Despite fundraising success, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department still digging out of deep budget hole

Posted: February 6, 2012 at 7:40 am

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The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has pulled in $1.14 million in donations to help its drought-ravaged and fire-singed parks system overcome a $4.6 million budget shortfall.

But contributions from nearly 2,000 park lovers aren't likely to fix the cash-strapped system's mounting money problems, the agency's chief conceded last week, nearly two months after the department made an unprecedented plea for public assistance."Time will tell, but my personal opinion is that I don't think we are going to be able to get out of this situation we're in with $5 at a time," Executive Director Carter Smith said."We have a lot of ground to make up. In addition to this $4.6 million campaign to keep state parks open, we've incurred probably at a minimum $10 million in damages from wildfires. I don't know where we are going to find those funds," he said, noting that recent rains exacerbated the fiscal drain by washing out roads at Bastrop State Park, where a September wildfire denuded 96 percent of the forest landscape."It remains to be seen if we can meet the totality of this challenge. We're going to be facing some tough decisions," said Smith, adding that park closures and more staff layoffs will be among the hard choices if the drought persists."We've had a couple of very large, catalytic gifts. We're ecstatic at the generosity of the gifts at all levels; they are deeply appreciated," he said. "This speaks to the fact that Texans care about the future of their state parks."That being said, this is not the kind of campaign you can sustain year after year. We're going to have to figure out other alternatives," Smith said."Right now it looks like we are pushing a rock uphill."The heat effectThe $4.6 million parks predicament was brought on by a convergence of fiscal factors.First, the Legislature reduced park funding by $23.3 million for 2012-13, forcing the closure of two regional offices and the loss of 76 full-time positions.Lawmakers also authorized an ambitious budget strategy that included the parks department raising an additional $3 million in park fees and $1.6 million annually from an optional vehicle registration donation program that didn't take effect until Jan. 1.But in the meantime, park fees plunged due to a record Texas drought that dried up lakes and streams, causing a nearly 30 percent decline in freshwater fishing licenses.Worse yet, the state's hottest summer ever kept campers and hikers at home. During August, visitation was down more than 50 percent at Guadalupe River and Dinosaur Valley state parks, where picturesque streams are the major attractions.Visitor fees generate about half of the $69 million operating budget for the state parksDuring its first month, the motor vehicle registration option generated nearly $80,000, but that's far short of the $133,000 per month needed to raise $1.6 million.Last week, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission approved adding boat registrations to the check-off program.Big-ticket donationsTwo large contributions got the fundraising off to a solid start.In January, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation donated $500,000, said Dick Davis, executive director of the group that has raised more than $70 million for the agency since 1991, including $35 million in the last six years.The foundation normally raises money for the department's capital projects such as land acquisition, he said."We have the discretion if we have money available to do more than that. The board decided that since we are doing fairly well these days, we would give the $500,000 contribution to jump-start that effort," he saidThe foundation recently started a direct mail effort and is sending donation proposals to individuals and corporations."The parks campaign has become our No. 1 focus. There was no precedent; we had no idea we would pass $1 million as quick as we did. We are not getting huge amounts on average, but we are getting hundreds of contributions. And we think there will probably be a lot of repeat customers. In coming weeks we probably will hear from some funding sources that will contribute larger amounts," he said.The Lufkin-based T.L.L. Temple Foundation, established in 1962 in honor of lumberman Thomas Lewis Latane Temple, the founder of Temple Industries, donated $250,000.Most of the foundation's grants are centered in East Texas, but it does statewide grants "when we think it's appropriate," said Buddy Temple, chairman of the foundation's board of trustees.Temple Industries once owned more than 1 million acres of Texas timberland, he said."Our family has always been interested in parks; we've been aligned with parks and wildlife department forever," said Temple, who said underfunding parks is a short-sighted policy."I'm pretty disgusted with the Legislature and state leadership. They are taking us down the road to a Third World country," he said.Mild winter weather boosted park numbers in January, but Smith said he's closely watching long-term forecasts."We're awfully concerned about predications of the resurgence of La Niña drought conditions and how long that will persist into the summer," he said.Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981

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Despite fundraising success, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department still digging out of deep budget hole

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February 6th, 2012 at 7:40 am

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