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Bush record on land use in Texas

By Kurt Hubler, KERA 90.1 Reporter

Dallas, TX – Kurt Hubler, KERA 90.1 Reporter: In a speech, delivered last September in Washington state, Texas Governor George W. Bush criticized the Clinton/Gore administration for a lack of action in addressing the needs of the nation?s park system.

George W. Bush, Governor of Texas and Republican Presidential Candidate (taken from NPR archive, September, 2000): Their failure to make maintenance a priority has left our parks at risk and at the breaking point. The backlog of repairs runs into the billions of dollars. For eight years this administration has talked of environmentalism while our national parks are crumbling.

Hubler: Officials with the National Park and Wildlife Association concede some sites are in need of repair. However, they say that?s because Congress has deferred maintenance for 30 years. Governor Bush says he will propose an additional five billion dollars to the national park system over a five-year period if he?s elected President. Yet according to a report by the State Auditors Office in 1998, Texas parks have a maintenance backlog of their own, amounting to 123 million dollars. The report also says they only receive 80% of what they need each year for operations. The state controller?s office says that makes Texas 48th in the nation in per capita spending on state parks and recreation.

[Ambient sound from a forest trail]

Chris True, Assistant Park Manager, Cedar Hill State Park: Seen three or four bobcats in the last couple of weeks. Some of them, in a couple of different instances, they actually had rabbits in their mouths, so they?re out there working for their food.

Hubler: Chris True is Assistant Park Manager for Cedar Hill State Park. Located almost 30 miles south of downtown Dallas, Cedar Hill covers over 1,800 acres of land and includes Joe Poole Lake. True says Cedar Hill is one of the busiest parks in Texas, due to its proximity to Dallas-Fort Worth, so upkeep is a priority.

True: Trail maintenance, doing things out on the mountain bike trail and the hiking trail. And of course everyday maintenance: litter pick-up, cleaning of the restrooms, all of those things that are important to operate a park.

Hubler: Environmentalists say Governor Bush has ignored the everyday maintenance for state parks. Texas Sierra Club Natural Resources Director Brian Sybert says last year Republican lawmakers attempted to get more money for parks by raising the cap on the state?s sporting goods tax, the second largest source of income for parks behind visitor fees. That proposal never made it to committee.

Brian Sybert, Natural Resources Director, Texas Sierra Club: That is capped right now at 32 million, 16 million going to state parks, 16 going to municipal parks. And obviously it costs a lot more than 16 million a year to run the state park system. And in our last legislative session in ?99, we had an initiative that would have raised that cap. Once again, there was no support from Bush on that. He remains silent on it and pretty much allowed a few powerful members of the state legislature kill the initiative who are against the idea of providing more funds to parks and wildlife.

Bob Cook, Chief Operations Officer, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department: It appears to be that that would be a good thing to tap into.

Hubler: Bob Cook is Chief Operations Officer for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He disagrees with the Sierra Club?s assessment of the sporting goods tax, saying that lifting the cap to benefit his department would take away from other state programs.

Cook: There is nothing exclusive to that that says a tax on this is going to parks and wildlife to do more for parks.

Hubler: However, according to the State Controller?s Office, the money from the sporting goods tax is earmarked for the state parks. Still, Cook says during the last legislative session the parks and wildlife budget received an increase of seven million dollars. He adds there is also the 60 million dollar bond program signed by Governor Bush to address critical repair needs. While that only covers about half of the maintenance backlog, Cook says it?s a step in the right direction.

Cook: So what that means is we?re going to have to go back to the legislature - and we?re in communication with them right now - go back to the legislature and say here?s what we did with the 60 from before. And it looks good. I wouldn?t just propose going, ?Give me 123 million dollars and I?ll solve all the problems.? You?ve got to gauge those things out - take priority issues, deal with them.

Hubler: To further address land use concerns in Texas, Governor Bush established a Conservation Task Force earlier this year. He commissioned its members to prioritize the state?s recreation and conservation needs for the 21st century. The committee?s chair, Carol Dinkins, who is also the Vice-Chair for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, says the growth of the park system is one of their concerns.

Carol Dinkins, Vice-Chair, Texas Parks & Wildlife Commission and Chair, Conservation Task Force: The task force has talked about the issue of access for our growing population and whether we will have needs for the future to make sure people in urban areas, for example, have state parks that are within easy proximity or that would not be too difficult to get to.

Hubler: The task force?s final draft, released last Thursday, does recommend giving local governments tax incentives to purchase more park land and upgrade current facilities. Under the Bush administration, Texas has not purchased any new lands. Rather, the expansion of parks and sensitive ecological sites has come through private donations. The Sierra Club?s Brian Sybert believes that needs to change in order to ensure the state?s natural resources.

Sybert: Given a state the size of Texas and the population of Texas we cannot rely solely upon private organizations. There is no way they can acquire, by themselves, enough land - though they can do a very good job and help out - relying solely upon them is not going to take care of the problem.

Hubler: The Governor?s Conservation Task Force also favors tax incentives for landowners who restrict commercial development and use their property for plant and wildlife preservation. That approach is like the one Governor Bush has endorsed during his campaign for President. He wants states and the public, not the federal government, to determine how private property is used. The main conservation debate during the Presidential campaign has been over Bush?s desire to drill in the Alaska Arctic Wildlife Refuge to drive down the price of oil. Critics say one need look no further than the history of leaks from Texas? pipelines and offshore sites as reason to stay out of the fragile tundra area. But the governor says new technology has minimized the risk of accidents. John Fischer, a Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Texas, agrees the techniques used today are effective. Fischer, a one time Assistant Secretary of the Interior under President Ford, also says Americans must decide whether they want oil or environmental peace of mind.

John Fischer, Professor of Geological Sciences, University of Texas at Austin: You have to drill where you think the oil accumulations are. But if your tolerance level is for absolutely no impact, why of course that would be entirely inconsistent with any kind of development.

Hubler: Governor Bush says his ideas would mean a new era of environmental protection, and that things are better now under his administration than [they] have been in the past. Meanwhile, critics like the Sierra Club say the Governor is only playing lip service to the environment in order to reach the White House. Governor Bush will formally receive his Conservation Task Force proposals on November 1st. Whether or not he acts on those recommendations may be determined by the election, come November 7th. For KERA 90.1, I?m Kurt Hubler.