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Natural Connections

National parks, state parks share many historical ties.

By Russell Roe

With the National Park Service marking its 100th anniversary this year, Americans are celebrating what’s been called "America’s best idea." As Texans join the celebration of wild lands and historic sites, they can note the numerous and sometimes surprising connections between national parks and our own Texas state parks.

The shared mission and historical ties between state parks and national parks run deep and wide.

“In all cases, national parks and state parks have been set aside because there is something special about them,” says Walt Dabney, who spent 30 years working for national parks and 11 years as director of Texas state parks.

The two park systems have been connected in ways you might not realize. One of our national parks used to be a Texas state park. Another state park came tantalizingly close to becoming a national park. Dozens of Texas’ early state parks were designed by National Park Service architects, and they reflect a direct architectural lineage to the rustic building style found in the national parks.

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Let’s begin with the man who started it all in Texas: Gov. Pat Neff. Just as Neff was taking office as governor in 1921, Stephen Mather, the visionary first director of the National Park Service, convened the first-ever National Conference on State Parks in Des Moines, Iowa, to urge governors and other leaders to get out there and create state parks in the model of the national parks. The park movement was catching on, and Mather knew that the National Park Service, established in 1916, could do only so much.

Neff took the idea and ran with it, determined to create a state park system for Texas to show off the state’s diversity of landscapes and encourage tourism and conservation.

Neff often camped while driving around the state on the campaign trail. He envisioned a series of roadside campgrounds and in 1922 launched a campaign to establish parks across the state. (Texas already had a few historical sites such as San Jacinto and Goliad set aside as parks.)

Neff noted that a park system would afford places where people “might go and forget the anxiety and strife and vexation of life’s daily grind.”

In 1923, the Texas Legislature created the State Parks Board to oversee the development of parks. The Neffs themselves donated land for a park, with Pat Neff's mother giving family property to the state for a park that became Mother Neff State Park.

Texas state parks were starting to grow from the seeds planted by the national parks.

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State parks were “part and parcel of this grand concept that Mather and others had toward a public park system that was owned by all the people and shared by all the people for the enjoyment of all the people,” says George Bristol, former chairman of the Texas State Parks Advisory Committee and former board member of the National Park Foundation. “That was the idea.”

The state managed to secure several donations of land for parks, but soon the darkening clouds of the 1930s economic depression threatened to engulf the state and the nation.

As part of the federal government’s relief efforts, President Franklin Roosevelt gave millions of young men a shovel, a pick and a paycheck in the newly established Civilian Conservation Corps and put them to work on conservation and park projects across the country. Fifty thousand of those men were given assignments in Texas, and they went to work planting trees, blazing trails and constructing buildings in a series of new Texas parks.

Using ideas from national parks such as Yosemite and Glacier, veteran National Park Service architects created master plans for the CCC to follow in building Texas parks. The NPS architects sought to create buildings that harmonized with the natural landscape and used local, natural materials such as rocks and logs in construction. The “NPS rustic” architectural style was established in buildings such as Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn and Grand Canyon’s Hermit’s Rest and can be traced directly to Texas park landmarks such as the Palmetto refectory, Indian Lodge and Bastrop’s cabins.

“You can see the rustic aesthetic in the national parks,” says Cynthia Brandimarte, director of the Historic Sites and Structures Program at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and author of Texas State Parks and the CCC. “You can go to the national parks and compare with state parks and see similarities in style and materials.”

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Before 1930, Texas had 14 state parks with just over 800 acres total. In 1942, when the CCC finished its work, Texas had 48 parks with almost 60,000 acres. The CCC, guided by the hand of the National Park Service, established what remains today the historic core of the Texas state park system.

One of the parks built by the CCC was Texas Canyons State Park, which was signed into existence by Gov. Miriam “Ma” Ferguson in May 1933 and initially consisted of the majestic canyons of the Rio Grande. A few months later, the Chisos Mountains were added to the park, and its name was changed to Big Bend State Park. The region, with its deep canyons, vast desert and soaring mountains, was a natural spot for a major park.

Around the time of Big Bend’s approval as a state park, the National Park Service, with a couple of dozen parks in its national inventory, was considering sites in Texas for potential national parks. The NPS had several areas under consideration: the Davis Mountains, Guadalupe Mountains, Palo Duro Canyon, Big Bend, Padre Island and Alto Frio Canyon along the Frio River.

In the winter of 1933–34, the NPS sent its principal investigator, Yellowstone Superintendent Roger Toll, to examine these places. He was most impressed with Big Bend, calling it “decidedly the outstanding scenic area of Texas” with the “promise of being one of the noted scenic spectacles of the United States.”

Toll also got his socks knocked off by the Guadalupe Mountains, and considered Palo Duro, the Davis Mountains and Padre Island to be NPS-class landscapes.

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The NPS approved Big Bend as a national park in 1934, and Roosevelt signed the enabling act into law in June 1935. Big Bend was officially established as a national park in June 1944, ending its existence as a state park. Toll’s other Texas choice, the great fossil reef known as the Guadalupe Mountains, became a national park in 1972.

As for Palo Duro, well, it almost became a national park. In fact, it was considered a prime candidate for one of the nation’s first ecosystem parks, a National Park of the Plains.

Toll was impressed by his four days there, but while Big Bend was a “scenic spectacle,” he considered Palo Duro merely “picturesque and interesting.” One NPS official thought the nation’s second-largest canyon was too similar to the Grand Canyon, which had become a national park in 1919. (And just when did being too similar to the Grand Canyon become a problem?) Plus, the land was a lot more expensive than Big Bend. The Texas State Parks Board acquired land in Palo Duro in 1933, but only after negotiating a complex land deal with existing landowners.

Still, the NPS was interested in the geological and ecological wonder that is Palo Duro Canyon. It liked the idea of making an ecosystem park, similar to the newly created Everglades, and it drew out a map for a million-acre plains park around Palo Duro, including prairie land along the rim, where pronghorns could roam and bison could be reintroduced.

The NPS conducted a second review of Palo Duro in 1938–39, considering it a candidate for a national monument, a status that often leads to becoming a national park. Again, the NPS liked what it saw, but it failed to gain the needed support; more than anything, the cost seemed prohibitive.

Palo Duro remains a crown jewel of the Texas state park system.

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Other examples of national park/state park interactions can be found around Texas:

  • LBJ National Historical Park and LBJ State Park and Historic Site sit side by side in the Hill Country, with the Pedernales River forming the border between the two.
  • Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park come together in the West Texas outpost of Lajitas, forming the biggest expanse of public land in Texas.
  • Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site and the southern unit of Devils River State Natural Area are contiguous with and included in the greater Amistad National Recreation Area. The state park system has management agreements with the National Park Service.

“The whole idea of parks — that they’re not just for wealthy people or royalty — originated in this country with the establishment of Yellowstone,” Dabney says. “That idea has grown to a national park system that’s well over 400 units. Every state now has a park system. Many counties have park systems. Many cities do. The different components complement one another and provide for different kinds of experiences and purposes. Collectively, they create this system of parks that makes the quality of life in the United States better than it would have been without them by a long shot.”

National Park Service sites in Texas 

  • Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
  • Amistad National Recreation Area
  • Big Bend National Park
  • Big Thicket National Preserve
  • Chamizal National Memorial
  • El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail
  • El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail
  • Fort Davis National Historic Site
  • Guadalupe Mountains National Park
  • Lake Meredith National Recreation Area
  • LBJ National Historical Park
  • Padre Island National Seashore
  • Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park
  • Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River
  • San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
  • Waco Mammoth National Monument

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