Fort Worth

Parks politics: ‘Metroplex’s playground’ denied funding

Mule Lip Bar shooting creates new state park

A shooting at the Mule Lip Bar, in Mingus, sets in motion events that lead to Texas acquiring the land for Palo Pinto Mountains State Park. (Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison)
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A shooting at the Mule Lip Bar, in Mingus, sets in motion events that lead to Texas acquiring the land for Palo Pinto Mountains State Park. (Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison)

About 80 miles west of Fort Worth lies an area that is intended to be “the Metroplex’s playground.”

The 4,400-acre state park includes 1,400-foot ridge lines, a 90-acre lake and two creeks surrounded by pristine forests of live oaks, post oaks and pecan trees.

“It’s as if we’re the first people who ever saw it,” said Barbara McKnight of Stephenville who has seen portions of the park on rides with the Texas Equestrian Trail Riders Association. “It has that effect. It’s humbling.”

But the Palo Pinto Mountains State Park won’t be throwing open it gates to the public anytime soon.

While a small portion around Tucker Lake is open, most of the park remains undeveloped.

During this year’s legislature session, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department asked for $25 million to construct the park and got nothing. Brent Leisure, TPWD’s state parks director, said he remains optimistic the park eventually will get funded.

We are committed to it and I believe the state of Texas is committed to it.

Brent Leisure, TPWD’s state parks director

“We are committed to it, and I believe the state of Texas is committed to it,” Leisure said. “All Texans are rallying behind state parks — there is a tremendous demand. There is a need to expand our capacity, so yeah, I think it will happen.”

The lack of funding for the Palo Pinto park is just one example of the budget challenges Texas Parks and Wildlife faces.

The funding issue was thought to have been resolved two years ago when House Bill 158 was passed dedicating 94 percent of the state sporting goods tax to TPWD for state and local parks. But the funding wasn’t automatic; legislators retained the authority to appropriate that funding.

This session TPWD received 88 percent of the tax, or $277 million. If the funding had been appropriated as intended under HB 158, the agency would have received another $36 million.

‘Two years at the earliest’

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said he firmly believes the park will get funded but he won’t put a timetable on when it will happen.

“It will be two years at the earliest,” Geren said. “It will get built at some point, but this was an extremely tight budget year.”

Legislators did approve $48.5 million for park repairs statewide due to weather-related damage, including $17 million for Cedar Hill State Park on Joe Pool Lake.

TPWD also received $17 million for park deferred maintenance and capital construction projects at department facilities across the state ($8.8 million will be available for state park infrastructure and facilities, $8.2 million is available for Wildlife Management Areas and fish hatcheries).

But TPWD’s 91 state parks still have a backlog of $580 million in deferred maintenance.

“Without any additional funding for state park operations to keep up with the growing demand, the FY18-19 budget is going to be very tight, which will not leave much wiggle room for handling surges in visitation or any unanticipated issues that arise due to disaster (whether its weather related and mechanical),” TPWD spokesman Josh Havens said.

If Palo Pinto Mountains State Park gets funded during the next session, in two years, the earliest the park could be completed would be 2023.

The park still has $2.7 million to spend on design work and will be looking for private funding to help pay for the the park construction, Leisure said.

A series of events following a 2008 shooting at the Mule Lip Bar in nearby Mingus also played a role in land becoming available for the park.

Mule Lip bar
A shooting in 2008 at the Mule Lip Bar in Mingus set in motion a sequence of events that led to the state of Texas buying the land for Palo Pinto Mountains State Park. Rodger Mallison Star-Telegram archives

The park is intended to serve the western half of the Metroplex as the need for parks keeps growing. The seed money for land purchases came out of the sale of state land along Eagle Mountain Lake after officials decided it was too small for a state park.

In April 2008, the Tarrant Regional Water District, with the help of donations, purchased the 400 acres and it is now TRWD’s Eagle Mountain Park.

Legislators voted in favor of using the $9.2 million from the Eagle Mountain sale for a new regional park.

Strawn residents disappointed

For residents of Strawn, which sits just outside the park’s boundary, the lack of funding was a jolt.

Best known for Mary’s Cafe, which draws chicken-fried steak lovers from all over the state, Strawn is counting on the park to be a boost to the local economy and agreed to let the city-owned Tucker Lake be included in the park.

“This took the wind out of my sails, personally,” Strawn City Secretary Danny Miller said. “We didn’t expect this to happen. We thought it was going to get funded.”

Jeff Hinkson, former president of the Strawn Chamber of Commerce, said local leaders remain committed to pushing for the park’s funding.

“Of course, we’re disappointed that the funding didn’t happen this session, but we’re undeterred in seeing this park to fruition,” Hinkson said.

“Most of us were raised in this area and have always been enamored with the scenery and the wildlife of the Palo Pinto Mountains.”

Palo Pinto Mountains State Park (2)
Palo Pinto Creek, inside the Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, is shown in a 2016 file photo. The park was denied funding this year. Max Faulkner mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

Fort Worth attorney Ralph Duggins, vice chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, said the park system needs a new park like Palo Pinto Mountains.

“We would love to be able to open Palo Pinto, but we don’t have the funding in this cycle to do it,” Duggins said. “We’re very proud of the property, and it will provide a lot of opportunities for people in Tarrant County, Parker County and all across North Texas if we can get it open. But there are only so many dollars out there.”

McKnight, the Stephenville resident, is not only a member of the trail riders group, she is secretary of Texans for State Parks, a nonprofit that supports the state parks system. McKnight has helped organized trail rides through the park twice a year and helped clear brush from trails.

That’s given her a unique perspective on the new park and how much it is needed for city folks who love the outdoors.

“You see a property that has hardly been manipulated by human beings,” McKnight said. “When all people know is concrete, fast cars and interstates, they don’t have an opportunity to settle their hearts or their breathing, if you will. Sometimes I think that’s all that’s going to save us from ourselves.”

Related video:

The almost 5,000-acre playground is still at least four years away from opening, and while its official name is Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, some locals call it the “Mule Lip State Park.” (Star-Telegram/Max Faulkner)

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698, @fwhanna

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