Drought Impacts Texas State Park Revenue

Lakes, rivers, stock ponds, and other waterways haven’t been the only things evaporating in the relentless, record-setting Texas heat. Revenue streams fueling state parks and funding fisheries and wildlife management programs have slowed significantly, as park visitation dropped and fishing and hunting license sales declined, the Houston Chronicle recently reported.

Park revenue, generated through entrance and use fees such as those charged for overnight camping, for the fiscal year that ended August 31 was about $1.2 million less than the previous year and already is about $2 million behind projections for the current fiscal year, said Gene McCarty, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) deputy executive director for operations.

Normally, state parks generate about $38 million a year in user-fee revenue.

Revenue from sales of hunting and fishing licenses for the current fiscal year is down almost 5 percent ($2.5 million) compared with the same period the previous year, reported the Houston Chronicle.

Fishing licenses, especially freshwater licenses, account for the largest drop in sales.

“Freshwater licenses are down 17-20 percent,” McCarty said. Freshwater license sales had been down as much as 30 percent just a couple of months ago.

Camping in the "lost pines" at Bastrop State Park, prior to the fire. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“It’s pretty clear that the drop in freshwater licenses is directly tied to the drought,” McCarty said. Water levels in lakes across the state have dropped so low many boat ramps are unusable, making access a problem on many lakes. And those low water levels have exposed sand bars, rocks, stumps, and other potential obstructions that can make it dangerous for boaters trying to navigate the desiccated lakes.

The less-than-inviting boating conditions also have manifested themselves in a 2.5 percent decline in revenue from boat registrations.

Low water levels combined with the hot summer and destructive wildfires sent park visitation numbers through the floor.

“We really saw a drop-off in overnight stays,” McCarty said

Uncomfortably hot temperatures kept some campers away, and a ban on open fire preventing park users from enjoying campfires or using charcoal grills made parks less attractive.

Almost all of the most popular state parks are on rivers or reservoirs, and visitation at those sites dwindled as water levels fell.

“Parks with water-based recreation were most impacted,” McCarty said.

August visitation was particularly lower than normal. Garner State Park on the Frio River and Pedernales Falls State Park on the Pedernales River, two of the most popular parks in the state system, saw their August revenue drop by almost 40 percent. Guadalupe River State Park had a 60 percent decline in revenue compared with the previous August.

Almost 50 parks had August revenue declines of more than 20 percent, and overall revenue for the parks system dropped 24 percent.

Three popular state parks—Possum Kingdom, Davis Mountains, and Bastrop—were scorched by wildfires this past year. Those fires, which burned more than 8,500 acres of parkland, resulted in almost $350,000 in lost revenue and millions in damages.

Bastrop State Park suffered the biggest blow, with 96 percent of the park’s 6,000 acres incinerated by a fire that started September 4 and burned 33,500 acres in the Lost Pines region. Initial estimates set the cost of fire damage to the park and associated state park infrastructure at $8.5 million.

Guadalupe River State Park had a 60 percent decline in revenue compared with the previous August. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

TPWD is working to reopen parts of Bastrop State Park in early December but must spend as much as $600,000 just to remove fire-killed trees that pose safety concerns along the park roads, McCarty said.

The loss of visitor-generated revenue and the expenses associated with wildfires adds to already considerable economic challenges facing the state park system. Earlier this year, the Texas Legislature reduced TPWD’s biennial budget by almost 21 percent (about $150 million), triggering staff reductions and cutbacks in services across all agency divisions, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The agency stands to lose even more if it doesn’t meet revenue projections set this past spring, before the drought and wildfires took a toll on park visitation. Under terms of the appropriations bill passed by the Legislature, if TPWD fails to meet its state park revenue goals, the agency could lose 60 park staffers and have to further reduce services at parks.

Bring On the Rain

“If we don’t get rain by spring, when people start thinking about camping and getting back into water-based recreation, things could get really bad,” McCarty said.

Worth Pondering…
I love Texas because Texas is future-oriented, because Texans think anything is possible. Texans think big.

—Phil Gramm

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