The Austin Chronicle

Natural State

Across Texas, They've Paved Paradise and Put Up Parks

By Dan Oko, August 4, 2000, News

Attorney Joseph Fitzsimons has a charming manner and a smile that makes him look like he could be the chubby brother of Jeff and Beau Bridges. But instead of going into acting, the 42-year-old Texas native attended the University of Texas, became a natural resources lawyer, turned his family ranch into a tourist attraction and, most recently, added to his résumé a job as part-time developer. Fitzsimons has plenty of reasons to smile. For one thing, he has found success as a partner in Presidian, the San Antonio-based group behind the fledgling $5.7 million eco-lodge at Canyon of the Eagles, a joint venture with the Lower Colorado River Authority located an hour northwest of Austin on Lake Buchanan. Fitzsimons believes the project could provide a partial solution to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's financial woes. The problems facing Texas parks have been well-documented: Maintenance backlogs and staffing shortages are just the beginning of a litany of hardships that park advocates and administrators have long been trying to sort out. And yet, despite a projected state budget surplus, the Legislature continues to insist that TPWD be self-sufficient. In the meantime, the sensitive public lands found in the state park system -- part of only 3% of Texas property that isn't in private hands -- have fallen on hard times. A 1998 TPWD report showed that Texas was spending one-tenth of 1% of the state budget on staffing and maintaining state parks.

So now comes a proposal that could eventually allow private companies to use the parks' natural resources to create destination resorts, kicking a portion of the profits from such money-making ventures into TPWD coffers. Fitzsimons calls this marriage of convenience and nature an example of "free-market environmentalism." But for environmentalists and parks advocates, this scheme reflects one of the more shameful legacies of the Bush administration. To these onlookers, requiring TPWD to enter partnerships with private companies smacks of disregard for the public trust, and could lead to the disintegration of the state's beleaguered public lands system.

Fitzsimons insists that he's not interested in "privatization" of state parks; he simply wants to offer visitors a more civilized experience at select public properties. Still, those who doubt dire warnings concerning the future of public lands in Texas might want to look at last winter's report from the conservative Cato Institute, "How and Why to Privatize Federal Lands," written by Bush environmental advisor Terry Anderson. Anderson argues that over the next 40 years, the federal government should relinquish all ownership of its public lands, including the national park system.

Nobody's suggesting Texas go quite that far yet -- at least not publicly. But if everything goes according to Fitzsimons's plan, privatization could expand. It also promises to introduce a new generation of urban Texans who aren't too interested in camping to a few cherished places, creating new advocates and increased revenues for TPWD. Given the current state of land management in Texas, partnership supporters say, a little entrepreneurial know-how could provide a boost to meeting some management challenges.

That may help explain why, when TPWD director Andy Sansom saw what Presidian had built at Canyon of the Eagles, he called it a model for the future. The lodge, which opened last November (partly funded by TPWD money), is a relatively low-impact group of buildings located on a ridge overlooking Lake Buchanan. It offers visitors a Hill Country experience on a 940-acre ranch the LCRA bought in 1992. Including the small swimming pool, restaurant, and convention center, the facility still takes up just 10% of the available land. Close by, nesting grounds for the endangered yellow-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo have been set aside, and a naturalist who used to work for TPWD is on hand to direct programming that includes bird watching, astronomy, and other activities.

"It was really a labor of love," Fitzsimons says about planning the development. "We were completely innocent. We had been carrying around these contacts and ideas, but until we met with the LCRA, we didn't even realize how much we knew. Then we went up there and saw the property, and we got very excited. Things just clicked."

Listening to Fitzsimons, it becomes clear that the state is ready to gamble on this model of park development for the future. Earlier this summer, at the behest of TPWD, Presidian performed a series of economic and environmental feasibility studies for instituting privately run yet environmentally friendly lodges at several state parks. The state's original list, according to Fitzsimons, contained 27 sites, which was quickly whittled down to six, and finally three. The three eliminated semifinalists were Caddo Lake in Northeast Texas, the only natural lake in the state; Brazos Bend, about 30 miles outside of Houston; and Mustang Island, a Gulf Coast park that was the site of an earlier battle when the park service considered building a hotel there. "That doesn't mean never," Fitzsimons explains. "It just means we're not smart enough to figure out a way to do it right now."

The remaining candidates for a "nature-based lodging facility," according to the feasibility studies, include the Guadalupe River State Park outside San Antonio, Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle, and Indian Lodge in the Davis Mountains, where an existing hotel could be in line for expansion. Of these, the state appears to be leaning toward Indian Lodge; Fitzsimons has his eye on Palo Duro Canyon. "Our conviction was that what we do is not appropriate everywhere," says Fitzsimons. "You have to understand this is an experiment, and our first consideration was the Hippocratic Oath: The first thing is you have to do no harm."

