I feel compelled to note the rare good thing emerging from this Legislature.
The Texas House on Monday gave preliminary approval to two bills, Senate Bill 1648 and Senate Joint Resolution 74, that would, with voter approval, create a Centennial Parks Conservation Fund to invest up to $1 billion to buy more land for the state parks system.
Advocates are calling it a “historic” and an “unprecedented” level of investment in the state’s park system, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
“This would create a new golden age for our state parks,” said Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas. “We have a lot to celebrate. What a great birthday present to give all Texans for the state parks system’s 100th.”
The bill and resolution by Sen. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, already have received an OK from the Senate and need a final vote in the House before heading to the governor’s desk for final approval. The governor has called for an increase in the budget for state parks, and advocates are optimistic that he will approve the bills.
If he does, the issue will go before voters as a constitutional amendment in November, and the state could begin spending the money as early as Jan. 1.
According to a report by Environment Texas last year, Texas lags behind most others states in state parkland: The state ranks 35th in the nation for state park acreage per capita, with about 636,000 acres of parkland for a population of over 29 million as of 2019. The report suggests that Texas needs to add 1.4 million acres of state parks by 2030 to meet the needs of its residents.
Parks became a hot political topic at the Capitol after Fairfield Lake State Park, about 100 miles south of Dallas, announced it was closing because it’s on leased land and the owner was selling the land. It is one of 14 state parks that sit on leased land.
The owner, Vistra Corp., sold the 5,000-acre property, which includes the park, to Dallas-based real estate developer Shawn Todd and his firm, Todd Interests, which planned to build a private golf course and gated community on the property. Lawmakers have been in negotiations with the park’s new owners to keep the park open to the public, and advocates have been pushing for funding to buy more parkland so there won’t be a repeat of the Fairfield debacle.
“Our local parks all the way to our state parks were one of the few places that were safe for people to gather and enjoy time with each other and enjoy time in nature during the worst of the COVID pandemic,” said Robert Kent, Texas state director for The Trust For Public Land.
As lawmakers make big investments in Texas parks, Kent said he hopes they will find a way not only to buy land for new parks but to preserve existing ones, too.
He pointed to another set of bills, House Bill 3165 and House Joint Resolution 138 by Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, that might do just that. The bill would create a conservation fund that would provide grants to preserve water resources as well as local and state parks. The resolution would put the fund on the November ballot for voter approval.
The Texas House approved the bill and resolution earlier this month. The Senate hasn’t yet voted on them.
I’ll vote for those two resolutions if they both make it onto the ballot. I’m not a big parks guy myself but I absolutely agree they are a necessary and vital public resource. As for the Fairfield situation, the House passed a bill in late April that would require the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission to approve any application for new or amended water rights related to Fairfield Lake, which would likely scuttle the development process. That bill is still in committee in the Senate, so time is running out. I’ll circle back to that one after the session is over, if I haven’t seen any news on it before then.