Department of Ranch Management

Is Texas Parks and Wildlife Giving Up on Public Lands?


Brad Tyer

There is a war on, we hear, and so many other pressing concerns, and so there are many things in the meantime that we’re not going to hear much about. One of them is the transformation that’s underway at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the holdings of which comprise 0.6% of Texas lands, including some 633,655 acres of park land. Parks has a newly promoted executive director, a newly appointed commission chairwoman, and a new university study in hand, designed to serve as guidepost to a new master plan, currently in the works, to guide the agency into the next three decades. The old master plans are worn out.

Texas doesn’t look much like it did 30 years ago–excepting that it needed then, as it needs now, more public land–and if you believe the demographic projections, it’s not going to look much like it does now in 2032. There’ll be about 14 million more of us (a 60-percent increase), Hispanics will be the state’s ethnic majority, and ever more of us, of whatever background, will live within a choked urban triangle defined by Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. We will all of us be wanting access to reasonable facsimiles of the outdoor experience, preferably within an hour’s drive of a major metroplex, please. We will look, as we should, to TPWD to deliver.

That, in short, is the big fat issue that TPWD–the mission of which is “to manage and conserve the natural resources of Texas for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations”–is faced with.

The department’s responsibilities are far flung, but two themes loom large in any consideration of TPWD’s next three decades of stewardship: conservation and access. Conservation means preserving wildlife, habitat, and open space; access means providing Texans with a place to enjoy those things. They are not the same, and they are increasingly becoming mutually exclusive concerns under the direction of Texas Parks and Wildlife.

On the one hand, fragmentation of large habitats–as more family ranches and farmlands are subdivided for development to house our growing numbers–is the key conservation issue of the day, and it is addressed primarily, for reasons that will become clear, on private land. On the other hand is the issue of state lands accessible by the public, and an explicit forecast: There is not enough of it to satisfy the growing demand. This drama will play out in public lands.

State Park-type lands (state parks, state natural areas, wildlife management areas, state historical sites, etc.) are the flashpoint issue, and understandably so, since that’s where most people–the 99 percent of Texans who don’t own a “stretch of land”–are first and most exposed to the manifest works of the department. And this is nothing new. Every few years, it seems, someone commissions another study to help identify the department’s needs and priorities. They all say more or less the same thing. The department needs, one way or another, to acquire more public land if it hopes to serve the recreational demands of a growing population. (They say many other things, of course, but on this they all agree.) Then-governor Bush’s conservation task force came to this conclusion. Texas A&M’s 1998 “Texas Outdoors” study said the same. And Texas Tech’s new “Texas Parks & Wildlife for the 21st Century” report, commissioned by the department, toes the line.

There is a clear need for more state parks and natural areas, the Tech study says, that will require the acquisition of another 1,428,117 acres by 2030. There is also a clear need for more urban area parks that necessitates an additional 558,722 acres of land by 2030. This to conform to a presumably adequate ratio of 55 acres of state park per 1,000 people, and 25 acres of local parks per thousand, a level that would put Texas at the75th percentile in national ranking for state parks.

“They all sort of point to the same conclusion,” says Texas Tech President David Schmidly, one of the new study’s authors. “None of them are at odds with one another.” The problem is, the voluminous studies and reports all point down a path that Texas Parks and Wildlife has shown an increasing unwillingness to travel.

“We are not going to launch into a great big acquisition campaign,” newly appointed TPWD commission chair Katherine Armstrong Idsal told the Austin American-Statesman after reading the Tech study. “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.”

Which means simply that the Texas Legislature has not appropriated the resources to do that. Voters in Florida and California recently approved billions of dollars in spending for parkland and water acquisitions. The last time the Texas Legislature asked voters to approve such acquisition spending, the result was $75 million in bonds. That was in 1967. And nothing–not recent legislative recommendations that stopped just shy of directing a moratorium on acquisitions, not the silence of the three leading gubernatorial candidates on the issue, and not the present state of affairs within TPWD–would indicate that anyone expects any of this to change any time soon.

