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Will Lege Rescue Starving State Parks?

Legislators claim help is on way for suffering parks system

By Daniel Mottola, Fri., Feb. 9, 2007

Texas is among the nation's Top 5 fastest-growing states, but we rank second to last in per-capita spending on our state park system, and it shows. More than 70 staff positions were eliminated last year alone, many parks and historic sites cannot stay open to visitors all week, and those that do open operate on a skeleton crew, while park buildings and facilities deteriorate in a $400 million repair backlog. State legislators, however, claim help is on the way, with a recently filed bill set to provide up to $85 million in new funding by lifting a cap on the amount of the state's sporting-goods tax designated for parks. The tax is currently capped at $32 million, and parks have been appropriated about $20.5 million. HB 6, authored by Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, has 100 co-sponsors in the House and a companion bill in the Senate, and though it seems as good as passed, park advocates note that they're not out of the woods until those funds are actually appropriated. In the meantime, many beloved parks are literally falling apart as cities and towns continue to sprawl outward without parkland designations, perpetually privatizing the landscape.

As the state's population becomes predominantly urban and suburban, Texans' bond with nature is diminished. Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods directly correlates healthy physical and emotional childhood development with nature exposure – and links nature's absence to a rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's strategic plan, updated in 2005, calls for four new parks, each at a 5,000-acre minimum, within 90 minutes of Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. TPWD State Parks Director Walt Dabney, speaking at a screening of the short film "Texas Parks at Risk" (viewable at www.environmenttexas.org), said that land for these new acquisitions is quickly becoming too fragmented and too expensive and that current budgets allow for no new acquisitions. If the struggling state park system were a sinking ship, Dabney said, there would be "nothing left to throw overboard." He said the parks "can't keep running at this condition."

Much of the same sentiment was in the air last week at McKinney Falls State Park, located in Southeast Austin. Gazing across gaping cracks in the dashboard of Park Superintendent David Shirley's decrepit Dodge pickup, it became immediately clear as we drove that, like the truck, the park too had seen better days. Without staff or funds to perform much-needed maintenance, Shirley explained, day-to-day operations were consumed by simply keeping the park running and making repairs "in reaction to some malfunction" or to "address immediate health risks." Our first stop was the Smith Visitor Center, a Seventies postmodern-looking building overlooking the famous falls. Though the center was designed to be the heart of the park and the beginning of guests' experiences, it's been closed all winter and is only open three to four hours on weekends between March and November. The center needs $75,000 in roof repairs to patch serious leaks, nearly $60,000 in electrical upgrades, and an unknown amount to become Americans With Disabilities Act accessible. It was specked out for solar panels by Austin Energy and can be virtually self-sufficient, Shirley said, but management can't even consider funding the smokin' good deal of paying $58,500 of the $158,000 total cost after AE's rebates.

Overall, Shirley said, McKinney Falls has identified $3 million in necessary repairs. We toured heavily eroded campsites with rusted fire rings as Shirley detailed how his skeleton staff – historically the number of employees used on holidays – can barely keep the restrooms and campsites clean, let alone address ranger duties like natural resource management – which includes a growing crop of invasive plant species and deteriorating, overused trails, among other things. If a staffer takes a holiday or goes on sick leave, "we have to stop doing something," Shirley said, often requiring him to abandon park-management duties to handle enforcement. The park has sought grants and has begun to work with outside volunteer groups, but McKinney Falls is evidently in decline for now.

At press time, the would-be lifesaver parks bill, HB 6, was in the House's Culture, Recreation, and Tourism Committee. Todd Kercheval, the committee's chief of staff, said, "There's no natural opposition," and he's "extremely confident" the measure will pass; but he noted that, as with any legislation involving money, scrutiny could come during the appropriations process.

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