Empire, Wide and Glorious
“As we celebrate one hundred years of our state parks, they are more popular than ever. But our booming population is overwhelming the state’s scarce public lands. What will the next century hold for Texas’s “best idea”?
Forty-six enamel pins adorn a canvas banner hanging on my bedroom wall. Collected over a decade of camping and hiking trips, each one evokes a small but powerful memory. When I look at the red leaf that represents Lost Maples State Natural Area, I can smell cinnamon buns baking in a Dutch oven nestled in campfire coals on a chilly Hill Country morning. A grinning skeleton in an inner tube takes me back to a lazy summer day floating the Frio River at Garner State Park, not far from Lost Maples. There’s a pin depicting Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, in Fredericksburg, where my flashlight beam caught a glimpse of a ringtail cat. The image of a shorebird reminds me of shrimping in the bay at Galveston Island State Park and netting only a couple piddly catches, which we fried up in butter, nonetheless. I can still taste them.
Reflecting on these moments reminds me how lucky I am to live in Texas, where a $70 annual park pass gives me access to such an abundance of natural wonders. In our 88 state parks and natural areas, you can play nine holes of golf (Lockhart, in Central Texas), admire rock art painted four thousand years ago (Seminole Canyon, in the state’s southwest corner), or pitch your tent on a floating campsite in a marsh off the Gulf of Mexico (Sea Rim, in far southeast Texas). You can canoe through eerie canopies of Spanish moss at Caddo Lake State Park, near the Louisiana border, or tackle some of the best bouldering on the planet at El Paso’s Hueco Tanks.
The breadth and beauty of our parks, which cover more than 640,000 acres across the state, are undeniable, and we’re enjoying them more than ever. The number of visitors surged by 37 percent from 2020 to 2021, when it hit a record high of almost 10 million. Some of that spike was a temporary result of the pandemic shutdowns, which led stir-crazy Texans to seek refuge outdoors, but most of it has been sustained. Last year, 9.6 million day-trippers and campers flocked to the parks.
But as the state system celebrates its centennial this year, the problems are clear. With more than 30 million residents (and growing by about 1,000 newcomers a day), Texas is the second-most populous state, but it has less public land than almost any other. (Only Kansas and Nebraska have a lower percentage of public land as total acreage.) More than 96 percent of Texas is privately owned, compared with 49 percent in California. Snagging a weekend camping spot or even a day pass at the most popular parks is now a feat akin to scoring Beyoncé tickets. Texas Parks and Wildlife has been chronically underfunded, a problem that was thrown into stark relief as the state’s population boomed over the past two decades. In 2019 TPWD estimated the cost of addressing its maintenance backlog—crumbling buildings, potholed roads—at $781 million.”
The full article can be found here.
Photo Credit: Original Author