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To Love the Beautiful: The Story of Texas State Parks

A Golden Age

Governor John Connally

Governor John Connally pushed for larger state parks located near population centers to boost tourism and attract businesses to Texas.

Texas Outdoors: A Challenge...A Plan of Action. Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, January 1967. Administrative files, Reference materials, Texas Game & Fish Commission Records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

Instead of the crashing failure that skeptics had predicted, the new agency thrived. On the wildlife conservation side, wardens, biologists, and other staff all got raises, and the legislature broke loose funding for new projects, facilities, and supplies. But the immediate challenge for TPWD was to improve the state park system by refurbishing the existing parks and acquiring land for new ones.

Connally had obtained a tripled budget for the parks as part of the merger, which allowed for immediate and dramatic improvements in the facilities and services at the parks. In 1964 alone, the improvements included fishing piers, shelters, restrooms, water tanks, and picnic tables.

The department took over responsibility for two battlefield parks, San Jacinto and Fannin, and added Lyndon B. Johnson State Park near the LBJ ranch, home of President Johnson. The LBJ park was controversial with those who didn’t like President Johnson and because of the secrecy with which the deal was handled. The park was acquired and constructed with money raised from private donations.

In 1967, the legislature approved the first-ever bond issue for parks, which raised $75 million to buy land for nine new parks, seven historic areas, and a scenic area. The bonds were retired using revenue from newly instituted park entrance fees. In 1971, wanting to guarantee a steady source of funding for the parks, the legislature implemented a tax of one cent per pack on cigarettes to go directly to a Texas Parks Fund. Almost a million dollars a month was generated the first year alone, ushering in a golden age for Texas parks.

More bonds were also issued to pay for new parks projects. Some of the most well-known and heavily used state parks were opened in the 1970s, including Balmorhea, Pedernales Falls, Mustang Island, Galveston Island, McKinney Falls, Lost Maples, and the Texas State Railroad restored historic steam train in Rusk.

The older parks built by the CCC were showing their age after forty years of use, and a renovation plan was executed that took care to preserve and showcase the work done by the CCC. By the end of the decade, the system boasted some 130 parks. In 1981, TPWD executed its largest acquisition ever with the purchase of Choke Canyon State Park in McMullen and Live Oak counties and a large wildlife area surrounding the park, later named the James E. Daughtrey Wildlife Management Area in memory of a game warden who died in the line of duty.

Palo Duro TEXAS musical

 

In 1966, the Texas Panhandle Heritage Foundation began the production of "TEXAS," a musical pageant about the history of the Texas Panhandle, in the spectacular setting of Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Recently updated to appeal to today's visitors, the drama continues its run every summer to the present day.

Prints and Photographs Collection #1976/29-2. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.

 

 

Desegregation

Perhaps the biggest change at Texas state parks didn’t cost a dime. Following the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, Texas finally desegregated the state parks, making them available to all Texans regardless of race.

Wildlife Conservation under the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department

Fish hatchery work

Fish hatchery work, circa 1980.

Inland fisheries hatchery photos and slides. Texas Parks & Wildlife Inland Fisheries Division records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

Despite the predictions of doom, the merger of the Game & Fish Department with the Parks Board did not damage Texas’s wildlife conservation efforts. Instead, the department took on a noticeably expanded role in managing the state’s natural resources.

The construction of new reservoirs led to an explosion in the popularity of fishing. TPWD’s hatchery programs expanded to meet the demand. By this time, fish scientists were well acquainted with the fact that fish in man-made lakes suffer a population decline as the lakes mature. To counteract the expected decline, TPWD implemented slot limits and other rules to prevent overfishing. Under TPWD management, the public was introduced to extremely popular sport fishes, including large mouth, small mouth, and striped bass. The Guadalupe River became one of most popular trout fishing rivers in the United States.

On the coast, the Fisheries Resource Monitoring Program (now the Marine Monitoring Program) implemented scientific fisheries management using random sample techniques. The implications for sport and commercial fishing were huge. The first major legislation to come out of the new program was in 1981, when spotted seatrout and red drum were taken out of commercial circulation and designated as recreational fish only. Without scientific data, this protection for the fish could never have come so early in their decline.

Wildlife management as a science continued to advance, along with an understanding of its true complexities. The recovery of white-tail deer had gone so well that overpopulation was now a problem in some areas. After decades of educating the public not to shoot antlerless deer (does and immature bucks), it was a process of reeducation to let the public know that these activities were once again permitted, and indeed desirable to keep the deer population at a level where deer could live in harmony with growing urban populations.

Operation Game Thief media event

 

A media event for Operation Game Thief, circa 1990. Since its inception in 1981, Operation Game Thief has enlisted the public in reporting game and fish poaching and other violations and has given out more than $200,000 in reward money.

Inland fisheries hatchery photos and slides. Texas Parks & Wildlife Inland Fisheries Division records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

 

Migratory birds were another case study in unintended consequences. The migratory population of snow geese found easy winter living in Texas rice and soybean fields and in federal refuges on the Missouri River. This in turn led to an explosion in their population and the devastation of their summer habitat in the Canadian Arctic. In 1999, Texas and other states liberalized the hunting laws for geese in an attempt to stop the habitat destruction thousands of miles away.

The department was also tasked with new responsibilities for environmental issues. The construction of so many dams and reservoirs had radically altered the state’s geography, with dramatic effects on the environment. The man-made lakes flooded many thousands of acres of bottomland habitat. In addition, the lakes and dams completely altered the flow of Texas rivers. For the first time, many streams no longer reached the sea, with serious consequences for the bays that depended on the inflow of fresh water. For the first time, TPWD began to take on responsibility for water concerns, which was difficult due to the many overlapping jurisdictions that had an interest in water.

As part of the federal Endangered Species Act, TPWD cataloged the endangered species of Texas, coordinated public/private efforts to develop habitat plans, and brokered agreements on threats such as the use of pesticides, especially in the areas of fisheries and wetlands.

In 1983, the legislature passed the Wildlife Conservation Act, giving the Parks and Wildlife Department the authority to manage fish and wildlife resources in all Texas counties. This act did away with the patchwork of local regulations that had plagued conservation efforts throughout the century; it meant that TPWD regulations were no longer subject to review by local county commissioners. With these additional responsibilities, the agency’s commission was expanded from three members to nine.

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Page last modified: November 16, 2016