My Best Friend Is a Park
It takes a village to nurture and protect Texas state parks.
By Rob McCorkle
You can’t have too many friends, according to the old saying, and it’s a maxim that bears fruit for a majority of Texas state parks. Today, more than 50 friends groups partner with state parks and historic sites, providing much-needed brain, brawn and bounty to keep the parks humming along efficiently.
Friends groups have been around since 1955, when the Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park Association was formed to help the “Birthplace of Texas Independence.” The organization continues to this day, supplying volunteers and raising funds to support such heavily attended annual events as the Texas Independence Day and July 4 celebrations.
To understand the importance of the role that friends groups play in support of Texas state parks, Kevin Good, special assistant to the state parks director, cites the case of Monahans Sandhills State Park.
With significant budget cuts facing the state park system in the early 1990s, the West Texas park proposed shutting down its campground to save money. Good says that prompted Kitty Dunagan to form the Friends of Monahans Sandhills, which raised $9,000 to keep the campgrounds open and contributed another $1,000 to establish a park endowment. The Monahans endowment, the first in the state park system, has grown to roughly $250,000, according to Good.
But the Monahans organization wasn’t finished. In 1994, the friends group approached TPWD’s then-Executive Director Andy Sansom about the park’s need to update its visitors center.
Monahans Sandhills State Park.
“Andy told them to get with the agency’s exhibit staff and told group leaders if they could raise half the money needed to bring the center up to speed and install new exhibits, the project would be moved to the top of the list,” recalls Good. “The price tag to remodel the center and install new exhibits came to $320,000. The group embarked on a fundraising campaign, and a year later they had the money. The renovated Kitty and Conrad Dunagan Visitor Center was dedicated in 1999 with TPW Commissioner Nolan Ryan in attendance.”
Galveston Island State Park was almost wiped off the map on Sept. 13, 2008, by Hurricane Ike, the most expensive hurricane to ever strike the Texas coast. The seaside campgrounds and headquarters were destroyed, and park officials faced 2,000 acres of debris the day after.
Agency officials lamented that it would take perhaps a couple of years to clean up and reopen the park. But ardent park supporters — many of them members of Friends of Galveston Island State Park — began showing up at the park with shovels and trash bags to clean up the devastation, tear damaged structures down to the studs, replant dune grasses and perform other necessary tasks. Within six months, the park opened to day users who were welcomed by FoGISP volunteers at the nature center, which had been renovated and repurposed to serve as the park’s new welcome center.
“Following the storm, the Friends of Galveston Island and volunteers from across the country exemplified how individuals standing behind their principles can pull together to accomplish in a short time what would have taken us as an agency years to complete on our own,” says Justin Rhodes, state parks Region 4 director.
Founded in 2001 by local supporters of the island park, the friends group boasts nearly 200 members who have logged countless volunteer hours. Organization members help fill the funding gap by augmenting park staff when needed, helping with the park’s preservation efforts and providing enriching experiences and education programs. Today, the state park is operating at near capacity with 30 bayside and 33 seaside campsites open for business.
Good says it was under Sansom’s leadership during the funding challenge of the early ’90s that TPWD’s friends group program began to pick up steam with a renewed interest in garnering more support for state parks from outside groups. The attitude toward friends groups went from a “sort of benign neglect to strong encouragement” to form more groups, Good says.
“More and more park managers began to see that creating a friends group could be a good thing because they needed the support and they knew it would be worth the investment of time and effort,” Good says.
Those investments of time and energy have paid handsome financial and human dividends over the past two decades at such places as Palo Duro Canyon State Park and the Battleship Texas, whose legislatively mandated Battleship Texas Commission has morphed over the years into a private but influential advisory board known today as the Battleship Texas Foundation. The Battleship Texas Foundation today claims more than 4,000 members who have raised and donated several million dollars to TPWD to keep the ship afloat and to educate the public about the history and current shape of the historic battleship.
The endowment for Palo Duro’s friends group, Partners in Palo Duro Canyon Foundation, has ballooned to almost a quarter-million dollars. The fund is tapped as needed to help purchase equipment, such as new all-terrain vehicles, heavy equipment and other critical supplies and materials. In spring 2012, TPWD officials gathered with Amarillo and Canyon community leaders for the dedication of a handsome new recreation hall (the Mack Dick Group Pavilion) built largely with private donations. Donations from the park’s friends group were used to purchase the interior/exterior furnishings, commercial kitchen appliances and audio/visual equipment.
“Some other groups worth noting would include the Friends of the Lost Pines and their efforts since the fire,” Good says. “The Devil’s Sinkhole Society provides the only public access to that site. The Palmetto group donated a cabin that is earning revenue for their site.”
Without the generous contribution of both time and money from thousands of friends throughout the state, the Texas state park system would have a much more difficult time maintaining the world-class status that all Texans have come to expect. There’s still plenty of room for you in the ranks of your local state park friends group. After all, couldn’t everyone use a few more friends?