Is Texas’ Overcrowded, Underfunded State Parks System Being Loved to Death?

Texans love their state parks. But our state's public lands are overcrowded and rapidly deteriorating. Maybe it's time to take the long view.


A version of this story ran in the December 2018 issue.

by Joe Nick Patoski
December 17, 2018

In July, on a 100-degree day in the desert, 562 miles west of Houston, I stood on the concrete bank of the San Solomon Springs Pool at Balmorhea State Park in Far West Texas, one of my favorite places anywhere. The water is so clear, it’s like jumping into a dream. The water temperature hovers around 75 degrees Fahrenheit, refreshingly cool
in the heat of the summer and comfortably warm in the winter. It is the best swimming hole on Earth.

Set against the Davis Mountains where the Chihuahuan Desert transitions into the low, flat Permian Basin, the San Solomon complex of springs gush out 15 million gallons of unsullied artesian water every day, feeding a canal system that runs to nearby farms and to the town of Balmorhea, 4 miles away.

In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built walls around the desert marsh to create the pool. Today, more than 200,000 people stop by every year to swim with fish, waterfowl and amphibians.

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The rare headwater catfish is native to the Rio Grande and the Pecos River basins. Balmorhea is home to multiple endangered and threatened species.  Spencer Selvidge

I have swum at Balmorhea every month of the year. Many times, I’ve had the entire pool to myself. One Sunday morning in summer 2017, though, so many people were crammed into the park that volunteers improvised parking in open fields and lines formed outside the bathrooms. I had hardly jumped in before getting fed up with the crowds and leaving.

I always figured Balmorhea was too far away, too in the middle of nowhere to get overrun, so I didn’t mind tooting its horn in a number of publications. I was wrong. In recent years, visitation has surged. For families between Van Horn and Odessa, Balmorhea is the one affordable place within 100 miles to cool off and picnic. Scuba clubs from as far away as Kansas and Arkansas explore the springs on weekends year-round. Fitness buffs motoring coast to coast make detours to get a swim in.

When I visited in July, I almost had the place to myself again. The water was inviting, but all I could do was look. For almost three months, during the peak summer season, the pool had been closed as staff figured out how to fix a collapsed retaining wall below the diving boards.

The closing was sudden and unplanned. During the annual cleaning in early May, Abel Baeza, the manager of the local water district, was directing workers to make repairs in a nearby canal when he heard a noise, then turned around to see the underwater concrete skirting cracking off below the high dive.

“That end of the pool is going down,” Baeza yelled.

The 80-year-old pool, like the nearby adobe San Solomon Springs Motor Courts, which are closed during a planned restoration, requires constant upkeep. The concrete repairs were an even bigger deal. A dam had to be constructed to hold back water around the damage during the painstaking process.

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The northwest end of the pool has been emptied during construction to repair a damaged retaining wall.  Spencer Selvidge

“There are five endangered species in the pool, and this is the only population left of this species of black catfish,” said Mark Lockwood, the West Texas regional director for Texas state parks. “We can’t just open up the gates, let the water dry up everywhere, build a wall, and put it back together.”

Two weeks after my July visit, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) announced that pool repairs would begin imminently, with the cash-strapped agency forced to find creative ways to pay the estimated $1.8 million bill. Apache Corporation, the company doing most of the fracking exploration around Balmorhea, which some locals and environmentalists believe caused the damage, offered a $1 million matching grant through the nonprofit Texas Parks & Wildlife Foundation. The Garrison Brothers Distillery pledged a portion of proceeds from its small-batch, $59-a-bottle Balmorhea whiskey. Even for a park as popular as Balmorhea, getting things done these days requires the governmental equivalent of a GoFundMe campaign.

But unplanned major repairs and frequent closures for scheduled maintenance have not stopped the crowds at Balmorhea, or many other popular parks in an increasingly overburdened system.

