From the Pen of Carter P. Smith
It seemed like a hell of a good idea at the time. We’d trade the Devils River State Natural Area (SNA), subject to a conservation easement, plus some cash, for a new, 18,000-acre property downstream, also protected with a conservation easement. The new property had nearly five times as much river-influenced frontage, considerably better road access and important cultural and natural resources. The state would have two river properties protected along Texas’ most pristine watercourse for less cost, and there would be enhanced outdoor opportunities for Texas families.
It was a grand plan all right, except for one thing. Very few people liked the deal, and in fact, many downright hated it.
River enthusiasts bemoaned the loss of public camping spots along the Devils River. Some landowners were skeptical of the implications of the trade. Environmentalists decried the loss of public ownership and stewardship of the unique spring complex, rare species habitat and other important natural resources on the existing SNA. Others thought the deal was being consummated without sufficient public input. The hue and cry hit its crescendo before a November 2010 Parks and Wildlife Commission decision on the matter.
So, we did something that seemed to surprise many of our critics. We listened. We acknowledged the criticisms being leveled at the department and the trade. We stepped back from the original deal and consulted with several key partners about the path forward.
What emerged was nothing short of remarkable. With the leadership of Parks and Wildlife Commissioner Dan Allen Hughes, the support of the entire commission and key conservation leaders like George Bristol and a remarkable pledge from philanthropists Ann and David Honeycutt, as well as the exceptional generosity and willingness of the seller of the new tract to give the department more time, a new plan was born for Devils River.
The plan was ambitious, to say the least. Raise $11 million by the end of December to buy the new property outright as a new unit to the existing SNA and create 2½ years of operating funds to boot. If successful, spend the next two years devising an appropriate public use plan for both the new property and the SNA. And finally, establish a new Devils River Recreation Working Group to address longstanding conflicts between river users and private landowners.
As we announced the plan, you could sense the tension fading away. Where once there was disagreement, and even anger, from constituents, there was now widespread enthusiasm at the prospect of adding such a large parcel to the state’s public lands system. The vision was a compelling one, and most importantly, it inspired support and action.
On Dec. 22, the deal was done. An extraordinary array of conservation-minded donors from around the state came forward to support the acquisition of the new property. Major newspaper editorials heralded it as a Christmas present for all Texans. Indeed it was.
Texans love their parkland and always have. As you will read in the fine bit of history of state park acquisitions penned by noted writer John Jefferson, the stories behind these public treasures are pretty special, too. Many times, they involved a small but fiercely committed coterie of landowners, commissioners, political leaders and TPWD land conservation staff who labored long and hard to realize a vision for a new state park, historic site or natural area.
Rest assured, their visions were worth realizing. You can experience them today at places like Enchanted Rock, Pedernales Falls, Mustang Island, Lost Maples, Caprock Canyons, Brazos Bend and many others.
To all those who helped shape the great state park system we enjoy today, thank you for your vision and for your actions. Texas’ lands, waters, fish, wildlife and parks are a lot better off because of you.