Preserving Planet Texas
Outdoor-loving Texans can thank the federal government for requiring the state to firm up its state parks planning over the next decade.
Outdoor-loving Texans can thank the federal government for requiring the state to firm up its state parks planning over the next decade. Last week the Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. released a draft of the Land and Water Resources Conservation and Recreation Plan, a 10-year strategy for parks acquisition and resource protection. The plan is an outgrowth of both the Legislative Sunset Review process and the national Land and Water Conservation Fund, which put $7 million in grants toward state parks this year, and represents TPWD's first-ever effort to look at long-range planning with regard to natural, historic, and recreation resources.
"We haven't had anything like this. This will be 'the' TPWD plan," said TPWD Executive Director Robert Cook, who took over the department reins in February. The 65-page document, authored by TPWD acquisition chief Jeff Francell and policy analyst Emily Armitano, builds on one of Cook's favorite themes: the need to establish parklands within driving distance of Texas' major metropolitan areas, including Austin, San Antonio, Dallas-Forth Worth, and Houston. The agency believes this is necessary for both protecting natural resources endangered by encroaching development and increasing the number of Texans with access to parks, who, theoretically, will emerge as a vocal constituency willing to support higher levels of funding.
The plan proposes locating five new parks of at least 5,000 acres each near urban centers, including at least one additional park in the Lower Rio Grande Valley -- "underserved," in agency parlance. Locally, state parks such as Enchanted Rock and Pedernales Falls are identified as potential candidates for expansion, and one surprise for Austinites is the possible transfer of McKinney Falls State Park to the Austin Parks and Recreation Dept. "If you could dream it, all of the state parks would be more expansive in terms of both wildlife and recreation experiences," Francell explained. "But there is no room to add on to McKinney Falls, and by transferring it to a local entity, we could free up resources for those parks that have some room to grow."
Francell is quick to note that the Land and Water plan is merely a draft that will be subject to public input through July and August, and then likely retooled before being sent along to TPWD commissioners for approval at the end of the summer. If the McKinney Falls transfer takes place, it could allow the city to include the park as part of the proposed Onion Creek greenbelt. (Austin Parks Director Jesus Olivares declined to comment on the proposed transfer.)
The plan has received mixed reviews from environmentalists, who had hoped TPWD would use it more aggressively to address chronic lack of funding, the rapid loss of wildlife habitat, and other problems. There's also the pressing question of how the state will meet the water needs of a growing population while protecting fisheries and other aquatic resources. "I was looking for some more meat out of this plan," said Sparky Anderson of Texas Clean Water Action, based in Austin. "I'm not pointing at the department not doing its job. Politically they've got to be careful how they present these things, but they do need to ask for more resources to make these things happen."
Meanwhile, Brian Sybert, natural resource director of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, says he is both surprised and pleased by the current draft, even if it doesn't go far enough. "From past experience and what we had been told, we didn't have very high hopes," Sybert said. "But the agency appears to be prepared to embrace its role as an advocate for fish and wildlife, and it's good to see that reaffirmed." Ultimately, Sybert worries that if TPWD leadership doesn't stake out a bigger piece of the pie, the Legislature will prune the agency's budget once again when it convenes this winter.
Pointing to a report sponsored by TPWD and released by Texas Tech last fall, Sybert argues that TPWD should stick to its guns. The report asserts that over the next 30 years, Texas will need more than 250,000 acres of parkland -- nearly 10 times the amount targeted under the current Land and Water draft. "Ideally, they would look at this as a chance to say, we've got a clean slate, and these are realistic goals," Sybert said. "But I get the feeling that TPWD is not really willing to open itself up to criticism from the Legislature."
As for the potential transfer of parks such as McKinney Falls, Sybert remains pragmatic. "When you compare the divestiture and acquisition lists, it looks like this is a way to free up resources for other state parks," he said, echoing agency spokespeople on the point. Yet even within state ranks, there is mild grumbling that the plan doesn't set its sights on adequate funding levels. Texas Historical Commission Deputy Director Terry Colley, who shares responsibility for 35 historical sites managed by TPWD, said maintenance and upkeep of existing sites helps protect the agency's investments, on behalf of taxpayers. "So, we're very happy to see the agency moving in this direction," he said. "But even with our partners [at TPWD] in the room, we would point out that there's still room for continued movement."
The Land and Water Conservation and Recreation draft is available for review and comment at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/plan/. A public meeting takes place in Austin at TPWD Headquarters, 4200 Smith School Rd., on Wednesday, Aug. 7, at 7pm.