COLLEGE STATION — Texas parks, historic sites and other outdoor resources are vital to the state’s economy and social structure, but face a number of threats, including inadequate funding, according to a Texas A&M University study released today.
Texas Outdoors: A Vision for the Future recommends greater support from both public and private sectors if the state is to meet growing and changing demands for outdoor recreation benefits. The report is the culmination of a nine-month study of how to best provide adequate natural, historic and cultural resources for the state.
“Texans are blessed with wonderful resources even though we lag behind other states in investing in those resources,” said Dr. Peter Witt, co-manager of the project group that wrote the report. “We often take those benefits for granted, even when they are in danger of decreasing or disappearing.”
The outdoor recreation study, commissioned by Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW) in cooperation with the Texas Recreation and Park Society, was conducted independently by the Texas A&M group. Findings were based on a variety of sources, including a statewide survey of citizens and input from conservation organizations, government agencies and private landowners.
“This study will help determine the long-term future of Texas Parks and Wildlife by helping to guide policy decisions on how we meet the needs for hunters, fishers, campers and other outdoor recreationists for the next 20 years,” said Dr. Bob Brown, head of the A&M department of wildlife and fisheries sciences and co-author of the study. “I’ve already had calls from other states, and I have no doubt this will serve as a national model for other state natural resource agencies to map their futures as well.”
The A&M report follows closely on the heels of an audit of TPW management of state parks released by the State Auditor’s Office in October, which found a $10.1 million annual shortfall in funds needed to adequately fund state park operations. TPW asked for the audit to help improve state park management and identify long-term needs.
“The auditors recommended decreasing services and curtailing opening of new parks until budget shortfalls are met, among other actions. We recommend greater support for resources that are vital for a prosperous, healthy and well-rounded citizenry,” said Witt, who directs Texas A&M’s recreation, park and tourism sciences department.
Witt said the study team concluded the public has a vested interest in the educational, economic, historic and health benefits of outdoor recreation and other sites. Public funds from various sources, including outdoor-related taxes, he added, should therefore be used to support the system of natural, cultural and historic resources in which the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and local park and recreation departments play a central role.
The team identified five critical issues facing parks in the immediate future.
First is that recreation demand will increase, but demographic changes in visitor profiles will mean challenges for TPW and other providers in responding to Texans’ recreational needs.
Second, the inventory of resources managed by the department is part of a statewide system of private lands and public holdings that does not function in a unified way, and system holdings are inadequate in some areas and redundant in others, the report notes.
Third, Texas Parks and Wildlife must increase public understanding of its management, stewardship and conservation roles, the report concluded. In addition, the department and other entities must increase awareness of their contributions to economic development, alleviation of juvenile crime, reduction of health care costs, and enhancement of education.
A fourth issue is that a lack of basic information about users, nonusers, the resource base and the system limits the ability of TPW and other providers to make optimum decisions.
The final critical issue is that infrastructure (facility) integrity and compliance with health and safety regulations must continue to be addressed methodically by all system elements.
The report suggests more than 100 potential actions for addressing those five issues, but eight emerged as most critical, Witt said.
First is that additional dedicated financial resources should be allocated to outdoor recreation providers so that they can meet their “public trust” responsibilities to protect invaluable cultural and ecological resources, since all Texans benefit from their preservation.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and other providers must respond to the needs of under served constituents as the population changes, the report said, through programs and facilities that reach such groups as at-risk, urban youth and growing ethnic populations. For example, new large parks and greenbelts should be developed near major cities because almost 90 percent of the state’s population is expected to be urban by 2030, the report said.
A third potential action is increasing joint ventures with nonprofit and private entities, and a fourth is a “rigorous review” of TPW holdings to determine what new sites might be needed, which state parks deserve support and which holdings lack statewide merit and should be divested or managed locally.
The department and other resource managers must clearly communicate the importance of protecting Texas’ resources and their benefit to all Texans, the report said, and improve infrastructure maintenance and repairs. The report also recommends improving information-gathering and database capabilities, as well as nurturing more relationships with supportive citizens, private groups and businesses.