Beset by droughts, fires and funding cuts, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) embarked on a campaign in 2012 to attract more visitors and boost revenues.
In December, the agency made another big push — promoting holiday park events and encouraging families to hold holiday meals and celebrations in Texas parks.
“This time of year is a great time to visit state parks due to smaller crowds and mild weather,” said Robert McCorkle, a spokesman for the parks.
On New Year’s Day, the second annual “First Day Hikes” was scheduled to encourage people to start the year with a new tradition of getting outdoors and hiking. On Jan. 1, 2012, more than 1,000 people went to 47 state parks for the hikes, and more parks are involved this time. Park officials say they hope the hikes attract new as well as longtime park visitors.
This holiday season, park officials also promoted such events as the Christmas tree lighting at Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site in Stonewall and a German-Texas celebration at Monument Hill & Kreische Brewery State Historic Site in La Grange.
After devastating drought conditions and wildfires in 2011, park visitation climbed somewhat in fiscal year 2012, which ended Aug. 31. Park visits totaled slightly more than 8 million, up from 7.7 million in 2011, McCorkle said.
Total park revenue was about $39 million in fiscal year 2012, an increase of 5.6%.
Entry fees to the parks vary, but they typically range from $5 to $7 per adult per day for the most popular state parks, such as Garner State Park, Balmorhea State Park, Mustang Island State Park and Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.
But the recent uptick in attendance and resulting user fees are not enough to cover ongoing park needs, officials say.
The TPWD incurred a 20% budget cut in the last legislative session. For the coming session beginning in January, the agency plans to ask the Legislature for an additional $18.9 million for state parks funding in the 2014-15 budget, legislative documents show.
Park officials said they have reduced park hours, rotated staff, increased the use of volunteers and launched an aggressive fundraising campaign to temporarily prevent any park closures.
“These efforts, however, are unsustainable,” said the agency’s budget proposal, which states that up to 20 parks could be closed if additional funding isn’t allocated.
Besides visiting parks, some Texans have been donating additional money for their upkeep. Starting in January 2012, Texans could opt to contribute $5 or more to state parks when registering their vehicles.
Through Dec. 4, the agency had received $597,861 in these registration donations and $2.08 million overall, including larger contributions, McCorkle said.
That total for the $5 donations is far less than what was projected by the Texas comptroller’s office, which estimated about $1.6 million would come in annually.