Birds, fish, waterways among winners as state park closures averted

Posted Saturday, Jun. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Eighteen months ago, the Texas state parks system was forced to stick its hand out to the public to try and close a $4.5 million 2012 budget gap.

In January, park officials warned that without an extra $18.9 million in funding, they would have to close up to 20 state parks.

But a budget boost in the recently concluded regular session of the Legislature will keep all 95 parks open for the next two years and address a laundry list of other critical parks and wildlife needs, park officials and advocates say.

Lawmakers appropriated $17.9 million for park operations and chipped in $15.5 million more to partially revive a local park grants program that was zeroed out in 2011.

The Legislature also approved $6 million to address the state’s crashing bobwhite quail population, $5 million to restore fire-ravaged Bastrop State Park and $24 million to partially address a mammoth backlog in deferred maintenance on the park and wildlife system’s aging infrastructure — everything from fish hatcheries to vintage cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

“What a difference a year and half makes. We’re now absolutely confident that we are going to be able to keep state parks open. The Legislature really addressed our priority needs. Barring any sort of catastrophe like a hurricane or a Bastrop fire, we’re adequately funded for the next two years,” said Carter Smith, director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Long-time parks advocate George Bristol, founder and president of the Texas Coalition for Conservation, said the battle for funding went much better than he expected.

“We got between 85 and 90 percent of what we asked for this year. There is clearly a recognition now by the Legislature that parks are important, and they are going to fund them as best they can,” he said.

Ralph Duggins, a Fort Worth attorney and member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission which oversees the TPWD, said the Legislature restored much of the park funding it slashed two years ago.

“We are really appreciative of the funding. We feel like the Legislature listened and worked with us,” said Duggins who was reappointed to another six-year term on the commission in May.

Bastrop restored

One disappointment from the session, Smith said, was funding for major capital repair and construction needs.

“We have literally hundreds of millions of dollar of deferred maintenance throughout the system. We had asked for $40 million, and we were appropriated about $24 million for that goal,” he said.

Brent Leisure, the state parks director, said lawmakers did provide new funding to add four employees to help fight fires and mitigate fuel buildup on park lands.

“We’re going to be in better position to defend our parks and the communities around them,” he said.

The $5 million for Bastrop State Park, which was ravaged during the 2011 fire season, will help restore habitat, control invasive species that have moved into the burn zones and replace equipment and facilities that were lost, Leisure said.

The local parks program, which got only about half the funding it had received before 2011, is important to cities such as Fort Worth, Smith said. The city has received $8.2 million in grants since 1982.

In recent years, Fort Worth landed $1 million each for three projects: the Marine Creek Park Corridor; the Northwest Community Park; and the Chisholm Trail Community Center.

“That money is huge for us. It enables us to take local dollars and leverage them with state dollars and in many cases double the size of the project or at least increase the size of the project,” said Richard Zavalla, director of parks and community services in Fort Worth.

Improving habitat

Smith said $4 million was appropriated to address the precipitous decline in the numbers of bobwhite quail, an issue he considers one of the biggest wildlife concerns in Texas.

“We have been concerned for some time about quail numbers throughout the state, but particularly in the areas west of Fort Worth, in the Rolling Plains,” he said, adding that the Legislature appropriated an additional $2 million for quail research by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

The Parks and Wildlife Department will use the money to improve and enhance habitat, to conduct research and monitoring efforts and to partner with private landowners to help quail and other upland game birds, he said.

The parks and wildlife agency also received $1.5 million to “repopulate” its invasive species program, which targets the proliferation of invasive aquatic plants such as water hyacinth and giant salvinia in Texas rivers and reservoirs.

“These plants, along with species like zebra mussels, are posing huge concerns for water managers around the state,” Smith said.

Just this week, the agency determined that zebra mussels, which can clog public-water intake pipes and compete with native species, had invaded Lake Lewisville, the third reservoir in Texas where they have been discovered.

Meantime, mild weather is helping the parks system’s most important revenue stream — visitation, which is poised to set a record this year, said Leisure, the state parks director.

“Weather is the big driver for parks,” he said. “Last year was a record for us, and we are on pace to exceed that this year. Through May, we have seen a 13.7 percent increase over last year.

“We predict we will be over $40 million in revenue this year,” he said, noting that the system has seen an 8.5 percent increase in children’s use of parks.

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981 Twitter: @stevecamp

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