Monday, June 19, 2006

Starve the Beasts - The Dire Straits of the Texas Parks System

An editorial in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Sunday highlighted the chronic underfunding of the Department of Texas Parks and Wildlife.

There's nothing to celebrate about a parks system that is so pathetically underfunded and neglected.....

The system, part of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, has eliminated dozens of positions from an already skeletal staff. It has shut down portions of parks and scaled back programs for children.....

How does Texas rate nationally in support of its parks?
Texas ranks 49th among the 50 states in funding for state parks. With Texas' population pushing 23 million, the state parks annual operating budget is a puny $54.4 million, or roughly $2.37 per Texan - about what you might pay for a small cheeseburger.
At a time when the Texas state government enjoys a surplus of eight billion dollars, support for the park system has gone from bad to worse.

Dabney, the parks director, said operations at 50 parks had to be cut in December and 73 staff positions were eliminated. "We came close to closing one-third of the system," he said.

Now, in addition to its other problems, the park system may have to eat the costs of repairs due to Hurricane Rita.

The reason? According to [Director of the Infrastructure Division] Whiston, FEMA officials cite the state agency's lack of flood insurance, which FEMA requires as a condition for reimbursement.

"We are trying to work with them to see if we could be exempted from that," Whiston said. "We are -- as is typical for a state agency -- self-insured in most cases. And flood insurance on coastal properties is impossible. We're unable to get it."

Since the 1990s, Texas state parks have been funded by a portion of the sporting goods sales tax. But the portion dedicated to the park system was capped, and for the last several years the parks' operating budget has been stagnant. Amid the current funding debate are renewed rumors of privatization.

Last summer, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department commissioners contemplated selling off 46,000 acres of Big Bend Ranch State Park, the largest state park in Texas, to John Poindexter, the Houston businessman who owns the nearby Cibolo Creek Ranch luxury resort. The proposed sale, endorsed by TPWD staff, was pretty
such business as usual for the department, where selling parkland, transferring state parks to counties and cities, and downgrading state parks to “wildlife management areas” are all in a day’s work. But when news leaked out that a chunk of the 299,000-acre state ranch on the Rio Grande was up for grabs, a sudden public outcry led the parks commissioners to reject the proposal–unanimously.

Gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn blasted Governor Perry over the proposal to sell Big Bend, but her record on this issue isn't stellar, either.

Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn recently proposed to privatize the Texas State Railroad in her e-Texas publication. Senate Bill 1260, which was filed today in the Senate, would require that Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to contract with a private company. The section of the bill states "the department may not operate the Texas State Railroad."

The proposal was ultimately shelved, but funding for the railroad was never resolved, and talks of retiring the train are back on the agenda.

A Texas State Parks Advisory Committee is set to look into the funding issue. A likely recommendation is to raise or eliminate the cap on the amount of money parks can get from the sporting goods tax. The advisory committee has vowed to take their fight to the 2007 legislature, and perhaps they'll find a sympathetic ear. As the FWST editorial noted:

The anorexic parks budget should be greatly increased by the Legislature in its regular biennial session in 2007. This would enable the parks system to add employees, pay for desperately needed capital and maintenance projects, reinstate curtailed programs and buy additional parkland that would prove to be a vital asset in coming decades as Texas' population increases by 50 percent or more.

The problem is straight forward, and the cure is fairly simple, but does this mean we're likely to see a solution next year? To paraphrase the FWST editorial board, we'll believe it when we see it.


Anonymous said...

I had no idea - thanks! We need to support our Texas Parks.

Unknown said...


Thanks for the synopsis on Strayhorn. We briefly covered the reproductive rights issue in another blog. Search for Strayhorn and that should bring it up, but I doubt the links still work.

Also, here is the link for "Challenging the Status Quo"

Bradley said...

I agree with Vicki... we need to support our Texas parks and not let the Republicans get away with what they're doing.

I also agree that Carole Keeton Strayhorn cannot be trusted.