Jonathan Vail | TPWD
Jonathan Vail | TPWD
Palo Pinto blooms into our newest state park, with a tale as wild as Texas itself.
A new chapter unfolds in Palo Pinto County. For the first time in nearly two decades, a new state park is being created in North Texas.
The story of how Palo Pinto Mountains State Park came to be is many years in the making, with a multifaceted cast of characters and a convoluted plotline. There’s even a subplot that tells a Texas tale of a fatal shooting that ended with this very land changing hands.
The place itself is a well-rounded character with many pleasing attributes. Located 75 miles west of Fort Worth, the site encompasses rolling hills, a beautiful creek and a quiet lake surrounded by more than 4,800 acres of varied habitat that is home to a diverse array of wildlife.
Soon there will be backcountry trails to explore on foot or by horseback. Many stands of live oak, mesquite, cedar elm and native pecan shade the park, some of which will shelter campsites overlooking the waters of Tucker Lake.
“This is the Hill Country of North Texas, with a history that is just as rich as the terrain,” said Palo Pinto Mountains State Park Superintendent James Adams. “People have been roaming this land for ages; there’s a rich prehistoric and Native American legacy here. There’s also a robust cattle ranching heritage, and the railroad came through in the 1890s bringing industry, jobs and people. The first oil well in the famed Ranger Field was drilled here, too. There’s just so much that happened around here, and this is an amazing place to experience that history.”
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Executive Director Carter Smith is one of the characters who has played a role in this story’s unfolding, from its very earliest chapter.
“I was still at The Nature Conservancy when (former TPWD Executive Director) Bob Cook and (former TPW Commission Chair) Joseph Fitzsimons called me in 2007,” recalls Smith. “They said, ‘We’ve got this problem on our hands with Eagle Mountain Lake and we have got to find a replacement state park near Fort Worth. Can you help us?’ That kicked off the whole search for the replacement park. We were literally turning over rocks everywhere within two hours of Fort Worth.”
The “problem” Smith is referring to is the somewhat complicated tale of how property for one would-be state park in Fort Worth ended up as a two-for-one park deal that took several years to consummate. That property, 400 acres on Eagle Mountain Lake near Fort Worth, was purchased in 1980 for a state park but never opened; in more recent years, it was deemed too small for a proper state park.
TPWD officials sought permission to sell the land to generate dollars to buy something bigger. They got permission by promising that the proceeds from the sale would be used on a state park within a short driving distance of Fort Worth. State and local officials did not want to see the land originally slated for the lakeside park to be developed, and through an ingenious arrangement involving the Trust for Public Land, private philanthropic partners in Fort Worth and the Tarrant County Regional Water District, a deal was made. The land changed hands and is now a local park operated by the water district.
With several million dollars realized from the sale of the Eagle Mountain Lake site, the search for a new park site near Fort Worth intensified. By this time, Carter Smith had gone to work for TPWD. Meanwhile, a complicated subplot was brewing that would culminate in the acquisition of the land that is becoming Palo Pinto Mountains State Park.
jonathan vail | TPWF
In late 2008, a shooting at the Mule Lip Bar in Mingus ended with a man dead. As detailed in a front-page story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the “deadly encounter started the wheels turning on a bizarre Texas tale of lawsuits, family feuds, rich real estate deals and the seeding of land for a nearby state park.”
The shooter, Will Copeland, served time for criminally negligent homicide in the death of Kevin Parsons. An ensuing lawsuit by the family of the dead man resulted in 1,330 acres of the Copeland Ranch being transferred to Parsons’ father, who immediately offered it for sale. The Nature Conservancy (TNC), at TPWD’s behest, was actively searching for property in the area, and got wind that the land was available.
However, the parcel wasn’t large enough, and TNC staff began exploring the purchase of other adjacent tracts, which, as it turned out, belonged to other members of the Copeland clan. After protracted negotiations with feuding family members, several real estate deals closed on the same day in October 2011, creating the footprint for the park.
A fitting end to a classically colorful Texas tale.
But the acquisition of the land was just the beginning. The park still needed substantial funding to build the infrastructure that would enable Palo Pinto to welcome visitors. Roads, utilities, campsites, hiking trails and other amenities must first be funded before they can be built. In 2019, the Texas Legislature came to the rescue with a $12.5 million appropriation for the park, but there was a caveat.
“Senator Jane Nelson is a strong advocate for the importance of outdoor access for our urban families,” says Ralph Duggins, former chair of the TPW Commission. “With her leadership on the Senate Finance Committee and the support of her colleagues, we were successful in getting the appropriation that we did, but it was conditioned on a private fundraising effort to be conducted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation.”
And so, another plotline is woven into the story. Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation (TPWF), the official nonprofit funding partner for TPWD, is in the midst of a $9 million private fundraising effort that will make the park a reality. The $12.5 million appropriated by the Legislature will be used to fund utilities. TPWD is allocating additional TxDOT funds for road construction.
“Thanks to a $3 million challenge grant, we’re about halfway to our $9 million fundraising goal that will amplify what the Legislature has provided,” says TPWF Executive Director Susan Houston. “When the pandemic hit, we were concerned about how the fundraising would go, but what we’ve seen is that COVID has changed the way people value the outdoors — we’ve all learned that we definitely need more parks. When we take potential donors to Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, they understand immediately why this project is important.”
Earl Nottingham | TPWD
In another plot twist, TPWF will also be building the park facilities.
“In addition to raising the private dollars for this project, we will also be managing all of the vertical construction for park facilities,” explains Anne Brown, who is managing the project for TPWF. “We’ve developed a track record by building facilities at Powderhorn Ranch, Palo Duro Canyon and the Game Warden Training Center. These experiences have demonstrated that we can develop high-quality facilities on time and at a significant cost savings. We are committed to working with TPWD to make Palo Pinto Mountains State Park a stellar example of this proven public-private partnership.”
The development footprint of the park will cover about 200 acres of the 4,800 acres of the site. The buildings are designed to be light on the land and blend in with the landscape. A visitor center, pavilion, playscape, equestrian campground and camping loop will be among the offerings for visitors. An accessible boat ramp and fishing pier will also be built at Tucker Lake.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve built a park with this many amenities and this diversity of facilities,” says Rodney Franklin, Texas state parks director. “To have the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation help us create it is phenomenal. It’s going to be fantastic to have these kind of outdoor recreation opportunities taking place here at Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, especially so close to a major urban area.”
Jonathan Vail | TPWD
The timeline for completion of the park hinges on meeting the $9 million fundraising goal. Those involved are hopeful the park can be open in time for the centennial celebration of Texas state parks in 2023.
“The planned opening of Palo Pinto Mountain State Park would be a wonderful capstone for the centennial celebration of the state park system,” Smith says. “It’s also a wonderful kickoff to the next hundred years. For so many reasons, we believe Palo Pinto Mountains State Park is going to be an extraordinary generational gift to the people of Texas.”
In the process of making the park a reality, state leaders are rewriting the book on how state parks will be built in the future.
“Having a public-private partnership is a wonderful opportunity to take the best of both worlds, innovate, and fortify revenue sources,” says Senator Nelson. “We are fortunate to have Texans privately contributing to the preservation of our state parks, which will help stretch our limited state funds. I am excitedly optimistic that Palo Pinto Mountains State Park will serve as a shining example of how a public-private partnership can benefit our parks for future generations of Texans.”
Lydia Saldaña is the communications director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation.
Starry Skies and Chicken-Frieds
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