Does Texas actually care about its land? The Pending Loss of Fairfield Lake State Park
Sometime in the fall I started a Substack newsletter where I was hoping to focus my writing efforts on Texas nature and environmental writing. I was going to re-purpose some blog posts here but also work on focusing on other important environmental news efforts in the state. It was a different kind of writing than what I typically share here, which is sometimes rambling and a lot more personal. The Substack was a way for me to stretch my writing skills and write for a different audience. If you haven’t heard of Substack, it’s a newsletter platform that allows writers to be paid if they want, so you can write public posts or write only for subscribers. I don’t have a big enough audience for a payment situation at the moment but if you feel so inclined you can subscribe for free and read here: On Texas Nature. I only write once or twice a month currently, though maybe a bit more with the topic I’ve been writing about recently, which is the loss of a Texas state park to a developer.
I’m going to re-post yesterday’s essay for readers here but also because I don’t believe Substack is indexed by search engines, though there seems to possibly be a way to do it yourself. I need to research that a bit.
Alright, onto the essay….
Fairfield Lake State Park camping trip, June 2016.
Not that I wasn’t already questioning the leadership of the state since moving back to Texas in 2010, but the events surrounding the likely loss of Fairfield Lake State Park from our park system has me questioning the seriousness of those in power about how much they actually care about the state. Paired with what I see as an extreme increase in litter along roadsides, if Lady Bird Johnson were still alive she’d be having fits about the state of her roadside beautification efforts.
2023 is the 100th Anniversary Celebration of Texas State Parks. Let’s talk about the irony of state officials knowing this was coming up and simultaneously knowing Fairfield Lake State Park was in dire danger of being sold out from underneath TPWD, and then the state waiting until the last 10 seconds of the game to attempt to score the first touchdown for the team. Ok, that’s a terrible metaphor but if I throw football into this essay maybe someone in Texas will take me seriously? That’s one thing we do care for, CTE in our children be damned! I digress…
Since beginning to draft this essay, the official news is out: Fairfield Lake State Park is to close permanently on February 28. It’s what I was expecting after I emailed several representatives of mine. My state representatives Cecil Bell, Jr. and Paul Bettencourt sent acknowledgement emails but sent no actual reply to my concerns. Senator Cornyn also sent an acknowledgement email and I got no reply from Cancún Ted. Nothing from Governor Abbott’s office either. Representative Morgan Luttrell punted the issue back to me contacting my state reps. The only person who took the time to reply to me was Rodney Franklin, the Division Director for Texas State Parks. I’m unsure if he had a blanket statement already prepared and tailored it, but either way, I did appreciate an actual email reply being sent back to me. However, it was clear by the demeanor of the email there was no way TPWD was fighting as hard as they could have been all along to preserve the park. His email is below (you may have to zoom in or click through to Flickr a bit to read it):
There are several things in this email that give me pause and are seemingly contradictory such as “prior to 18 months ago TPWD did not have the land acquisition authority to purchase land” and “$110 million was out of the price range of state operational budget.” Yet, they were tripping over their feet these last six weeks willing to throw down the money to purchase the entire tract of land for sale, not just the current state park footprint. Don’t forget, Texas has a budget surplus of $27 billion, possibly $35 billion— yes with a B. Vistra Corp., the previous owners of the land the state park was leased from, didn’t enter into an agreement to sell the land to Todd Interests out of Dallas until mid-2022. I would presume that budget surplus was there a year ago so it isn’t like the money wasn’t available before—the state could have used it to purchase the property before Vistra found Todd Interests. The problem was they were so hung up on hoping the new owners would just let the lease stand, or that they could negotiate buying only the state park tracts, that they lost valuable time and the whole thing was ripped away from them. They fumbled the entire thing.
Over the last month I’ve read almost every article that I can find about the state park sale that hasn’t been behind a paywall, and the only person quoted who seems to have at least tried hard enough the last several months to negotiate for keeping the state park was Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission Chairman Arch H. “Beaver” Applin, III, otherwise known as the owner of Buc-ee’s.
“We never got to first base,” Aplin said. “The answer was, ‘No, we’re not splitting it, we’re doing it as one sale.”
In that same article, TPWD’s Executive Director David Yoskowitz mentions the 2019 amendment for a sporting goods tax to fund TPWD more and that it was “a game changer for the department”, which meant they now had the money to purchase the entire 5,000 acres for sale.
Ok. So, let’s break that down a bit here:
- Vistra Corp. closes the power plant on the lake in 2018.
- In 2019, Vistra makes it known they are looking to start the bid process to find a new owner.
- The Texas Tribune did a fairly detailed write-up in February of 2019 about the potential sale—again, it isn’t like the state wasn’t aware of the situation. They just wanted to keep the status quo of leasing without doing any of the effort in actually preserving the land outright.
- By late 2021 it’s really on the market and being talked about more on media outlets.
- In early 2022, Texas Public Radio covers it again, interviewing campers at the state park as well as Rodney Franklin. Still hoping for that lease extension!
- And by sometime in mid-2022 the seller found Todd Interests out of Dallas and began entering into agreements to finalize the purchase of the land. There’s not a lot written about this time period and it wasn’t even until about two weeks ago that we had a name for the purchaser, who is planning multi-million dollar second homes and a golf course. Of course, starting at the end of December 2022 is when the flurry of news reports about the imminent sale began proliferating and you can read more about some of those articles in my first newsletter about the loss of the state park.
