Using Your Car to Support Parks
It’s easy — just add $5 to your vehicle registration fee to help parks through tough times.
By Russell Roe
If you’ve renewed your annual vehicle registration in the past several months, you may have noticed something different — a chance to donate to state parks included on the form.
Texas vehicle owners have the option of adding $5 or more for state parks when they renew their registrations. All you have to do is fill in your donation amount in the box at the bottom of the form and add it to your total, and your donation will go to state parks.
“We’re hopeful that people will see this as a new avenue to contribute to the operation of parks,” says Brent Leisure, director of state parks.
The donation program was created by the Legislature in 2011 and was launched in January as a way to offset some of the budget cuts made to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department during difficult economic times.
The Legislative Budget Board recommended the vehicle registration donation program as one of the options to help fund state park operations, which experienced cuts of more than $20 million over the 2012-13 biennium. It projected that the program would bring in $1.6 million a year.
So far, the program has fallen short of projections. Through August, the end of the fiscal year, it brought in $468,864. For the 2013 fiscal year, with the program in place for a full 12 months, TPWD estimates that the donations will bring in $600,000 to $700,000. Texas has about 16.5 million registered motor vehicles.
The donation program is modeled after a similar one in Washington state. In 2009, Washington began including a $5 parks donation in vehicle renewal notices and new registrations.
The Washington donations are automatically included in all bills, and if residents don’t want to donate, they must “opt out” and subtract the $5 from their total. In the 2011 fiscal year, the Washington program generated $10.3 million.
In Texas, the donation isn’t automatically included in the bill, and residents who want to donate must “opt in” and add $5 to their total.
Donna Bailey of Driftwood, who has spent a lot of time at parks such as Lake Mineral Wells and Possum Kingdom, is one parks supporter who opted in. “It’s a convenient way to contribute,” she says. “Parks are something I really believe in supporting.”
Leisure says that on top of the budget cuts, parks in 2011 encountered severe drought, heat and wildfires, which caused a drop in visitation and a decline in revenue. “All those things combined made for a pretty difficult year,” he says.
To cope with the financial challenges, TPWD delayed hiring and deferred park maintenance. In December 2011, TPWD made a statewide public appeal for donations to help the park system.
Darcy Bontempo, TPWD marketing director, says one of the best ways people can help parks now is to visit them. About half of the state park operating budget comes from visitor fees. “If you love parks, support them,” she says. “We need you. State parks need your help.”
Leisure echoes that sentiment. By visiting state parks, people help them financially, and at the same time, they get to enjoy the park. State parks offer Texans a “tremendous outdoor experience,” he says, and also provide an economic boost to the state and to nearby communities.
With milder weather and higher water levels in several areas of the state, parks have seen an increase in visitors in 2012, a development that has brought in much-needed revenue. Total parks revenue was up 5.7 percent through the first eight months of the year compared with the same period in 2011, and entrance fee revenue is up 12.3 percent this year.
Mike Jensen, TPWD chief financial officer, says he hopes participation in the vehicle program picks up, too. Less than 1 percent of automobile owners have been making donations through the program. He notes that TPWD, which handles boat registrations, started a similar donation program for boat renewals and that participation rates have been higher for boat owners, with 8 to 9 percent contributing.
To reach the program’s goal of $1.6 million a year, TPWD needs 320,000 vehicle owners to make the $5 donation, or about 1.9 percent of all annual vehicle registrations. If just 5 percent of the estimated 6.4 million state park visitors each year donated $5 through the vehicle program, TPWD would reach the goal.
Leisure says the state park system is very appreciative of money coming to parks through the vehicle registration program. Continued support from Texans will help to provide parks as gateways to the outdoors in Texas.
For more articles on state parks, check out TP&W magazine's State Parks page.