So now, with a shrugging of the wand, we have a pretty good idea of whose needs aren’t going to get addressed any time soon. Makes you wonder whose needs are.

The action at TPWD is in, on, and about private land. “The greatest threat yet to wildlife in Texas is the continued breakup of family lands,” wrote outgoing executive director Andy Sansom in his farewell editorial in the December 2001 issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. “We must continue the struggle to keep rural landowners on their properties and to strengthen their capacity as good stewards.”

Department veteran Bob Cook, Sansom’s successor, concurred: “Let’s face it, if you really want to have an impact on fish and wildlife in Texas, you’re going to have to do it on private land. We could do everything on public land perfectly, absolutely totally perfectly, and it’s still not enough. It’s absolutely critical that we work very closely with and very cooperatively with private landowners.”

There are several reasons for this focus. Foremost, there’s the bald fact that any meaningful attempt to preserve large habitats and ecosystems is going to have to include the cooperation of private landowners, because it is private landowners, by and large, who own those large habitats and ecosystems: 94.3 percent of Texas’ 172 million acres is theirs. Another is that TPWD considers programs oriented toward private lands to be the feather in the agency’s cap, particularly during Sansom’s reign over the past decade. They are part of what his friends and colleagues referred to, upon his departure, as his “vision.”

Texas’ landowner assistance programs–some of the oldest in the country–date back to the early 1970s, when five wildlife biologists were hired to help private landowners develop voluntary wildlife management plans. Such programs might include anything from advice about cross-fencing to habitat restoration for endangered songbirds. The effort got a boost in the early 1990s, about the time that Sansom left the non-profit Nature Conservancy to take the helm at TPWD. Sansom installed Kirby Brown to head the agency’s landowner assistance programs, a post that Brown held until recently, when he retired from the department to take over the executive directorship of the Texas Wildlife Association, a private property lobby and hunting advocacy group that works closely with the agency. “We made it a primary focus,” says Brown. “We hired some additional people, gave the entire staff of the wildlife division that focus, and told them to go out and do good things.”

It’s difficult to tell exactly how many private landowners presently benefit from the department’s landowner programs, and exactly how much of the department’s resources are directed toward them. “Efforts to assist private landowners in conservation on their property are diverse, making it difficult to pin down dollar amounts,” explains TPWD communications director Lydia Saldaña. The Staff Report on TPWD of the 2000 Sunset Advisory Commission (the legislative panel that reviews state agencies) reported that in 1999, four department landowner assistance programs catered to 10,538 landowners representing 10,420,274 acres with funds totaling $2,364,937. In 2001, by point of comparison, TPWD spent $299,767.35 on land acquisition.

One of those programs, the Landowner Incentive Program, has handed out more than $1.7 million in grants for conservation projects since its inception in 1997, according to Saldaña. The program is funded in TPWD’s current budget at $725,000 per annum. The agency has also put its scientists at the disposal of private landowners. Ten technical guidance biologists and ten private land biologists provide free assistance to landowners and develop private land management plans all over Texas. According to Parks, however, many other TPWD employees also provide landowner assistance. In fact, Kirby Brown estimates that today almost 15 million acres of private land are being managed under individually tailored wildlife management plans designed and shepherded by some 150 employees of TPWD’s statewide staff.

TPWD distributes a “Making Tracts for Wildlife” newsletter quarterly to thousands of Texas landowners, and its Texas Wetlands Registry “helps pair up landowners who voluntarily want to create or enhance wetlands on their property with available funding sources.” Annually, just so the landowners know they’re appreciated, the department bestows upon a dozen or so of them Lone Star Land Steward Awards. “And,” Brown says, “we have tremendous support from private property rights groups, landowner groups, conservation groups, and environmental groups.”

