A half-century of service

TPWD celebrates 50 years of caring for Texas’ wild places and creatures
BY LOUIE BOND
Texas Parks And Wildlife

An agency is born.

While we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as we know it today, the mission of protecting the state’s natural resources actually began in 1895 with the creation of the Fish and Oyster Commission.

A Game Department was added in 1907, and a State Parks Board was created as a separate entity in 1923. In 1963, all interests were merged to form the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

For two decades after that, county governments could veto TPWD regulations, but passage of the Wildlife Conservation Act in 1983 gave the agency authority to manage fish and wildlife resources for all counties in Texas.

Texas parks began to bloom before 1963, of course. The work of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s laid the foundation for the park system we have today.

So many years later, park visitors are still moved by the nostalgic beauty of the Bastrop State Park cabins, the iconic Indian Lodge and Palo Duro Canyon’s rugged rock buildings.

Through challenges and triumphs, the philosophy behind the agency’s mission — “to manage and conserve the natural and cultural resources of Texas and to provide hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation opportunities for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations” — has been its guiding force throughout the past five decades.

Crown jewels of parkland

The Texas Legislature began acquiring land tracts for preservation as early as 1883, and by 1963, there were 58 parks, designated back then as recreational, scenic and historical parks and state historic sites.

Big changes came in 1967, with the first-ever bond issue for a $75 million state park acquisition and development program.

With these funds, parks like prehistoric Dinosaur Valley and the urban oasis of McKinney Falls were birthed.

The soothing waters in parks like Pedernales Falls, Galveston Island, Lake Livingston and Guadalupe River give Texans respite from summer’s heat.

Enchanted Rock draws climbers to its mystical summit, and each fall, scores make the pilgrimage to Lost Maples to see the riotous display of color.

Natural wonders like Devil’s Sinkhole and historical treasures like Seminole Canyon have been protected and preserved during the past half-century.

In 1988, Big Bend Ranch State Park became the largest tract ever acquired. Its 215,000 acres doubled state parkland.

In 2012, more than 8 million people visited the state’s 95 parks, historic sites and natural areas.

Enhancing the experience

Interpretation efforts got a jumpstart in 1965, with the development of an interpretive master plan for each state park.

Interpretation is really anything that helps visitors enjoy and appreciate their state park experiences.

It ranges from simple rustic signage along trails to accurate, detailed historical re-creations. The Texas Outdoor Family Program was created in 2008.

It’s an inexpensive opportunity for families to learn to camp with experts to guide them and gear provided.

A quick look at the state park website events page shows that park programs offer myriad ways to have inexpensive fun in the most beautiful settings, no matter what your age or interest.

Did you know that fishing is free in state parks and that some parks even provide loaner gear? Crystal skies out west invite stargazing parties; wildlife watching programs offer a look at creatures that crawl, swim, fly and slither.

Need to burn off energy? Try horseback riding, mountain biking, road racing or rock climbing.

TPWD’s work to preserve cultural resources can be seen at exhibits like LBJ State Park’s Sauer-Beckmann Farm, where visitors can imagine themselves living in 1918 Texas.

What better way to experience the times and efforts of the state’s founding fathers than to immerse yourself in their world through historical re-enactments at Washington-on-the-Brazos?

View the San Jacinto Battleground from the deck of the nearby Battleship Texas, which has a rich history of its own. Buffalo Soldiers remind us not only of the lives of those historic soldiers, but also of the rich cultural diversity that makes Texas great.

Even the earliest settlers were inspired by the flora and fauna of this land, as you can see in the pictographs at Hueco Tanks. History comes to life for all of us, thanks to the efforts of TPWD through the past 50 years.

Helping animals survive

From the most obscure endangered species of salamander to the most sought-after game species of deer, TPWD biologists work to ensure that Texas’ diverse creatures survive and thrive.

Before TPWD’s creation in 1963, state wildlife biologists dealt primarily with game harvest recommendat ions and restocking.

While these duties remain critical today, the Wildlife Division now oversees 49 wildlife management areas and conducts a multitude of tasks critical to conserving the state’s fauna, both game and nongame.

Texans don’t love just the animals they hunt and eat, and TPWD biologists work hard to protect nongame species that are part of the great diversity of wildlife here.

Texas is home to thousands of native animal and plant species. The first state list of endangered species was published in 1974, with five mammals, nine birds, two reptiles, five amphibians and five fish. Today, TPWD biologists maintain the Texas Natural Diversity Database and implement the Texas Conservation Action Plan.

They work not only to protect endangered species like ocelots, golden-cheeked warblers and the Houston toad, but also to prevent other native species from becoming rare.

Through the years, TPWD has released desert bighorn sheep at Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, Sierra Diablo WMA, Elephant Mountain WMA and other areas, resulting in seven thriving herds.

Another success story is the agency role in the recovery of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, accomplished in partnership with Mexico, offering greater protection of nesting females and their eggs from predators and requiring the use of turtle excluder devices in shrimp trawls.

The Texas state bison herd, the last pure Southern Plains wild bison, roams Caprock Canyons State Park. Pelicans, quail, prairie chickens and other species have been the focus of agency efforts throughout the past half-century.

Hunting legacy

It starts in late summer, when that unexpected cool evening breeze reminds us of campfires and chili.

We make trips to the sporting goods store to try out the newest gear, dreaming about and planning for that fall day when we can head to the woods to assuage our whitetail fever. Nearly 700,000 hunters participate in the sport each year.

Managing a herd of millions of deer in a state the size of Texas takes a great deal of research and effort.

Funded by an excise tax on guns and ammunition, restocking efforts for white-tailed deer continued until 1994.

That program was almost too successful, leading to overpopulation of deer in some areas. As a result, antlerless deer harvesting began in certain areas, as well as a lengthened season and an either-sex system of bag limits.

Responsible hunting practices began with the first bag limits on whitetails and turkeys in 1907, and the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 ensured funding for wildlife management and research for decades to follow.

The Texas Migratory Game Bird Stamp program, started in 1982, has been one of the most financially successful state programs in the nation, with revenue helping TPWD to acquire and manage habitat and fund research.

In the 1980s, recognizing that there was not enough public land available to satisfy needs, TPWD began to lease large tracts of land for public hunting.

The program was an instant success, growing to nearly one million acres of land now available to Texas hunters.

State hunter education programs, mandatory since 1988, ensure that every hunter goes out into the field prepared to shoot safely. Home- study materials became available in 1999.

The Texas Youth Hunting Program was formed with the Texas Wildlife Association to provide hunting opportunities for young people, including those with special needs.

Getting kids outdoors

TPWD has been dedicated to educating and inspiring Texas youth to enjoy and protect the state’s natural treasures.

As early as 1963, kids enjoyed a traveling wildlife exhibit at fairs and community events, a tractor-trailer rig filled with various wild native animals that wardens jokingly called “ The Possum Show.”

Project Wild launched in 1985 to provide public school curriculum about natural resources.


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