The ability to escape from our daily routines, to seek peace of mind and reconnect with nature whether at Austin's Barton Springs or in a park at the far reaches of the state is a privilege that many Texans no doubt take for granted. Last week, however, a coalition of statewide environmental and conservation groups released the report "Texas Natural Areas at Risk," which not only sounded an alarm that Texas parks are being financially starved, but also warned that many of the state's open spaces and parks are under immediate threat due to development.
Luke Metzger, director of the newly formed Environment Texas, warned that "if we continue to allow growth in our last best natural places, they'll be lost forever." Locally, the report calls for city officials in Austin to allocate at least $75 million instead of the currently recommended $44 million in bond funds to preserve the estimated 30,000 acres advocates say is required to save Barton Springs forever. "It's far cheaper to buy out proposed development in the sensitive Barton Springs watershed and preserve land and water quality than to pay for all of the infrastructure required when the Hill Country is urbanized," said Save Our Springs Alliance spokesman Colin Clark. The report cautioned against Advanced Micro Devices' new campus, planned for construction atop the aquifer, and noted that Junie Plummer, a property agent with the city's Public Works Department, told the Bond Election Advisory Committee that 7,500 acres in the Barton Springs Watershed are imminently threatened with development. In a phone interview she emphasized the importance of city acquisitions in rapidly developing, sensitive places like Bee Caves and the Hamilton Pool area.
At a city hall press conference last week, Beth McDonald, president of Texans for State Parks, said annual cutbacks to the Texas parks budget, such as the $2 million slashed last legislative session, have led to Texas' rank as 49th in the nation on park spending per capita and are causing the department to permanently lose staff (39 so far) and severely cut hours of operation and services at many locations, including historic sites. The coalition supported repeated legislative attempts to raise or eliminate the $32 million cap on the main source of funding for Texas parks, a state sporting goods sales tax, which last year generated $100 million. McDonald said she hopes to get the message out that the parks situation has become desperate and pointed to the somewhat stealthy near-sale of a portion of the Big Bend Ranch State Park last year to a private resort developer. The report says new funds are sorely needed to fulfill Texas Parks and Wildlife Department plans to acquire open spaces and expand parks near the state's fast-growing major cities, while also maintaining current services.
Near the East Texas city of Marshall, a proposed industrial park was looming on the doorstep of Caddo Lake State Park; local businessmen had convinced Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rep. Louie Gohmert to ask the U.S. Army not to transfer the remaining 2,200 acres of a cleaned-up WWII munitions facility to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 5,800 acres of which had been transformed into the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge in hopes of building the industrial park. On Tuesday, Harrison Co. Commissioners voted against the project, asking Hutchison and Gohmert to lift the hold on the transfer of the land to the USFWS.
Farther south, the state's last remaining hardwood forests along the Upper Neches River, home to scores of endangered species, are also at risk, according to the report, thanks to Dallas-area water developers who want to nix USFWS plans for a 25,000-acre Neches River National Wildlife Refuge in favor of flooding the area to create a reservoir despite their own data, which suggests that such a project will be unnecessary for at least 50 years, if ever.
Also included in the report are threats to the habitat and wildlife of Padre Island National Seashore, posed by gas wells' large-scale drilling. Janice Bezanson, executive director of the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, said several parks are targeted for closure or sale to private entities and that the public must pressure the Legislature for better treatment. "Parks play a crucial role in the protection of natural resources like our watersheds, while preserving wildlife and providing recreation for Texans," Bezanson said. For more info, or to read the full report, see www.environmenttexas.org.
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