Naked City

Back to the Land

Jeff Francell, Texas Parks and Wildlife land acquisition director
Jeff Francell, Texas Parks and Wildlife land acquisition director (Photo By John Anderson)

The great outdoors isn't as big and pure as it used to be, but local enviros see a flicker of hope on the horizon now that Jeff Francell is commandeering a land-acquisition quest for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Francell, the product of a West Texas ranching family, recently returned to his old stomping grounds at Parks and Wildlife to direct acquisition efforts within the agency's newly created division. His reputation for bringing different interests to the negotiating table preceded his return to the agency. As the former Hill Country representative for the Nature Conservancy of Texas, Francell was a key player in the city's $65 million purchase of 15,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land in Southwest Austin. With the Nature Conservancy serving as the city's partner, Francell worked to bring landowners, developers, and city representatives together, and voters in 1998 overwhelmingly approved the Prop. 2 bond proposal for the land purchases.

"That was a year and a half of hard work on 30 complex business deals," environmentalist George Cofer recalled of Francell's work. "He has a good, optimistic approach to getting things done. He understands landowners as conservationists, so it's easy for him to gain acceptance into the landowning community. He works well with both ranchers and developers," said Cofer, who is executive director of the Hill Country Conservancy, the organization that grew out of the historic 1999 peace treaty brokered by representatives from three warring parties: the Save Our Springs Alliance, the Real Estate Council of Austin, and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Nowadays, the only fighting going on is among the greens themselves, but Francell is staying clear of the slings and arrows. Meanwhile, local environmentalists are hopeful that Francell's Austin connections and his ties to both the environmental and land-holding communities will help forge a new working relationship between the city and Parks and Wildlife.

On the other hand, Texas is a whopper of a state and Austin is one of many dots on the map. Judging from the results of several studies conducted on state parkland, Francell has some formidable challenges ahead. In its "State of the Lone Star State" report released last fall, Texans for Public Justice drew on Census data to bear out the state's dismal showing in park spending and acreage. Texas ranked No. 49 in per capita spending on parks in 1998, and No. 24 in per capita acres of parkland. Moreover, a 1999 Sierra Club study ranked Texas No. 46 in open space protection, or lack thereof.

For now, Francell says he's studying the recommendations laid out in last year's study by the Governor's Task Force on Conservation, chaired by Vinson & Elkins senior partner Carol Dinkins. He's also awaiting the final draft of a far-reaching land-use study and survey of Texans conducted by Texas Tech University.

"What we want to do is add to existing parks and provide more natural-area opportunities within three hours of every metropolitan area of Texas," said Francell, who admits he is reluctant to say much more than that until he is fully immersed in his new job.

The Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club and other groups chided former governor George W. Bush for creating the conservation task force as a last-ditch effort to bolster the then presidential candidate's environmental credentials, but the task force's report is expected to guide state officials as they begin tackling land and wildlife conservation issues. Still, there's no getting around the fact that under Bush's leadership, state purchases of new parkland came to a halt and maintenance of existing parks suffered for lack of funding.

In some ways, the timing couldn't be better for Francell's transfer to Parks and Wildlife. The agency is one of several that are slated to undergo a review this year by the state Sunset Commission, which is charged with conducting a top-to-bottom critique of the department and making recommended improvements.

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Parks and Wildlife Dept., Jeff Francell, Nature Conservancy, George Cofer, Hill Country Conservancy, Sierra Club, Texans for Public Justice, George W. Bush

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