At 10:23 a.m. on Saturday, June 16, the following post went up on Garner State Park’s Facebook page:

“Happy Father’s Day Weekend! Garner State Park has reached capacity and day use is now closed. We will reopen at 6pm for the dance. Have a great day!”

On a perfect March day during spring break 2018, traffic at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area near Fredericksburg backed up for more than a mile from the entrance. Most of those waiting in line did not get in.

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On weekends and holidays, it’s now common for visitors to be turned away at Enchanted Rock and Balmorhea as well as Government Canyon, Guadalupe River, Ray Roberts Lake, McKinney Falls, Pedernales Falls, Hueco Tanks and Garner.

More people are enjoying Texas’ 95 state parks than ever. In the 2017 fiscal year, there were 10 million visitors, a 20 percent increase over 2012. Visitation at some destinations has skyrocketed. For example, the number of visitors to McKinney Falls, a small park on Onion Creek in far southeast Austin, nearly doubled in the last decade, jumping from 128,000 in 2008 to 319,000 in 2017.

“State parks are the No. 1 tourist attraction in Texas,” said John Crompton, a professor in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University. “The state park is the economic engine of many rural counties.”

Texas’ population has ballooned by more than 7 million since 2000, and many newcomers are seeking outdoor experiences. To keep up, the system would need to add one new park each year. Only three have opened in the last 18 years.

Even in a state that reveres private property, that’s a shame. For Texans born into neither oil nor land, cattle nor commerce, our parklands inform our sense of place.

Texas Parks & Wildlife stewards our best places. The Big Tree at Goose Island, the granite dome of Enchanted Rock and the grand red canyons of Palo Duro are encompassed by state parks. You can experience Texas’ most pristine rivers — the Devils, the Frio, the Blanco and the upper Guadalupe — via public lands. Same goes for the primordial Caddo Lake, the sacred rocks of the world-class climbing destination Hueco Tanks, the white sands of Monahans and the spiny ridges of the Franklin Mountains. Some of the best parts of the Big Bend and the Texas coast are state parks. The state buffalo herd roams the red dirt of Caprock Canyons State Park.

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Visitors hiking on Enchanted Rock after the park reached capacity by 10 a.m. on a Saturday in October.  Spencer Selvidge

There are also many not-so-traditional parks, including a battleship, a steam locomotive train, fishing piers, historic homes and restored missions and battlegrounds.

All these glories — plus national parks, wildlife management areas and other public lands — account for just 5 percent of Texas’ vastness. For more than two decades, state leaders have repeatedly warned that if more recreational resources weren’t added to accommodate Texas’ growth, the result would be overcrowded parks, deteriorating facilities and a diminished connection between urban Texans and the state’s rural legacy. Lawmakers have responded by making halting, and ultimately inadequate attempts at shoring up TPWD’s rickety finance system.

Will lawmakers rise to the challenge before Texans love their parks to death? Or is Texas’ future one in which those in search of the outdoors are left with two options: Drive several hundred miles to Far West Texas to access big, wild country, or suck it up and deal with the crowds and aging infrastructure at state parks closer by?

Once upon a time, there was support in high places for state parks.

In 1967, Texas voters passed a bond issue approving $75 million ($575 million in today’s dollars) to buy more land. The bonds were supplemented by impressive donations of land from Texans of wealth and good intent. Then the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s forced many wealthy Texans to unload their properties on the cheap. “All of a sudden, every family ranch was for sale, and I had $25 million” in bond money to spend, said Andrew Sansom, then the executive director of TPWD. Half a million acres were added to the state park inventory in the 1970s and ’80s, culminating with the 300,000-acre Big Bend Ranch in 1988. By then, the state held nine times as much land as it had in the late 1950s.

During her tenure as governor, Ann Richards diversified the TPWD commission, appointing its first Hispanic, Nacho Garza, and its first woman, Terry Hershey, a well-regarded conservationist. Richards also championed Sansom and famously paddled the Rio Grande in the Big Bend, but had to deal with legislative budget cuts and a proposal to eliminate 11 state parks. During George W. Bush’s terms as governor, the wildlife division of TPWD was upgraded and staff biologists were made available to large private landowners.

