The underfunded Texas Parks and Wildlife Department struggles to sell itself
Last summer, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department commissioners contemplated selling off 46,000 acres of Big Bend Ranch State Park, the largest state park in Texas, to John Poindexter, the Houston businessman who owns the nearby Cibolo Creek Ranch luxury resort. The proposed sale, endorsed by TPWD staff, was pretty much business as usual for the department, where selling parkland, transferring state parks to counties and cities, and downgrading state parks to “wildlife management areas” are all in a day’s work. But when news leaked out that a chunk of the 299,000-acre state ranch on the Rio Grande was up for grabs, a sudden public outcry led the parks commissioners to reject the proposal–unanimously.
In this instance, advocates for parks made their voices heard. Yet, the underlying problems with the state’s management of public resources didn’t go away.
Within three months of the almost fire sale at Big Bend Ranch, Texas Parks and Wildlife was so short on cash that 73 jobs were eliminated. The new Government Canyon State Natural Area, 16 miles from downtown San Antonio, is closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays and limited to day use only. The Devil’s River State Natural Area is open only four days a week as well. The Resaca de la Palma World Birding Center in Brownsville, scheduled to open in two years, has neither a staff nor a budget. The north shore of Choke Canyon State Park has been closed, along with the park’s swimming pool. The San Jacinto Monument is shuttered due to building and fire code violations and antiquated elevators. After the Parks and Wildlife ferry to Matagorda Island State Park burned in 2003, ferry service to the island was ended and last October the state park was declared a state wildlife management area. The agency could no longer afford to operate the barrier island as a state park.
Other properties were handed off. Lake Houston State Park is now operated by the city of Houston, Lubbock Lakes was transferred to Texas Tech, and Kerrville-Schreiner State Park is now the property of Kerrville. Reimer’s Ranch, the newest showcase park in the Austin area, is operated by the county, not the state. New local parks such as Blue Hole in Wimberley, the new city park in Hondo, and Dick Nichols Park in Austin were funded by matching grants from TPWD to get established. That grant fund was $17 million two years ago. Today, it is $5 million. One agency official went so far as to dis restroom facilities at Goose Island and Galveston Island state parks as “Third World.”
But the surest sign that things aren’t so hunky dory is the more frequent violation of Parks and Wildlife’s unwritten commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of the Legislature.” Normally, Parks & Wildlife personnel have been known as quiet creatures, meek and mild as birders. They’d rather walk on eggshells than complain about funding. Otherwise, vindictive legislators might give them even less. But here was Walt Dabney, the director of state parks for Texas Parks and Wildlife, on a December speaking tour in Cooper, Giddings, and other communities affected by parks cutbacks, explaining to the people of Palestine why the Texas State Railroad was eliminating roundtrip departures from Palestine, costing the town considerable tourist dollars. There was no other option, he insisted. “We have stretched the budget as far as we can by using [prisoner] and community service labor in addition to park camp hosts.”
Joining Dabney in Palestine was Parks and Wildlife Commissioner John Parker, who bluntly told the gathering, “The problem lies with the Texas Legislature.” A month later, speaking at Bastrop State Park to the annual meeting of the nonprofit group Texans for State Parks, Parks and Wildlife Commission Chairman Joseph Fitzsimons and Commissioner Parker offered advice on how to inform legislators of the dire financial straits of the state’s parks. Executive Director Bob Cook used his “At Issue” column in Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine to make clear the agency was low on funds and its infrastructure was failing. With a little investment, he said, parks could deliver great returns.
If only those sentiments echoed across the great divide.
Studies conducted by Texas A&M, Texas Tech, the State of Texas, and the Texas Parks Coalition over the past eight years have all reached the same conclusion: The majority of Texans consider parks an important measure of quality of life and are willing to pay more taxes for more green space. Yet the leaders of Texas act as though they’ve never heard of such studies. And the gap between what the public wants and what its politicians deliver is growing wider.
It’s hard enough managing a parks system under that kind of guidance, especially when the definition of a park includes a 26-mile steam railroad, a mountain tramway, a 100-year-old battleship, and several 19th century mansions and restored frontier forts. But when increased operating expenses eat up $8 million of the budget in four years and then the Lege lops $2 million more from an already anemic $51 million budget, the duct tape begins to loosen.
No one forced Walt Dabney to accept the task of running the parks division of Texas Parks and Wildlife. As a 30-year veteran of the National Park Service, he didn’t need the gig. Lately though, he’s started to wonder about his decision, he admitted recently in his office at Parks and Wildlife headquarters in southeast Austin. “I came here seven years ago, rebuilt the staff, got rid of what little deadwood there was, [and] we’re in our third session of training park superintendents. We’ve got lots of good things going on, but I walked into a system that was totally underfunded. We got to ’06 and we ran out of rope.”
Dabney said the average age of a vehicle in the parks fleet is 10 years old. “We’ve replaced four vehicles out of a fleet of 900 over the last four years,” he said. “We’re lucky to get hand-me-downs from game wardens with only 120,000 miles on them. We’re thrilled, because we’d be walking otherwise.” Watching the budget get pared back puts Dabney in a “no more Mr. Nice Guy” mood. “Texas isn’t taking care of what it’s got, we’re not adding anything new, and we’re going backwards in a state that is growing so fast.” He wasn’t even looking over his shoulder to see who was listening. “I don’t think the rank-and-file senator or representative really knew how bad this was,” he added.
