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Selling the future short


Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (07/14/2006)
By Jack Z. Smith

SAN MARCOS, TEXAS — Andy Sansom lovingly recalls a summer Boy Scout trip made decades ago to Garner State Park in Texas' picturesque Hill Country when he was about 11.

He has magical memories of camping, canoeing and escaping the broiling heat via leisurely swims in the Frio River. He gained a sense of accomplishment from climbing a steep cliff and helping a fellow scout make it to the top. He experienced “close encounters” with nature, including picking up a “bullbat” (nighthawk) nesting in the sand. He danced with girls at the park pavilion.

Sansom says he is "still marked" by that trip to Garner, one of those boyhood experiences that helped shape his future. He eventually would become executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, serving with distinction from 1990 to 2001.

He is now a research professor and executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University in San Marcos. But he still keeps close tabs on the state parks system, which consists of 114 wonderfully diverse parks and natural areas.

He laments that the system is suffering from a severe funding crisis and an alarming decline, which has been chronicled recently in the Star-Telegram and other Texas newspapers. Ten parks facilities have been divested, portions of various parks have been shut down, and maintenance has been grossly neg-lected. This is all the result of shortsightedness and indifference by top state officials and the Legislature.

As I wrote a week ago, the best hope of turning the parks system around is a new State Parks Advisory Committee appointed by Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission Chairman Joseph Fitzsimons to explore funding options. Sansom is a member of the advisory body, which includes strong and politically well-connected advocates who already have made it clear that a large increase in funding is crucial to reversing the parks' decline.

The sad state of the parks is particularly troubling to Sansom because he knows firsthand the great fun and learning experiences that these facilities provide for children.

I share those feelings. With Texas' population exploding and open space shrinking with each new subdivision and freeway, we should be expanding and improving our parks system.

Our children would be the biggest beneficiaries.

In contrast to a century ago, Texas' population is overwhelmingly urban. But there was a time when the majority of kids grew up on farms or ranches. They were regularly exposed to the outdoors and all the splendid learning, confidence-building and imagination-enhancing experiences it offers. Today, however, most kids live in bigger cities and are much more removed from nature.

In the 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, author Richard Louv contends that the shrinking connection with nature could be contributing to childhood problems such as obesity, depression and attention deficit disorder.

I think he's on to something. As with Sansom, some of my best memories of boyhood involve time spent outdoors. When I was growing up in Northeast Texas, my family frequented state parks. Daingerfield, Tyler and Caddo Lake were among our favorites. I particularly enjoyed swimming, hiking, canoeing, picnicking and learning about plants and wildlife.

My wife, Nina, and I continued the tradition with our two daughters, Amanda and Amber, who grew up in Fort Worth. Dinosaur Valley State Park outside Glen Rose and Mineral Wells Lake State Park in far west Parker County were among the places where they enjoyed swimming, hiking, picnicking and experiencing nature close-up.

As Sansom notes, low- and moderate-income families can find no better bargain than a good state park for a super-cheap vacation or weekend getaway. Parks are premier places for families to bond and strengthen their relationships minus the distractions of TV and the Internet.

Texas politicians, from Gov. Rick Perry on down to freshman legislators, love to yak about “family values.”

If they're so keen on family values, why have they been financially starving the state parks system for years?