Texas Parks in Crisis

June 20th, 2006

By George Bristol

The announcement last December that the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department would cut an additional 73 staff was a blow to many of us in the parks advocacy community. These cuts came on top of a run of previous jobs cut or left vacant in recent years. You can only stretch a program so thin before it breaks.

The Texas park system, friends, is broken. Programs have been scrubbed, facilities are in disrepair, camping areas closed, and in several cases parks have been forced to shut their gates entirely during weekdays. Of course, it’s a downward spiral. Park closings mean reduced revenue, leading to more cuts.

The finger of blame here is pointed squarely in the direction of the Texas Legislature. It is not an exaggeration to say they have created a “third-world” status for parks. Texas consistently ranks 49th among the states for per capita investment, spending barely more than a hundredth of a percent of the state budget on parks.

This isn’t just shameful – it flies in the face of the park system’s value to the state and its citizens. Consider:

1) Our state parks annually generate over $1.25 billion in clean economic activity.

2) Ten million visitors go to our parks each year, many from out of state. They are some of our most highly advertised reasons for tourists to visit Texas and consistently show up as the reason tourists choose to come.

3) They provide sanctuary for humans and wildlife alike. And as public spaces, they bind us to nature, our heritage and each other.

Parks are a bargain for the state. Of the $50 million authorized in 2004, $32 million came from entrance fees, equipment rentals and the like – money that comes directly from park users. Another $15.5 came from the “sporting goods tax,” which was long ago established as a parks funding mechanism because of its user-fee qualities. The remaining money provided by the state is miniscule in the context of state agency budgeting.

So if state parks are such a good deal – a huge economic engine funded almost entirely by user fess – why are we at this shoddy point?

As it happens, twelve years ago the Legislature froze the parks share of the sporting goods sales tax at $32 million and has since refused to let it float upward with inflation, population growth and increasing demand on the parks system – even though those taxes now bring in more than $90 million annually.

Making matters worse, since 2001 the Legislature has borrowed, frozen or simply transferred those already paltry accounts in order to “balance the budget.” As if that weren’t enough, legislators simultaneously passed unfunded mandates that come out of the hide of already pitiful and underfunded accounts. All in the name of balancing the budget with no new taxes.

And so goes the cycle. Starve the parks of funding, watch as neglect makes maintenance and repairs more expensive, wait until something is so dilapidated it has be shut down, see revenues then drop further still. Downward continues the spiral.

This is directly counter to what Texans want and are willing to pay for, as has been shown time after time in opinion polls and at the ballot box. As another legislative session nears, it’s critical that politicians hear from their constituents. There has already been talk among some Texas Representatives of filing legislation to lift the sporting goods cap.

For such legislation to have any chance of passing, though, Texans will need to make their voices heard. We have to let the Governor and the Legislature know that we want a world-class park system.

George Bristol is the President and Executive Director of the Texas Coalition for Conservation