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On the centennial, Texas state parks are poised for a “new golden age”

The San Solomon Springs Courts at Balmorhea State Park are among countless structures and other facilities in Texas state parks that were built by workers with the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. Federal investment has been central to the acquisition and development of Texas state parks, but after a decades-long effort among Texans, the state-park system is poised for a funding influx that promises a “new golden age.”
Texas Parks & Wildlife Department
The San Solomon Springs Courts at Balmorhea State Park are among countless structures and other facilities in Texas state parks that were built by workers with the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. Federal investment has been central to the acquisition and development of Texas state parks, but after a decades-long effort among Texans, the state-park system is poised for a funding influx that promises a “new golden age.”

It's been called “the start of a new golden age.” In May, the Texas legislature approved the Centennial Parks Conservation Fund, which allocates a billion dollars to buy new state parklands. It goes to voters in November, and would be transformative for Texas, which ranks 35th in per-capita parkland.

The fund would be a new beginning — and a culmination. Funding has been an uphill fight since the state parks began a century ago. George Bristol chronicles that fight in Texas State Parks: The First 100 Years, from TCU Press. He's been in the fight himself.

Bristol was a campaign consultant for decades, for Democratic candidates from Hubert Humphrey to Jimmy Carter. He's also a lifelong parks lover who served on the National Park Foundation board. When he retired home to Texas in 2000, he hoped to support parks here. So he met with then-Parks & Wildlife Executive Director Andy Sansom.

“And I asked what I could do,” Bristol said, “and he wrote on a little sheet of paper, and it said 'Money.' 'We need money,' he said. 'The parks are vastly underfunded.'”

Sansom's predicament wasn't new. When the legislature created the state parks board in 1923, it provided no funds for acquisitions or improvements. In part, it reflected an ambivalence to public land in a private-property state.

Another thing about which Texans are historically ambivalent is the federal government. But federal investment has been key for state parks.

“It really took the Depression and the [Civilian Conservation Corps],” Bristol said. “Everybody — every mayor, every county commissioner, every businessperson — wanted a state park in their area, and they got 63 of them.”

In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps put unemployed men to work in parks statewide. The results endure in West Texas, from Balmorhea's San Solomon Springs Courts and Indian Lodge in the Davis Mountains, to facilities at Palo Duro and Big Spring state parks. The CCC also provided matching funds to acquire land, including a third of our current state parks.

Another wave of federal-state partnership began in the 60s, when a Texan was in the White House. President Lyndon Johnson created the Land and Water Conservation Fund, with matching funds for state parks. Johnson's former protege, Gov. John Connally, secured a $75-million state bond. Combined, those funds drove numerous acquisitions, including Big Bend Ranch, which accounts for nearly half of all state-park acreage.

In 1993, legislators instituted the Sporting Goods Sales Tax. Tax revenues from sporting-goods sales would be dedicated to parks, promising reliable funding. But two years later, lawmakers capped the allocation at $32 million, diverting the rest of the revenue to other projects.

What followed, Bristol said, was a “dark decade.” Parks fell into disrepair. Potential closures loomed.

Bristol created the Texas Coalition for Conservation to change that. The group lobbied lawmakers. They commissioned studies on economic impacts, and opinion polls. Year after year, polls showed three-quarters of Texans strongly supported state parks. The results surprised the pollster, Bristol said.

“He said he had never seen anything like that,” he said, “where the numbers were so constant, and it didn't change whether it was a recession or a boom period, or Republicans were in office or Democrats were in office.”

The coalition's advocacy had an impact, and in 2007, legislators lifted the cap. But there was still no reliable allocation.

For a durable solution, Bristol and others pushed for a constitutional amendment, to ensure all sporting-goods tax revenue went to parks. In 2019, it went to voters – who approved it with 88 percent support.

Parks now have reliable funding. And the prospect of a billion-dollar fund has outdoors lovers dreaming big. On the centennial, Texas state parks are poised for a renaissance.