Dangerous Schemes?

But even with Presidian's apparent self-control, the idea of building private lodges on state lands does not sit well with everybody. The conservation community across Texas, and especially in Austin -- headquarters for the state chapters of the Sierra Club, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and the Audubon Society -- view these lodges as dangerous schemes that could spoil the few parcels of land that remain under some degree of public control. Says Mary Lou Campbell of Texas Audubon: "I feel very strongly that this is not a good idea. We should be promoting the naturalness of our parks. We're losing our wildlife and our wild places, and I'm concerned that these projects could create an obstacle to people looking for those sorts of experiences."

Brian Sybert, state natural resources director for the Sierra Club, says that given the costs associated with building high-end lodges, he's not sure Presidian will be able to move forward with plans to build a single resort, even if the state approves. But Sybert also says he's worried that TPWD administrators won't be able to resist the lure of increased revenues. He points out that Fitzsimons already has a seat on the new Governor's Task Force on Conservation, which is due to release a report before the presidential election in November. If Fitzsimons can sweet-talk agency administrators into some sort of deal, Sybert maintains, it's the public that stands to lose. "The last thing I want to see is public funding go into these private lodges," he says. "Once they get built, you can be sure we'll be looking at upgrades and maintenance issues, and as Presidian tries to get more investors, I think there's plenty of room for backdoor politics and, at the very least, the appearance of conflict of interest."

Bob Cook, who's handling the assessment process for TPWD, says that if any private nature lodges eventually get the go-ahead, the developer with the contract will alone be responsible for coming up with money to pay for the lodges. "We will not come up with matching funds," Cook says, adding that, so far, only Presidian has expressed interest in building these facilities. "That means they're going to have to come up with five to six million dollars, and they aren't going to want to see that fail. But if we can figure out a way to succeed with even just one of the projects, I think that's something we certainly should pursue. It would allow us to go to the Legislature, and show an area where we've been successful in ... promoting our parks and improving these valuable resources."

Still, others don't believe TPWD should contemplate an economic move that could have far-ranging effects on land management in Texas. Among the critics is Dave Simon, the Southwest Regional Director of the National Parks and Conservation Association. Simon says that while lodges can be appropriate, the Legislature should first lend a hand to resolve the budget problems faced by TPWD. "Asking parks to be 100% self-sufficient may not be appropriate," says Simon. "It's a dangerous track to start down, because it forces managers to be bankers and bean counters rather than managing the parks for their natural resources." Moreover, Simon says, the state needs to be very careful if it is going to begin adding visitors to already stressed parks. "When you debate the revenue stream," he says, "you need to look at future impacts and calculate the cost of increased visitation to facilities within the park."

While recognizing the potential problems inherent in letting private interests influence the management of public facilities, Fitzsimons believes Presidian can meet whatever standards the state chooses to set. He says he welcomes public scrutiny, and allows that the worst possible outcome would be to make a mistake with the state's valuable assets. But he points out that around the world, from Africa to the Caribbean, eco-tourism has taken flight. In some cases, he says, having proper amenities -- such as a comfortable place to sleep -- has made a huge difference and helped many such places meet their conservation goals.

Fitzsimons believes that if TPWD passes up a chance to exploit this newest market niche, the agency could be damaged both in the short and long term. "We're never going to build the necessary support for conservation and recreation if we limit access to those people with the time, resources, and inclination to sleep on the ground. That doesn't mean that every park needs a hotel, but there have to be alternatives that make outdoor recreation affordable, accessible, and desirable, or we're going to lose not only the political support, but the social support that historically has driven resource management," says Fitzsimons.

A Civilized Cocoon

It's almost certain that the late Edward Abbey, one of the most revered environmental radicals of the 20th century, would have reviled the scene at Canyon of the Eagles as an example of "industrial tourism," a phrase he popularized in the 1968 book Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. In that memoir of the time he spent working as a park ranger (for $1.95 an hour), Abbey decried those who would spoil the natural landscape for visitors who preferred their rooms air-conditioned and their views of the national parks from behind a windshield. If people didn't want to venture into the great outdoors without the comforts and trappings of urban existence, Abbey wrote, let them stay at home.

