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Cesar Mendez, Franklin Mountains State Park

 Earl Nottingham | TPWD

‘Super’ intendents of TEXAS STATE PARKS

Whether wrangling wildlife or cleaning toilets, devoted managers take good care of Texas’ beloved state parks.


When you hear that someone’s title is park superintendent, you probably picture a ranger in khaki leading hikers into the woods to learn about plants and animals. Khaki’s still a staple, but the duties of the job vary drastically from one side of Texas to the other.

The Texas state park system is made up of 89 state parks, natural areas and historic sites that cover more than 630,000 acres. These parks can be found in every corner of Texas, with terrain and temperature and wild things — not to mention the occasional natural catastrophe — that pose unique challenges to the individuals who oversee them. There’s no cookie-cutter job description, but having a skill set that includes park management, wildlife biology and incredible flexibility comes in handy.

How does a day supervising a huge wilderness area compare to a day taking care of business at a small urban park? Six state park superintendents from across Texas give us a behind-the-scenes look at their headaches and pleasures.

Nathanael Gold (Big Bend Ranch)
Nyta Brown (Old Tunnel)
Javier De León (Estero Llano Grande)
Donald Beard (Caprock Canyons)
Melissa Chadwick (Mother Neff)
Cesar Mendez (Franklin Mountains)

Jacks/jills of all trades

At any park, most “normal” days start the same way: open up the gates and buildings, answer emails and check in with staff about projects from the day before (or that might have developed overnight).

After that, anything goes. Buckle up!

“We’re all generalists,” says Nathanael Gold. “That’s challenging, but also exhilarating. No two days are the same. I can wake up and clean toilets and take out the trash or give a school group tour. I could be at my desk working on administrative tasks or conducting a search and rescue. I love the fact I can do a little bit of everything.”

Gold's Big Bend Ranch State Park in far West Texas is the biggest state park in Texas, with a whopping 311,000 acres; Old Tunnel State Park is the smallest, with just over 16 acres, including a tunnel with bats. While every other state park has staff on hand to help with daily duties, Nyta Brown labors solo. She’s the only full-time employee at Old Tunnel.

“I like to say that I am Old Tunnel State Park,” Brown says. “I do everything. I answer emails and do all the cleaning and janitor work. Volunteers help me with everything. I have a great group of volunteers.”

Adapting to the unexpected is a constant for all superintendents. Sometimes the smallest detail, like the presence of an unusual bird, can change how the day unfolds.

“Anything can happen overnight,” says Javier de León, whose Rio Grande Valley park is a birding hot spot. “If somebody found a rare bird the night before, we have to try to get visitors and staff informed.”

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 Earl Nottingham | TPWD

WHAT I LOVE BEST ABOUT MY PARK

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Mother Neff gave birth to our state park system. You have to see our iconic rock tower. Near that, we have a beautiful cabin that once was the caretaker’s home, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (you can rent it). We have a new headquarters and new camping loop.

— Melissa Chadwick, Mother Neff

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Company’s coming

All kinds of folks visit Texas state parks, including vacationers from across the state, country and even the world. Parks closer to big cities can attract nearby residents. Remote parks are frequented by those looking for an isolated escape.

You don’t just happen to pass by Caprock Canyons.

“Oh, look, there’s a state park over here; let’s go check it out!” Donald Beard says, laughing. “Caprock Canyons is a destination. It’s an hour drive from the nearest main highway to get to us. The visitors we see are generally more interested in the history of the park and the natural resources.”

Most of Mother Neff State Park’s visitors come on day trips from nearby towns, Melissa Chadwick says, but they also see a lot of people who are just passing through.

“We’re not too far off the interstate, so we get a lot of winter Texans who come through and stay with us as they head down to the Valley,” she says. “We see a lot of people coming out from Dallas-Fort Worth or from Austin, and even some from Houston, just to get a little break from the city.”

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 Chase Fountain | TPWD

WHAT I LOVE BEST ABOUT MY PARK

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National Geographic called the iconic drive along FM 170 one of the most scenic drives in the state. The Fresno West Rim Hike is our premier park trail, a 5-mile round-trip with an amazing view of El Solitario and the Flatirons of Big Bend Ranch.

— Nathanael Gold, Big Bend Ranch

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The types of visitors Big Bend Ranch welcomes are most often the ones who were in mind when the park was created, Gold says.

“Most of Texas doesn’t have this vast, rugged wilderness,” Gold says. “When this park was developed, that’s what the people of Texas said they wanted, a place to experience solitude and adventure. We get the backpackers, bike-packers and over-landers with their jeeps — people looking to get out in the backcountry to reconnect with the natural world and recharge their batteries.”

Franklin Mountains State Park lies within El Paso, which borders not only another state but also another country.

“We have a lot of local mountain bikers, hikers and paragliders who come to the trails on a regular basis,” Cesar Mendez says. “We also have visitors from all over the world. When they fly into El Paso, the park is one of the top five destinations they’ll visit.”

Melissa_Chadwick _28I8331

 Earl Nottingham | TPWD

WHAT I LOVE BEST ABOUT MY PARK

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Besides the bison, folks love the hoodoos and box canyons, some of which aren’t documented, so you’ll be surprised by your discoveries. There’s a thousand-foot elevation drop in the park from the top of the Llano Estacado to the bottom of the river.