Everything changed around the turn of the millennium. State land acquisitions ground to a halt even as several landmark studies urged state leaders to pick up the pace to accommodate Texas’ booming population.

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The McKinney Falls State Park visitors center has been closed for over three years, though the park has seen heavy use.  Spencer Selvidge

In November 2001, TPWD issued a sweeping study on the state of Texas’ outdoor resources. It was intended to inform the agency’s planning over the next 30 to 50 years. The study, overseen by Texas Tech University president and esteemed naturalist David Schmidly, was prompted by a legislative review criticizing TPWD for lacking a vision.

The Schmidly study noted that Texas has the greatest diversity of animals and plants of any of the United States, and that in order to accommodate the state’s rapidly growing human population while conserving Texas’ natural resources, an additional 1.4 million acres of parkland were needed inside the Houston-DFW-San Antonio population triangle — more than twice the amount statewide at the time.

The response from the governor-appointed TPWD commissioners and the ascendant GOP leadership was tepid. There simply wasn’t the will to raise the funds to make ambitious land purchases near the big cities. Instead, the TPWD commission set a much more modest goal: Open four parks of at least 5,000 acres each inside the urban triangle by 2030.

“There was all this concern about the government trying to take away people’s land rights,” Schmidly said of the muted response to his study. “It was almost hysterical in some places. Landowners were up in arms. They felt the Endangered Species Act was going to take away their land. There was no appetite for the government to get involved in anything in Texas.”

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Katie Elkins tells would-be visitors to Enchanted Rock that the park is temporarily closed after reaching its capacity limit.  Spencer Selvidge

Then-Governor Rick Perry seemed to share the sentiment, shrugging off calls for park expansion and, more important, refusing to fix TPWD’s broken financing system, which relies on dribs and drabs of funding from a sales tax on sporting goods that the Legislature regularly raids.

“It all changed with Perry,” said Sansom, who now oversees the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. Governor Greg Abbott and the increasingly hardline GOP-led Texas Legislature have taken a nearly identical do-nothing approach.

“The Legislature keeps Parks & Wildlife on a short leash,” said Sansom. In part, that’s because legislators write a budget for only two years at a time, while park development can take decades. In some cases, budget-writers at the Capitol specifically prohibit TPWD appropriations from being used to buy land.

Managing this enforced austerity has fallen to the agency’s executive director, Carter Smith.

Carter Smith, executive director of Texas Parks and Wildlife.  Courtesy Carter Smith

“I’ve been at this job almost 11 years, and I’ve got the scars to show you,” Smith said with a self-effacing grin when I went to see him in his office at TPWD’s southeast Austin headquarters late one afternoon this summer. If he was battered and beaten, his cheerful look-you-in-the-eye countenance convincingly covered it up. Smith came to TPWD from the Texas Nature Conservancy in 2008 and aims to lead the agency to its centennial in 2023 and beyond, no matter how daunting that task may be. And it is daunting.

“It really is a perfect storm,” Smith said of the state of state parks. “Think about a state park system that’s antiquated, fatigued, loved to death, seems to be beset with natural disaster after natural disaster, and it can’t keep up with the growth of the state.”

Still, Smith never tires of making the pitch for state parks. “These are the places that tell the life, history and story of our great state. They belong to all of us. They’re irreplaceable and they ought to be treated as such. And the people who come don’t always feel that way. They leave disappointed because of the crowd, the appearance and the challenges with access.”

Closed swimming pools, shuttered restrooms, leaky pipes, failed wastewater systems, $100 million in deferred maintenance for the rusting Battleship Texas alone — all are testaments to a duct-taped infrastructure that was never designed to accommodate almost 10 million visitors a year.

“There was all this concern about the government trying to take away people’s land rights. It was almost hysterical in some places.”

