This summer the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department celebrated its 50th anniversary. To mark the occasion TPWD Executive Director Carter Smith sat down with StateImpact Texas to talk about the history of the Department, and what climate change means for Parks’ future.
One interesting historical nugget?
Smith began the interview mentioning how how an illegal dove hunting trip by Lyndon Baines Johnson (and a run-in with a game warden) helped create the modern day TPWD.
MOSE BUCHELE: So LBJ figures into this somehow?
SMITH: Well, as the story goes, LBJ was dove hunting after legal shooting hours in hill country with several other well known hill country politicians and one of our game wardens, Grover Simpson, who was a legendary figure, came upon them shooting after sunset. And when he pulled into the pasture he saw three men around a truck and when he pulled up there were only two.
And after a brief conversation he looked over and saw a figure hunched down inside the car at which point Mr. Simpson made an inquiry about the individual in the car, in something less than very flattering terms, and much to his surprise Lyndon Banes Johnson stepped out of the car and who was none too happy about what he had been called.
A lot of interest was then placed on Mr. Simpson’s job and whether or not he should continue on in the department and so forth. But that began a bit of dissatisfaction with the Game and Fsh Commission and other issues then contributed, again, to circumstances that ultimately resulted in the merger.
BUCHELE: I can’t imagine LBJ trying to hide in the back of a car he was a pretty tall guy!
SMITH: (laughing) Well, unmistakable I think in retrospect. So it’s a wonderful story and a great part of the parks and wildlife lore.
BUCHELE: So I want to talk about both some accomplishments and some challenges that parks has seen and maybe anticipates in the future. Let’s start with some of the accomplishment.
SMITH: Well I think by most any measure the last fifty years have been the golden years for the department. The state parks system has doubled in size. That’s a wonderful thing. Redfish were saved from the gill netters, we now have big horned sheep back on mountain tops in West Texas, the brown pelicans have been taken off the endangered species list, we have more deer and doves and ducks than any other state as well as more deer, dove and duck hunters.
BUCHELE: One of the things that has been a challenge, at least recently, is funding.
SMITH: In the recent legislative session, we made some real headway in that regard. Many thanks to the leadership in the legislature who made it abundantly clear that they wanted to try to bring back resources to support not only the state parks system but also to make some critical investments in fishing and wildlife management and conservation that were needed, as well as help some emergency items like the restoration and reclamation at Bastrop state park following the catastrophic fires of 2011.
BUCHELE: Right, because like a lot of departments the budget had actually been cut previous to that so you saw some refunding in this most recent legislative session?
SMITH: We did. 2011 was no doubt a very difficult time for the department. We had been asked to cut back on our budget by over 20 percent that then was exacerbated by record drought and heat and wildfires, all of which had a very significant bearing on our stewardship of the public land. And also helping to generate user-based revenue to help support the department based programs.
BUCHELE: This is something a lot of climatologists predict is likely to increase this kind of extreme weather in the future. As someone who is responsible for so much land, and that is actively seeking to get people out and have experiences on that land. Is this something that parks has on its radar in terms of how it might change parks operations?
SMITH: Just the last five, six or seven years we’ve seen some extraordinary extremes of weather with hurricane Rita, hurricane Ike, the labor day fires, not only at Bastrop but all over the state. We have experienced some very significant weather extremes as well as record drought and record heat and everything we hear from scientists is that those patterns are likely to continue.
So we spend a lot of time thinking about our infrastructure and making sure that we’re as prepared as possible for those kinds of extremes of nature with respect to our planning and building and design and repairs and we spend a lot of time thinking about the safety of our visitors to remote and rural sites and making sure we have appropriate measures to extricate them in times of danger. But we also spend a lot of time planning and acting upon how we make sure that we’re doing everything possible for fish and wildlife populations to be able to adapt to changes in temperature and climate and habitat.
BUCHELE: I know that for example climatologists believe and biologists believe that populations like the dove population might be impacted by climate change. There are other species that would also change their range. And so because ya’ll are managing those populations I guess that’s something else that you need to pay attention to.
SMITH: Well we do. Fish and wildlife populations are very sensitive to minute changes in weather they all have very specific thermal tolerance zones and some species that are more generalists like doves – white wing doves in particular – have proven readily adaptable as they have moved their range further and further northward. In fact we see more white wing doves nesting now in major metropolitan areas than we saw, or than we see, in the lower Rio Grand Valley, which was the former epicenter for those populations.
But our fish and wildlife biologists have documented well over seventy species of fish and wildlife that we’ve seen range changes over time in recent years and that’s everything from sub tropical species like green jays and great kiskadees that have moved up from the rear grand valley and into the northern reaches of South Texas. As well as plants like red mangrove that we’re starting to see move out of the Boca Chica area and up the coast, and species like Snook that we’re finding further up the coast.
so it’s certainly interesting to monitor how fish and wildlife adapt to minute changes in weather and climate and as biologists and stewards we have to make sure that we’re advertent to those changes and are responsible to those movements so we can effectively manage them.
BUCHELE: Carter Smith thank you for talking with me about all of this today.
SMITH: Thanks Mose.
This interview was edited for clarity.