From archives: State plans park in Palo Pinto to serve North Texas

Planned Palo Pinto State Park. Photos from 2012

This is a story from 2012 about plans for the Palo Pinto Mountains State Park. We’ve reposted it because the state appears to be moving toward some funding for the park.

From 2012:

STRAWN – Located an hour-and-a-half from Fort Worth off Interstate 20, Texas’s newest state park stretches across more than 3,300 acres of mountainous terrain that was once traversed by Comanche warriors and dauntless cattlemen.

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Tentatively named Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, the future recreational area is undeveloped and closed to the public. But listen to Park Superintendent John Ferguson as he outlines the park’s potential while jostling across the wooded, corrugated landscape in his white Ford pickup.

Ferguson envisions the day when work-weary escapees from the Metroplex, or travelers from the Interstate, will be able to camp on secluded mountain ridges, hike along scenic overlooks, stalk bass and catfish in a 90-acre lake and enjoy a bounty of other recreational pursuits from bird-watching to mountain-biking.

Just when that day will come remains uncertain. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials must first develop a long-range master plan to convert former ranch land into what would ultimately be a small community with features such as a visitors center, restrooms, cabins, RV sites and paved roads.

Then there is also the serious matter of money.

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Future development could easily run into the millions, and these are tough times for the state park system. The Parks and Wildlife Department was forced to absorb a $150 million budget cut and a loss of about 230 positions in 2011 after Texas lawmakers slashed $15 billion in state spending.

Attendance and fee-driven revenue have fallen below expectations, in part because of drought, summer heat and last year’s wildfires that forced the temporary closure of two state parks.

Additionally, Gov. Rick Perry and legislative leaders are calling on state agencies to look for ways to reduce spending by 10 percent over the next two-year budget cycle, raising the prospect of another round of cuts for state parks.

Fort Worth attorney Ralph Duggins, vice-chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, says the department has thus far been able to avoid park closures but may be forced to consider closing “a park or two” in the event of further budget reductions.

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“I would just say everything is on the table,” Duggins told the Business Press, stressing that his opinions were personal and do not reflect the over-all view of the commission. “It’s too early to say, other than we’ve about wrung everything we can wring out.”

The Parks and Wildlife Department hasn’t set a timetable for opening the North Texas park. Texas Sierra Club leader Ken Kramer, who has have been following the park’s progress, says it could be years before the site is fully operational. He acknowledges that financing needed capital improvements at the park is “a big problem” in light of the tight budget climate.

The park land, carved primarily from two area ranches, was purchased in November of 2011 from money raised through the $9.2 million sale of the former Eagle Mountain Lake State Park to the Tarrant Regional Water District. A legislative mandate required that proceeds from the sale of the Eagle Mountain Lake site be used to buy another state park within 90 miles of Fort Worth.

The acquisition followed an extensive search for a location and gave Texas its first new state state park since 1994. Park officials placed the site under round-the-clock state protection as they began planning its future development. The park has been given the “working name” of Palo Pinto Mountains State Park pending a formal designation, and some officials say they expect that name to stick.

“We’re really proud of that acquisition,” said Duggins. “Obviously, we’d like to see it opened as soon as we can so that our citizens and their families can get out and enjoy what we think is a spectacular piece of property.”

The park is located half-way between Fort Worth and Abilene, about six miles off Interstate 20. Strawn, a small ranching town of about 700 residents, sits at the edge of the park and will serve as the gateway community.

“We’re hoping and we’re thinking it’s going to be a tremendous impact in the years to come,” said Mayor Carl Frazier, reflecting what seems to be the prevailing sentiment of Strawn’s townsfolk. “It’ll certainly help the little businesses around here, and it’s going to (mean) more jobs.”

Ferguson, a 53-year-old former police officer who has been with the Parks and Wildlife Department since 1999, has the joint responsibility of park superintendent and park policeman and plays a key role in the planning efforts. His duties range from hunting for poachers to serving as liaison to the diverse range of so-called “stake-holder” groups that have an interest in the park.

His familiarity with the hilly terrain became readily apparent as he guided his pick-up along rutted paths during a recent tour of the site, sometimes stirring up colonies of grasshoppers. “This is where you start needing a four-wheel drive,” he explained while shifting gears to confront a challenging uphill stretch.

The park is located in an area known as the Western cross-timbers and includes five or six different types of oak trees as well as an abundance of pecan trees and the ubiquitous mesquite. The site varies from valleys and wooded canyons to small mountains that rise to more 1,300 feet. Mountain ridges overlooking wooded, valley floors hold potential as future scenic overlooks.

One centerpiece is the 90-acre Tucker Lake, which serves as Strawn’s water source. The lake and a small sliver of surrounding land still belong to Strawn but a management agreement would allow the state to manage lake access and recreational use.

As many as dozen small ponds – former stock tanks – also dot the park. Palo Pinto Creek, a Brazos River tributary, still has a constant, though shallow, flow of water, despite the drought.

White tail deer, turkeys, coyotes, bobcats and feral hogs make their home in Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, as do small mammals such as rabbits and armadillos. Scissor-tail fly-catchers, meadow larks, dove and red-tail and red-shouldered hawks offer abundant opportunities for bird-watchers.

Ferguson is not only charged with overseeing the park, he is also clearly an unabashed admirer. “One of my major roles right now is just to come out here and learn the park,” he said. He sometimes camps out to get a feel for the park at night, including trying to determine if the distant of rumble trucks on the Interstate would disturb park visitors.

Some of Ferguson’s ideas for future use include equestrian trails, primitive hike-in campsites, plenty of RV hook-ups and hike-and-bike trails. “Obviously, there’s a lot of work to be done on the roads before can bring a 50-foot motor coach up here,” he said. “And that’s the beauty of this place. You could have RVs parked here, and you could have an equestrian trail 30 yards away and they would never see each other.”