Texas Tech’s study shows that 66 percent of large landowners in Texas are indeed “interested in Parks & Wildlife programs that assist landowners.” But a tellingly similar 64 percent “are not interested in opening up their land to provide more outdoor recreational opportunities for others.” Thirty-three percent, meanwhile, are “very interested in generating revenue from hunting rather than other outdoor recreation activities.” See where this is heading? Access for trophy hunters, and nobody else.

Meanwhile, the 2000 Sunset Commission report recommended that TPWD focus harder on private landowner programs. The directive is not lost on new executive director Bob Cook, who confirms that such programs will continue to be the department priority that they became under Sansom: “As much or more, yes.”

While no one expects landowner programs to solve the access problem, there’s also not much evidence–at least publicly available–that they’re good for conservation, either. Private wildlife management plans are, as their name suggests, private, subject to no real oversight but that of the landowner. They are also strictly voluntary, and can be stopped, started, or abandoned at any time, for any reason. There is additionally the issue of gauging a plan’s success, or more to the point, the fact that the department has no good way to gauge a plan’s success.

“Well,” says Brown, “what we try to do is we work with that landowner on an annual basis, in terms of the active plans, and if the landowner’s moving forward with his plan, we’ll continue to work with him. So the active status really indicates those people that are making progress. Those people who aren’t making progress, we just drop ’em.” In other words, it’s the mere existence of the plan that qualifies it as a conservation success. Maybe it is. Only Rancher Pete and his TPWD man know for sure.

Occasionally though, details do surface, and they’re not entirely encouraging. In 1998, two TPWD employees at Davis Mountains State Park noticed suspicious bulldozing on Limpia Creek near Fort Davis, and reported the activity to the Army Corps of Engineers. What the park employees didn’t realize was that the dozing was part of a TPWD-administered, federally funded landowner incentive program designed, ostensibly, to enhance hawk habitat and promote birdwatching eco-tourism. An activist group called TxPeer (Texas Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) had to file a lawsuit to gain access to project documents, which showed that what had been approved as a third of an acre project had blossomed to more than 10 acres, and actually had destroyed habitat of the very species supposedly standing to gain, among other irregularities.

“The bulldozing of Limpia Creek,” according to TxPeer’s Dean Keddy-Hector, a former endangered species specialist with TPWD, “is a perfect example of what can go wrong when a state agency hides its plans from the public, prevents peer review, and enjoys complete freedom to cut special little deals with favored landowners.”

But finally, and perhaps not least, isn’t there something just a little bit off about this funneling of state expertise and money into heightened land values for the 1 percent of the population that owns any substantial land at all? Something that smacks just a bit of subsidy?

Private land incentives aren’t the only indicator of TPWD’s current leanings. With the department shying away from the acquisition of public property (except, in recent years, small acquisitions within or bordering existing parks), the private sector is stepping in to fill that void as well.

“We spend more money on land than they do,” says Robert Potts, state director of the Nature Conservancy. “Our budget is much smaller than theirs, but we spend a lot more on land… That’s not what they’re emphasizing.” In 10 years, Nature Conservancy holdings–either land held in preserves, or development restrictions maintained in conservation easements–have grown from about 20,000 acres to almost 250,000 acres. The numbers reflect a growing trend. There are now 36 private, non-profit land trusts in Texas, preserving some 499 sites throughout the state. These are properties that are either purchased with in-house funds, horse-traded, or donated by landowners, and held in trust by the non-profits. The land trusts enjoy an advantage by working outside the political pressures and bureaucracies and red tape of state government.

The state has cooperated with them: The department’s Texas Land Trust Council “provides strategic coordination” among non-profit land trusts and similar groups. In the past the land funds have often used their administrative nimbleness to take lands off the market at prime opportunities, and then transfer them to the care of TPWD once that agency got its slower ducks in a row. This is not happening so often any more. In recent years at least two properties available for donation to the state–71,000 acres of short-grass prairie along the Canadian River, and 21,000 acres of wetland near Galveston Bay–have been declined by the department’s acquisition team.

