Wild, Wild Wildlife

Texas Parks & Wildlife's Andy Sansom

photograph by Alan Pogue

Andy Sansom must long for some peace and quiet. Since 1990, when he became the executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), Sansom has overseen a turbulent period. The Texas Legislature targeted Sansom's agency in 1995 in an effort to restrict the access his biologists have to private land for scientific study. Since then, numerous biologists have accused his department of bias against endangered species, and many staff have either left or, according to some former staffers, were forced out. At the same time, the number of hunters and anglers is falling rapidly. A 1995 nationwide survey found that over the previous decade, the number of hunters declined by 12.3%. The number of anglers fell by 3.8%. Meanwhile, the growth in wildlife viewing, birdwatching, hiking and other outdoor activities has soared, and Ted Eubanks, an Austin-based nature tourism analyst, says the agency is "supremely unprepared" to meet the needs of non-hunters.

Meanwhile, TPWD's parks are crumbling. Many were built during the New Deal and need expensive repairs. According to a recent policy document from the agency, TPWD projects it will need $272 million to address all of its infrastructure problems. The department, which has 2,693 employees, operates on a budget of about $160 million per year. Sansom, 51, is paid $105,000 per year. The Austin Chronicle recently sat down with Sansom for a lively discussion about how money, policy, and science are being used at Texas' public parks.

Austin Chronicle: You need $272 million for park repairs. How much are you going to be able to get from the legislature?

Andy Sansom: Since that document was prepared we had sort of broken that down into about $75 million worth of immediate critical needs, and those are primarily in three areas: Water and sewer plants and water systems. So $50 million of that is in water and wastewater. There's an immediate $5 million in need to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And then there's another $20 million that is basically things like buildings that we're not being able to use right now because they're in such a state of disrepair. So we've narrowed our critical need down to about $75 million. And if the legislature sees its way clear to authorizing us the authority to issue about $60 million worth of bonds, which is what I've got on the table right now, then I think that will keep us busy for the biennium.

AC: What kinds of bonds?

AS: Revenue bonds.

AC: So those would be paid off by...

AS: By an increase in the sales tax on sporting goods. Which is our primary source of capital.

AC: It seems your agency has traditionally been under-funded. Is that just the nature of the parks business?

AS: I guess it's an interesting question for me to answer because from my perspective, personally and professionally, I wouldn't disagree with what you said. I mean, I would like for parks and wildlife issues, conservation, to be higher on the radar screen of state policies than it is. But, on the other hand, there's other priorities. There just never seems to be enough money.

AC: Somebody said of you that when you worked for the Texas Nature Conservancy, you never saw a piece of land that you didn't want to buy.

AS: Right.

AC: But you're not doing any of that under Parks and Wildlife.

AS: That's not entirely true. We haven't spent a whole lot of state dollars probably on acquisition. We bought all of Caddo Lake, we bought Government Canyon down in Bexar County, we bought a tremendous bottomland hardwood tract up on the middle Sabine River. I'd like to see some more land acquired. It's real hard right now based on the clear need to take care of those properties that we currently have, and that's the dilemma. The hardest thing that I have to do is to spend present dollars on future benefits. In other words, to buy a piece of land today which is not going to be particularly available for public use for 20 years.

AC: Overall, in Texas, the state has, according to your own figures, less than half, on a percentage basis, what other states have in terms of public lands available.

AS: I believe that we need more public land in Texas. A corollary strategy is to spend as much time and effort as we can getting private land owners into conservation and to getting them to provide outdoor recreation.

I think that the real dilemma is that if you look at the demographics, the thing that I'm concerned about, is that the population in the next generation is going to be far less affluent than this one is. And so, the problem with the private land deal, it seems to me, is that as the wildlife gets better and better on private property, and more and more people pay to use it, the price increases.

AC: Let's talk about that. Because your own strategic report mentions that. It says that 25% of Hispanics and 50% of blacks have never visited a state park. Coupled with that is the trend you talk about increasingly urban, increasingly poor...

AS: Less than 3% of blacks and Hispanics have ever hunted or fished. And, once again, the most interesting, in my view, the most interesting additional number there is that the demographic progressions are that by the year 2030 the majority of the population will be African American and Hispanic -- the majority. So, if you're in my business -- and it really doesn't matter if you're hunting or you're rock-climbing -- you're in trouble.

