Sep 23, 2011

Texas State Parks Trying to Cope With Budget Cuts

Park-goers swim in Fort Boggy Lake despite low water levels. Budget cuts have forced small Texas state parks like Fort Boggy to reduce their hours amid one of the worst Texas droughts on record. Photo by Ryland Barton

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By Ryland Barton
For Reporting Texas and KUT News

Visitors to Fort Boggy State Park in Centerville splash around in the park’s drought-dwindled lake while Mark Webb, a biologist for Texas Inland Fisheries, takes photographs of plant life at the edge of the receding water line. He’s checking plants to make sure there’s adequate cover for fish — part of his job keeping an eye on aquatic life around East Texas.

“This particular park is a really neat little park as far, as you can see,” Webb said. “Local people out here recreating using the swimming beach, there’s fishing, when the water’s a little higher, there’s boat on the lake as far as fishing from boating, nature trails. All these things in an area that doesn’t have a lot of recreational opportunities.”

But recent cuts in the state budget for parks and recreation mean that Fort Boggy has become less accessible to some of its biggest fans. The park used to be open Wednesday through Sunday but now opens only on weekends. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has also started cutting jobs. Webb’s four-man crew is down to three because of a hiring freeze within his office. Ten people have been laid off in his division.

“It’s just reality, this is how the economy is,” Webb said. “Personally, I feel really fortunate to have my job, and to be able to come out here and do this. But at the same time, we have an obligation to our constituency, to the public, to the resource users to try to do the best we can with what we have.”

According to state parks department, the operating budget has shrunk from $423.2 million in 2011 and $468.8 million in 2010, to $332.3 million for 2012. As a result of the cuts, 23 of the 94 state parks are experiencing some sort of reduction in staff or operation. All told, the department has let go 111 employees. Some of the service changes include using automated pay stations at park entrances instead of employing ticket takers, eliminating swimming pools and nearly all of these parks will be changing their hours of operation.

Kevin Good, special assistant to the director, said that the State Parks division is trying to minimize the impact on the public. They’re beginning to use more volunteers to offset the staff reductions, but he said the effects will still be noticeable.

“The grass may be a little longer in the campground, the bathrooms may not be cleaned up as often, there may be fewer interpretive programs, those kinds of things,” Good said.

But the communities around Texas state parks could have more to lose than clean restrooms. According to a study conducted by the Comptroller’s office in 2008, per capita retail sales in rural counties with state parks were 14.8 percent higher than those in rural counties without state parks.

Luke Metzger, the director of the Environment Texas Research & Policy Center, said that these rural communities depend on state parks to bring in outside money.

“When people come from Austin to go to Fort Boggy or go to Inks lake or Enchanted Rock or any of things, they spend money on those local communities,” Metzger said. “As we curtail the hours of the parks, that means less money’s going to be spent in these communities. “

But in their efforts to minimize public impact, State Park officials are trying to close parks only during non-peak hours. That’s why Fort Boggy is still open on the weekends. Bobby Walters, president of the Centerville Chamber of Commerce, said that his concern isn’t losing business — he wants to make sure Fort Boggy remains a resource for his community.

“The park has a fair amount of visitors to it, but I don’t think that’s going to affect the tourism that much to the community,” Walters said. “Now the in-town people are still going to come out there on the weekends, take their kids swimming and so forth.”

Small parks like Fort Boggy don’t necessarily attract visitors in droves, but they still remain important fixtures in their communities. Such facilities employ rangers and maintenance crews and provide gathering places for the communities scattered around them. For both tourists and locals, they provide a connection to nature.

“Every park is really, really important,” Webb said. “In Texas, we really don’t have the amount of public land for the number of people that we have that we would like. You don’t always have good open spaces that you can go to to enjoy resources to enjoy nature.”