With restored funding, all Texas state parks are open for business

Posted Thursday, Jul. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The Texas Legislature, highly criticized for its drastic cuts of state park funding two years ago, came close to redeeming itself in this year’s regular session by restoring much of the system’s budget for 2014-15.

That means that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will have enough money to keep all 95 state parks open, as well as funding to address some of the long-neglected infrastructure and maintenance needs.

And that’s a good thing, as department officials say the parks are on pace this year to exceed attendance records set in 2012. There was a 13.7 percent increase in the first five months of this year over last year.

Since visitation is the system’s most important revenue stream, that bodes well for a department that was begging for donations last year to offset a budget shortfall of $4.5 million. Officials project more than $40 million in revenue this year.

In fiscal 2012, campsite and lodging reservations from 323,605 visitors brought in more than $18.6 million, said Joan Blankenbeker, director of state park customer service. In fiscal 2013, revenue rose to more than $20.1 million from 342,581 reservations.

Still, the department depends on additional funding from the state budget. Legislators had been advised in January that TPWD would have to close up to 20 state parks unless it received an extra $18.9 million in funding for the next biennium.

In addition to allocating $17.9 million for operations, lawmakers approved $24 million for maintenance, $5 million to restore Bastrop State Park’s wildfire damage and $15.5 million for a local park grant program they had basically eliminated in 2011.

Funding is in place to keep the parks operating and in better shape, and the people of Texas are using them. A list of parks, including those closest to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, is on the TDPW website, www.tpwd.state.tx.us.

July is one of the busiest months for park-goers, especially for visits to the nearly 200 major lakes and 190,000 miles of rivers in Texas used for boating, swimming, fishing, canoeing and kayaking.

The park department has long placed a great emphasis on safety, offering classes in boater education throughout the state, an online paddling course and swimming safety tips. In the wake of a double fatality boating accident on Lake Fork Reservoir in northeast Texas this week, residents should be mindful of the inherent dangers of recreational activities around water and take necessary precautions.

State parks, of course, provide more than recreational opportunities like hunting, camping, water sports and hiking. Since 1895, they have helped protect the state’s natural resources — conserving wildlife, protecting endangered species and preserving historical sites.

Our parks, which continue to put us in touch with nature and our history, are among this state’s most treasured assets, and we must continue to maintain them, develop them and save them for generations to come.

Amid the growth in visitation this year, park officials say, has been an increase in use by children, up 8.5 percent over last year. They deserve to inherit not a dilapidated collection of public spaces, ruined by neglect and underfunding, but a truly superior network of “natural and cultural resources.”

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department was formed in 1963 and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It has been aggressive in adding more park space and activities for a fast-growing population, despite the periodic funding cuts whenever the state has a budget problem.

All agencies suffer when there are budget shortfalls and there are necessary cuts. But it’s not exaggerating to say lawmakers have been negligent in allowing the TPWD to accumulate hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance on state parks.

While the $24 million allocation this year is helpful, it is a far cry from being enough — if we’re going to assure quality parks for that next generation.

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