According to Stephanie Salinas Garcia with the TPWD Press Office, “The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will continue to operate under the existing lease with Luminant, Inc. We hope to continue the lease with the new owners in the future.” – 2019
In a legislative hearing last week, state Senator Charles Schwertner, a Republican from Georgetown who represents Fairfield, asked TPWD Executive Director Carter Smith about the situation. “It would be our hope that we could continue to see that lease extended with the new buyer of that property so that the state park did not go away, but ultimately we’re going to be at the mercy of the new owner,” Smith told Schwertner. -2019
“Well, certainly that is a very steep price tag, and we try to make the most of the available dollars that we have,” he said. “Our goal has been and continues to be, hopefully, to find a willing partner and a suitable partner like Luminant has been and to work with the whoever the new owners end up being to enter into a similar agreement that we have, so we can continue to provide Fairfield Lake State Park as a resource for people to come and enjoy the outdoors.”
When the closure was announced yesterday by Texas Parks and Wildlife on social media all of their comment sections were lit with irate residents who had frequented the park. Many had no clue this was happening, not much different than I was last month when I happened to see a hunting advocacy group posting about it on Instagram. The only difference is that I’ve had a month to ruminate on it. Sure, there were those news articles over the last few years but not a lot of people read newspapers these days, much less news online.
What’s more infuriating are the comments from representatives that TPWD shared in their photo slides.
“Today’s heartbreaking announcement of the closing of Fairfield Lake State Park is a tremendous loss for Freestone County and all Texans who enjoy our state’s unique parklands. It is unfortunate that Vistra and this private developer were unable to come to an agreement that would have allowed the state of Texas to purchase the park from Vistra to maintain it for future generations of Texans.”
-Senator Charles Schwertner, Senate District 5
“I have said repeatedly, Texas cannot lose a state park to development. Fairfield Lake State Park is a treasure that Texas residents have been visiting for 47 years to experience its beauty and recreational activities. The park cannot be replaced. 80,000 hardworking Texans will lose a place of solitude, sport fishing, and priceless memory making if the park is closed. We must make every effort possible to keep the land as a state park.”
-Senator Charles Perry, Chairman of the Senate water, Agriculture, & Rural Affairs Committee
“The recent announcement about the closure of Fairfield State Park is a huge disappointment. The prospect of a developer taking this treasure out of our state park system is deeply troubling, especially at a time when both the Governor and members of the Legislature have called for the expansion of state parks across the state. I plan to work with members of my committee to determine how we can prevent this practice from occurring in the future.”
-Representative Trent Ashby, Chairman of the House Culture, Recreation & Tourism Committee
“I am very disappointed to get this announcement. I strongly encourage Vistra and the potential buyer to continue working with the Legislature and the Department for a better solution for all Texans. Keeping all of our state parks open to the public is, and will remain, a top priority for me.”
-Representative Ken King, Former Chairman of the House Culture, Recreation & Tourism Committee
“Despite great efforts by the community, local elected officials and Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, Fairfield Lake State Park appears to have been sold to a developer and now will be closed in the coming weeks. I join park lovers in Freestone County and across the state in expression my sincere disappointment in hearing this news. As a result, we are now working on legislation to prevent this from ever occurring in any of our other beautiful state parks going forward.”
-Representative Angelia Orr, House District 13
It’s a day late and a dollar short for all of this caring, don’t you think? Where in the hell was this concern a year ago? Six months ago? Three years ago? It isn’t like this wasn’t a known possibility, and it was continually passed off as “we’re hoping to keep leasing the land.” *insert facepalm emoji here* Complete ineptitude. At least four years of pussyfooting around and when it was clear the park was slipping from their grasp only did action occur.
There were no great efforts. There wasn’t a top priority. If you cared about not losing this to development why didn’t you buy it before Todd Interests bought it? Why didn’t you spend a little bit of that budget surplus to buy the current property and expand the state park system as you say you care about doing, and buy the extra land Vistra was selling and expand the state park? Every single one of these quotes are lip service to constituents. And at Rep. Orr’s “appears to have been sold”, what in the hell kind of comment is that? I was going to give her a little grace because it is her first term as Rep, but she was a District Clerk and District Director for this very same region she’s representing and honestly, how could you not know? (late edit: Rep Orr has filed House Bill 2332 in an effort to use eminent domain to acquire property to preserve the state park)
This all brings me back full circle to the title of this post. Does Texas actually care about its land? Do the people who are elected to represent us actually care about the water, air, soil, flora, and fauna that make this state unique?
I don’t think so.
If they did, they wouldn’t be losing a state park to a developer the same year they are celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Texas State Parks.
Patrice La Vigne
I don’t think I got your newsletter on this topic, but I was following along your social posts. The outcome is so disappointing! But your post is so well written and really exposing how little emphasis recreation gets from the political side.
Nice write up. Sounds about spot on for what my prejudices would tell me about conservation in TX. In the other “T” state, Tennessee has a thriving state park system despite being an extremely conservative state. Public lands are highly cherished by both the public and politicians here. We add a new park every 5-10 years and they are all free. Come up and visit sometime. Hope things can improve there!