Here’s the reasoning: The Sunset Commission instructed TPWD to strictly prioritize its acquisitions; in a nutshell, the agency decided that these properties were not priorities. In the case of the 21,000-acre International Paper Farms property near Galveston, TPWD figured that Peach Point, a Dow mitigation project near Victoria, would suffice as representative of that particular type of habitat. As acquisition, said Parks, it would have been redundant. The non-profit Conservation Fund is still looking for someone to take the property.

Parks and Wildlife, says Potts, has “been paying more attention over the past at least five years to working with private landowners and focusing on the maintenance issues they have on their existing lands. And that was real clear under Governor Bush, that was a big point that he made, you know, ‘we’re not taking care of what we’ve got.’ There
as a real de-emphasis on acquiring la
d. And I haven’t heard that that’s changing particularly.” (As far as TPWD “not taking care of what they’ve got,” that’s a Catch-22: Until just recently, the Legislature had not budgeted the money for TPWD to perform necessary maintenance and repair, so it should have been no surprise to Bush to find the job undone).

As a result of the department’s de-emphasis on acquisition, land trusts are taking on more and more of the stewardship duties formerly ascribable to TPWD, even as a mountain of unchallenged data suggests that the department is facing a closing window of opportunity in which to acquire enough public property to avert an access shortfall in the coming decades.

You won’t find anyone complaining about private non-profit land funds stepping in to boost the conservation movement. They are faster than TPWD, freer to pursue opportunities, and critical in the fight against habitat fragmentation, not to mention the activism that they embody. But they are able to be some of these things as a direct result of what they are not. They are not public agencies. They are not, ultimately, accountable to the citizenry, and they very largely do not answer any public access needs. “Our emphasis,” says Potts, “is in managing [land] for the wildlife habitat… That’s why you need Parks, because we are not a park system.”

So what about state parks? TPWD finally seems to have been given the tools to surmount the maintenance hump that has haunted it for so many years, thanks to a $60 million repairs appropriation three sessions ago, and last year’s passage of Proposition 8, a bond issue that provides Parks with another $103 million in maintenance money. All of which is good news, if you consider basic maintenance funding a rousing success.

Also last session, the Legislature approved a pay raise for TPWD employees, which seems like a good sign until you learn that no one bothered to appropriate any extra money for the budget. To accommodate the raises, the department must leave approximately 91 positions–primarily in state parks–unfilled indefinitely.

Meanwhile Garner State Park, Lost Maples State Natural Area, and Enchanted Rock State Natural Area are all becoming as famous for their no vacancy signs and overflow parking lots as they have long been for their ecological attractions. Chinati Mountains State Natural Area in far West Texas remains, years after its acquisition, closed to the public, awaiting a management plan, presumably a victim of a directive to prioritize. (When the Sunset Commission, the Tech study, and TPWD talk about prioritizing, they’re referring to the idea that most of Texas’ projected population growth–and so most of TPWD’s projected customer base–is anticipated in and around cities, not way the hell out in West Texas.)

The newest state park in the system, 1,847-acre Fort Boggy, in Leon County about midway between Dallas and Houston, opened in November of 2001. Fort Boggy, which was donated to the department in 1985, is open for day use Fridays through Sundays only. The next scheduled opening, within the year, is Lake Tawakoni, a 376-acre park on a municipal reservoir east of Dallas.

The most highly anticipated opening of more public land is the scheduled 2003 inauguration of the World Birding Center–a string of nine properties in South Texas near Mission–acquired largely with funds raised by the Parks & Wildlife Foundation of Texas, another private, non-profit agency, this one founded with Sansom’s help to raise money for TPWD.

But the biggest splashes on the Parks front in the past several years have been caused by screwups. There was the politically driven installation of a golf course at Bastrop State Park that even Sansom admitted wasn’t a very good idea. And then there was the acceptance (and subsequent banning) of tobacco advertising in the Parks & Wildlife magazine (which made up the difference by accepting the sponsorship of gas-guzzling Chevy Suburbans as the official SUV of the state park system).

