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From Private Hands to Public Lands

The making of a Texas state park.

By E. Dan Klepper

Improbable as it sounds, Texans once voted a politician into office who routinely slept in his car. The governor, in fact, was a car camper. Auto travel across the state before 1900 was nothing short of miraculous given the lack of vehicles and the atrocious conditions of the roads. But thanks to America’s “good roads” initiative, a federal program begun shortly after the turn of the century, the rural highways and byways of Texas were vastly improved by the time Pat Morris Neff began his campaign for governorship in 1920. Neff would be the first Texas gubernatorial candidate to campaign by automobile. He put over 6,000 miles on his Model T, and in order to save money he often spent the night in his car - and enjoyed it. Countryside drives to pastoral camping grounds were all the rage in the ’20s, and the movement inspired many small communities to create shaded waysides for automobilists to rest, relax and camp out. Neff’s mode of campaigning gave him the freedom to travel extensively, taking him to 37 rural counties where citizens had never received a visit from a Texas gubernatorial candidate before. Neff may have clinched the election because of it. The results proved fortuitous for Texans and their own love for travel and the outdoors. Shortly after assuming office, Governor Neff established and appointed an official Texas State Parks Board. By transcribing his enthusiasm for fresh air and an overnight under the stars into legislation, Neff brought the first state park system to life.

“Texas should have led all other states in the Union in the ownership and maintenance of State parks,” Neff wrote in his book The Battles of Peace, published in 1925 after his second term in office, “especially in view of the fact that of the forty-eight states she is the only one that once owned title to all her lands. When she entered the Union, she refused to surrender her public domain. Texas, however, has now sold or given away practically all of her public lands, aggregating one hundred and seventy-two million acres. She did not reserve one beauty spot, nor set aside anywhere one acre of land to be used and enjoyed by the public in the name of the State.”

Neff and his newly appointed state park board set about to change all that. What followed was 30-plus years of accomplishments and failures, negotiations and controversies, an irreplaceable collection of buildings, bridges and park roads built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the successful acquisition of dozens of parklands throughout the state.

In 1963 the State Parks Board and the State Game and Fish Commission were merged to form today’s Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. But by 1966, the state’s park system and its total of 59 parks were in need of attention. Texans responded with a voter-approved $75 million bond in 1967 and, along with federal grant monies and a new cigarette tax added in 1971, the state financed an unprecedented period of expansion and improvement for the state park system. Today, approximately 114 state parks constitute a stunning network of outdoor destinations available to Texans. The system includes an array of wildlife habitats and recreational opportunities unparalleled in their diversity and range. When Texans hike a trail, pitch a tent, fish a lake, or raft a river, they do so as a result of the tremendous amount of energy and resources which have gone into making a Texas state park the best outdoors experience possible.

But how, in nuts-and-bolts reality, is that experience made manifest by the staff at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department? The answer is through planning, expertise, experience, hard work and, perhaps most important of all, with a little help from nature itself.

“After all, nature has to give some help in establishing a state park,” state Representative W.R. Chambers proclaimed in a 1945 issue of The Dallas Morning News. Author James Wright Steely brings this quote to the forefront in his book Parks for Texas: Enduring Landscapes of the New Deal. “It requires more than a cow pasture and an excited chamber of commerce to make a park go,” Chambers concluded.

It certainly does. While the procedure for creating a state park requires a certain flexibility to guide its process, thus making it difficult to define a standard set of steps, there is a “big picture” method to its complexity, one that begins quite simply with the land.

Available land comes to the state in a variety of ways. It can arrive in the form of donations, gifts, exchanges, purchases or as set-asides in highway or reservoir mitigation. Often, landowners will contact TPWD with an interest in selling. Sometimes a candidate property is identified by its unique resources such as rare or endangered habitats and/or species that require prompt protection.

Once land is under consideration, an initial assessment of the candidate property is carried out by TPWD staff. Specific issues are addressed such as environmental concerns; whether the candidate property augments, complements or supplements the existing park system; the significance of the property’s resources; and whether the property can be enjoyed by the public within the constraints of those resources. If a candidate property survives this departmental scrutiny, TPWD land acquisitions personnel will proceed to discuss terms with donors or, if pursuing a desirable property with an unknown owner, peruse the tax rolls, locate the owner, and inquire about purchasing. Most importantly, state park land is acquired only from willing sellers or willing donors and never through condemnation.

