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Texas state parks suffer as visitors, revenue drop

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WILL WEISSERT | January 25, 2012 08:57 AM EST | AP

AUSTIN, Texas — Wildfires caused as much as $11 million in damage to Texas state parks and, coupled with the worst single-year drought in state history, continue to drive down the parks' visitation rates, a top official told state lawmakers Tuesday.

Carter Smith, executive director of Texas Parks and Wildlife, reported to members of the Texas House Culture, Recreation and Tourism committee that the parks have seen an 8.4 percent decline in revenue from visitors in the first quarter of the 2012 fiscal year, which began Sept. 1. He said that represents $928,000 in losses, which are especially costly because 55 percent of total park funding comes from visitor-generated revenue.

State park officials had announced last month that fewer visitors already had resulted in a $4.6 million funding deficit for fiscal year 2011.

Smith said the number of visitors in August alone fell by a quarter. He said some of Texas' most popular parks with water attractions saw declines of nearly 55 percent in visitation revenue rates.

"These oppressive summer temperatures, no water in rivers and lakes, burn bans ... all of those things conspire to keep people inside as opposed to going outside," Smith said.

Texas' 94 state parks and historic sites, which average 8 million visitors annually, endured between $10 million and $11 million in damages from last year's fires, Smith told the committee. Overall across Texas, nearly 4 million acres and 4,000 homes were destroyed, making it the state's most destructive fire season ever.

Davis Mountains, Possum Kingdom and Bastrop state parks were all severely damaged.

Texas also sweated through what by most measures was the hottest summer on record in U.S. history in 2011, while suffering from the punishing drought. Though some winter rains have helped ease severe drought conditions, La Nina weather patterns likely mean dry months ahead.

Surveys at more than 220 lakes statewide found half of them had closed boat ramps or otherwise limited public access because of low water levels, Smith said. Freshwater fishing license sales last year dropped 30 percent from 2010. Meanwhile, non-Texas resident hunting license sales fell about 8 percent and hunting licenses overall slumped almost 5 percent, a downward trend Smith said was likely to continue as long as the drought persists.

Karen Huber, a Travis County Commissioner, presented the committee with a study that showed persistently low water levels at Lake Travis in Austin have resulted in 50 percent few visitors – and an estimated $33 million less in revenue and 580 lost jobs. Officials estimate Lake Travis typically generates at least $112 million in revenue related to recreation, boat sales and visitor spending, including at lakefront restaurants.

"We could well come to a grinding halt if this drought persists." Huber said. "And I'm not talking about recreation, I'm talking about growth in general."

David Teel, president of the non-profit Texas Travel Industry Association, said preliminary figures showed overall business and leisure tourism statewide increased 8 percent in 2011 compared to the previous year, but that the industry has yet to climb back to pre-recession revenue levels like in 2008, when it generated $60.4 billion overall.

In 2010, the most recent final figures available, travel to Texas generated $57.5 billion.

Teel said while final overall figures for 2011 still were being tallied, the preliminary figures show hotel occupancy tax revenues increased about $2 million across Texas in 2011, and tourism added about 41,000 jobs.

But, Teel said, the vacation industry now must cope with the perception from would-be visitors, "that Texas is burnt to a crisp."