Of course, Abbey didn't have to worry about keeping his beloved parks funded, and the current boom in eco-tourism and adventure travel has yet to impact on resources the way mining, logging, gas, and oil have. In the past few years, as outlined in Presidian's Mustang Island feasibility study, nature tourism has become the fastest-growing segment of the travel and hospitality industry. In 1994, worldwide revenues totaled $238 billion -- a 30% annual rate of increase since 1987. Citing such figures, Fitzsimons suggests that Texas would be doing itself a favor by developing a handful of facilities scattered throughout its 122 parks.

The conundrum comes down to this: Across the country, visitors to the great outdoors are loving their playgrounds to death. The boom in eco-tourism and recreation has created a tension between habitat maintenance, conservation, and the public's right to access the lands it owns. Entrance fees on public lands in Texas and elsewhere have been raised in the past few years, while land managers still struggle to cope with the impact of runaway visitation.

The Presidian approach may leave something to be desired, but at least Fitzsimons seems committed to the idea that the land needs looking after, and that people can learn to be better stewards through the sort of education he hopes to offer at his lodges. While Canyon of the Eagles indeed resembles the sort of civilized cocoon that distresses environmentalists, it does abide by a conservation ethic arguably more appropriate to the coming age of Texas eco-tourism.

A recent weekend visit found the 64-room facility, conference center, restaurant, and beachfront bustling with activity. Manager George Dalton says that although weekday business has not been quite as brisk as he would like, he feels the lodge is making steady progress toward realizing a profit, while offering folks a valuable chance to get out and explore the countryside. In addition, Dalton says, the nearly $5 million investment Presidian has made in Canyon of the Eagles ensures that they will take care of the resources there. "I think this is better than the straight concession model," he says. "We have an investment in the land, and that means we certainly don't want to harm the environment."

Other Projects

What's more, Canyon of the Eagles is hardly the only pending project to embrace a development model its supporters argue makes sense considering the increasing urbanization of Texas. Already, in fact -- though it has been a much quieter affair -- the state parks department has allowed a private developer to build on land it manages. On Lake Ray Roberts near the Dallas suburb Pilot Point, TPWD teamed up with developer Larry Lakes to build a hotel. However, as TPWD communications specialist Tom Harvey puts it, that park "is designed to handle heavy urban-style usage. The site itself is not as wild or natural as the other proposals on the table."

Meanwhile, out in West Texas, members of the Tigua Indian tribe who make their home in El Paso have ruffled a few feathers by threatening to turn nearly 70,000 acres into a dude ranch and nature center for well-heeled European tourists. Although most complaints have come from county officials worried about losing tax revenues, the tribe's plan to turn the Chilicote Ranch and sections of the Bennett Ranch into an international recreation destination reflects a shifting attitude toward the land and open spaces. Ultimately, the Tiguas hope to create a reservation where, for a price, the public would get an opportunity to explore the area alongside cowboys who also happen to be Indians.

With pay-to-play operations gaining credibility, critics of the Presidian proposal worry that the state could get used to an unacceptable level of development, even at just a few parks, while other aspects of service and stewardship continue to dwindle. Everybody agrees that the parks are not going to get rich off nature lodges, and conservationists point out that at Canyon of the Eagles, the LCRA is not handling land on behalf of the public. And, asks the Sierra Club's Sybert, if the state enters into public-private partnerships, which government agency is going to be left to lobby on behalf of the wildlife and rare plants displaced by development? Further, he says, "What if they get one of the lodges halfway built and the deal falls through? What happens if the economy heads south?"

Bob Cook says his agency is committed to mitigating any environmental impacts on state lands, whether or not any of these development plans are ultimately approved. TPWD is not about to rush into anything, he adds. "This is one of those things we want to be real cautious about," he says. "We've not only got our own money to think about, but we have these natural resources to think about. I would hope that we don't get 10 years down the road and find out we made a mistake."

For Cook, the first test will come before the end of August, when TPWD sits down for its annual meeting and sets an agenda for the coming year and the 2001 legislative session. Among the things the agency will address is whether to let Presidian take over the old hotel built at Indian Lodge by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and add as many as 100 rooms.

Meanwhile, it's a proposal to build a lodge on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon that gets Fitzsimons most excited -- and draws the most ire from conservationists such as Sybert and Simon. "Any dumb stiff can put up a hotel," says NPCA director Simon, "but no one can create a new Palo Duro Canyon." But Fitzsimons insists that he's familiar enough with Ed Abbey to recognize what's at stake. "We are one piece of the puzzle," he says. "Public-private partnerships are not going to solve all the problems, but ... it's going to require this entire mosaic not only to meet the recreation needs of Texas, but to solve some of the funding issues faced by Texas Parks and Wildlife." end story

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