Friday, August 26, 2005

ENV: Banner Day amongst bad news

Jeff Mundy, Austin birder and lawyer was a key player in yesterday's big news in Austin. A stealth proposal to sell about 45,000 acres of Big Bend Ranch State Natural Area to a private developer was unanimously voted down by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Commission. That is . . . the appointed board that is the public oversight over the regulatory TP&W Department turned down the agency's proposal to make the sale. That's the good news . . .

The bad news is that the state was trying to sell the land (out of public earshot apparently) in order to raise funds to keep a bunch of other state parks functional. The department is hurting for money. So it was a not win-not win kind of deal. The fallout probably means losing some other parks.

Nevertheless Big Bend Ranch is the jewel of the system, and for good reason. But more importantly it, and Big Bend National Park, are significant chunks of an endangered ecosystem -- the Chihuahuan Desert (for which i not only have a particular soft spot, but years of research invested in).

Now i want to post here a copy of an email sent to the TexBirds listserv by Ted Eubanks, one of the true heroes of Texas conservation. His take on everything environmental in this state is always based on a depth of understanding few others have, and a wisdom unparalleled.

From Ted:

For most of today I attended the TPW Commission meeting in Austin to hear
about the dire straights of our parks. I must admit I heard nothing new;
this brew has been fermenting for a decade. However, the prospect of selling
a portion of a state park brought a new sobriety to the discussion. This
evening I pulled together a few numbers to help illustrate the fix we are in
(yes, we are in. How many birders in Texas have never birded in a state
park?). These are pulled from a number of sources, and they should be
relatively accurate. I will continue to massage these numbers, and I accept
all blame for any mistakes.



The State of the Parks in Texas

In Texas in 2001,

. 5.7 percent of land in Texas public.

. 2.6 percent of public lands owned by the Federal government.

. 3.0 percent of public lands owned by the state.

. 0.14 percent of public lands owned by local governments.

. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department managed 0.6 percent of the public lands.

. 2.5 % of public lands in Texas were categorized as parks, forests and refuges.

Of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's lands,

. Total TPWD's State Parks, Natural Areas, Historic Site Acreage (600,497 acres)

. Texas Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) (776,099 acres)

. Texas Parks and Wildlife facility (8,577 acres)

I should note that of the TPW park acreage, half (approximately 300,000
acres) is contained in one park in West Texas inaccessible by most of the
state's population - Big Bend Ranch State Park.

The total acres under TPW management and/or ownership are 1,385,173 acres.
However, TPW does not own all of this acreage. A significant percentage of
state park and WMA land is owned by the federal government and is only under
lease by the state. Of the 600,497 acres in state park, natural areas, and
historic sites, 43,276 are leased from the federal government. Of the
776,099 acres in WMAs, 463,212 are leased. Therefore TPW actually owns only
878,685 acres for state parks, natural areas, historic sites, WMAs, and TPW
facilities.

How do we rank nationally? Of the 167 million acres within the state,
federal and state government owns 7,078,000 acres or 4.2%. Compared to the
nation, Texas ranks 44th in this regard. When considering only state-owned
lands, Texas ranks 46th.

Let me offer an illustration. There are approximately 23 million people
residing in Texas. If we divvied up the TPW land per capita, each of us
would have around 2500 square feet in state park, natural area, historic
sites, and WMAs. Go into your front yard and walk a box 50 feet on a side.
That's your slice of the Texas pie. By 2030, when the population is
estimated to increase to 37.5 million, without aggressive acquisitions your
Texas park slice will shrink to about 1600 square feet or a box 40 feet on a
side. Given that fact that much of the land is west of I-35, and away from
the major Texas population centers, you will also need to drive some
distance to visit your slice.

As for state spending, Texas fares even worse. Texas ranks 49th in per
capita spending on parks, sixty-three percent below the national average.
Texas state government spent $2.71 per person in 1998 and 1999 on parks and
recreation, while the average state spent $14.12.

Yet for the past decade the Texas legislature has routinely cut TPWs budget,
and the agency has instituted what amounts to a moratorium on new
acquisitions. For example, one of TPWs important programs is the TRPA -
Texas Recreation and Park Account. A number of community support programs,
such as local park grants, are funded through the TRPA. In 2002-2203, the
legislature "fully" funded the account at $20,447,165. In 2004-2005 the
legislature decreased the account to $13,025,929, and in the next biennium
the amount will be lowered to $5,646,805. The result of these decreases? Of
the 16 local park grant applications, only 4 communities were funded this
year. There were 3 regional park applications, with only 1 partially funded.
In fact, TPW is recommending suspending this program. Of the 35 small
community grant requests, only 15 were funded. In other words, local parks
are impacted by these budget decreases just as are the state parks.

TPW personnel have been equally affected. In the new budget TPW is
eliminating 171 unfilled positions, with an additional 12 filled positions
lost as well. No one can argue that TPW will be able to perform its duties
and responsibilities adequately at this level of staffing.

With the problem identified (TPW is on life support), there needs to be a
concurrent set of solutions offered. Here are mine. First, completely
eliminate the cap on the revenue received by state parks from the state
sporting goods tax. Although there is no dedicated sporting goods tax in the
state, using data supplied by the National Sporting Goods Association it is
estimated that Texans pay around $100 million in associated sales tax
annually. The legislature capped the amount that TPW could access in the
mid-1990s at $32 million. My suggestion (and I have argued this for a
decade) is to completely remove the cap and to dedicate all Texas state
sporting goods sales tax to state parks. I would even go so far as to
recommend an additional 1 cent dedicated sales tax be placed on sporting
goods to augment this revenue source.

Second, present the voters of Texas with a bond package that once and for
all time will place the state parks on a healthy footing. Let me offer an
example - Pennsylvania's Growing Greener initiative. In May Pennsylvania
approved a $625 million bond initiative for conservation and recreation enhancements.
Under the leadership of Governor Rendell Pennsylvania DCNR will have over $200
million to invest in the next five years for state park and forest improvements,
recreational trails, environmental education centers, and the like. If Pennsylvania
can be this progressive, why not Texas?

Third, rather than sell state park land consider a broader range of
potential alliances with organizations and the private sector. There are
numerous partnering opportunities that have positive revenue implications
that TPW has not explored. Rather than sell the state's natural patrimony,
let's get creative.

In summary,

. Remove the state sporting goods sales tax cap, and dedicate all of these
revenues to Texas state parks,

. Offer the voters of Texas the opportunity to vote on a bond package that
will place Texas state parks on a sound and healthy footing,

. Explore a broad range of collaborative approaches before considering the
sale of Texas state park land.

Ted Eubanks
Austin, Texas

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