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Carter Smith: The TT Interview

The executive director of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department discusses the acquisition of a large piece of remote and rugged land along the Devils River; next steps for the bighorn sheep released in Big Bend Ranch State Park; the threats posed by invasive species like the giant salvinia, an exotic, rootless fern, and zebra mussels — and what the state's budget shortfall might mean for his agency and for the state's lands, waters, fish, wildlife and parks.

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Carter Smith, a seventh-generation Texan and lifelong outdoorsman, began his career in 1992 as an intern with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Sixteen years later, he became the agency's executive director. Since then, he's dealt with a wide variety of issues, from hurricanes to nuisance wild burros in the Big Bend area. Before taking the post, he worked at the Nature Conservancy, where he became director of the Texas office.

Smith spoke to The Texas Tribune over the phone about the recent Devils River land acquisition, bighorn sheep, the threats posed by invasive species — and what the state's budget shortfall might mean for his agency. This interview has been edited and condensed.

TT: Let's talk first about the $13 million acquisition of land along the Devils River, near Del Rio, for the park system in December. What was your role in that, and what does it take to get land acquired for the park system these days? 

Smith: Well, this is really a very special and extraordinary accomplishment for the state's public lands. We've had a longstanding interest in the Devils River since the state's acquisition of the original state natural area back in the mid-1980s. The river is unquestionably one of the most pristine and unique in all of Texas, if not North America. So certainly first and foremost, our goal is to keep it that way. But we were presented with this opportunity to potentially acquire an 18,000-acre addition to our holdings on the Devils River, and it was just too good to pass up.

TT: Are there any next steps for the Devils River?

Smith: Yeah, absolutely. When we went back to our commission in November with a revised plan for the river as a whole, we laid out four major actions that we wanted to take on the Devils River. One, obviously, was to try and raise the requisite private funds to acquire the Devils River Ranch to add as a unit to the existing state natural area. Ultimately, through the spirit of generosity of [nine] Texans, we were able to raise over $10 million to support the purchase and operations of the tract. Now, we are going to be going through what will be likely a two- to two-and-a-half-year public use and master plan for the site to help define how we want to steward this acreage.

We're also going to be convening a Devils River recreational working group. This will be an advisory body comprised of private landowners who own property along the river, recreational paddlers, conservation organizations and other stakeholders to help provide the department with ideas and solutions for how we can both better steward the river and its unique ecological resources, but also improve the compatible recreational use of those waters. And so the chairman of our commission, chair Peter Holt, has appointed this advisory body and charged them with making recommendations to the department about [this].

A third key element of our plan is increasing our law enforcement along river. We have eight game wardens posted that are posted in Val Verde County, so our law enforcement team there has put together a plan and has begun executing it on how we're going to increase our visibility and presence along river, to address long-standing and long-simmering issues associated with trespass, and littering, and poaching and other illegal activities. And also, to be fair, there will be an important water-safety-related component of that as well as education and outreach. We want paddlers who embark on a journey down that river to fully understand what they're getting into, given the remoteness and ruggedness of the river along its entire course.

And last but not least is to improve upon both stewardship and the recreational opportunity we offer at the existing Devils River state natural area. That's a 20,000-acre state natural area that we have stewarded since the mid-1980s. For instance, right now we have only seven campsites that are available to visitors to the natural area, and we think there's an opportunity to expand on that. We currently do not have any potable water on site that's available, and that's an area we want to be able to look into and improve. Much of the state natural area is very difficult to access, so we want to look for ways to provide additional hiking opportunities and trails. 

TT: What are the next steps for the bighorn sheep after their release in Big Bend Ranch State Park just recently? 

Smith: Well, we're certainly celebrating that conservation success stories — one of great conservation milestones of all time. The recovery of bighorn sheep in the Sky Islands [in the Southwest] and mountains of West Texas is nothing short of extraordinary. This plan has been 10 years in the making to introduce bighorn sheep to the mountains of Big Bend Ranch State Park. We have introduced the first 46 some-odd sheep to those mountains. We have radio transmitters on [many of] those sheep, and so working with scientists from Sul Ross State University Borderlands Research Institute, we're going to be monitoring their survivorship, their habitat utilization, and their movements throughout their new home range. So we're going to learn a lot about how those bighorn sheep get acclimated to their new surroundings, and that information will in turn help inform subsequent releases and introductions of bighorn sheep not only at Big Bend Ranch but in other mountain ranges throughout West Texas.

