Drought, heat, wildfires and funding cuts slammed the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) in 2011.
Now, weather and revenue are improving, and the parks department is focusing on a different problem: turning parks, which are most popular with older Texans, into a destination for younger, more urbanized and technology-oriented residents, the Austin American-Statesman reported.
The department wants to “engage the urban-based population and get them back to nature,” said Tom Harvey, media communications director for the department.
The parks department has rolled out, or soon will start, about a dozen programs designed to bring in more visitors, particularly young people, Harvey said. A junior ranger program will allow young people completing activities, such as journal entries describing their park adventures, to receive certificates and badges from park rangers.
Some parks will have rent-a-backpack programs. Bags could have binoculars, microscopes, plant identification books and other goodies focused on a park’s particular eco-region, said Chris Holmes, director of interpretation at the parks department.
One hit introduced last year was the department’s first Geocache Challenge, a GPS-guided, orienteering treasure hunt for objects hidden by fellow geocachers in state parks.
Holmes’ department is looking at ways to reduce the average age of visitors, now 46 years old, and include more racial and ethnic minorities. Nationally, family visitation in parks has been decreasing since the 1980s, when computer games became popular, Holmes said.
His mission is far-reaching. It seeks to improve the department’s website, signs, brochures, maps and state park exhibits to help visitors understand how to enjoy the outdoors easily and safely, Holmes said.
“People want to use the outdoors; they just don’t know how to anymore,” he said.
With these new programs and a slightly cooler, wetter year, park attendance — and therefore revenue — has improved in 2012 over the previous year. During the 2011 drought, the parks department made an unprecedented public appeal for help to increase attendance and even solicited monetary contributions from residents.
This past summer, one-third of Texas parks had 10-year record revenues, including Inks Lake State Park and McKinney Falls in Central Texas. Hunting and fishing license sales are up about 7% compared with this time last year, said Carter Smith, executive director of the parks department.
The department also is dealing with recent state budget cuts. The Texas Legislature asked the department to cut its budget by about $150 million, or about 20%, in the last legislative session, Smith said.
Rains have increased since a parched 2011, but lake levels, especially in Central Texas, remain stubbornly low. Lakes Travis and Buchanan combined, Central Texas’ major reservoirs, remain at about 43% capacity, according to the Lower Colorado River Authority website.
“We are bouncing back. I am cautiously optimistic,” Smith said.
The Geocache Challenge brought more than 18,000 people into state parks, based on email logging of cache sites, Harvey said.
The hobby sits at the intersection of outdoor recreation and modern technology, giving younger Texans the technology fix they’re after while encouraging them to be active, Holmes said.
De Vickery, president of the Texas Geocaching Association, has helped educate families about geocaching through the parks department’s Texas Outdoor Family Program for about four years.
“You are the search engine,” Vickery said. “To search for something that is hidden and to find it, it’s kind of like a video game, but it’s outdoors.”