies to do more with less. In the 1980s, TPWD, still riding the cigarette-tax train, continued to open new parks, including Guadalupe River, Brazos Bend, and Enchanted Rock. Matagorda Island and Choke Canyon were developed jointly as both parks and wildlife management areas. In 1988, the department doubled state park acreage in Texas with the purchase of Big Bend Ranch in Brewster and Presidio counties, a longhorn cattle range of 215,000 acres. The ranch, a rugged landscape of canyons, extinct volcanoes, and remote waterfalls, was opened to the public in 1991.
But the revenue generated by the cigarette tax was on the decline. In 1993, the legislature earmarked a portion of the sales tax from the sale of sporting goods, and dedicated up to $32 million a year of this earmark to parks. The public breathed a sigh of relief. In their minds, the parks funding crisis was solved. But in practice, only a portion of the revenue was actually spent on parks projects (about $21 million annually), with the rest of the money from the sporting goods tax—almost $100 million—used to pay for other state services. This practice would continue for more than a decade. In addition, millions of dollars in bonds were overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2001 to raise money for parks. The bond issue generated over $50 million for park repairs, while an additional $47 million remained unissued.
The fate of Big Bend Ranch became illustrative of the issues facing Texas state parks in the 21st century. In 2005, TPWD proposed to sell part of Big Bend Ranch to a private developer to be turned into a resort. Public outrage stopped the sale but brought to public attention the depth of the funding crisis at Texas state parks.
Today, Texas state parks face aging infrastructure, staff shortages, and reduced hours. In 2006, the condition of Texas state parks became a major issue in the governor’s race, and it promised to be controversial and emotional in the legislative sessions to come.
Wildlife Conservation Today
TPWD now employs more than 500 game wardens. Law enforcement projects in recent times have included major operations to stop poaching of deer, turkey, alligator, and fish. With the shortage of public land in Texas, TPWD instituted a program known as Type II Wildlife Management Areas. These consist of large tracts of land that are leased from private owners, rather than owned by the state, and managed for hunting. The department continues to develop more programs to train and reward landowners willing to protect rare species.
Fishing is more popular than ever in Texas, with bass fishing attracting record numbers of participants. A major push of TPWD in recent years has been the catch-and-release concept, in which participants fish purely for fun and let the fish go back in the water after being caught. This practice strives to promote conservation and avoid overfishing of mature lakes, along with length, bag, and possession limits, but it is controversial.
Water remains an overarching priority for 21st century Texas. From a population of 3 million in 1900, Texas now has more than 22 million inhabitants. The demands of urban populations and agricultural irrigation have caused many Texas rivers to go dry much of the year. Out of more than 280 principal springs that Texas once had, more than 60 have run dry. Aquifers that took thousands of years to form are reaching the end of their useful life.
In 1986, the water protection functions of TPWD were spun out of the Fisheries Division and became part of a new division, Resource Protection. The legislation creating this division greatly increased TPWD authority over the management of Texas estuaries, making them a major player as the state works on a comprehensive approach to managing its water resources.
As TPWD moved through the last years of the 20th century and into the 21st, the agency confronted a different environment than the one that had spawned the Texas Game & Fish Commission back in 1907. Policies crafted to involve landowners in wildlife recovery have stood the test of time in rural Texas, but now urban areas are sprawling out into the former countryside, with unpredictable consequences. As new country dwellers subdivide old ranches, habitat is lost, and wild animals come into conflict with their new neighbors.
Society itself and its attitudes toward wildlife, parks, and the environment are ever-changing. A century ago, conservationists like John Muir and sportsmen like Theodore Roosevelt were brought together by an appreciation of nature’s beauty. Today’s environmental movement is motivated by a scarier thought: that the earth itself is in jeopardy and with it mankind’s ability to survive. In the end, TPWD will change as Texans change and decide how to meet the challenges of the 21st century.