The buck, indeed, stops at the statehouse, where the prevalent attitude toward state parks in Texas seems to be: You want open space? Then work hard, get rich, and get a 10,000-acre spread of your own. Over the past 10 years, the Lege has commissioned several studies as part of its planning for 21st century growth. The findings have been studiously ignored. Former state representative Rob Junell (D-San Angelo), who held the purse strings to the TPWD budget as chair of the House Appropriations Committee, tried to sit on the 2001 study conducted by Dr. David Schmidly and Texas Tech that suggested Texas ought to acquire 1.4 million acres of new state park land and 500,000 acres of local parks inside the Dallas-Houston-San Antonio urban triangle within the next 30 years.
The response from then-TPWD Commission Chair Katharine Armstrong—yes, the now-famous member of the Dick Cheney-Harry Whittington hunting party—was dismissive. “We are not going to launch into a great big acquisition campaign,” Armstrong told the Austin American-Statesman. “If I could wave my magic wand and realize everything in the Texas Tech study, perhaps I would. My goals have to be tempered by reality. We don’t have the resources to do that.” Instead, Parks and Wildlife launched the Land and Water Strategic Plan, calling for four new parks of 5,000 acres each or more inside the urban triangle. Five years into that 10-year plan, the project has yet to be funded.
Some legislators do fight for their local parks because they understand the economic impact of parks on surrounding communities, but no Texas legislator has emerged as a champion of parks across the state. Perhaps lawmakers just haven’t felt enough pressure. Park users may number in the millions, but as a special interest group they could take a few tips from Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse or Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “I’d hardly ever see park advocates at the commissioner meetings until the Big Bend Ranch flap,” Joseph Fitzsimons said. “Hunting and fishing advocates show up in big numbers and let you know where they stand on issues.”
The way Parks and Wildlife is structured contributes to the problem, starting with the nine commissioners who oversee the agency. They may be interested in conservation but most are privileged enough to spend their quality time outdoors on private ranches or farms. Typically there are only one or two commissioners who are strong advocates for parks in the tradition of Mickey Burleson, Nacho Garza, Tim Hixon, Terry Hershey, and Bob Armstrong.
Fitzsimons and Parker have assumed that role on the current commission. But rarely has there been a commissioner appointed specifically to look after parks first, rather than wildlife. It has been that way ever since the State Parks Board and the Texas Game and Fish Commission were merged into Texas Parks and Wildlife in 1963 by Governor John Connally in the name of a streamlined bureaucracy. The current structure is unlikely to change.
The two divisions are on different footing. The wildlife budget comes from Fund Nine, a federal excise tax on guns and gear and from hunting and fishing licenses. The parks budget is tied to a state sales tax on sporting goods. Unlike the Fund Nine monies, which the Lege can’t raid or cap because it is a federal tax, the state tax proceeds for parks are capped by the Legislature at $32 million, considerably less than the $100 million the tax currently generates. The balance goes into general revenue.
Texas ranks 49th in per-capita spending on parks among the 50 states (thank God for Mississippi). Even Arkansas has passed Texas by upgrading its system to meet current and future demands through a quarter-cent sales tax earmarked for parks. Walt Dabney tells a story about friends from up north who used to come and spend the winter in Texas state parks. “Now they just make day trips into Texas because they’re spending the winter staying in Arkansas state parks. Their parks are in better shape than ours are.”
Quality-of-life factors, such as parks and amenities, are second only to an educated work force as the top criteria companies use when evaluating locations, Dabney said. In 2001, when Dallas-Fort Worth was one of three finalists for Boeing’s new corporate headquarters, DFW and Texas offered more tax breaks and incentives than Chicago and Illinois did. But Boeing ended up going to Chicago, which includes 87,000 acres of open space, parks, and forests in Cook County in its quality-of-life portfolio. Instead of increasing funding of parks to make Texas more attractive, Texas leaders responded with cutbacks. Dabney says that’s a dumb way to operate a government, especially if you’re trying to operate it like a business. “Tourism is the second or third component of the Texas economy and parks are the biggest component of the tourism segment,” he said. “If you’re not taking care of that, that’s bad economics.”
“What we’ve been doing is very parochial,” admitted Fitzsimons. “It’s ad hoc. There’s still not a plan to say how are we going to acquire new land, how are we going to tie the demand and the constituency to the service. The fish and wildlife constituency stay drilled into the department on a daily basis, from the squirrel hunters to the catfishermen to the bowhunters. They know their money [from hunting and fishing licenses] is going to the fish and wildlife division. They’re making sure they’re represented. But when you buy a canoe or a kayak or a mountain bike, you don’t have any expectations the sales tax from that is going to a place where you can use it. The sporting goods tax is a joke. It’s essentially GR [general revenue]. The sales of paddle craft have quintupled in the past 10 years. But I don’t have any more kayak trails to offer.”
