Seventy-five miles west of Fort Worth, a hilly parcel of ranchland is making the transformation into the first new state park since the birding hotspot of Resaca de la Palma swung open its gates near Brownsville in 2008. Known as Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, it’s one of six sites around the state that are in various stages of the park creation process.
As you’d expect, it takes a lot of work—and more than a dollop of patience—to transform a chunk of land into a park where the public can hike, camp, and bike.
“Different parks have different birthing stories,” says Rodney Franklin, Texas State Parks division director.
Typically, the process begins with either the donation of land or the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department identifies land it wishes to purchase with available funds. Before acquiring it, though, natural resource specialists and biologists check to see if the parcel is home to any special flora or fauna, or any liabilities.
“Is it golden-cheeked warbler habitat? Is there a special or endangered species of plant we need to know about? Does the landscape lend itself to trails or camping, or other outdoor recreational activities?” Franklin says. “There’s not a lot of public land in Texas, so larger tracts are what typically attract us. And sometimes we look at a piece of property and see if it might be better suited to a wildlife management area than a state park.”
Priority often goes to expanding existing parks rather than creating new ones, but if the property passes muster and the state decides to acquire it, crews do a complete assessment and begin the general planning phase. This involves the examination of land and aerial surveys by planners as they begin to lay out the park, basing park features on the landscape and topography.
“We get public input for that process, to find out what amenities the public would like to see,” Franklin says. “Then we work with the infrastructure division to start designing what we want to build.”
Construction documents are developed, the project is put out for bidding and, finally, the building process begins.
“That takes several years, and is contingent upon funding,” Franklin says. The department must balance new park projects with its current $900 million backlog of deferred park maintenance projects, he adds.
In the case of Palo Pinto Mountains, the department is working with the nonprofit Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation to make the park a reality. Some state funding is available, but the foundation is working to raise $9 million to help build it out with roads, utilities, and facilities.
TPWD purchased the first 3,000 acres of the Palo Pinto Mountains property in 2011, using funds it received after selling land it owned on Eagle Mountain Lake in Fort Worth. (That parcel, deemed too small and unsuitable for a state park, was turned into a local park.) Adjacent property was purchased later, and when it’s finished, Palo Pinto Mountains State Park will comprise 4,871 acres, complete with a meandering creek, 90-acre lake, and spectacular vistas. While no opening date has been set, the park could be seeing visitors in two years.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is also working to create the Albert & Bessie Kronkosky State Natural Area northwest of San Antonio, Powderhorn Wildlife Management Area near Matagorda Bay, Chinati Mountains State Natural Area in the Big Bend region, Davis Hill State Park northeast of Houston, and a second unit of Devils River State Natural Area near Del Rio.
“This past year has shown us how important it is to connect with nature and get outside,” Franklin says. “The demand for parks is through the roof right now. A lot of people are wanting to get outside, and the population of Texas is growing. We need to try to meet that demand by adding to the availability of public land.”