Most recent was the January flap over an ill-fated TPWD proposal to raise user fees in state parks. The idea was simply to find enough money to cover park operating costs, but it was predictably unpopular, and the commission voted it down.

Most disturbing, perhaps, was the quiet call for proposals from the hospitality industry exploring opportunities to privatize concessions and lodging within the state parks themselves. Backlash from the environmental crowd shelved activity on that front, but not before the department received a proposal from Nature Lodges, the consortium responsible for the Lower Colorado River Authority’s Canyon of the Eagles project on Lake Buchanan (which includes a 64-room lodge with conference center, restaurant, and gift store, along with a river cruise concession and a planned marina).

Nature Lodge’s proposal went nowhere, but then-governor Bush did finger Nature Lodge’s partner, Joseph Fitzsimons–chairman of TPWD’s private lands advisory board, and an officer of Kirby Brown’s Texas Wildlife Association–for a spot on TPWD’s commissioner’s board, where he sits today. It doesn’t take a particularly wet finger to see which way the wind blows on privatization in state parks.

When freshly installed executive director Bob Cook talks about department priorities, it almost sounds as if the Tech study–for which the department paid some $535,000–never happened. “We’ve got some parks that we’re looking at,” Cook says. “Do we need to expand them? Do we need additional parks? And if so, where?” (The answers, in order, from the Tech study, commissioned by Parks to satisfy these very questions: “Yes, yes, and largely near urban areas.”)

But Cook, as directed by the Sunset Commission, is more comfortable talking about a return to the department’s “core values,” about “priorities,” even if that sometimes makes him sound as if the only acquisition anyone is thinking about has a “de-” in front of it. “For example, we have some sites that some people would question why we have those sites. Is it best that TPWD own and operate these sites? Or would they be better off owned and operated by someone else, either local government, county, city… We have some parks that basically are golf courses. We have swimming pools in our parks… Is that the kind of facility that we ought to be managing?”

But forget about swimming pools and golf courses: What about Chinati?

This diversion of energies from public to private, from park steward to maybe-we-don’t-even-really-need-all-of-what-little-we-have-now, is not happening in a void, of course.

Cook’s department has been systematically starved of acquisition funds, and if you are dedicated to land conservation, as TPWD is, you have to go where the land is. To be sure, there is a $5 billion to $10 billion budget shortfall for next session. “Right now the agency couldn’t go out and try to buy a lot of property because they don’t have money to do that,” said Brian Sybert, Natural Resources Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. But the Parks board is supposed to be taking the long view. “They’re saying, ‘Well we’re not going to have the money to do [acquisitions] next session anyway, so why should we do that?’ But this is a long-term plan, and we should plan to meet the state’s future needs, not just plan on what will be in the budget for next session. Without a game plan, you can’t go back to the Legislature down the road; you’ve cut yourself off.”

Another obstacle to land acquisition is the traditional and continuing habit of selling commission seats to high bidders, ensuring a commission that is philosophically and personally aligned with the needs of private landowners. After the UT Board of Regents, a Parks appointment is the most highly sought plum. Governor Bush’s 10 TPWD appointees, for example, gave a combined $201,877 to his two campaigns. The sorts of people who tend to donate large amounts of money to political campaigns are also the sorts who can and do own large chunks of property, where they can, should they wish, recreate. Chairman Emeritus Lee Bass lists interests in over 10,000 acres in his 2000 personal financial statement. Rick Perry’s new appointee to the chair, Katherine Armstrong Idsal, scioness of the Armstrong family ranch in Kingsville, lists 5,500 acres.

“There’s definitely a philosophical objection [to acquisition],” on the board, said the Sierra Club’s Brian Sybert. “You’re looking at a group of people who tend to reflect that very small minority who can own more than 100 acres of land, and not somebody who’s living in Mesquite or Fort Worth or a suburb, who doesn’t have any access to a ranch or parkland.”