The state of affairs has become so sorry that several wise men were recruited by Fitzsimons—a San Antonio attorney whose family owns extensive ranchland around Carrizo Springs—for a state parks advisory board. Among them are John Montford, who pushed through the sporting goods sales tax when he was a state senator; Andrew Sansom, the executive director of Parks and Wildlife under Governors Clements, Richards, Bush, and briefly, Perry; and George Bristol, a longtime fundraiser and advisor to the former Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who also sits on the board of the Texas Retailers Association and heads the Texas Parks Coalition. Bristol is pushing to lift the cap on the sporting goods sales tax and protect it from future raids and freezes. “If this Legislature, individually and collectively, says they believe in user taxes and user fees, and does not honor those user fees—I don’t care if it’s toll roads, parks, or what—then they got a real problem of honesty with the people of Texas,” Bristol said.
Bristol also said he was encouraged hearing Dabney and Fitzsimons speaking out. “Walter and Joseph and their predecessors get very goosy. They don’t want to talk money. They can say they need things but they wouldn’t touch money on a bet because they are fearful it looks like aggrandizement and empire-building, and they know when they go to the Legislature they’re going to get their asses handed to them. My advice to them is, ‘Boys, you’ve already had your ass handed to you. You might as well get up there and fight back.'”
Of all the returning wise men, none casts the long shadow that Bob Armstrong does. The former legislator, General Land commissioner, Parks and Wildlife commissioner, environmental advisor to Ann Richards, and one time assistant secretary of the interior is the only conservationist to have a queso dip named after him at Matt’s El Rancho restaurant in Austin. Armstrong should be resting on his laurels for swinging the deal that made the Anderson Ranch into Big Bend Ranch State Park. “I had thought after doing my duty to get Big Bend Ranch made a park for Texas, I’d go home and do something else,” he said. But he could no longer ignore the current parks crisis. “I’m back to look out for the ranch.”
It’s time, Armstrong said, that Texas suck it up and look forward. “We’ve got precious few parks and we’re going to grow immeasurably over the next 20 years,” he said. At the same time, he pointed out, “The average parks user isn’t on the commission, but there ought to be somebody there looking out for parks.”
Armstrong said he didn’t take umbrage at the commissioners for considering the sale of a piece of the Big Bend Ranch. He knew the circumstances too well. “When you’re out of money, you begin to do strange things,” Armstrong chuckled. “This is an example of people that are struggling to get what they want from the staff and here was a chance that maybe they could sell off a little bit of land and do some good things on the other parts.”
But he wasn’t buying that rationale either. “I sent a letter to the commissioners [after the Big Bend Ranch dust-up]. I said something like this should be considered not for what your problem is, but from what generations in the future are going to be saddled with. Your decision should be based on generations from now. This is such a small part of the budget—0.0007 percent—that to not upgrade our parks is just plain bad business. I don’t want there to be any kind of cap on the sporting goods tax. Parks should get the money it was intended to get so it can do things like repair the Matagorda Island ferry.”
Losing Boeing to Chicago should have been a wakeup call. The state should have gone on a green-space binge. Money alone won’t seal the deal. Compared to the Trans Texas Corridor, the Texas Water Plan, and all the multibillion-dollar big-ticket items being dreamed up to plan for future growth, a Texas 2050 park plan costs chump change, with guaranteed returns. If the current $35 million annual budget throws off $1.2 billion to local economies, as the number crunchers claim, think what a $500 million upgrade would throw off.
The solutions are simple. Raise the cap on the sporting goods tax from $35 million to $85 million, as Rep. Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville) has proposed. Better yet, eliminate the cap on the sporting goods tax altogether, as Armstrong suggests. Make it an honest user tax. Last year’s take of more than $100 million is more than enough to operate the parks division and to launch a program to buy more parkland for future generations. And the governor would do well to occasionally appoint a member to the Parks and Wildlife Commission who is a parks-first advocate. If nothing else, that would bring a different point of view to the table.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Commissioner Joseph Fitzsimons dared to dream, wondering aloud if instead of selling off part of the biggest park in the state system, “why can’t we have a deal with John Poindexter in reverse—give him and his Cibolo Creek guests [direct] access, like we give that B&B by the Hill Country State Natural Area? Is it too crazy to say why shouldn’t we have it all?” Fitzsimons was right. We should have it all. But he knew as well as anyone that it was too crazy to take seriously. Bob Armstrong was reminded of that when he said, “People tell me I’m a communist when I talk about the need for Texans to have open space.”
“The people of Texas have to decide what they want for a park system,” Walt Dabney said. Visualize the people telling their legislators. Visualize Rick Perry using parks as part of his campaign, as he did back when he ran for lieutenant governor and used the Franklin Mountains State Park as a backdrop. Visualize any statewide candidate weaving a statewide parks plan into his or her stump speech. If that ever happened, Texas’s wide open spaces might be more a reality than a myth to the 25 million Texans who don’t own a ranch or a farm.
Joe Nick Patoski writes about water, music, Texas, and other subjects from his home near Wimberley. Texas Coast, his second collaborative book with photographer Laurence Parent, was recently published by the University of Texas.