The Texas House paved the way for a billion-dollar investment in state parks, which one advocate said would create “a new golden age” for the park system. Texas now ranks 35th nationally in state park acreage per capita. Above, Visitors trek through Penitentiary Hollow at Lake Mineral Wells State Park in January. Photo by J.G. Domke.
From the Texas Tribune
May 19, 2023
The Texas House on Tuesday gave final approval to two bills, Senate Bill 1648 and Senate Joint Resolution 74, that would, with voter approval, create a Centennial Parks Conservation Fund to invest $1 billion to buy more land for the state parks system.
Advocates are calling it a “historic” and an “unprecedented” level of investment in the state’s park system, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
“This would create a new golden age for our state parks,” said Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas. “We have a lot to celebrate. What a great birthday present to give all Texans for the state parks system’s 100th.”
The bill and resolution by Sen. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, already have received an OK from the Senate will now head to the governor’s desk for final approval. The governor has called for an increase in the budget for state parks, and advocates are optimistic that he will approve the bills.
If he does, the issue will go before voters as a constitutional amendment in November, and the state could begin spending the money as early as Jan. 1.
According to a report by Environment Texas last year, Texas lags behind most others states in state parkland: The state ranks 35th in the nation for state park acreage per capita, with about 636,000 acres of parkland for a population of over 29 million as of 2019. The report suggests that Texas needs to add 1.4 million acres of state parks by 2030 to meet the needs of its residents.
State parks were even more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the number of visitors increased 37 percent from fiscal year 2020 to fiscal year 2021.
“The fund would be an essential tool in ensuring Texans have access to public park lands for generations to come,” said state Rep. Armando Walle, a Houston Democrat. “This effort is a transformational effort, a Teddy Roosevelt kind of initiative.”
Advocates and park aficionados have flocked to the Capitol several times during the legislative session to express the need for more park land. They shared stories of their most memorable park experiences of fishing, hiking and camping. They also told lawmakers that to enjoy state parks, which receive close to 10 million visitors each year, sometimes they have to get on waiting lists several months in advance and campsites are limited.
Parker said the state is struggling to keep up with increasing demand, and that’s “why it’s important for us to have a park fund to go and acquire new parks on behalf of the people of Texas.”
Parks became a hot political topic at the Capitol after Fairfield Lake State Park, about 100 miles south of Dallas, announced it was closing because it’s on leased land and the owner was selling the land. It is one of 14 state parks that sit on leased land.
The owner, Vistra Corp., sold the 5,000-acre property, which includes the park, to Dallas-based real estate developer Shawn Todd and his firm, Todd Interests, which planned to build a private golf course and gated community on the property. Lawmakers have been in negotiations with the park’s new owners to keep the park open to the public, and advocates have been pushing for funding to buy more parkland so there won’t be a repeat of the Fairfield debacle.
“Our local parks all the way to our state parks were one of the few places that were safe for people to gather and enjoy time with each other and enjoy time in nature during the worst of the COVID pandemic,” said Robert Kent, Texas state director for The Trust For Public Land.
As lawmakers make big investments in Texas parks, Kent said he hopes they will find a way not only to buy land for new parks but to preserve existing ones, too.
He pointed to another set of bills, House Bill 3165 and House Joint Resolution 138 by Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, that might do just that. The bill would create a conservation fund that would provide grants to preserve water resources as well as local and state parks. The resolution would put the fund on the November ballot for voter approval.
The Texas House approved the bill and resolution earlier this month. The Senate hasn’t yet voted on them.
“The House’s legislation really helps meet a need for funding local parks that are the front lines of how Texans enjoy nature,” Kent said. “The day-to-day park experience happens at your neighborhood park, at your local park.”
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