After drought, wildfires and budget cuts devastated the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department last year, parks officials say things are looking up this summer. But the agency's funding woes are far from over.
TPWD has raised about $1.7 million through a fundraising campaign launched in December to help close a $4.6 million budget gap, but about $3 million is still needed.
In the short term, TPWD has delayed hiring and some park maintenance to cut spending. It also has decided to relinquish control of Lake Texana State Park in Edna, which it has leased from the Lavaca-Navidad River Authority for the past 30 years. The Lavaca-Navidad River Authority will become responsible for operation of the park in September. TPWD estimates that the termination of the lease could save about $300,000 annually.
Brent Leisure, director of state parks, said TPWD could have to give up control of more parks if the Legislature funds it at the same level or less next year.
Leisure said funding should be maintained for the state's parks because they have a positive influence, not only because they encourage outdoor activity and can benefit people's health but because they can also help local economies by providing jobs and bringing in tourist dollars. For example, when TPWD lets go of Lake Texana in September, some jobs will be eliminated.
The positive influences "are enormous, and we think completely justified for good funding,” Leisure said. “We've deferred a lot of maintenance, and we could put funding to good use for stewardship with the sites that we have.”
TPWD grant programs are also still feeling the effects of budget cuts.
In the past, the Legislature had appropriated funds for TPWD to grant to local communities across the state to maintain their parks, but those funds, about $15 million, were nixed in the 2011 session. TPWD must instead rely on federal funds to invest in these communities. The agency was granted $1.1 million in federal funding this year to give to cities, counties, river authorities and other special districts that are creating or renovating their own parks. But only a small fraction of applicants will receive grants. TPWD has suspended five of its nine grant programs, including those that specifically target small communities and indoor recreation centers.
"There is a really high need for park development and park acquisition," said Dana Lagarde, TPWD’s local parks grants manager. "There are so many reasons why this program is important. Texas is one of the top states for growth, and our park lands are not keeping up with our population."
Leisure emphasized that asking for donations and transferring operation of state parks are not sustainable ways to ensure adequate funding at TPWD.
“We know that's not going to be a strategy that will be effective year after year, so the best way people can support parks is to use them,” Leisure said.
Janice Bezanson, executive director of the Texas Conservation Alliance, also emphasized supporting parks through visitation, especially encouraging young people to attend, and she added that volunteering can be a great help during the agency's time of need.
“The state parks system is very important for connecting people to their heritage and history,” Bezanson said. “So often today our young people are doing indoor things in front of computer screens, and getting them outdoors is a way to make them healthier and more connected with their past.”
Luckily for TPWD, people have been visiting the park at higher rates than last summer. The last few months have been especially good for bringing in much-needed revenue.
Leisure attributes the increase in park attendance to better weather, more rain and lifted burn bans.
“Spring and summer are our busiest seasons. School is out so that adds to it, and vacations are taking place,” Leisure said. “When you look at the last quarter of our fiscal year compared to where we were last year, we've seen increases in visitation and revenue in both May and June. We've seen a great recovery.”
He said the focus of fundraising efforts has shifted since last winter, from seeking direct donations to encouraging park use. Fifty-five percent of TPWD’s operating budget, or about $38 million, come from park use fees.
Despite losing a park and not being able to fund as many local projects as in years past, Leisure said he is grateful for the donations that have come in.
"Texans has stepped forward in such a big way, and we're happy about that," Leisure said. "They've helped us raise $1.7 million. We know that's not sustainable, but it will get us though in a pinch."