Executive Director, Environment Texas
Executive Director, Environment Texas
AUSTIN – With the Texas House expected to approve a parks funding bill today, Environment Texas released a new report warning that many biologically important natural areas in Texas are threatened with development. The group used the report’s findings to call on the Legislature to appropriate at least $15 million per year to acquire threatened natural areas and protect them as state parks. Environment Texas also called on the Legislature not to eliminate park discounts for school, church and scout groups, as may be required in the current budget.
“Today, the Texas House can take an important step to restore our parks to excellence by removing the cap on their main funding source – the ‘sporting goods tax’, said Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas. “But our parks will only get the funds they desperately need if the funds are appropriated, and currently the budget continues to shortchange our parks, particularly in the area of land acquisition.”
Today, the Texas House of Representatives will consider HB 12 (Hilderbran), which would remove the cap on the “sporting goods sales tax”, which generates more than $100 million per year, to help fund Texas state and local parks. However, the funds can only be appropriated through the state budget.
Currently, the House version of the state budget includes $9.6 million over two years, generated from the sale of another state park in Fort Worth, to acquire new parkland. However, neither the House nor Senate version of the budget includes any new resources towards a land acquisition program. The House budget does include some funds for acquisition in the “wish list” section of the budget, known as Article XI. A budget conference committee, which is currently meeting, would have to put appropriations for acquisition directly in the budget.
The state maintains sizable parks in west Texas and other parts of the state, but Texas’ metropolitan areas are notably underserved. Texas averages about 52 acres of parkland per 1000 people, but the Dallas area has just 15.9 acres per 1000 people. Polling done by Texas Tech University found that Texans “are becoming increasingly frustrated about the lack of access to lands to experience nature.” With Texas’ population expected to double in the next few decades, demand will grow for access to parks and natural areas close to urban areas will be lost to encroaching development.
Last summer, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) convened a blue ribbon commission to examine the needs of the parks and determined that despite Texas’ rapid growth, “there has not been a major acquisition and development program for state parks since 1967.” The panel recommended that the Legislature appropriate at least $15 million per year for acquisition and development of new parks and the expansion of existing parks.
“Texans have had enough of the Legislature’s budget shell game and want our parks to get the funds they need to return to excellence,” said Metzger.
TPWD has proposed establishing four to six new 5,000-acre parks near major metro areas, including in the DFW region. The department is currently investigating several potential sites, including in Palo Pinto County just west of Fort Worth. Palo Pinto, known as the “hill country” of North Texas, is an area where the Brazos River flows through beautiful cedar-covered hills and mountains; old growth timber still exists, with post oaks believed to be more than 100 years old; and birdwatchers observe more than 280 species of birds, even endangered species such as Whooping Crane and the Golden-cheeked Warbler. The park could help protect the threatened cross-timbers ecosystem, currently ranked lowest in the state in “conserved status” by TPWD.
Environment Texas also called on the Legislature not to eliminate parks discounts for school, church and scout groups. The Senate version of the budget currently directs TPWD to generate $16 million of their budget through “enhanced collections.” The budget prohibits the department from generating these funds from increases in state park user fees, so presumably the funds would need to come in part from the elimination of discounts.
Environment Texas is a statewide, citizens advocacy group based in Austin.