By Dan Oko
A century ago, the U.S. census for Texas estimated a little more than 5 million residents in the Lone Star State. Even so, back in 1923, then-Governor Pat Neff recognized that Texans rolling across the countryside in newly popular automobiles needed more outdoor spaces to camp, fish and explore “for the public good, now and for forever.” Thanks to Neff’s vision, the Texas State Parks system was born. Nearly a century later, Texas is booming with a population of over 28 million and the Texas State Park System has grown to 89 parks across Texas. Starting Jan. 1, 2023, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), in partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation (TPWF), will launch a celebration marking the first 100 years of Texas State Parks.
On a cool fall morning this October, TPWD came together with TPWF, its nonprofit fundraising partner, to get the Texas State Parks Centennial party started. As the Presenting Sponsor of the Centennial Celebration, H-E-B was also on hand, as were reporters and photographers from media outlets across the state.
The event took place 75 miles west of Fort Worth at the first new state park in north Texas in 25 years, Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, which is scheduled for a soft opening to the public in late 2023. On hand was Rodney Franklin, Director of State Parks for TPWD, and Anne Brown, Executive Director of TPWF, who gratefully accepted a generous $1 million donation check from H-E-B. The grocery retailer will be supporting the Centennial Celebration throughout the coming year.
“It’s rare that you get to celebrate 100 years of anything,” says Franklin. “It is a real privilege to be able to recognize this legacy, and we are looking forward to the next 100 years. For this year, we want to make sure all Texans know the parks are here for them — and we couldn’t have a better partner than H-E-B. They really represent the face of Texas — all Texans.
He adds: “I want to challenge people to bring someone who hasn’t been to a state park. That’s our purpose–to help discover, or rediscover, or just explore Texas State Parks.”
Leslie Sweet, Director of Public Affairs and Environmental Affairs for H-E-B, says the financial gift is just one way that the Texas-based grocery chain will be celebrating the 100th birthday of Texas State Parks. H-E-B is committed to conserving and protecting Our Texas, Our Future for Texans today and generations to come. The store has a new eco-friendly product line from home cleaning and personal care to baby diapers. Field & Future by H-E-B, which is made with recycled or recyclable content, biodegradable formulas or plant-based ingredients, and without over 165 harsh chemicals. Through its partnership with TPWF, Field & Future purchases support TPWF programs across the state, adding to the $13 million H-E-B has donated to Texas environmental organizations since 2012. “We are dedicated to funding preservation and conservation efforts across Texas,” says Sweet, noting that official Centennial merchandise will be in stores in 2023.
Brown at TPWF points out that this public-private partnership should provide unprecedented reach for the Centennial Celebration, which will also enjoy widespread media coverage and some promotional events.
“We are honored to have H-E-B backing the Centennial Celebration,” says Brown. “These efforts really demonstrate H-E-B’s commitment to our state parks and to our communities.”
Though some overnight rains and cloudy skies overhead tamped down some of the planned activities for the October announcement and media event, the Palo Pinto Mountains still provided an idyllic backdrop for the event. H-E-B rolled out a hearty breakfast from Central Market, while state park employees prepped “cowboy coffee” over the campfire. A state parks archeologist talked about the Native American history and post-European events in the Palo Pinto Mountains, where 40 archeological sites have been identified. Attendees viewed road construction and land clearing for a new visitor center and architectural renderings of the waterfront dock and fishing facilities at Tucker Lake, along with renderings of the equestrian camping loop, a playscape and a pavilion.
Under the branches of some sprawling oaks, Franklin noted that the goal of the year-long celebration is to keep growing support for the state parks system – with a special focus on broadening visitation from Texans who may not have visited a state park before.
Anticipating as many as 75,000 visitors annually, Palo Pinto Mountains State Park will boast opportunities for horseback riding, hiking and biking, tent camping and sports for RVs. Franklin notes that the permanent buildings will be smartly engineered for long-term resilience and sustainability.
Indeed, built amenities at the Palo Pinto Mountains will be limited to about 140 acres. The topography of the parklands, which features rolling hills rising nearly 1,500 feet and more than five miles of drainage leading to and along Palo Pinto Creek, requires being “mindful” of potential flood events that sometimes visit the region. “You can’t build in the floodplain,“ Franklin says. ”We are making sure these facilities are being built in a sustainable fashion.”
TPWF has helped lead the fundraising effort for development, leveraging private donations — such as those coming from H-E-B — with $21 million in public funds helping to pay for the park build-out. Field and Future by H-E-B is also helping to support TPWF projects like coastal conservation and black bear restoration in West Texas.
To Leslie Sweet, who talks as easily about her own family adventures as she does the need to honor the legacy of early H-E-B CEO Howard Butt and his wife Mary Elizabeth Butt, H-E-B’s commitment to conservation goes beyond simply saving green space, recreation or habitat restoration. State parks provide homes to at least 50 endangered and threatened species. Texas’ shared public green spaces are also a priceless therapeutic resource. Emerging from the confusion and isolation of the COVID pandemic, many Texans are facing serious mental-health woes (with children some of the most vulnerable), while doctors and public-health officials regard the outdoors as a way to help people feel better.
“We‘re increasing our funding of mental health support to meet the needs of so many Texans facing lingering mental health impacts from the pandemic, and we see the parks and access to nature as a valuable mental health support, too,” said Sweet.
With 89 state parks across Texas, there is no shortage of opportunities for today’s Texans to find a place to rest, relax and recreate, and nearly 10 million state park visitors annually agree. Even if Governor Neff didn’t anticipate the mental health benefits of parks in 1923, it’s easy to see how his vision dovetails with the promise of public welfare TPWD represents today.
With the help of H-E-B and TPWF, the agency is hoping everybody in Texas gets the message. With special programming taking place next year from Village Creek State Park in East Texas to Big Bend Ranch State Park way out West — and every park in between — statewide contests, an updated online app, a Centennial-focused park guide, a special May 2023 issue of the Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine and park-themed television coverage from the TPWD PBS series, as well as a paid-media blitz coming in May, opportunities to get in on centennial fun will be everywhere.
About the Author
Avid outdoorsman and award-winning freelance writer Dan Oko is a 2021 We Will Not Be Tamed Ambassador for Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation (TPWF). He channels his passion for the outdoors into his work, and his articles have appeared in a wide range of outlets including Texas Monthly, Adventure Journal, Outside, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas Highways and Garden & Gun. Dan loves spending time outdoors with his wife and teenage daughter, and they’ve made many memories together camping and hiking in Texas State Parks. Dan also loves fly-fishing, backpacking and mountain biking. Follow Dan @danoko
Photos by Chase Fountain