Add to that weather damage, which has been increasing in frequency and severity this century because of climate change. “We’ve been hit by Rita, Ike, the fires and drought of 2011, the floods of 2016 and 2017 and Hurricane Harvey — that’s well over $100 million in damages in 10 years,” Smith said.

Another problem: Many parks close to cities have become landlocked by development. For example, high-dollar suburban subdivisions now surround the Honey Creek State Natural Area, an unspoiled slice of the rolling Hill Country preserved in the 1970s, as well as the adjacent Guadalupe River State Park east of Boerne. One developer, Silesia Properties, recently applied to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to discharge up to 500,000 gallons of treated wastewater per day into Honey Creek, one of the most pristine waterways in Texas.

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But Smith’s biggest challenge is acquiring and developing new large tracts of open space. Without major funding from the Legislature, he has championed creative land swaps, public-private partnerships and philanthropy.

Smith has used these tools to work toward opening to the public more than 80,000 acres of prime land, including the 17,000-acre Powderhorn Ranch near Port O’Connor on the Texas coast, a remarkably diverse tract comprising saltwater estuaries and live oak motts, as well as a stunning 17,000-acre tract on the Devils River, a remote but popular kayak-fishing destination. Those new parks will open to the public only if Smith can get the Legislature to pay for their development and maintenance. That’s not always been easy.

“Think about a state park system that’s antiquated, fatigued, loved to death, seems to be beset with natural disaster after natural disaster, and it can’t keep up with the growth of the state.”

Exhibit A is forever-in-the-works Palo Pinto Mountains State Park between Fort Worth and Abilene. Smith’s excited description of Palo Pinto is a tumble of words: “a world-class park, just off I-20 at the convergence of the Hill Country, the Crosstimbers, beautiful live-water creek that runs through these big-shouldered hills and mesas, roughly 90-acre lake right in the heart of it.”

The origins of the Palo Pinto project are classic Carter Smith. In 2006, TPWD sold 400 acres of prospective parkland on Eagle Mountain Lake near Fort Worth to the Tarrant Regional Water District, which opened a park on the site. Then, TPWD combined proceeds from the sale with donations to help locate, purchase and plan the much larger 4,400-acre Palo Pinto Mountains tract. The park’s diverse land and water features assure immediate popularity once it opens. But during the 2017 session, lawmakers failed to appropriate a dime toward the $25 million TPWD requested to complete Palo Pinto Mountains, despite the department identifying it as a top priority.

“This is not only a case in point of [the Legislature] shirking responsibility, but of a public-private partnership” that creatively leveraged funds, said George Bristol, founder of the nonprofit Texas Coalition for Conservation. “The public was called on to raise the money, they raised the money, got this big park set up, they did the design work … and then the [politicians] appropriated no money.”

The earliest Palo Pinto could open is 2023. By then, another 800,000 people will have moved to North Texas.

Where the state is falling short, cities and counties are doing their best to step in, often with the help of TPWD grants. Andrew Sansom points out that the counties of Bexar, Hays and Travis and their seats — San Antonio, San Marcos and Austin, respectively — have created more public land in the last 20 years than either the state or federal governments. In fact, Texas leads the nation in local ballot initiatives to invest money in parks and other green space.

Will that desire still burn bright with the state’s demographic shift? TPWD research shows that Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the population, use Texas parks far less than Anglos. (African Americans account for about 1 percent of Texas state park visitation.)

TPWD is evolving. Group facilities that can accommodate multigenerational families are in high demand from Hispanics. But as Carter Smith points out, “Our state parks that were designed in the ’30s, ’70s and early ’80s assumed there were going to be four people at a campsite.” New parks include campsites for large groups.

