After the toughest year ever for Texas state parks, the system is preparing to take the first step toward a better 2012 - literally - by hosting a series of First Day Hikes, and Lake Brownwood State Park will be participating.
"Our first day hike will begin at 2 p.m. Jan. 1," Lake Brownwood State Park Superintendent John Holland said Wednesday. "It's a national emphasis."
Holland said the program will be led by a park ranger, and a campfire with hot chocolate and coffee will be provided at its conclusion in the pavilion in the Council Bluff campground.
"We want to get a good start on next year," Holland said.
The park's First Day Hike will be along the newly renovated Texas Oak Trail, which follows the lake shore and provides scenic views of Lake Brownwood. Other parts of the trail highlight the park's unique rock features.
Members of the Friends of Lake Brownwood State Park are also expected to be on hand to welcome visitors, he said.
"The two-mile trail is easy with some moderate climbs and is suitable for families," Holland added. Those participating may want to bring a hiking stick and drinking water, and wear sturdy shoes.
"Parts of the trail are accessible for those with disabilities," Holland said.
The trail was renovated by an Americorps Trail Crew using part of a $50,000 grant, Holland told members of the Brownwood Rotary Club on Wednesday.
The hike is part of the statewide initiative to bring visitors back to state parks, which saw major traffic decreases in 2011 as a result of high temperatures, drought and - in some parks - devastating wildfires.
Attendance at Lake Brownwood State Park this year has been down 40 percent, Holland said. Revenue from entry fees is a major part of the annual budget for the state park system, and figures to be especially important at a time when funding from the state budget is limited due to a recovering economy.
Texans can support state parks in several ways, Holland said. Direct donations are being solicited on the department's website, and beginning Jan. 1, voluntary donations of $5 or more may be made when vehicles are registered at courthouses. But Holland said the best way to support Texas state parks is to visit one.
"There are some things to do other than put your boat in the water," Holland said. "We have trails, wildlife, 16 cabins, four lodges and two group facilities. There are place to go, and things to do. We're hoping folks will come back and visit once again."
While drought and low lake levels cut into the usual high attendance levels at Lake Brownwood State Park this year, other state parks suffered even more. Holland said wildfires closed the park at Fort Davis for a while, and did major damage to the Possum Kingdom and Bastrop parks.
Holland, who attended Tarleton State University in Stephenville, has worked with the state park system for more than 20 years and has been at Lake Brownwood for five years, and has been superintendent for the past three.
State parks have seen their ups and down in the past decade, Holland said. The best year was 2009, after an influx of renovation dollars provided significant facilities improvements. But 2011 has proven to be just the opposite because of low attendance.
"We knew it was going to be a bad year going in," Holland told the Rotary club. "The money was not there to fund anything."
That situation became even worse during the hot, dry summer.
According to a 2004 study, state parks accounted for an economic impact of $793 million in Texas and created 11,900 jobs, and that includes $1.7 million in sales and 37 jobs in Brown County.
A pass for single-day entrance to the state park is $3 per person older than 13. An annual pass costs $70.