The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is appealing to the public to visit state parks and to make donations to help offset a revenue loss caused by heat, drought, wildfires and a resulting drop in park visitor revenue.
"A ‘triple whammy' of record heat and drought, devastating wildfires and a corresponding decline in visitation and revenue has created a critical need for Texas State Parks," said Carter Smith, TPWD executive director. "So, we are reaching out for help."
TPWD held news conferences at 11 state parks or other locations in cities across Texas Tuesday, including one at Abilene State Park. The system also includes Lake Brownwood State Park in Brown County.
Visitor fees fund about half of the $69 million operating budget for the state park system, subject to legislative appropriations. For many years, there's been a steady upward trend, with more people visiting parks generating more revenue to operate them - until this year.
Through the summer and into early fall, traditionally a busy time for parks, many Texans stayed home because of the heat. Shriveling lakes and rivers disrupted swimming, fishing and boating, and burn bans prevented campfires. Also, three popular state parks - Bastrop, Davis Mountains and Possum Kingdom - suffered major wildfire damage and produced no revenue for weeks, though all are now back open to varying extents.
As a result, state park system revenue declined 25 percent in August compared to the same month in 2010. So far this fall, revenue is down 11 percent - improving, but still not close to what park leaders say is needed.
"The bottom line is we have a $4.6 million gap in our 2012 park system operating budget," Smith said. "This is the amount we need to raise to help keep state parks open. We want to alert people now while there is still time to help."
TPWD is rolling out a multi-faceted awareness campaign stressing three calls to action.
• One, go to www.tpwd.state.tx.us/helpparks to make a tax-deductible, year-end donation.
• Two, starting Jan. 1, make a donation when renewing motor vehicle registrations.
• Three, because visitor fees pay for about half of park system operating costs, visit state parks.
"Cooler weather makes fall and winter a fine time to visit state parks, which are great places for holiday outings and gatherings," said Brent Leisure, TPWD state parks director. "Also, recent rains are allowing many of our parks to lift burn bans. That's making campfires possible once again, an important tradition for many park visitors."
Leisure said state parks are important for many reasons. They protect unique places and provide settings for healthy outdoor recreation and family fun for millions of people.
State parks are also economic engines for nature tourism. In a 2008 study, the Texas Comptroller's office found state parks draw outside tourists into host counties, generating millions in annual retail sales and local resident income.
The Texas State Parks operating budget is based on legislative appropriations, but relies on revenue generated by visitor fees. This year, an additional $3 million in revenue was projected.
Also, the legislature passed a new option that allows people to make a donation when they renew their motor vehicle registration, estimating that would raise at least $1.6 million per year. Starting Jan. 1 drivers can donate $5 or more when renewing their registration by mail, at the county tax office or online in counties offering online payment.
"The state park system 2012 budget was set anticipating those two items would raise a total of $4.6 million," Smith said. "But the money is not there because park visitation and revenue are down markedly due to drought and wildfires, and the vehicle registration donation program is just getting under way for renewals due in January."
Many state parks offer reduced camping fees during "off-peak" fall and winter months, especially for longer stays. Many parks have lifted burn bans; check online for the latest information. And dozens of state parks are hosting special holiday events in December. See http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/calendar/holidays for dates, locations and descriptions.
To learn about the various Texas State Parks and their offerings, or to make online camping reservations, visit http://www.texasstateparks.org. Or call state park information at (800) 792-1112, option 3, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.