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Texas state parks’ history celebrated in centennial book

Visitors enjoy McKinney Falls State Park's Lower Falls.
Ilana Panich-Linsman
Visitors enjoy McKinney Falls State Park's Lower Falls.

There’s lots of evidence that state parks are near and dear to the hearts of many Texans. From Big Bend Ranch in far West Texas to Galveston Island on the Gulf Coast, the parks offer an opportunity for everyone to get out and see the varied natural beauty of the state.

This year, the Texas State parks system is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and there’s a new book to mark the occasion. “Texas State Parks: The First 100 Years” tells the story of how the state’s parks began. The book is part of this year’s Texas Book Festival lineup, and it’s written by longtime Texas conservationist George Bristol.

Bristol joined the Standard with more about the project and what could be in store for the parks’ next hundred years.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Why was it important for you to tell this story of how Texas’ state parks began?

George Bristol: Well, since I was a small boy, I’ve always been interested in parks. And we had Bastrop State Park and other parks around us. Then we even had the [Civilian Conservation Corps] swimming pools in and around Austin. And that just led one thing to another – I got a job at Glacier National Park for two summers when I was at the University of Texas.

So it’s just been a longstanding love affair with parks and the last 20 years I really put a lot of time and effort into getting true funding for the parks. We finally did it in 2019. And so I wanted to put down my thoughts about how it all came about. And one thing led to another and led to the book.

Let me ask you, if someone were to ask you as an expert on the subject, ‘who should we thank for establishing the parks as we know them?’ Who would you say?

Pat Neff, the governor in 1921, pushed the parks … John Connally, when he was governor, really pushed parks and funding for parks and even got a $75 million – which doesn’t sound like much – bond package put together to buy parks, and they bought some 63 parks with that money.

And then state Sen. Don Kennard of Fort Worth has to be in there. When the Connally money was running out, Don passed the cigarette tax, which carried the parks until 1993.

And then Senator John Montford and House Member René Oliveira passed a monumental bill in 1993 and there some flaws in it, and it didn’t work out. One thing led to another, and that’s when we passed Prop 5 in 2019.

And what did Prop 5 do?

It guaranteed that all the funds that were supposed to go to the parks went to the parks. The Legislature had capped the amount of money at $32 million and used the rest of the funds for other projects, and that just was not acceptable to me and a lot of other people. We had an election in November of 2019, and it passed by 88% of the people of Texas.

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So what about the first state park? Is there one that carries that distinction, or were there several opened simultaneously?

There is some dispute, but I don’t dispute it because it’s written: the San Jacinto Monument was the first state park under the law.

Pat Neff, when he was governor, his mother had given him some land for a public park, not necessarily a state park; in fact, it wasn’t a state park. So he proclaimed that his mother’s land was the first state park. So it kinda caught on, you know, when the governor says it’s the first state park, it’s the first state park til somebody challenges. But actually, the San Jacinto Monument was the first designated park.

I know a lot of folks who are real fans of Texas State Park System, and everyone has their favorites. But is there one or two that you would mention as sort of standouts, maybe favorites among favorites?

Well, if you ask me, I always say it’s the park I’m at. But I have to put Bastrop State Park and Enchanted Rock because we have to go out and see that – my brother, my mother. My father died when I was very young, but she tried to get us to the parks. And we were just enthralled with Enchanted Rock, and we’d love to go to Bastrop because it was an easy drive over and we could have a Sunday picnic.

So I would say those two, but there are other magnificent ones, not least of which is one of the latest ones – the biggest one – and that’s Big Bend Ranch State Park, which is adjacent to Big Bend National Park.

I think that’s what comes to mind for a lot of folks, Big Bend. Well, now, the title of this book references the first hundred years of the parks – what do you think might be in store for the second hundred years?

Well, it’s already happening. It’s an incredible thing. We struggled each and every year for years trying to just get enough money to keep the doors open. And now we’ve got another financing issue, a billion-dollar endowment fund; it’s Proposition 14, which will be on the ballot this year. I urge everybody to go out and vote for it. It sets up a mechanism, much like a private endowment, to use the interest of the funds that come off of it to buy land – and strictly buy land.

I think we in the Legislature and everybody learned our lesson: Don’t make it open-ended. And so that money, if it passes – and I think it will pass rather handily; the polls show we’re doing extremely well – then I think it must be spent to buy land for future parks.

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