As Covid-19 forced the nation to stay indoors, millions across the US realized just how much we need to be outside. From state parks to hike-and-bike trails, Texans poured out of their homes to enjoy places of peace and beauty that many once assumed they were too busy to frequent in their hectic 21st-century lives. Even as many of us return back to some semblance of normalcy, our state parks remain packed, and for good reason.
Our parks provide incredible places for us to recreate and explore. At Monahan’s Sandhills State Park, visitors can ride sleds down rolling dunes of sand, looking out to the horizon, where brilliant blue sky meets the white sand and yellow sunflowers of west Texas. At Goliad State Park and Historic Site, children can try on a replica of the chain mail armor worn by conquistadors in the 1700s. At Garner, people can paddle boats on the Frio River and at Balmorhea State Park, swim in its crystal clear, spring-fed swimming pool. Bohemians and cowboys alike gather around campfires to tell tall tales and belt songs out to starry skies.
But despite the state’s naturally endowed ecological beauty, Texas’ parks system lags far behind where it can, and ought, to be. Texas simply has too few parks to ensure that everyone is able to enjoy them.
In 2023, the Texas state parks system will celebrate its 100th anniversary. But as the state grows rapidly, our parks system is bursting at the seams and struggling to meet public demand for recreation opportunities. Meanwhile, development continues to eat up open space, transforming the iconic rural character so many of us know and love about Texas and leaving fewer places for wildlife to live.
Our state parks provide enormous benefits to Texas
Our parks bestow numerous benefits, such as providing places to hike, camp, hunt and fish. Texas parks are some of the best in the nation, and they offer incredible opportunities to visitors. In addition, our state parks provide habitat for wildlife, including endangered and threatened species, that may otherwise face increased destruction of habitat. Endangered and threatened Texas species, such as sea turtles, horned lizards, and Palo Duro mice all rely on state parkland to mate, feed, and roam.
State parks also help protect drinking water sources.
Honey Creek State Natural Area, for example, sits atop and protects the Trinity Aquifer, a major source of drinking water for Bexar County. Colorado Bend State Park sits upstream of the Colorado River and Austin’s drinking water sources of Lake Travis and Lake Austin.
Parks also strengthen the outdoor recreation industry, which supports nearly 300,000 jobs in Texas and adds over $30 billion to the state GDP through activities like boating, RVing and hunting. Similarly, Texas parks strengthen tourism for the towns and cities around them as families visit from across the state, nation, and even the world. For example, many of the 271,747 visitors to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in the 2018 fiscal year stopped in nearby Fredericksburg for food, gas, lodging and entertainment.
Texas’ natural heritage is at risk
In 2019, Texas A&M Natural Resource Institute released Texas Land Trends, which reported that between 1997 and 2017 Texas developed more than 2.2 million acres of farms, ranches, and forests —an average of approximately 12.5 acres per hour.
As rural land is developed into subdivisions and strip malls, opportunities to conserve Texas’ natural beauty disappear. Existing state parks, including Brazos Bend, Enchanted Rock, Bastrop, and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley are at risk of being surrounded by development.
When land is converted into housing and commercial property, wildlife can suffer. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) notes that as larger ranches are subdivided into smaller parcels, many are “without enough acreage by themselves to contribute meaningfully to regional conservation needs.” Today, almost 221 species, including the golden-cheeked warbler and Texas blind salamander, are listed on the Texas endangered and threatened species list—plants and animals which face extinction if action is not taken to protect their habitat and populations.
Millions of acres need to be preserved to protect or restore habitat for wildlife. In the Blackland Prairies ecoregion of Texas, “permanent conservation lands are desperately needed,” with scientists estimating 2.4 million acres need to be preserved in the next decade to protect high priority bird species. The Great Plains Restoration Council is working to conserve 100,000 acres to restore the once mighty herd of bison in Texas and the Great Plains.
Moreover, while state parks are distributed across the state, the largest state parks are found in the Trans-Pecos region of Texas, while some regions, like the High Plains- home to the rare horned lizards, black-footed ferrets, and swift foxes- are underrepresented. To make matters worse, rural land prices- to say nothing of urban areas- have increased tremendously with the nominal price per acre doubling since 2008.