And so, we have a new initiative to get African-Americans, Hispanics, females, into the outdoors. Our employees are increasingly devoted to that, to the extent that I suspect we probably took out as many as 350,000 children last year. Once again focusing on populations that are underserved in the out-of-doors. There's two reasons for it from my standpoint. One is institutionally selfish, and that is, hunters, anglers, state park users pay for our department to exist. So therefore, we've got to develop new customers in order to survive.

AC: That's an increasing focus, but again, your own strategic plan says the first goal is provide more hunting opportunities.

AS: I am spending a huge amount of time and effort on minorities, but inclusive in that is getting them into hunting and fishing. Look, agencies like ours, in every state of this country, were founded, originally, by hunters and anglers. And those outdoor uses, particularly hunting, are declining. We have said in that strategy that we will do everything we can -- and are doing so -- to develop new constituencies and to develop programs for new constituencies. But we're not going to back away from the old. I mean, we're just not going to do it. And that's one of the most difficult aspects of my job, is to try to, on the one hand, meet this exploding demand in these new -- excuse me, they're not particularly new, but sort of emerging -- outdoor activities, while at the same time, you know, doing everything I can to buttress the traditional users.

AC: So, that's one trend, the other is to the people who are less able and maybe less inclined to pay. Are they going to be priced out of the market?

AS: One way to look at our deal is to look at it in comparison with alternative forms of recreation. We raised our fees this summer. You're probably aware of that. And I spent a lot of time in the parks, because I was concerned about it. What is clearly happening, particularly in the parks the further south you go, is that the clientele is considerably less affluent than it was, say, when I was in high school. But in fact, they're coming in droves because it's an affordable vacation opportunity for them based on other things. The issue of pricing our customers out is one that I live with every day and I'm concerned about it. So far, I think I'm okay.

AC: From the figures that I've seen, your agency only spends about 1% of its budget on the wildlife viewer.

AS: We could gnaw on that one for 12 hours. What I will acknowledge is that we spend less on non-game, endangered, wildlife viewing sorts of things than we spend on traditional activities. And I'm doing everything I can to try to grow that fraction. I mean, and it isn't coming fast enough for me, either.

AC: Let's talk about endangered species. Why was the Texas Natural Heritage Program dissolved?

AS: I sort of prefer to say "evolved." I don't really think in the end we're going to lose the benefit of what was created through the Heritage Program. We went through a time, you know, two years ago, when the whole principle and premise of managing for endangered species was at risk. And today, I have a program which is paying incentives to private landowners for protecting endangered species on their properties. The databases that we have for endangered species have increased since then. My expenditures have slightly increased. And I have a healthy endangered species program. Two years ago, I did not. I didn't know whether I was going to be in the endangered species business because the intensity of debate on that issue was so strong. And so I had to look at what we've accomplished through that period and say, we not only survived, but I believe that we're stronger today than we were then.

AC: You lost a lot of good biologists. Some people say they were run off.

AS: I didn't run anybody off.

AC: Were they run off by other members of your staff?

AS: Not to my knowledge.

AC: For a while I was getting a call a week from people saying they were being harassed.

AS: I'm aware of that. But you know, change is never easy for anybody. And there've been times when that same level of anxiety existed among biologists and others who represented totally other ends of the spectrum. And all I can tell you is that I continue to be able to go to sleep at night, you know, believing that I'm doing the best I can to do my job.

AC: Uh-huh.

AS: This is not an easy deal.

AC: There is also talk, and I guess it's still continuing now, about pressure put on biologists, at your agency, particularly regarding the San Marcos Fish Hatchery. That's one of the latest issues. That biologists say the reports were changed, that their findings were that the effluent from the hatchery may affect species in the river, and that as that report went up through the chain of command it was changed to "would not affect."

AS: Yeah.

AC: Which raises the question of scientific integrity.

AS: I think that if you study Parks and Wildlife carefully, I doubt if there would be an agency anywhere in the United States that would, that could stand up to us in terms of openness.

I don't subscribe to the theory that everybody in the entity has an inalienable right to state the policy for the entity. I will acknowledge that there clearly is a continuing struggle in an agency which is largely made up of scientific personnel to try to assure that the best scientific information rises to the top. Where I can't apologize is, I do believe that management has the prerogative of continuing to mold policy as it goes up through the ranks.

AC: So, in terms of endangered species, is the agency just reflecting the political winds?

AS: Well, we do work for the legislature. As unhappy as that might make some people, we do work for the legislature. They make the laws and we're going to follow them.

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