Blistering summer heat that kept campers inside, a record drought that dried up lakes and streams, and wildfires that devastated three parks have reduced visitation and crimped revenue at state parks, prompting the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on Tuesday to make a plea for public assistance.
The "triple whammy" of weather-related problems has created a "critical need" for Texas state parks, said Carter Smith, the department's executive director. "So, we are reaching out for help.
"The bottom line is we have a $4.6 million gap in our 2012 park system operating budget," he said. "This is the amount we need to raise to help keep state parks open. We want to alert people now while there is still time to help."
The agency is not contemplating closing parks or reducing operating hours. But if the weather hazards persist into summer, "we might have to make some tough choices," Smith said. "I hope we don't get to that point; that's the genesis for this cry for support."
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George Bristol, president of the Texas Coalition for Conservation, hopes the "unprecedented" appeal pays off.
"I think closing some parks is a real possibility if this doesn't work," Bristol said. "There's just not any wiggle room in the budget. But I think this can work. All our polls show that Texans support parks and are willing to pay for them."
Visitor fees generate about half of the $69 million operating budget for the state parks. For years, visitation has been on an upward trend, but the heat, drought and wildfires cut August visitor numbers by 25 percent compared with a year ago, state parks director Brent Leisure said.
Some parks suffered more than a 50 percent drop during the hottest months of the summer, Smith said. Fall revenue is improving but is still down 11 percent.
At the same time, the Texas drought has dried up lakes and rivers, resulting in a 30 percent decline in freshwater fishing license sales compared with a year ago.
"Overall people are just simply not getting out and enjoying the outdoors as much because of these very, very challenging weather patterns," Smith says in a "Plea for Parks" video on the agency's website.
Wildfires burned 96 percent of Bastrop State Park and torched large portions of Possum Kingdom and Davis Mountains state parks. All three have reopened to varying degrees but their prolonged closures hurt, Leisure said.
An unusual request
Park officials concede that soliciting public help is unconventional for a government agency, but they say Texas parks have always relied heavily on volunteers who provide time and labor and on financial donors.
"This year those needs have been compounded by a perfect storm of weather events. That has created a real sense of urgency," Smith said.
With that in mind, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is rolling out a three-pronged campaign to prop up the parks department.
First, it is asking supporters to go to its website (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/helpparks) to make a tax-deductible donation.
Second, starting Jan. 1, the department is asking Texans to make a donation of $5 or more when they renew motor vehicle registrations. The Legislature passed that new option this year, estimating that it could raise at least $1.6 million, Smith said, adding that the funds are restricted by law and can only be used for state parks.
He added that this year's budget also included a projected $3 million increase in revenue from within state parks.
"The state park system 2012 budget was set anticipating those two items would raise a total of $4.6 million. But the money is not there now because park visitation and revenue are down markedly due to drought and wildfires, and the vehicle registration donation program is just getting under way for renewals due in January,"
Third, and most importantly, the agency is asking people to support parks by visiting them.
"What we really need -- now that there has been some rain and it has cooled off -- is for people to come back to the parks. That will help us more than anything," said Leisure, who hopes that the lifting of burn bans in many parks -- meaning that visitors can build campfires -- will draw fall and winter campers.
The parks system recently closed a $7.14 million deal on a new 3,333-acre park near Strawn, about 75 miles from Fort Worth. But Smith points out that the money, which came from the 2007 sale of Eagle Mountain State Park in Fort Worth, is dedicated to buying a new regional park.
"The situation is urgent and critical," he said. "Texans love their state parks and in this season of giving we are asking people to consider putting parks on their lists."