“If a landowner expresses an interest in selling, then I try and meet with them face to face,” says Ted Hollingsworth, senior project manager with the department’s Land Conservation Program. “It’s important to determine what exactly a seller wants out of the sale. Do they want an opportunity to keep the family land intact? Do they want tax incentives? Money? Is preservation more important to them? Are they hoping to establish a legacy for themselves and their family name? It’s important to keep state costs at a minimum but also to provide the landowner with what they want.”

Land acquisition recommendations are then presented to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, a board of nine political appointees charged with “the adoption of policies and rules to carry out all programs of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.” Commissioners approve the budget, set policy and sign off on “appropriation requests for submission to the legislature.” Once commissioners are on board for purchasing a property, then work proceeds at full steam towards state park status.

Following acquisition, the state park process goes into high gear. A deeper analysis of the property begins, including cataloging of existing infrastructure and development of strategies for establishing additional services. Water, wastewater treatment, power, office and housing requirements, and road networks are identified in order to improve existing sources and construct new ones.

However, not all land acquisitions result in state parks. A piece of land may become a wildlife management area, natural area or historic site, based on a variety of criteria including a property’s biodiversity, recreational opportunities, native wildlife populations, preservation needs, the ecoregion the acquisition occurs in, the presence of cultural and archaeological sites, and the potential for game management. A wildlife management area is dedicated to wildlife research and management. A state natural area emphasizes protection, scientific research and stewardship of significant and/or endangered natural resources. A historic site classification preserves and interprets pre-historic and historic characteristics. The classification status of a particular property may also change as different needs and opportunities arise.

A detailed assessment of the cultural and natural resources of the property proceeds in tandem with classification review and infrastructure analysis, including biological surveys that attempt to fully identify the property’s natural attributes. The location and level of need for protection of existing habitat, restoration of degraded habitat, and eradication of invasive species are identified and plans are drawn up for their implementation. This requires that department staff devote hundreds of hours to traversing the property, either by 4-wheel-drive vehicles or very often on foot simply because it is the best way to collect data in some regions. It also provides TPWD staff with a precise idea of just exactly what resources the property possesses. Seeing it, everyone knows, is believing it. Or is it?

“All truth is not self-evident,” says Natural Resources Program Director David Riskind. “Even planners can be fooled.” Especially when they have been traveling across the rugged terrain of a brand new Big Bend Ranch State Park using a topographic map that hasn’t been updated for over 30 years. At the time, Riskind and his team were attempting to identify one of the main park roads for the new property. “USGS quad maps are considered the highest level of truth regarding topography. So, of course, we were using ours to orient our direction.” Their only problem was that the road on the map no longer existed, having been rerouted to the one they were then standing on, creating at least an hour’s worth of disorientation for a group of consummate outdoor professionals. “Well,” shrugs Riskind, a TPWD participant in cross-country snafus and park planning surveys for over 20 years. “That’s the life.”

Every once in a while a member of a survey team overlooks a natural resource only to realize how fortunate they were in doing so. Mark Lockwood, TPWD conservation biologist, recalls surveying Big Bend Ranch State Park’s Colorado Canyon for the removal of invasive salt cedar when he passed a sleeping diamondback rattlesnake with his coworker’s bootprint on its head.

“Two other biologists were in front of me,” recalls Lockwood. “You could see an impression of someone’s boot tread in the soil completely surrounding the snake. It wasn’t a big snake, just maybe about a foot long and all coiled up. But it was still a venomous snake. And the boot print was perfect. The snake never moved until I poked it with a stick. Then it took off.”

There are often times when survey staff may see one thing only to discover that it is something entirely different, especially when it concerns cultural artifacts left over from another time. Archaeological surveys are typically started in concert with natural resource surveys in order to identify important sites, design strategies to preserve and protect them, and determine their historic or prehistoric significance. TPWD Cultural Resources Coordinator Tim Roberts is one of the department’s luckier archaeologists as he works in the state’s Trans-Pecos region, home to some of the most compelling - and unusual - cultural artifacts.

“We’ve discovered everything from 10,000- to 11,000-year-old Paleo-Indian dart points to 1950s ranching items, and everything from sparse lithic scatters to large village sites and extensive pictograph panels,” explains Roberts. “On one occasion, however, I encountered a feature type that I was unfamiliar with consisting of four rocks, three of which form walls and the fourth forming a roof. On this occasion, there were probably at least 100 or more of these features, all in rows, and each mysteriously facing a large, nearby rock shelter that had evidence of prehistoric occupation, including pictographs. Of course, a great deal of wild interpretation raced through my head about the prehistoric inhabitants of this mysterious place, just before looking down and seeing strands of woven wire stretching between and beneath each of these small rock features and seeing remnants of painted numbers on some of the features. My vivid imagination was suddenly squelched; even I knew that I could not weave a tale of prehistory that incorporated woven wire and painted numbers. So, after finding the right people to ask, I eventually learned the proper function and probable age of these particular features - baby goat shelters, called chiquiteras, from the 1930s. One mystery solved, and hopefully many more to come.”