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In fall, the bald cypresses along the Pedernales River put on a colorful display.  Spencer Selvidge

These and other adaptations will be key, Schmidly argues, if the next generation of Texans is to lead the conservation charge. TPWD, whose upper management is overwhelmingly white, must broaden its appeal beyond “white male hunters, these old farts over 50 who are out shooting deer, hogs, things like that,” he said. Now retired and living near Albuquerque after serving as president of Oklahoma State University and the University of New Mexico, Schmidly is revising and updating his book Texas Natural History: A Century of Change. “I’m going to talk a good bit about what’s not happening in Texas. I don’t live there and, to be a little crude, I don’t have to give a shit what the politicians think.”

In that spirit, Schmidly argues that fully embracing public lands will require seismic political change. “A lot of this boils down to philosophy, what people think the role of government is,” he said. “Less than 1 percent of the people in Texas are major landowners. But that 1 percent is powerful … and a lot of them are just against government solutions to problems.”

How to fix state parks, then, under these constraints?

Full funding from the dedicated tax on sporting goods would be a good start. By law, state parks are supposed to receive 94 percent of the tax revenues from the sale of items such as baseball bats and fishing poles. Only once since the tax law passed in 1993 has TPWD received its full share. In other words, the department has been shorted tens of millions of dollars in every legislative session since 1993 except for one.

To balance the state budget, legislators continually raid the sporting goods tax fund, robbing Peter to pay Paul, or, in this case, stealing from parks to prop up prisons and God knows what else. A simple fix would be to give voters the option of amending the Texas Constitution to specify that TPWD get its full 94 percent share — no exceptions. But that proposal has yet to gain traction at the Legislature.

George Bristol, the parks advocate, would also like to see legislators allow for more long-term planning and budgeting on TPWD’s part, as they do for the Texas Department of Transportation.

George Bristol, founder of the Texas Coalition for Conservation.  Courtesy George Bristol

“We must continue to try to make [legislators] understand this isn’t a two-year cycle, but a long-term proposition,” Bristol said. “If you ran your business like this, you’d go broke.”

Maybe it’s existential. Maybe the idea of parks has come and gone. It’s not just Texas: Our state parks’ $780 million deferred maintenance price tag is relatively pissant compared to the National Park Service’s estimated $11.6 billion backlog. Teddy Roosevelt’s championing of national parks was a great 20th century idea, as the country urbanized and many natural landmarks were at risk. But do parks matter now that the state, and the nation, are pretty much built out, and the private sector offers so many more recreational opportunities? Are parks just a quaint, antiquated concept, as some legislators view public schools?

If the answer is “no,” more folks need to be asking their legislators some tough questions. For example, why does a state with one of the best economies in the world hold parks in such low esteem? Why do lawmakers fight for funding of state parks in their districts, yet ignore the popularity of state parks as a whole, and refuse to allow the department the benefit of long-term planning?

Meanwhile, we’ll have to keep loving our parks, just hopefully not to death. At Balmorhea, the restoration of the San Solomon Springs Motor Courts should be finished by spring. The fallen wall in the pool should be repaired any day now. I’m standing by. I may have missed my summer swims, but a sunny 70 degree fall day with little wind will do just fine. Odds are, I’ll have the pool all to myself. If I wait until next summer, I’ll be waiting in line with the rest of y’all.

Update April 24, 2019:

“We’re open for business.”

Sweeter words were never spoken by Carolyn Rose, the superintendent of Balmorhea State Park — at least to these ears. Ten months after the swimming pool at San Solomon Springs closed when the wall beneath the diving board collapsed during the annual May pool cleaning, Texas’ biggest and best spring-fed pool is once again welcoming swimmers and divers. 

That’s the good news at Balmorhea. The not-so-good news is the completion date for the renovation and restoration of the adjacent San Solomon Courts is now TBA. “We just don’t know when,” Rose said. “We lost our subcontractor.” The state park is having a difficult time competing with the energy industry for construction contractors, supervisors and workers.

Still, the crowds have returned to Balmorhea in droves. Rose urges visitors to make reservations for park entry in advance online, especially on summer weekends or holidays. “We’ve had 150 advance reservations for [Easter] Sunday,” Rose said last weekend.