Q&A: Rodney Franklin
Rodney Franklin became director of Texas State Parks in 2018. He started his parks career as a seasonal employee at the Sam Bell Maxey House State Historic Site and later worked at Lake Bob Sandlin State Park and Cooper Lake State Park before moving into the upper levels of park leadership. He sat down with us to discuss the future of state parks.
Which Texans are in most need of state parks?
All Texans need state parks, no matter their background or their experience in nature. It’s very clear that getting outside and getting in nature is good for our well-being. There are health benefits that are good for the mental, physical and emotional sides of everyone.
If you look at national statistics, only a small percentage of people of color participate in the outdoors and in state parks. We need to focus on raising awareness in all communities across Texas. We’re making strides, not just for people of color or those folks who have traditionally not used parks, but also for people with mobility challenges. We are making state parks more accessible.
Another reason why everyone needs state parks is the economic boost they bring. Statistics show that communities with state parks thrive economically, with more business and more dollars flowing in. This is especially true in our small and rural communities.
What are we seeing at parks now that we didn’t see years ago?
When parks were designed in the past, they didn’t have accessibility in mind. Some things I’m really excited about are the advances we didn’t have years ago.
We’re improving many trails or offering rugged GRIT wheelchairs, so people with mobility challenges can enjoy the trails just like anybody else. At an accessible campsite, decomposed granite around the picnic table and an accessible fire ring will allow people in wheelchairs to share meals and make campfires.
One new thing you’ll see at Lost Maples is a viewfinder for the colorblind to see the fall colors.
Another one that’s exciting is making kayak launches accessible. At the new Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, we’re thinking about how people get their kayaks into the water, so there’s an accessible kayak launch.
There are a lot of people who love to camp as a larger group or family unit. So now there are some designs in the works so that family groups can be together as opposed to spread out across the campground.
Parks are being used by people who are more dependent on technology. In the past, people used to go to parks to get away from that, but now it’s become an essential part of our lives. Technology improvements to our reservation system allow visitors to see the campsites they are reserving and view parks with current weekend availability.
We can integrate that technology to help provide better educational programs while people are at the park. You could do a self-guided hike — if you have Wi-Fi for information on a plant species or other things you’re seeing on the trail — and explore at your own pace.
What do you want people to know about the new state parks?
What makes Texas unique is the same thing that makes our state parks unique — the diversity of the landscape. You’ll see that reflected in the new parks coming online.
That Wild West experience at Chinatis is going to be vastly different than the experience at Palo Pinto Mountains. Palo Pinto’s lush trees and river/lake recreation are a different experience than at Powderhorn, looking out across the bay or the Gulf. That’s going to be a different experience than at Albert and Bessie Kronkosky in the Texas Hill Country.
So, no matter your interests or your ability, there’s a park in Texas for you. There’s something at state parks for everyone.
How do state parks serve the public today and into the future?
Some of that doesn’t change. We want to provide top-notch quality customer service as we always have. We need to make sure we’re listening to our constituents and our partners to continue to make parks better.
One thing that will be constant is our need to provide a welcoming and inclusive environment for all Texans, no matter their ability, their background or what they look like. More and more people coming and discovering state parks — we want to be ready to welcome them and show them Texas hospitality moving into the future.
What lies ahead for existing state parks?
I think what lies ahead is continued growth in interest in getting outdoors. I think what lies ahead is us providing the same quality service and safe access to the outdoors just like we did when Gov. Pat Neff envisioned this place where people could go and recreate outdoors. That’s the core of our mission.
With the dedicated sporting goods sales tax, the way we provide and enhance that outdoor visitor experience for people is going to be better than it’s ever been before. We’re going to grow, evolve and be better for the people of Texas.
Describe a dream visit to a state park in 2033, a decade from now.
Whoever visits 10 years from now, I want Texas State Parks to offer the experience that is perfect and best suited for them.
My experience (or dream visit) at a state park isn’t going to be what motivates somebody else, right? For me, the dream visit is custom to whatever that person is envisioning, because our visitors are diverse. Some love big crowds and staying in cabins; some want to get out on the trail and not to run into another person or use their mobile device. Some will not even come if they can’t use their mobile device.
I know we can’t be everything to everyone. If you have an idea about what your experience needs to be, I want to be able to point you to something in a state park that can fulfill that experience.
What is your hope for the future of state parks?
Our 100-year anniversary provides us a great opportunity to set the stage for the next 100 years of state parks. We have a responsibility to protect and grow our park system for the next generation of Texans. We’ve got these incredible parks in the pipeline right now, six over the next 12 years. I hope the next 100 years brings more parks like these so that we can better serve the growing population of Texas.
Chase Fountain | TPWD
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