Bell Blasts Perry for Underfunded Parks

Crisis predates current administration, but Dem says guv could have prodded Lege

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell chose the oft-polluted and resource-starved McKinney Falls State Park to attack Gov. Rick Perry for underfunded state parks.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell chose the oft-polluted and resource-starved McKinney Falls State Park to attack Gov. Rick Perry for underfunded state parks. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

On most days, the Smith Visitor Center at McKinney Falls State Park is as dark and silent as a shuttered storefront beset by hard times. A similar hardscrabble tale could be told of the visitor center, which can only afford to keep weekend hours because of staffing shortages and maintenance costs. The outdated facility with the water-damaged roof houses fossilized treasures from the Cretaceous period and educational nuggets detailing the ecological history of the 725-acre park, located at Austin's southeast doorstep.

The financially strapped park suffers from the same parental neglect as every other state-owned park across Texas, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell has made the park-funding crisis a key component of his "Healthy Texas" environmental plank. Bell sought to highlight Gov. Rick Perry's lackluster record on parks during a campaign stop Monday at McKinney Falls, one of several recreational spots on Bell's crisscross tour of parks that included the Texas State Railroad in Palestine, Caddo Lake in East Texas, the San Jacinto Battleground and battleship sites in Houston, and the Wyler Aerial Tramway in El Paso's beloved Franklin Mountains.

Recounting his stop at the historic sites in Houston, Bell noted, "The Battleship Texas is held together with duct tape and Silly Putty, and the elevator at the San Jacinto Monument doesn't go all the way to the top. If that's not a metaphor for Rick Perry's park policy, I don't know what is."

Standing before a pooled area of Onion Creek, Bell accused Perry of failing to honor the wishes of voters, who in 2001 approved $101 million in state bonds to pay for park improvements. Since then, Bell said, state parks received just $36.7 million in bond money for 2001-2002, followed by zero dollars in the 2003-2004 budget cycle and only $18.1 million for 2005-2006. "Texans went to the polls and voted to fund our state parks, but Rick Perry has defied us and is blocking these funds while our parks waste away," Bell said.

The park system's funding problems began long before Perry took the helm. In 1995, the Lege placed a $32 million cap on the amount of funding parks would receive from the sporting-goods tax. But Bell faults Perry for perpetuating the park system's declining health while overseeing a state budget that has grown 42% under his watch. Nationally, Texas ranks No. 49 in per capita spending on state parks. Responding to recent criticism over parks funding, Perry said he would sign legislation to eliminate the $32 million cap and boost funding for the beleaguered park system. But Bell believes Perry's preference would be to privatize the park system altogether, despite numerous polls that show voters overwhelmingly support leaving Texas parks under public control.

Until the Legislature loosens its grip on the purse strings, parks across the state will continue operating on limited funds and staffing. Park rangers suffer the brunt of complaints from visitors having to pay higher entry fees for fewer benefits, such as the "Closed" sign that greets folks Monday through Friday at the Smith Visitor Center. "This could really be an outstanding, state-of-the-art facility, especially for Austin kids," Park Superintendent David Shirley said, echoing Bell's call for more funding. Upgrading the center and bringing the rest of the park up to speed would run about $3 million, Shirley said.

A recent study commissioned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department painted a dismal picture of state-owned public lands. An additional $25 million per year is needed for day-to-day operations, the study reported, while an extra $100 million would be required to restore parks to modern-day standards. That's not all – parks on the critical list need some $500 million to cover major repairs, plus another $40 million to cover a backlog of road-repairs in state parks.

Things are so tight at McKinney Falls, for example, that park rangers are forced to choose between fishing trash out of Onion Creek and cleaning the restrooms. "While the litter tends to look bad, our priority is the health and safety of park visitors – and that means keeping the restrooms clean," Shirley said.

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