Texas State Park Advocates Urge Fair Funding
Editor's Note: The following opinion piece by Luke Metzger and David Teel appeared in the Houston Chronicle in support of fair funding for Texas state parks. Metzger is the director of Environment Texas, a statewide, citizen-funded advocate for clean air, clean water and open spaces. Teel is the president and CEO of the Texas Travel Industry Association, a nonprofit organization made up of businesses, organizations, associations and individuals with an interest in developing tourism in Texas.
From camping under the stars at Big Bend Ranch to exploring the cypress swamps of Caddo Lake, our state parks are more than just part of our natural heritage. They simply make life better here in Texas.
But our parks are in trouble. Two years ago, the Texas Legislature cut the budget of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) by $113 million. More than 100 rangers and other parks and wildlife staff were laid off. Critical repairs to aging bathrooms, campsites and sewage treatment facilities were put off. Twenty-three parks had services reduced and some are now only open on the weekend. Grants to cities to build new parks and playgrounds were mostly eliminated.
Then came the heat, drought and wildfires. Visitation to parks and the associated revenue dropped amid record-high temperatures and empty lakes. Wildfires destroyed much of Possum Kingdom and Bastrop state parks, including 96% of Bastrop's majestic pines.
With less revenue and new challenges, TPWD had to scale back even further, suspending operations at the Parrie Haynes Youth Ranch – 4,525-acre park on the Lampasas River with miles of horseback riding trails and ropes courses.
Now, despite admirable efforts to keep the system afloat given a tight budget, the parks department is at the breaking point. If the Legislature doesn't act to restore funding, some state parks may need to be closed.
But none of this had to happen. Sales taxes on sporting goods such as bicycles and camping gear bring in $128 million a year. These funds were established to keep our parks open and well maintained. However, the Legislature has not allocated the vast majority of these funds to our parks, using them instead for unrelated projects and agencies.
We shouldn't have to wonder if we're allowed into nature. Our parks should be open now and in the future. Our state parks let us get a breath of fresh air and preserve Texas history. They protect the clean water we depend on and provide a critical home for wildlife, such as the black bear and the leatherback sea turtle. Tourists from other states are among the 7.7 million people who visited our parks last year, and they spend money in our communities. A study by Texas A&M researchers found that people spend almost $1 billion every year when they visit the state parks.
There are signs the Legislature is starting to get the message. The base budget introduced last week increases parks funding, but not by enough to prevent parks closures. Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls and Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio have filed legislation to end the raids of the sporting goods sales tax. And Speaker Joe Straus has called for an end to these kind of fund diversions.
It would be terrible to close our state parks and leave us with fewer places to get outside and hike, spy on herons, egrets and turtles and take fishing and camping trips with our families.
Through two world wars and the Great Depression, we've found a way to protect our parks. We know that open space is too important to sacrifice and that nature isn't a luxury to dispose of when times get tough. We hope the Legislature gets that and does right by our parks this session.