Large landowners devote their attention to protecting what they have, and their ability to do what they want with their own land. Government–with its endangered species legislation, inheritance taxes, hunting regulations, and worse–is the enemy. That’s the worldview represented by the Texas Wildlife Association, traditionally one of the most powerful interest groups in the TPWD universe. While TWA offers a long list of programs and outreach–including legislative lobbying–oriented toward property owners and hunters of all ages, its overarching philosophy can perhaps best be read in the motto that flashes briefly, almost subliminally, as the TWA web page opens: “Whenever we have something of value, there is always someone who wishes to take it away.” The cross-pollination (and what else would you call it?) between TPWD and TWA that’s marked by the back and forth of Kirby Brown and Joseph Fitzsimons also includes the co-sponsoring of The Texas Youth Hunting Program and the Texas Big Game Awards.

New board chair Idsal is seen by observers as, understandably, private land-oriented, and not someone likely to go to bat for public access issues. TPWD watchers both inside and outside the department suggest that she has taken a somewhat autocratic approach to steering the agency. The casual intimation is that Idsal’s ascension helped push Sansom, and perhaps board member Carol Dinkins, who was generally considered supportive of acquisition, out the door. There’s no evidence for that, but it approaches the status of conventional wisdom in conversations with knowledgeable people who are either too tactful or too entangled to say so for the record.

Idsal was unable to arrange an interview, and Sansom returned my initial call to schedule one, but then became mysteriously inaccessible. Dinkins says she left the board simply because she felt she needed to pay more attention to her attorneyship.

You almost want to pity the poor bastards at TPWD. Trapped between do-gooding conservationists (many of whom comprise the rank and file of department employees), commie acquisitionists, and a Legislature in the habit of treating TPWD like a red-headed stepchild on allowance day, under the fiscal and philosophical thumb of networks of hunters whose license fees fund a goodly part of the department’s budget, and pulled like taffy in a thousand different directions by an ever-changing constituency that includes just about every citizen of the state, TPWD is charged with performing a balancing act worthy of the Wallendas. We expect Parks to piece back together whole ecosystems from the fragments we’ve cut, provide safe and cheap access to spacious wilderness areas, keep the toilets clean and stocked with paper, maintain healthy wildlife populations, schedule a tee-time at noon, stoically look the other way while we down a cold beer at riverside, and change our flat with good cheer some late night in Bastrop, among a thousand more menial tasks.

All of this while simultaneously performing an elaborate courtship dance with the private landowners who own 95 percent of the state’s land mass. It’s no small task, and any time the department inevitably missteps, some “stakeholder” or another steps up to complain about TPWD’s inability to be all things to all people.

It’s hard to argue that programs designed to encourage private landowners to practice conservation are bad. Nor would it be appropriate to question the yeoman’s job that private non-profit land trusts do in augmenting TPWD’s conservation efforts. Yet there is an observable trend at work here, an increasing and so far unquestioned focus on private land conservation and private land trust stewardship that amounts, one could argue, to a department hand-off to the private sector of its traditional duties and obligations.

This may be part of the answer for conservation, but conservation is only half of the battle. Access to public land is the other half, and nothing about the department’s focus indicates any inclination to address that issue. Meeting the Texas Tech study goals will require about $3.6 billion in expenditures over 30 years. Public opinion surveys commissioned by the Tech study show broad public support for more park spending.

“You have to realize,” says Tech’s Schmidly, “what we presented here was a 30-year plan. We’re not saying that Chicken Little is going to fall out of the sky if this is not done in the next biennium. We’re simply saying that for the rate at which Texas’ population is growing, if you look at the distribution of public lands that we have right now for outdoor recreation, that distribution does not match well with the projected population growth for this state. And if it’s a value for Texans, if political leadership and policy makers believe there’s value in Texans accessing open space, then this is an issue that’s going to have to be addressed.”

Brad Tyer is a freelance writer living in Houston.