After record heat and drought, Texas parks face crunch

JOHNSON CITY, Texas Tue Jan 17, 2012 6:11pm EST

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JOHNSON CITY, Texas (Reuters) - Who wants to go camping without a camp fire, hiking in 105-degree heat or fishing in a dry river? Not many people.

Many Texans stayed away from the 94 state parks during last year's historic drought and heat, prompting park officials to do something they have never done before: ask Texans directly for money to help keep parks open.

Via online videos, Facebook and e-mail appeals, the park system is seeking to raise $4.6 million, and to encourage visitors, which pays for about half of the parks' operating costs.

During the drought parks banned burning, which eliminated camp fires. Wildfires heavily damaged three state parks in 2011, the driest year on record in the Lone Star State and the second-hottest, according to the National Weather Service.

"Record drought and heat, devastating wildfires, and a drop in visitation have led to a critical situation for state parks," Carter Smith, executive Director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said in an email to park supporters on Tuesday.

Parks officials said last week they've raised nearly $1 million since they launched the campaign in early December. About half of the money raised is from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation.

"It is unusual, but we're in unusual times," Lydia Saldana, a spokeswoman for the Department, told Reuters.

Statewide, park revenue was down 25 percent in August 2011 compared to the previous August, park officials said.

The burn bans are being lifted, some rain has dampened the parched land, and wildfire-damaged parks have reopened.

At Pedernales Falls State Park in Johnson City - an hour west of Austin - about 5,100 people visited in August, compared to 11,700 in August 2010, said Rob McCorkle, a spokesman for the Department. But there are signs visitors are coming back. Visitation in December surpassed December 2010 at the park, McCorkle said.

On Sunday afternoon at Pedernales Falls, several dozen visitors in T-shirts or light jackets tossed rocks into the water, tugged on dog leashes or posed for photos. On a fleece blanket with a cowboy-boot pattern spread over a sandy area, a girl sat focused on an e-reader as a volleyball and a football rested near her feet.

Among the visitors enjoying the cloudy, breezy day -- and camping at the park -- were Houston-area residents Crickett and Jeff Simmons and their three boys, who had Martin Luther King, Jr. Day off from school on Monday.

"Whenever the weather's nice and we have a long weekend, that's when we go camping," said Crickett Simmons, a nursing student whose sons are 12, 10 and 8.

Nice weather did not describe many Texas days last summer and fall. At Bastrop State Park east of Austin, the situation was devastating: A Labor Day weekend fire reached 95 percent of the park.

For Austinite Caden Barrera, 10, that snuffed out his family's regular camping trip with neighbors at a special spot in Bastrop State Park. The family rebooked their trip for another state park, but canceled those plans when they learned they could not have a campfire there.

"Caden was totally bummed about not being able to go camping," said his mother, Gretchen Heber, founder of an online marketing firm. "Texans love their state parks."

So he fashioned an envelope from orange construction paper and tucked $3 or $4 inside as a donation, she said.

The heat and drought weren't the only challenges last year for state parks. The Legislature also cut the two-year parks budget about 16 percent, said Gene McCarty, the Department's deputy executive director for administration. There are now fewer workers to give public tours, he said.

David Weinberg, executive director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters, said he hopes that park officials raise the money they need but that it is unfortunate that the state is in this situation.

"Part of it is bad luck in terms of what's happened with drought and wildfires," Weinberg told Reuters. "But we are essentially having to socialize the cost of the park system because the state did not allocate enough money."

Barrera, the 10-year-old, was happy to chip in.

"To the people of Bastrop, I'm sorry for the fires going on," he wrote on the homemade orange envelope. "I hope this donation helps."

(Reporting By Corrie MacLaggan)

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