It has been the perfect spring for Texas’ state parks.
Mired in a financial hole as deep as Palo Duro Canyon, the state park system benefited from cool weather and full lakes throughout the spring camping season.
“Year to date revenue for the park system surpassed that of fiscal year 2011 in late May, with the system collecting a total of $26.99 million for the fiscal year to date. That amount represents a 5.5 percent increase above fiscal year 2011 revenues at that point in time,” said Kevin Good, special assistant to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s State Parks Division director.
“Visitation has been running above 2011 levels since January. We don’t have all the May numbers in yet, but indications are that visitation will be ahead of May 2011 as well,” Good added.
The reason? Water. For the most part state park visitation is about swimming holes and fishing holes. If those are available parks officials have found that the public will use them.
“It is amazing what a little rain will do,” added Ellen Buchanan, State Parks Region 6 director. “The lakes are at pool (level), it is not 110 degrees and there are no burn bans. Our parks are doing extremely well.”
Easily affordable, Texas’ state park popularity rises and falls with the spring and early summer weather. Parks officials hope that bodes well for the summer months when the Texas heat can keep crowds away.
“People are anxious to be outside and the immediate dire situation is looking better. We anticipate that visitation and revenue will be up throughout the summer barring any unforeseen catastrophe,” said Brent Leisure, Parks Division director.
This is a year in which the park system needs the visitors as much as the visitors want the parks.
Without allotting more money from the a state sporting goods tax designed to support parks, legislators gave the division several options to offset the deficit, including a $5 donation to parks when registering a vehicle. The department also has conducted an all-out public campaign asking for donations. The effort has been only mildly successful.
“As of May 31, the (Department of Motor Vehicle) license checkoff donations totaled $308,185. The total of general park donations was $395,697 in addition to that amount.
Donations from all sources including the Parks and Wildlife Foundation totaled $1,393,143 at the end of May,” Good said.
Increased entrance and camping fees are also being used to increase revenue. Going into the season individual park managers realized the increases could hurt visitation, but that hasn’t seemed the case.
“Increased fees seem to have had no effect on reducing visitation, as both revenue and visitation numbers are up,” Buchanan noted.
Both Buchanan and Division Director Leisure expect visitation to stay up going into the hotter summer months. With July 4th following on a Wednesday, they are hoping to capitalize on a long holiday weekend for visitors.
“Much of the budget is dependent on revenue so time will tell whether or not we can fill that (deficit) gap,” Leisure said.
If the park system clears this financial hurdle, it could face another next year. State agencies are already being asked to look at cutting budgets another 10 percent over the next budget cycle.
“The potential for reductions in this biennium remain but they go down as revenue goes up. The next biennium’s budget however is completely unknown, but I can say without hesitation that a 10 percent reduction in current levels would have dramatic effect on park operations if that were to actually occur,” Leisure said.
In an effort to cut costs, the state park system already has transferred the operation of Sebastopol State Historic Site to the city of Seguin and will also terminate its lease for Lake Texana State Park with the Lavaca-Navidad River Authority on Aug. 31.
Other sites, including Atlanta State Park, are being looked at for closure or transfer as well.