Texas State Parks ‘Getting Better All the Time’

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AUSTIN, Texas — With gasoline and airfare prices soaring, many families may be planning summer vacations closer to home this year. One high-value, low-cost option is Texas State Parks, which are “getting better all the time” thanks to increased funding provided by state lawmakers and voters.

The 80th Texas Legislature passed House Bills 1 and 12, providing an additional $25.6 million for state park operations during the 2008-09 biennium. Lawmakers also appropriated roughly $69 million in bond authority to fund state park major repairs, including $17 million under Proposition 8 and a little over $52 million in new bond authority from Proposition 4.

Last November, voters approved Proposition 4, which allocates $25 million to dry-berth the Battleship Texas to ensure its long-term preservation and another $27 million for major infrastructure repairs at state parks across Texas. After bonds are approved and sold this summer, design and construction contracts will be let this fall, and major repair work will start in 2009.

Already, more than 200 new state park employee positions have been filled or advertised. Repairs of long-neglected facilities have begun. Campgrounds that closed two years ago due to limited funds have reopened, and days and hours of park operations have been extended. Park visitors are not only noticing better maintained facilities, but they’re also seeing expanded interpretive programming such as ranger talks and school visits, plus better customer service.

“All Texans owe a debt of thanks to our governor and legislature for investing in our state park system,” said Carter Smith, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department executive director. “Research shows this is a wise investment that pays returns in many ways. State parks are economic engines that draw tourism dollars to host communities. They protect priceless natural and cultural resources, serve as outdoor classrooms for schools and youth groups, and provide a nearby, low-cost way for urban families to reconnect with nature and the outdoors. With the support of our elected leaders, we intend to build on the wonderful new beginning taking place this year and create the world-class park system Texas needs and deserves.”

University research shows state spending on parks pays economic returns. Texas A&M University researchers studied 80 Texas state parks and in 2005 reported that the 80 parks studied generated an estimated total of $793 million in retail sales, had a $456 million impact on residents’ income and created roughly 11,928 jobs. There are currently 93 state parks in Texas.

The A&M research also showed state parks draw outside visitor dollars into host counties. Researchers analyzed expenditures of park visitors from outside host counties, excluding spending by local residents and “casual” state park visitors attracted to the community for other reasons. In almost every case, benefits to the community outweighed state costs to operate the park. The complete university report is on the TPWD Web site.

The department has created an online Texas State Parks Getting Better news roundup detailing how increased funding is benefiting visitors at individual state parks across Texas. The roundup lists information on parks grouped near major cities, and also features a clickable map grouping parks by region. In addition to news resources, TPWD has been sharing the parks “getting better” story through magazine ads, Passport to Texas radio episodes, video productions and a new State of Parks Web portal that bundles all related materials for easy access.

In West Texas, one example that highlights the value of increased funding is Big Bend Ranch State Park, where dozens of new campsites in remote, scenic locations represent a major expansion of public access to the majestic backcountry of Texas’ largest state park. Expanded staffing with four new employee positions is what’s making the new public opportunities possible. The park is hiring two new park peace officers to help with everything from search and rescue to leading interpretive tours to protecting natural and cultural resources. The park is also hiring two new part-time maintenance assistants to help maintain trails and facilities for the public.

In Northeast Texas, Caddo Lake State Park has hired a new interpretive specialist to help tell the park story to the public. This means expanded guided tours and talks, as well as more outreach to area schools and community groups. In the past, park host volunteers led guided tours every weekend, but typically on the same topic.

The new position will make possible new programs every weekend, covering topics ranging from park history, such as the site’s Civilian Conservation Corps 1930s-era heritage to birding tours to see the rich avian species that reside in or migrate through the park’s cypress-tupelo woodland wetlands. New minor repair funding is also improving the visitor experience, making things safer and more enjoyable. This spring, the park replaced all water spigots and put in new metal risers in its Mill Pond Campground. The staff also replaced all the campsite tent pads with new timbers and raised platforms-a big improvement, since the old tent pads were close to 30 years old.

