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From the Pen of Carter P. Smith

Every so often, and perhaps with less predictability than any of us really care to admit, Mother Nature sends us a not-so-subtle reminder of who’s really in charge.

Whether it is hurricane-force winds or scalding fires, torrential rains or catastrophic droughts, she leaves little doubt about who calls the shots when it comes to our lands and waters. 

As stewards, we sometimes choose to fight back against her seemingly mercurial ways. At other times we elect to give in, yielding to her obviously dominant hand. As they say in the card business, there is a time to hold ’em and a time to fold ’em.

For decades — eight or so to be precise — we’ve valiantly pushed back at the state park bearing the namesake of one Isabella Neff, the beloved mother of former Gov. Pat Neff. The state park, one of our very first, is a little jewel of a place. Situated in Coryell County just west of Waco, the park lies at the intersection of the Hill Country and the Blacklands. Its fertile bottomlands, traversed by the Leon River, are shaded by towering pecans, oaks and elms, its hills covered by sprawling oaks and junipers. Native pockets of prairie and weeping springs are interspersed throughout, as are deep, secluded draws and broad limestone overhangs. People and game have made a home here for thousands of years.

It is a special place, made more so by the generous gift of land by the Neff family, coupled with the hands of those who built it, the men of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Company 817. It was donated in honor of Mrs. Neff, a woman ahead of her time in comprehending the need to ensure that Texas families, then and now, could find places of repose, respite and recreation out in the country, away from all of life’s other distractions. As her son Pat famously said, it was a place where all Texans could come to listen to the birds sing, to hear the bees hum and to watch the flowers bloom.

And come they have (faithfully, in fact) since the park’s inception in the 1920s. But, alas, and on cue, Mother Nature would inevitably remind us who was in charge. Heavy rains falling over the area’s rugged limestone hills would flood the Leon River, inundating the bottomlands, and the park, with standing water. After Lake Belton was built, the river began to back up even more, often for months at a time. The park’s campsites, picnic areas and pavilions would be rendered unusable, and the hard-working park staff would resign themselves to another round of park closures, flood debris cleanups and patchwork repairs, only to wonder when it would happen again.

Well, thankfully, after decades of all that, Mother Nature and Mother Neff have reached a detente. After big floods in 2007 and 2008, then-Sen. Kip Averitt led the charge to secure funding to build back Mother Neff State Park, the proper way. “Let’s do it right,” he told us. Get the infrastructure out of the floodplain, construct a new visitors center we can be proud of to educate park-goers about the history of the founding family, the CCC and the state park system, and add plenty of places and spaces where families can camp, hike, fish, bike, explore and enjoy Mother Nature’s bounty.

This January, we did just that, reopening Mother Neff State Park with a whole new look and feel. An eye-popping 3,800-square-foot visitor and interpretive facility, constructed of limestone and surrounded by native vegetation and rainwater catchment tanks, awaits park entrants. Inside, an interactive, multimedia educational display engages and immerses visitors in the abundant history of the land, the park and its inhabitants. Through creative use of social media, the center even allows park users a chance to add their own photos to the park’s “historical record.” In addition, a brand-new camping loop, replete with full-service electrical and water hook-ups and new restrooms, is there for overnight guests who wish to linger longer.

There is much to enjoy about the new and improved Mother Neff State Park. So come out this spring and enjoy it, or any one of your other 94 state park and historic sites. Mother Neff, and Mother Nature, eagerly await you.

Thanks for caring about our wild things and wild places. They need you now more than ever.

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