Shaped By The Past

The paucity of public land in Texas has its roots in the days of the Republic. When Texas became a state in 1845, it retained control all of its public lands rather than submitting the unsettled western part of the state to the federal government. But most of the vast frontier was sold at fire-sale prices to pay off the state's debts after the Texas Revolution. What our state leaders sold for less than a dollar an acre back then, we're now trying to buy back at many times what it was sold for by a short-sighted generation.

The first land set aside by the state was the San Jacinto battlefield, the site where in 1836, Sam Houston's troops defeated the Mexican Army and captured Santa Anna. Forty-seven years after the battle, Gov. John Ireland saw the need to preserve the site, and the state bought a 10-acre cemetery at the battlefield. That same year, 1883, the state bought the chapel at the Alamo from the Catholic Church for $20,000. The state also decided to preserve 27 million acres of West Texas in order to support the Permanent School Fund. In 1903, Adina de Zavala and Clara Driscoll, along with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, stepped in to save the Long Barracks in San Antonio. Two years later, the Texas Legislature bought the Long Barracks at the Alamo from Driscoll and the DRT and placed it and the chapel under the DRT's control.

Over the next four decades, the state acquired less than 500 acres of land for state parks. Pat Neff was the first governor to campaign by automobile, and the first governor to see the need for public recreation areas; he set aside six acres that became Mother Neff State Park, Texas' first official state park. The Great Depression resulted in the greatest public works project and the biggest surge of public park building in American history. At the height of the public relief projects, more than 6,000 men were working with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) at 30 sites around the state. In the nine years of the program, the CCC built 60 state parks and 10 city parks. Those parks are still the backbone of the state's park system. The men's handiwork is still evident across the state, from Palo Duro Canyon to Lake Corpus Christi.

One of the most recent acquisitions in the TPWD system is Government Canyon northwest of downtown San Antonio. The park is important for recreational and environmental reasons. Located at the transition point between the Hill Country and the plains of South Texas, the park lies atop the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, so keeping it undeveloped will help preserve water quality as well. Several dozen groups were involved in preserving the 6,000-acre former ranch, the final part of which was sold to the state last month. TPWD executive director Andy Sansom calls Government Canyon the "park of the future" because it is close to people, is ecologically significant, and its usage will have limited impact on the environment.

But despite the widespread support for the park, and a San Antonio population eager for more recreational opportunities, the ongoing financial crunch at TPWD means Government Canyon won't be open to the public on a full-time basis for another four years. --R.B., G.M

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