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Privatizing Texas Public Parks -
Public Land, Private Profit

Texas's traditionally rustic state park system may soon be sold to the highest bidder.(1)   This week PEER examines the dramatic changes proposed by Governor George Bush's administration to the Texas state park system. Under the pretense that state park visitors demand more comfortable overnight accommodations, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has begun opening-up state parks to private businesses and corporations from the hospitality industry.

(This is a list of state parks currently being considered for privatization.)

Cutting State Park Funding

An exploding, outdoor-oriented urban population overwhelms the Texas park system. At the same time, the park system is being crippled by lack of legislative support, which results in insufficient funding, decaying facilities, inadequate staffing, and mismanagement.

The current funding level from taxes for the Texas' park system is now capped at $15.5 million, all derived from a sporting goods tax.(2)   This represents a $2.1 million decrease from the previous cigarette tax based parks supports program that peaked at $18.4 million in 1983. This places Texas near the bottom in rankings of states by level of state park expenditures.

Governor Bush has contributed to this situation by blocking efforts to lift the cap on the state sporting goods tax. The result has been the disabling of new parks acquisitions, and a staggering backlog of $186 million dollars in unfunded maintenance chores.(3)   This cut in state park funding occurred despite the fact that Parks and Wildlife's annual operating budget increased $1.2 million, mostly through addition of funds for wildlife habitat improvement on private property. Even with an emergency action by the state legislature that provided $60 million in bonds,(4) parks funding is insufficient to undertake long overdue safety and sanitation improvements, much less enlarge the system with new property acquisitions.

Public Parks - Private Profits

Texas parks have had a long commitment to fostering public awareness of the outdoors without excessive dependence on modern conveniences. In 1999, Parks and Wildlife quietly solicited proposals from potential investors and resort development firms. Parks and Wildlife's Request for Proposals gives top priority to park development schemes with a potential for "revenue generation to both benefit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the program operator".(5)

Putting private resorts on state lands is not a novel idea for Texas Parks and Wildlife. One proposal in the 1960's was approved in a closed-door session by the Parks and Wildlife commissioners attempted to transform Meridian State Park into a members-only country club. Only litigation by the National Audubon Society and NAACP successfully blocked this project on grounds that it would destroy Golden-cheeked Warbler habitat and constitute de facto segregation.

More recently, Parks and Wildlife used $500,000 in federal park improvement funds to expand a golfing facility at Bastrop State Park while destroying habitat used by the critically endangered Houston Toad.

PEER Uncovers The Plan

Texas PEER inadvertently exposed the parkland privatization plan when it documented the use of federal-state endangered species funds to subsidize private development of an eco-tourism business on private property next to Davis Mountain State Park.

A news story in the Davis County Mountain Dispatch disclosed that an anonymous group of investors planned to develop a private resort on land next to the Davis Mountain State Park, with prices for overnight accommodations anticipated in the $200 range. The article also outlined preparations for investors to finance and develop expansion of the Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park.

Both projects have the potential to increase levels of disturbance to the local blackhawks and other wildlife, while also competing directly with local small businesses --- hotels, restaurants, nature tour groups, outfitters, etc. - for tourist business. Although this is not an entirely new concept on Texas public lands, the proposed scale of development is unprecedented in Texas and, if approved, would drastically and permanently transform many parks and wildlife management areas.

Oddly enough, this last group of investors is Nature Lodges, L.C., Presidian, L.C., and Fermata, Inc, the very firms that were hired by Parks and Wildlife to conduct state-wide feasibility study on park privatization.

This scenario is reminiscent of the United States Fish and Wildlife Services efforts in collaboration with The Conservation Lodge Foundation and The Nature Conservancy of Texas to put a privately owned and operated hotel swimming pool complex on Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge.(6)

Frontline Employees Oppose Plan

Primary justifications for the privatization project include a perception that park visitors seek " . . . more comfortable accommodations". This information was gathered through informal surveys of state park superintendents conducted during the Presidian/Fermata study. Another disclosure was the discontent among park managers who felt "slighted" when Parks and Wildlife reneged on plans to return revenues generated by successful park projects back into sponsoring parks.

This impression is confirmed by a recent survey of 361 state parks employees. Only 26% reported that felt they could trust management.(7)   Also six of the seven Wildlife Management Area managers expressed opposition to the nature lodge concept. They expressed views this program would shift them too far from their primary mission of wildlife conservation and research. In fact, one Wildlife Management Area manager stated that it would not be appropriate to have a lodge at their site because they "cared deeply about the areas natural resources".

Open Season In Texas Public Parks

Other controversial programs include closing state parks to allow deer hunting and privatizing White-tailed Deer breeding which allowed landowners to to produce large antlered bucks for for-profit trophy-hunts.(8)   Read a detailed account of this program by Nate Blakeslee, The Texas Observer titled "Misadventures with the New Texas Naturalists".

During the 1999-2000 hunting season, revenue-starved state parks closed down 318 total days to accommodate the minority of Texans licensed to hunt. Parks and Wildlife's apology for these closures states simply that these hunts occur weekdays when the general public rarely uses the parks. Pedernales Falls State Park, one of the sites considered for resort development, closed 37 days during the holidays in December and January of 1999-2000.(9)

The Bush Philosophy

While responsible stewardship of state parkland should mandate tighter controls on public access coupled with expansion of endangered species habitat to reduce overcrowding and destructive overuse, Texas moves in the opposite direction.

In a state in which only 3% of the land is preserved for public use, the 1994 Texas Republican Party platform objects to "the vast acquisition of Texas lands by conservation groups and government agencies".(10)   This is consistent with Governor Bush's and the Texas Republican Party's strong links to state property rights organizations(11) such as Take Back Texas.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas summed it up very well in his classic Farewell to Texas. He said of the modern Ahabs of Texas "They see a tree and think in terms of board feet. They see a cliff and think in terms of gravel. They see a river and think in terms of dams. . . They see a mountain and think in terms of minerals, roads, and excavations. They think of parks in terms of private enterprise-money making schemes-not nature trails, but amusement centers."

Sources:

  1. "Major changes not far away for Fort Davis and Big Bend". Davis County Mountain Dispatch. Oct. 14, 1999.
  2. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Press Release. March 8, 1999. TPW Requesting Additional $35 Million for Critical Needs.
  3. Richard Heath, "Texas parks doing more with less, but need more," Houston Chronicle, 9 November 1998; and William McKenzie, "Texas should recognize value of parks," Dallas Morning News, 6 April 1999.
  4. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, 1998, 1999, 2000 Infrastructure Report and Facility Repair Budgets.
  5. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Economic and Environmental Feasibility Study: Request for Proposals. Chief Operating Officer, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, 4200 Smith School Road 78744. For more information contact Bob Cook at 512-389-4976.
  6. Royder, Scott. USFWS Officials Ramrodding Effort to Build Hotel Concession on Matgagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge. Lone Star Sierran. Winter 1996.
  7. Parks and Wildlife Department Survey Summary Sheet, 1999 Survey of Organizational Excellence, The University of Texas at Austin.
  8. Blakeslee, N. "Misadventures with the New Texas Naturalists", Texas Observer, August 14, 1998.
  9. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. TPW News. Park Visitation Access Restricted During Special Hunts, Sept. 13, 1999.
  10. Texas Republican Party. "1994 State Republican Party Platform" pp. 5-6.
  11. 1998 Texas Republican Party Platform.


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