Existing parks are too often crowded, failing to meet demand for outdoor recreation
When pandemic restrictions were lifted, Texans flocked to our parks. The number of visitors to Texas state parks increased 37% from 2020, reaching almost 10 million in fiscal year 2021.
The TPWD recognizes that “in recent years parks have increasingly been faced with the prospect of reaching visitation capacity” and that “as the population of the state continues to grow, it is likely that park closures due to excessive numbers of visitors will become more common.”
- Garner State Park, west of San Antonio, is so popular that overnight reservations normally require significantly advanced planning.
- Enchanted Rock is often forced to close its gates when it reaches capacity, “something that happens by 9 or 10 a.m. most weekends when the weather is nice.” While Enchanted Rock does their best to alleviate this issue, hours-long lines force people to turn back.
- During Memorial Day weekend in 2021, multi-day overnight camping reservations at all state parks within a 200-mile radius of Austin were completely booked up.
Texas has relatively little parkland
Compared to other states, Texas’ public land portfolio lags far behind, with only about 2.4% of land protected as state and national parks, national forests and other recreation areas. With only 636,000 acres of parkland for over 29 million people as of 2019, Texas ranks 35th in the nation for state park acreage per capita. Florida, by comparison, has almost 8 million fewer people but 86,000 more acres of state parkland—54% more state parks per capita than Texas. While significant additional land in Texas is managed as wildlife and coastal management areas, these areas are not “managed for outdoor recreation and public visitation” and lack proper campsites and other amenities found in state parks.
Texas needs more state parkland
TPWD recognizes the need for more parkland, writing “additional development of new park properties is necessary in order to serve a more diverse, urban, and growing population.”
Unfortunately, for many years, due to inconsistent and insufficient funding from the Legislature, TPWD has struggled to even maintain existing parks, much less plan for the future. Proposition 5, passed by the Legislature and approved by voters in 2019, boosted and stabilized funding. By ensuring that sales tax revenues from sporting goods go towards funding state parks and historic sites, the Department has been able to plan for and prioritize the backlog of repairs and even have modest funding available for land acquisition.
In fact, the TPWD estimated in 2020 that the sporting goods tax would fund almost 60% of its state parks operating budget. In 2021, the Legislature appropriated $7 million for land acquisition for the current biennial budget, and booming sales taxes allowed TPWD to direct an additional $5.8 million this year to acquire parkland. While this was the first appropriation for land acquisition in decades, it is insufficient to meet the state’s goals for state parks.
The upcoming opening of the 4,800-acre Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, the first new state park in twenty years, will help alleviate some of the strain. But according to Texas Tech’s Loomis Report of 2001, Texas needs to add more than 1 million acres of state parkland by 2030 in order to ensure that we can preserve our state’s special places for future generations to enjoy, and to protect critical wildlife habitat. That’s going to require a significant investment from the state, including the cost to acquire land and address facility development and long-term operation and maintenance for public use and enjoyment.
Existing funding sources, including from the Great American Outdoors Act and potentially from the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, can help, but new sources will be needed to fully leverage federal dollars. Recent polling found 61% of Texas Republicans, 69% of Texas independents, and 75% of Texas Democrats would support investing one billion dollars to “build new state parks and improve existing parks.
Executive Director, Environment Texas
As the executive director of Environment Texas, Luke is a leading voice in the state for clean air, clean water, clean energy and open space. Luke has led successful campaigns to win permanent protection for the Christmas Mountains of Big Bend; to compel Exxon, Shell and Chevron Phillips to cut air pollution at three Texas refineries and chemical plants; and to boost funding for water conservation and state parks. The San Antonio Current has called Luke "long one of the most energetic and dedicated defenders of environmental issues in the state." He has been named one of the "Top Lobbyists for Causes" by Capitol Inside, received the President's Award from the Texas Recreation and Parks Society for his work to protect Texas parks, and was chosen for the inaugural class of "Next Generation Fellows" by the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at UT Austin. Luke, his wife, son and daughters are working to visit every state park in Texas.