By Rahul Sreenivasan
Texas legislators stood ready this year to make investments in our state park system, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the creation of the State Parks Board.
Lawmakers filed a number of bills this session that would create new funding streams for parkland acquisition and conservation. Ultimately, legislation authored by Sen. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, and sponsored by Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, made it through the process, receiving over 80 percent support from lawmakers in each chamber.
This legislation will create the Centennial Parks Conservation Fund, pending voter approval of its attached proposition in the November constitutional amendment election. If passed by voters this November, $1 billion will be appropriated and administered by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, providing a dedicated funding source for the acquisition, development and maintenance of state parks in Texas.
Initially conceived of as a series of waystations to give Texas travelers of the 1920s a place to rest and stay overnight, the state’s park system was transformed first by the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which created iconic state parks such as Balmorhea in West Texas and Palo Duro Canyon in the Panhandle. From the 1960s through the 1980s, the Legislature funded the further expansion of the parks system, which established another set of iconic additions to the park system like Enchanted Rock in the Hill Country.
Between the pandemic boosting public demand for access to state parks and this legislative session’s historic $32.7 billion revenue surplus, 2023 provided both the motive and the means for another transformative investment in the state’s park system.
It doesn’t hurt that an investment in state parks more than pays for itself. A study conducted by Texas 2036 and the Center for Public Finance at Rice University’s Baker Institute of Public Policy concluded that our state parks are rural economic engines. Rural counties with parks, the study found, experience greater employment growth, gross domestic product growth and population growth than rural counties without parks.
Furthermore, the report found that investing in public parks holds great potential as every $1 in public money spent on parks can generate between $4 and $12 in economic return.
According to a story this spring in the Dallas Morning News, it’s estimated that between the $1 billion attached to the Centennial Parks Conservation Fund and the private and federal matching dollars that it would attract, the state would be able to acquire another 1.4 million acres — eventually pushing the Texas’ park system past 2 million acres.
To safeguard, improve and create new state parks as the state’s population continues to grow, the Centennial Parks Conservation Fund holds the potential to preserve and expand our natural landscapes for future generations.
Rahul Sreenivasan is a policy advisor for Texas 2036, a nonprofit public policy organization building long-term, data-driven strategies to secure Texas’ prosperity.