The Future of Our Outdoors
Texas voters have a chance to approve a history-making
$1 billion measure for state parkland acquisition.
At a February event celebrating the 100th anniversary of Texas State Parks, Gov. Greg Abbott recalled the magic of visiting Caddo Lake State Park as a kid growing up in East Texas.
“When you go to Caddo Lake, you think, ‘The hand of God designed this — this is what a park should look like.’ It blew me away to see the Spanish moss and the bayou and all the different types of animals, fish and other things that are in that park. When you’re a kid, that’s like Disneyland, going to someplace like that.”
Abbott said he wants future generations of Texans to have the same opportunity he did — to go fishing, share a picnic with family and enjoy the grandeur and natural wonders of places like Caddo Lake, Palo Duro Canyon and Mustang Island.
Texas voters will have the historic opportunity this fall to approve a $1 billion endowment fund to create new parks across the state, the largest investment in parks in our state’s history. Using part of the state government surplus, the Texas Legislature approved the Centennial Parks Conservation Fund. Abbott signed it on Memorial Day, and it will go before voters as a constitutional amendment in November.
“Senate Bill 1648 seeks to establish the Centennial Parks Conservation Fund to provide stable, long-term funding for new park acquisition that will empower us to protect Texas’ unique natural and cultural treasures while making them accessible to our growing population,” said Sen. Tan Parker, sponsor of the legislation.
The measure passed both chambers with overwhelming bipartisan support.
“The fund would be an essential tool in ensuring Texans have access to public park lands for generations to come,” said state Rep. Armando Walle, a Houston Democrat. “This effort is a transformational effort, a Teddy Roosevelt kind of initiative.”
The funding measure comes at a noteworthy time as Texas State Parks not only celebrate the 100th anniversary of their founding, but also the 60th anniversary of their merger with the Texas Game and Fish Commission to form the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
In 1923, Gov. Pat Neff realized his vision of establishing a system of state parks when he persuaded the Legislature to create the State Parks Board.
“Camping places, recreation grounds and outing resorts — all breathing spots for humanity where the weak and weary and worn may be nursed in the lap of nature back to health and happiness — should be preserved wherever found, for the use not only of the present generation, but of all the generations yet unborn,” Neff said.
In 1963, Gov. John Connally signed into law the act consolidating the State Parks Board and the Game and Fish Commission and provided a significant boost to park funding. In 1967, he spearheaded a $75 million bond issue, which led to the acquisition of 63 parks in the 25 years
after the merger, including notable parks such as McKinney Falls, Sea Rim and Dinosaur Valley.
This year’s $1 billion measure “provides an opportunity for a new golden age of state park acquisition for the state of Texas,” said Luke Metzger of Environment Texas. “We think that would be a terrific birthday present for parks on their centennial.”
A report last year by Environment Texas said that Texas ranks 35th in the nation in state park acreage per capita, with 636,000 acres of parkland for more than 29 million people as of 2019. A 2001 report conducted by Texas Tech University in conjunction with TPWD stated that Texas needs to add 1.4 million acres of state parkland by 2030 to keep up with demand.
Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, with 4,871 acres west of Fort Worth, is scheduled to open later this year, the first new state park in 20 years.
In the meantime, the popularity of state parks is booming, with visitors vying to land coveted reservations at some of the most well-known locations. This has forced several sites, including Enchanted Rock, Garner, Balmorhea and Hueco Tanks, to limit visitation numbers to preserve park resources and maintain an enjoyable experience for visitors.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Americans found refuge in the outdoors, Texans flocked to state parks. Visitation increased 37 percent between 2020 and 2021, reaching 10 million a year.
Recent data shows that state parks are not only popular destinations, but are also dependable rural economic engines. Every $1 invested in a park results in $4 to $12 in economic return.
“This $1 billion fund for land acquisition is much needed,” said George Bristol, author of Texas State Parks: The First 100 Years. “Land is not getting cheaper. We need another million acres. We proved that during the pandemic when parks filled up and overflowed. There are more people in the state and more people coming to the state, and they are looking for recreation and places to go in state parks. The need is there. It’s an ambitious program, but it’s needed.”
In 2019, thanks partially to Bristol's lobbying, the Legislature allocated all state sales taxes derived from the sale of sporting goods to Texas parks, which increased funding by $150 million each year. Eighty-eight percent of Texas voters approved the constitutional amendment securing the tax. At this point, though, the money has gone mainly toward addressing a backlog of repairs and maintenance at parks.
Funding for new state parkland has not been widely available since the 1967 bonds ran their course through the 1970s and '80s. In 2021, the Legislature appropriated $7 million for land acquisition for the current two-year period, the first money given for land purchases in decades.
Addressing the need for more parkland and working with a $32 billion surplus in 2023, the Legislature designated $1 billion for state park acquisition.
“Our population and our next two decade’s growth will be concentrated in the Rio Grande Valley, El Paso and the ‘Texas triangle’ of Dallas-Houston-San Antonio. We will want to focus our park development efforts within an hour of those areas,” said TPWD Executive Director David Yoskowitz. “But we also want to recognize opportunities outside urban areas — unique places in West Texas, the Panhandle, the Pineywoods and along the coast."
Arch H. “Beaver” Aplin III, chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, explained that the $1 billion will remain intact while TPWD will be able to spend earnings from the fund, an amount that he estimates could reach $50 million a year.
“The Legislature has given us a gift of an unprecedented nest egg for us to grow state parks for our residents,” Aplin said. “This centennial billion-dollar fund is a game-changer. It sets the future for us to accomplish our dream of having the best park system in the nation.”
Aplin has his own youthful memories of state parks. Growing up in coastal Texas, he was enchanted by a visit to Garner State Park in the Texas Hill Country.
“Everything about Garner was like a different planet compared to where I grew up. I remember the Frio living up to its name, freezing cold. I had never seen water so pretty in my life. I remember swimming in it in the heat of the summer. And one of the best things I remember was the pavilion at Garner, the evening dances with the jukebox.”
With more than 95 percent of Texas lands in private ownership, state parks provide some of the only access to large open spaces for many residents. They serve a unique role by providing places to enjoy the natural world beyond that found in city park systems and more readily accessible than the national park system.
“Today, 30 million people call our state home, most in big cities like Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio,” Abbott said in remarks prepared for the magazine. “It’s easy to get lost in the modern activity of our grand cities, but it’s important to take a break in the majesty of Texas nature, and that’s exactly what our state parks provide. Whether it’s the beaches of Galveston Island, the early Texas history of Mission Tejas, the mystical beauty of Enchanted Rock, the blue water and scenic shores of Possum Kingdom or the majesty and wonder of Big Bend Ranch, our many state parks offer Texans and visitors an awe-inspiring look at our great state.”
In November, voters will have a chance to vote on the Centennial Parks Conservation Fund to secure future parkland in Texas.
“This is the future of the outdoors, the future of parks for Texas,” Aplin said.