In Southeast Texas, Brazos Bend State Park is adding a new park ranger dedicated to natural resource management and another resource manager/park peace officer. Besides improving safety and security, this will allow a park that has had to rely heavily on volunteer labor and focus on recreation basics like clean restrooms to also fulfill its conservation mission.

“We’ve always been pretty good about the recreational components of the park, but our natural resources have suffered on some levels as a result of limited staffing,” said Assistant Superintendent Dennis Jones. “We have a fragment of coastal prairie that’s important, since less than one percent of this type of prairie habitat is left in North America. People understand preserving documents and buildings because of historical significance, but we tend to overlook that prairies have significance too and they’re all but gone.”

In Northwest Texas, Caprock Canyons State Park is following up on the grand opening of its new 4,400 square-foot visitor center last fall by using increased funding to remodel an administrative office into an overnight cabin and the old headquarters building into a 600-square-foot “discovery center.” The new overnight cabin will open this summer, and the discovery center is open now on weekends, when a park interpreter hosts children’s activities.

“It’s been great to have the families in there and see the kids and parents learning things,” says park Superintendent Deanna Oberheu.

In North Texas, Lake Mineral Wells State Park and Trailway has reopened miles of flood-damaged trails and starting major renovations thanks to increased funding. This year, the park will repair campsites and a rundown boat ramp, add an automated front gate for extra security, and repair flood damage along the 20-mile “Rails to Trails” hike-and-bike trail that extends to nearby Weatherford. Additional operating funds will increase part time staff in the office and extend the park’s operating hours to better serve visitors. The park also has a valuable partnership with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Correction Corp of America program, using inmate labor to improve the park. “We received increased funding of $15,000 to help equip prison crews with materials such as fence supplies, trailers and tools,” said Jody Lee, park superintendent.

In Central Texas, Bastrop and Buescher State Parks are improving security, enhancing visitor tours and interpretation and planning major repairs to historic buildings. Bastrop State Park has a new park peace officer position, which means more proactive visitor security and patrols instead of reacting to situations as they arise. Buescher State Park has a new site manager. The new positions will free other employees to focus more on interpretation, telling the park story to the public.

“Along with providing evening slideshows, the park interpreter will coordinate volunteers to assist with trail work, tree planting, maintenance duties and interpretive roles,” said Todd McClanahan, complex superintendent for Buescher and Bastrop State Parks. “Interpretation is what makes the difference in terms of campers making personal connections with our natural and cultural resources.”

In South Texas, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, home of the World Birding Center headquarters, has added a new position of lead interpreter/naturalist and has several new projects in the works.

“The new park interpreter is allowing us to increase the quality and quantity of programs, opening up new opportunities for schools, families and out-of-town visitors that would have not been possible without increased funding,” said George Cortez, park superintendent. “This year, our park will begin a guest lecture series and increased community outreach to Valley schools.”

Bentsen’s additional funding will also make possible improvements to the park’s primitive camping area, including plans for individual campsites with fire rings, lantern posts and picnic tables. In addition, renovation has begun to convert the park’s old entry station into a nature center, which will feature natural history collections, access to remote cameras focused on wildlife and a reference library.

Visitors can see what to do and where to go at state parks across Texas on the TPWD Web site, or by picking up a Texas State Park Guide booklet at any state park or at many local tourism bureaus. Campers can make state park reservations online, or by phoning (512) 389-8900. State parks host a wide array of tours and events, all accessible through an online calendar.

This summer, TPWD is continuing the Free Fishing in State Parks program that waives fishing license requirements within more than 50 state parks, including scheduled events at some parks where participants can learn fishing skills, have a chance to hook a fish and perhaps win door prizes like rods and reels. The department also has a new e-newsletter, State Parks Getaways, featuring park profiles, articles about camping, wildlife and other topics and links to park videos and photos. Anyone can sign up to receive the free e-newsletter and other information via the TPWD E-mail Subscription Service.