Avoiding closures

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Al Key/drc
Boaters and hikers spend time at Ray Roberts Lake on Friday in Denton County.

As another budget battle begins for Texas state parks, advocates say without more money, some state parks could close.

Officials with Texas Parks and Wildlife asked the legislature for $18.9 million above the base recommendation in order to avoid closing about 20 parks. When the Legislative Budget Board released its recommendations last week, an additional $6.9 million was recommended for the agency — a figure that, at least on paper, could still mean shuttering about seven parks.

It’s not yet clear how the cuts would affect the units of Ray Roberts Lake State Park, including the Johnson Branch, Isle du Bois and the Greenbelt Corridor. Texas has 91 state parks in 98 of its 254 counties.

Ray Roberts is one of the most popular parks in the state, according to the latest figures from Texas Parks and Wildlife. Combined paid visits last year to both Isle du Bois and the Johnson Branch totaled more than 272,000 people, more than any other state park.

About $1.97 million was allocated to Ray Roberts Lake State Park in 2009, when the Isle du Bois unit counted 197,292 paid visitors and the Johnson Branch, 75,114 — figures that do not count child admissions.

More visitors mean a park has higher utility bills and needs more staff to serve the demand, according to Chris True, park superintendent. He credited some of the park’s popularity to its proximity to the 6.5 million people living in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. The park also has a wide range of outdoor activities and wildlife.

But it was too soon in the state’s biennial budget battle to predict what will happen.

“I really don’t want to speculate, but you’d hope that would never be the case,” True said of the possible closing of Ray Roberts or one of its units.

Officials in Austin echoed the assessment.

“It’s still early in the process,” said Brent Leisure, state parks director for Texas Parks and Wildlife. “We’re in the business of operating parks and doing everything possible to keep them open.”

The battle is troubling to parks advocates, who say the problem was addressed with a dedicated tax. The Texas Legislature stopped funding parks with a portion of the cigarette tax in 1993 and approved a sporting goods sales tax instead. By 2007, parks were supposed to get 94 percent of the taxes collected on tangible goods meant for sport, with the exception of most active wear and shoes.

But the legislation also allowed for the sporting goods sales tax to be appropriated. In other words, some of the money could be — and has been — used to certify the biennial budget.

According to data gathered by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security, the Texas Legislature has never appropriated the full 94 percent of sporting goods sales tax that was intended for parks. The closest it ever came was in 2010, when parks got about 60 percent of the tax. In the past few years, the agency has received about a quarter — or less — of the tax.

To address the problem, state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, introduced SB 175 on Jan. 14. The bill would eliminate the original legislative language that allows the sporting goods sales tax to be used to certify the state’s budget.

“It is no secret that lawmakers in Austin have tightened the budget belt as state agencies have been asked to do more with less,” Estes said in a prepared statement. “But it is time to affirm our commitment to the conservation of our parks and historical preservations with the proceeds taxpayers give for that purpose.”

The practice has been costly to Texas parks, which consistently rank near the bottom in per capita funding compared to other states, said Ian Davis, with Keep Texas Parks Open.

“Texas is a big challenge, but it’s worth it,” Davis said.

For example, summer rains cut a 20-foot gorge in the Greenbelt that has yet to be repaired. Those costs are dwarfed by what is needed to recover from the massive wildfires at Possum Kingdom Lake and Bastrop State Park. But in both cases, parks officials have held off on hiring staff and have been fundraising in local communities to pay for the work — a practice that Leisure said is not sustainable for the agency.

In the case of the Greenbelt, True was still working on the problem last week, meeting with officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about repairs that were initially estimated to cost about $162,000.

True says the budget struggles reflect a generation with many entertainment options.

“In an age of video games and electronics — what we’re battling with — you still can’t compare to sitting by a campfire, roasting marshmallows and listening to the barn owls,” True said.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is pheinkel-wolfe@dentonrc.com .


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