— Donald Beard, Caprock Canyons

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Jumping Hurdles

Parks not only attract a variety of people, they also present an array of challenges.

“The biggest challenge we face is recruitment and retention,” Gold says of his staff. “Because Big Bend is so rugged and remote, it can be a difficult place to live and work. We’re 100 miles from a movie theater or a doctor’s office and three hours from a Walmart. TPWD is looking at creative ways (like park housing and other improvements) to make life a little bit more comfortable.”

A huge park in an urban setting, Franklin Mountains has its own complex issues.

“We have a lot of trespassing and vandalism,” Mendez says. “Managing illegal access is pretty challenging. There’s a lot of natural resource destruction when people start making trails all over the place. Luckily, we have a lot of support from volunteers and community partners.”

Since Caprock Canyons is home to the Texas State Bison Herd, animal husbandry is an added responsibility.

“Working through the processes of getting them out closer to the public has been a really big challenge,” says Beard. “The staff does a fantastic job taking care of the animals and taking care of the people, but it’s certainly been a challenge with all of the hurdles we’ve had to face.”

Melissa_Chadwick _28I8331

 Chase Fountain | TPWD

WHAT I LOVE BEST ABOUT MY PARK

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Though I’ve seen it thousands of times, I never get tired of seeing the bats. It’s not just about the bats, though. We have a shady nature trail and golden-cheeked warblers. The tunnel itself is a part of history.

— Nyta Brown, Old Tunnel

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Sweater weather or sweatier weather

Whether it be flooding, snow or extreme heat, weather can play a big role in how parks are managed.

At Mother Neff, flooding is a concern, Chadwick says. The flood of 2016 was most memorable.

“We lost access to our park police officer’s residence, and I almost lost access to my residence,” Chadwick recalls. “We faced a highway closure on top of all that. The biggest challenge was quickly contacting our visitors to make sure they could drive to the park and avoid long detours.”

During the summer, staff at Big Bend Ranch actually try to discourage folks from utilizing the park because it’s so hot, Gold says.

“It’s 115 degrees in the shade, but there’s little shade because we don’t have trees,” Gold points out. “When you’re in the direct sun here, you’re feeling 135 degrees with the sun just beating on you. We tell our visitors that the ‘humid heat and dry heat’ thing is a myth. Whenever you’re dealing with temperatures like that, you’re just a sponge that’s drying out as quickly as possible.”

Those extreme temperatures don’t happen only at Big Bend Ranch. Despite being a place where it snows in winter, Caprock Canyons can experience summer temperatures of 115-120 degrees in the bottom of the canyons, Beard says.

“Summertimes are pretty brutal; we have to make sure that visitors are prepared and carry plenty of water,” Beard says. “The flip-side of that is the wintertime, where it can get down to single digits. We can have a complete whiteout with blowing snow, and a foot of it drops on this place. Sometimes it’s so bad that it shuts down the highway for a few days. It’s definitely a varied environment — you’ve got to be on your toes.”

Melissa_Chadwick _28I8331

 Cat Groth

WHAT I LOVE BEST ABOUT MY PARK

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People from all over the country know how special the Rio Grande Valley is for birds and plants and butterflies, but a lot of the residents are unaware. People like to go to Alligator Lake just to see what the alligators are doing. A couple of very camouflaged common pauraque birds are the “Where’s Waldo?” of birding here.

— Javier de León, Estero Llano Grande

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At the end of the day

All the park superintendents find their jobs truly rewarding, despite the obstacles.

Brown truly loves the bats and educating the public. When she started at Old Tunnel, the site was a wildlife management area, and she wanted education to be a bigger part of the purpose there.

“I put together a plan to meet the teaching requirements so that I could get into schools and give interpretive programs,” Brown says. “It’s rewarding to help change people’s mind about the importance of bats to the environment. I think it makes a difference. It makes me happy to see kids take an interest not just in bats, but in wildlife and nature itself.”

De León also loves doing educational programs down in the Valley.

“There are a lot of times where you can see everyone, from kids to adults, fully taking in the natural world around them,” de León says. “I remember one student during a field trip looking through a telescope, amazed at a lizard he was seeing. He yelled, ‘This is HD! This is better than HD!’” Pure joy.

Melissa_Chadwick _28I8331

 Earl Nottingham | TPWD

WHAT I LOVE BEST ABOUT MY PARK

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People like to hike to Guadalupe Peak (in the national park), but that’s not for every ability. We have many less strenuous trails that lead to an extraordinary panoramic view. Our park has some popular springs, too, showing a different desert microenvironment.

— Cesar Mendez, Franklin Mountains

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Those experiences can be life-changing, de León knows. A superintendent has a conversation with a college student at an outreach event, and one day learns that student has become an assistant superintendent at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.

“It always goes back to delivering service,” Mendez says. “That can happen at the front desk talking to visitors — answering their questions and easing their fears because they are about to explore the outdoors and sometimes they just don’t know what to expect — or when you deliver a program. For me, it’s about seeing the smiles on their faces, knowing that they got something really positive from their experience. It’s about making people happy.”

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