Texas Parks & Wildlife Agency Faces Big Cuts

The bird’s eye-view from Scenic Mountain draws many visitors to Big Spring State Park in West Texas.
The bird’s eye-view from Scenic Mountain draws many visitors to Big Spring State Park in West Texas.

State parks. Hunter education. Even a magazine targeted at outdoorsmen. Each is likely to feel the effect of a looming 21 to 25 percent budget cut for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

The most obvious of the reductions, which could amount to as much as $162 million over the biennium, will cut into the operations of state parks. Both the initial House and Senate budget proposals call for the agency to cease operating seven state parks scattered across the state — from Lockhart State Park to Big Spring State Park in Howard County to the Wyler Aerial Tramway in El Paso. The moves would yield $2.7 million in savings, with potentially 60 full-time positions cut.

Parks & Wildlife has hoped to transfer the parks to local jurisdictions, which could keep them open. But "most of those local communities have indicated that they would be unable to operate those parks," said Gene McCarty, the agency's deputy executive director for administration. He noted that it's still possible that the seven parks may not be forced to close, because the budget cuts could be distributed across other parks, for example, by cutting hours or instituting temporary closures elsewhere. No park pays for itself with user fees, he said, although Blanco State Park and Lake Casa Blanca International State Park near Laredo — both on the list of seven parks that the state wants to stop administering — come fairly close. Closing a park comes with a care-taking costs, the department notes, so such a move is not a panacea.

The cuts will be painful for a park system that was "only just beginning to recover from having been underfunded for a long period of time," said Janice Bezanson, executive director of the Texas Conservation Alliance, who noted that there would also, clearly, be no funds to buy new parklands to be available for the state's growing population. Plans for a new park in the Fort Worth area probably will be shelved, at least for now. McCarty said the cuts are unlikely to affect the Devil's River parkland acquired with the help of private funding late last year, because operations for the first few years are already funded. 

Other areas will feel the axe as well. Fewer courses in hunter education — a requirement for all new hunters born in or after September 1971 — may be available, McCarty said, and less state parkland is likely to be available for hunting. The state leases some private land for hunting — so with less money there will be less land to lease; Parks & Wildlife estimated in February that some 961,000 acres could be taken out of leasing or related programs.

Kirby Brown, vice president of the Texas Wildlife Association, a landowner and hunter group, expressed concern that hunter education could be shut down altogether. "You really can't shut down your hunter education" for six months, he said, because it would drastically affect new hunter recruitment. But McCarty said that was unlikely to happen, because the Legislature has seemed amenable to giving the department the flexibility to spread cuts over the fiscal 2012-13 biennium. (Original proposals from the Legislative Budget Board were front-loaded to create an especially deep impact in the first six months.)

Parks & Wildlife is also bracing for impacts to a range of other areas — partly as a result of anticipated layoffs of a few hundred employees. In a recent memo, the agency warned of a "significant reduction" in its ability to contain invasive aquatic species, which may move from reservoir to reservoir on boat bottoms and choke out other species (aquatic vegetative management programs in the Houston and Corpus Christi areas could be eliminated altogether). Even the agency's environmental reviews for controversial projects like the state's $5 billion wind-power transmission lines, or new roads built by the department of transportation, could see 30 percent reductions, and its ability to respond to oil spills would also be impaired.

Even the Parks & Wildlife magazine, which has a circulation of more than 150,000, will likely see a reduction, McCarty said. It raises two-thirds of its production money; nonetheless, the number of pages or the number of issues will get cut, he said.

It is still months before the legislative budgeting process is likely to play out. Both House and Senate bills are still being worked on and must go before their respective chambers for a vote before being reconciled into a single bill that the governor can sign.

"If I had a message for the legislature," Bezanson of the Texas Conservation Alliance said, "it would be: I understand you've got a serious problem here, but try to minimize the damage."

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