Sometimes, however, a park’s attributes prove far more difficult to define. Such was the case with the resaca, or former river channel, in the new Resaca de la Palma State Park located in the Rio Grande Valley. TPWD Natural Resources Coordinator Kay Jenkins has been at work for years to restore the natural wetlands associated with the old river channel that runs through the park.

“In looking back over the years that we’ve been working on this restoration project,” Jenkins recalls, “I laugh when I think of the number of times that we have attempted to survey the resaca to determine which way it flows. The final answer? Any direction it wants to flow since the river delta is totally flat!”

Natural and cultural resource surveys are ongoing processes, often lasting years simply because the nature of the resource, or the topography itself, dictates the speed and methodology with which TPWD staff can progress. In the meantime, the state park process continues moving forward with two of the most important aspects of park development - creating a resource interpretation program and formulating a public use plan. Designing trails, roads, campgrounds, viewing areas, protected areas, primitive regions, regulations and wayside interpretation kiosks are all part of the evolution of a state park.

“Interpretation,” says TPWD Interpretive Specialist Linda Hedges, “is imperative.” Learning about a park’s natural and cultural resources is an important moment in the state park experience. Protection and preservation of the state’s unique resources are as much a responsibility of all Texans as they are of the department’s. Education is a vital step towards carrying out that stewardship.

But the process is not without its lighter side. “I was leading a nature walk once during a TPWD event for the public,” Hedges recalls, “and one of the participants asked, ‘Where are the wild chihuahuas?’ Apparently that question left me with a puzzled look on my face because she continued with, ‘Well, you said that we are in the Chihuahuan Desert!’”

The Texas state park system is one that almost an entire century of Texans can be proud of helping to create. Improving and maintaining existing parks are uppermost priorities in the minds of Texans, priorities expressed both historically and today through voice and vote.

State Parks Funding Update

Welcome financial news for state and local parks came through in the last hours of the 80th Texas Legislature in late May. Thanks to determined efforts by supporters and effective last-minute negotiating by elected leaders, lawmakers approved approximately $182 million in additional park funding for the 2008-09 biennium.

“We are very, very pleased with the appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature,” said Robert L. Cook, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department executive director. “With the funding provided by our legislators, we will be able to make great strides in providing adequate staffing, equipment, repairs and operating dollars to significantly improve our state park system.”

Details of the complicated legislation were still being sifted at press time, but TPWD believes that the additional park funding includes:

  • $25.6 million to operate state parks, including 229 additional full-time positions.
  • $8 million for state park minor repairs
  • $9.7 million for state park capital equipment, such as vehicles and computers.
  • $3 million in additional support for state parks, including new architects and estimators in TPWD’s Infrastructure Division to fulfill recommendations of the recent state park audit.
  • $44.1 million for major repairs to TPWD sites. Of the total, $17 million is Proposition 8 bond funding approved by Texas voters in 2001, and $27.1 million is a new bond issue that must first be approved by voters this coming November.
  • $13.9 million in land acquisition funding. This includes $9.6 million from the sale of the Eagle Mountain Lake State Park property near Fort Worth. It also includes $4.3 million for acquisition of inholdings and properties adjacent to existing state parks.
  • $36.3 million for local park grants to cities and counties. This restores full funding for local park grants to $15.5 million per year, plus the appropriations bill allocated an additional $16.7 million for specific park projects.
  • $16 million in appropriation authority that essentially allows the department to spend revenue it brings in above projected estimates from sources like state park entrance and camping fees.
  • $25 million in a new bond issue to fund dry berthing and repairs for the Battleship Texas in La Porte, bonds which must first be approved by voters in November 2007.

HB 12 also transfers 18 state historic sites from TPWD to the Texas Historical Commission, and earmarks 6 percent of state sales tax attributable to sporting goods to the THC.

In another state park-related action, SB 1659 passed. SB 1659 will transfer Texas State Railroad operations to a new railroad authority. The appropriations bill provides $2 million to serve as a match for a $10 million federal grant through the Texas Department of Transportation for railroad capital repairs and improvements.

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