USA — AUSTIN Texas parks and nature-based tourism suffered in numerous ways because of drought and wildfires, adding to an already difficult financial picture, the state parks leader is warning legislators.
“Very difficult times,” said Texas Parks and Wildlife Department executive director Carter Smith, summing up the plight of the state agency.
Lawmakers are looking at ways to fund the agency for the long term while gathering facts on how hard it was hit by the worst one-year drought in Texas history and by wildfires that burned almost 4 million acres.
The state House Committee on Culture, Recreation and Tourism began hearings on those subjects Tuesday and will meet periodically throughout 2012.
Fewer visitors went to state parks last year because of heat, low lake levels and wildfires; meanwhile, fewer fishing licenses and boat registrations were purchased, Smith said.
Now, the agency is finding that revenues may fall short from a new program allowing Texans to donate $5 or more to the parks agency when they register their vehicles each year.
It was supposed to provide $1.6 million this fiscal year but in its first month, it has generated only about $70,000, Smith said. At that rate it would produce only half of what lawmakers projected, he said.
Already, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is facing a $4.6 million budget gap this fiscal year. Parks officials made a plea to the public in December to donate money or to come visit parks and pay user fees.
By 2013, the agency could make further cutbacks and even shut down some parks, Smith told lawmakers.
In a development last last week, park agency staff told the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission that more than $1 million in contributions has been received since the appeal for donations began Dec. 6. Smith called it “a very promising start.”
Public-private partnerships are an option for adding to the state park system, which needs even more land near major cities, said George Bristol, founder and president of Texas Coalition for Conservation. But he told lawmakers no one wants to invest if the state doesn’t commit to maintaining its parks.
Bristol urged that the state’s sporting goods tax be dedicated to state and local parks.
“Texans like their parks (and) are willing to pay for them,” Bristol said. “Parks will pay for themselves if given any kind of meaningful support.”
Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, said he is committed to again trying to get the sporting goods tax rededicated to parks and not diverted to other budget areas. Ninety-four percent is supposed to go to parks and 6 percent to the Texas Historical Commission, he said.
Of $125 million coming in, only $26 million is going toward state parks, Larson said.
“The state needs to show more discipline in using the sporting goods tax,” Larson said. “I will file the bill again, and we will pursue it aggressively. It’s shameful, some of the maintenance that’s been deferred.”
Larson challenged Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to be advocates for the parks funding effort.
Bruce Esterline, vice president for grants with the Meadows Foundation of Dallas, testified that his organization is trying to expand access to state parks and thus foster protection of the environment for coming generations of Texans.
After wildfires tore through Bastrop State Park in September, the foundation donated $900,000 to assist the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Texas Forest Service.
Smith estimates that drought and wildfire damage and replacement costs in state parks total about $10 million. The Davis Mountains, Possum Kingdom and Bastrop state parks were hit especially hard by wildfires. State park revenue was down 25 percent in August, usually one of its biggest months, compared with August 2010.
In other areas, the drought has led to a decline in the bob white quail population and the deteriorating condition of pronghorn antelope in the Marfa, Alpine and Marathon region, Smith said. Water and food scarcity has caused black bears to move into more populated areas than usual in West Texas, and in some places feral hogs are roaming into towns, Smith said.
David Teel, president and chief executive of the Texas Travel Industry Association, said overall visitation to Texas increased slightly in 2011 from the previous year. But he said some tourist sites are significantly affected by the drought and water use reduction, including theme parks, water parks and zoos.
Drought conditions are expected to continue for at least the next few months, state meteorologists have said.
That means continued dry or low lakes, reduced water supply to some state fish hatcheries and less fresh water coming into coastal bays and estuaries, causing conditions for oyster predators and red tide.
“We are absolutely in uncharted waters,” Smith said.