Opinion: No Camping Spots Left? Texas Should Use COVID Funds To Grow State Parks.

From wide-open spaces beneath a starry sky at Big Bend Ranch to the cypress swamps of Caddo Lake, our parks make life better here in Texas. While parks provided a place of rest and recreation during troubling times over the course of the pandemic, demand for public lands has been rapidly increasing as the state’s population has grown tremendously over the past decades.

Last week the Legislature began the third special session this year to make some of the most significant budgetary decisions of this generation. While redistricting is getting most of the attention, the allocation of nearly $16 billion of flexible fiscal recovery federal funds, flying mostly under the radar, provides a once in a generation opportunity to invest in our future.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has proposed using about $240 million of the funds to acquire land for new and expanded parks, to construct and repair state park facilities and to help protect private land through the Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program. TPWD also requested funds for fishing piers, boat ramps, shooting ranges and Wi-Fi at state parks.

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Today, it can be difficult to book a campsite without planning it months in advance. At Brazos Bend State Park near Pearland, almost no weekend campsites are available until next year. Even if you manage to secure a coveted campground, the park will be overcrowded.

Given COVID-19 and the ongoing difficulty of enjoying our existing parks, it should come as no surprise that 68 percent of Texans support allocating $1 billion from the federal government's emergency American Rescue Plan Act funds to expand our parks system.

At least seven states have used some of their ARPA funds for parks and conservation, including Florida, which appropriated $300 million to acquire land to protect wildlife.

Exposure to nature is just what the doctor ordered during the pandemic. Studies have shown that parks, by stimulating greater social cohesion, can enhance mental and physical wellness.

Children, especially, benefit from an investment in parks. Studies continue to demonstrate that kids with the opportunity to live and learn outdoors tend to be happier, healthier and perform better cognitively.

Twenty years ago, Texas Tech University published Texas Parks and Wildlife for the 21st Century. This seminal report estimated the state would need to add 1.4 million acres of parkland by 2030 in order to keep up with population growth.

While we’ve made some progress since then, including the acquisition of Palo Pinto Mountains State Park and Powderhorn Ranch, the state still needs to add more than 1 million acres of parks to ensure that every Texan has access to the great outdoors.

Achieving that goal could require an investment of $3 billion. The federal Great American Outdoors Act, private philanthropy and other sources will help, but the state must also be an active partner.

This is particularly key given that the Local Park Grant Program, which provides matching grants to local governments to build playgrounds, ball fields, and other parks and recreation facilities, and the Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program, which provides grants to private landowners to preserve rural lands from development, have been depleted as demand has outstripped supply.

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The Legislature should augment the TPWD’s request with an additional $60 million for these programs.

In 2019, the Legislature voted to guarantee that the sales tax on sporting goods go toward funding our state parks. Later, voters approved the measure through a constitutional amendment that passed with 88 percent support.

This was a historic step that finally guaranteed stable funding for our parks system, but the vast majority of the funds have been used for operations and maintenance. Maintenance does not open new parks.

Over the next two years, only $3.5 million was appropriated annually for land acquisition.

In 2023, our state parks system will celebrate its centennial. As we look ahead to the next 100 years, we must make sure we set aside enough space for Texans to hunt, fish, hike and camp.

Parks remain a high priority for Texans; they should be a priority of our government, too.

Billingsley is working to build a world class parks system for Texas as the conservation associate with Environment Texas. This op-ed echoes a Sept. 21 Environment Texas letter directed to the Legislature.

Source : https://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/outlook/article/Opinion-No-camping-spots-Texas-should-use-COVID-16487199.php

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