TT: Do you have any particular concerns that you're watching right now with regard to invasive species around the park system and the lands?

Smith: Well, the proliferation of invasive and exotic species is unquestionably one of the defining natural resource issues that we confront. We've seen just an explosion of invasive species in both terrestrial and aquatic communities around the state. So we are trying to combat the spread of invasive and exotic species through any means available to us. One of interesting efforts we've launched in the past year has been a boater and angler outreach campaign that we started last spring. And it's really designed to inform boaters and anglers and other lake users about how invasive and exotic plants can be spread by boats and trailers from one water body to another. [For example], the giant salvinia, which is an exotic, rootless fern which establishes these dense, impenetrable [mats] on the surface of lakes, affects water quality, displaces native species and precludes recreational users from enjoying the state's waters, is easily transported on boats and trailers as individuals move from one water body to the next. And it comes with great risk and cost. So we've been very concerned about exotic aquatic species ... like giant salvinia and hydrilla and [water] hyacinth. Similarly, we're concerned about the establishment of zebra mussels in Lake Texoma two years ago and are certainly very preoccupied with their potential spread throughout state.

We're also concerned about proliferation of exotic plants on Texas range lands. They cause similar problems with terrestrial communities in terms of crowding out native species, and they adversely impact wildlife habitat.

TT: What issues are you watching for the upcoming legislative session? What are your priorities there?

Smith: Well, certainly the state of the budget is on everybody's mind. That's front and center for everybody associated with state government. We recognize that we're all going to have less resources to carry out our mission and functions. And so we're having to think a lot and plan for how we re-prioritize, and how we reallocate and realign our work and our core mission to comport with whatever resources we are ultimately appropriated by the state Legislature. ...

We're also keenly interested in several other important matters that are likely to arise in the session. For instance, there is a freshwater fish stamp that anglers voluntarily purchase. It costs $5, and proceeds from that stamp go to sustain and manage our state's freshwater fish hatcheries. And those hatcheries play a critically important role in stocking the state's lakes and reservoirs with fish for anglers and communities to enjoy. That stamp is set to expire in next couple of years, and we are keenly interested in seeing that stamp reauthorized so we can continue to have that funding stream to support our state's fish hatcheries.

In the last couple of sessions, the Legislature has been very supportive of our efforts to invest in repairs and maintenance of our state parks. ... And so we're obviously very hopeful that there will continue to be ways to continue to invest in needed repairs and maintenance of our state park system.

TT: On the budget, Texas Parks & Wildlife has a reputation as one of the first places the Legislature goes to cut. And this session, with the deficit, it's going to be pretty severe, even for maybe more immediate-seeming things like health care and schools. What are the consequences specifically that you're preparing for potentially with those cuts?

Smith: Well, first, that may be a perception that's out there, but to be fair, the Legislature has supported the department's priorities very strongly in the last couple of sessions. I think it's important to the general public to recognize depth and breadth of support we have received, not only for our state park system, but also for our fisheries and wildlife and law enforcement programs. I think, like every agency, we are fully expecting and prepared that we're going to have less resources to carry out our mission. And so we are thinking and planning about our core mission and our programs that support that. And as a function of that, we're going to have to do our business differently. We're always going to have the core responsibility of stewarding our state's lands and waters and fish and wildlife and parks. But at a time in which fewer resources are available, we're just going to have to be planning and thinking more strategically about how we align those resources to advance those goals.

TT: Any specific thoughts along those lines?

Smith: I think it's premature right now to speculate as to what those may be. A lot of it will just ultimately depend on what resources are ultimately made available.

TT: Do you think, more broadly speaking, that the system deals well with long-term issues like water and land, given the relatively short-term nature of political cycles?

Smith: Well, one thing that I think is really important to remember is depth of support for land and water conservation in Texas. Every single attitudinal survey that is carried out in the state demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that there is a preponderance of support for conserving the states and waters and fish and wildlife and parks. And that's true in urban areas. It's true in rural areas. It's a bipartisan issue that spans the isle. It's true of individuals, whether they're Hispanic or white or African-American, whether they are affluent or less affluent. It's in many ways I think a core value for Texans. The nature of the state budgeting system is what it is. It operates on a two-year cycle, and that can certainly present some challenges for thinking about long-term support of our state's natural resources. But again, it's important to remember that the support for state's conservation of our land and waters is very much an intergenerational one that has existed for a long time, and I think will continue to persist for a long time to come.

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