Metropolis: Wednesday, February 6, 2003
Sparks and Wildlife

A state official adds fuel to the fire over potential parkland.


If the feuded-over 400 acres of state-owned land at Eagle Mountain Lake ever becomes a park, the powers that be may want to consider naming it in honor of George Orwell. The doublespeak being offered on the issue is worthy of 1984’s author.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department purchased the property on the lake’s northeast shore in 1980 and now wants to sell it to be developed as a subdivision — with weak assurances (but no promise) that the money from that sale would be used to buy a much larger tract of land farther outside Fort Worth. Local legislators, county officials, and nature-lovers are trying to stave off the sale, but they have only 60 days to pull it off.

Consider these points, mostly offered by Parks and Wildlife land conservation director Jack Bauer, a man seemingly bent on antagonizing rather than mollifying Fort Worth area officials, taxpayers, hikers — and maybe even the smokers.

Bauer said his agency wants to sell the land because it has been identified as underutilized. No surprise there. In 23 years of ownership, the agency never developed it as a park.

State officials said the park was never developed because local residents objected. But those who live near the park — including former Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis — say no such protests occurred because the state never made any development proposals. Bauer declined to provide names, dates, or other details about previous protests. Meanwhile, Tarrant County remains one of the largest metropolitan areas without a state park. “There is no question that Tarrant County is underserved by state parks,” Rep. Charles Geren said.

Reason Two for selling the land, according to Bauer: It’s too small to develop as a state park. His agency, he said, would rather sell it and buy a piece of land as large as 5,000 acres, within 90 minutes of Fort Worth. But if it’s too small, why, then, was the land purchased to begin with? Agency officials said land management tactics have changed in recent years. What was good enough for water recreation back then is not considered the majestic Texas landscape worth preserving these days.

Reason Three for selling: Parks and Wildlife doesn’t have the money to develop it. Refer, then, to Reason Two — how could the agency afford to develop, staff, and maintain an even larger piece of parkland? Bauer said proceeds from selling the land could be matched by federal money and used to buy a bigger park. That’s no guarantee that the new and improved park would be near Tarrant County. The Parks and Wildlife commission favors reinvesting in the area, but theoretically the money could be used to improve other state parks or to buy land elsewhere, Bauer said.

The uproar over the proposal to sell the property has obviously irritated Bauer. He said the 400-acre property would be much more suited to a city park — but that Fort Worth “has a poor reputation for supporting public parks.” For example, he said, the 3,500-acre Fort Worth Nature Center near Eagle Mountain Lake sees few visitors and is underutilized.

Nature Center records show 150,000 people visit each year, and the city is currently drafting a plan for more recreational activities. The city parks department has done a commendable job with its resources, said Melody Mitchell, Fort Worth Parks Department assistant director. “The city has commitments in many different areas, not just to parks,” she said. “We’re able to take the funding that is available to the parks department and do many great things with it. Fort Worth has made a great commitment to its park system — he just has a different point of view.”

The city parks department won the National Recreation and Park Association’s 1996 Gold Medal Award for the best managed parks system in the nation, and the Texas Recreation and Park Society’s 2001 Gold Medal for the best managed park system in the state.

Bauer bristled when told that area officials complained about having to try to find local money to buy parkland that had already been purchased by tax dollars. Tarrant County tax dollars didn’t buy land — it was paid for with money from cigarette taxes, he said. “I smoke,” said Tarrant County Commissioner J.D. Johnson. “The taxpayers of the state of Texas paid for it; I’m aware of that.” Tarrant County residents paid their fair share, he said.

Despite Bauer’s defensiveness and doublespeak, momentum is growing to keep the 400 acres as parkland. “If the pressure that’s mounting so far is perturbing him, he’s really going to get perturbed because it’s not going to get any lighter,” Johnson said. “The people of this county are wanting to develop that land into a park. There is going to be a lot of support shown for this park.”

Tarrant County commissioners offered $1 million to help the state develop the park, but the state refused, saying it preferred to sell. Area officials are trying to raise money through government and private sources to buy the land and create a limited use park — and to prevent commercial development. Parks and Wildlife could probably get $6 million if the land were sold to developers. “If we could come up with $4 million, the commissioners at Parks and Wildlife would probably sell it for that,” Geren said. “The county would probably end up owning it. The county is not presently in the parks business, but they are not prohibited from owning it.”

Conservation groups say maintaining parks within a 30-mile radius of cities is more beneficial to residents who have difficulty traveling long distances. “It is a shame to even consider selling this prime space,” said Sparky Anderson, program director for Texas Community Project, a grassroots organization working to preserve green space and the economy, ecology, and equity among state and county resources. “Why they want to get rid of a resource that’s nearby I don’t understand. We, too, are interested in seeing more metropolitan-based state parks where we can help serve people with low income and mobility concerns.”

Geren, Johnson, and Lewis are fighting to keep commercial developers away from the property, but that doesn’t mean they envision families cooking hot dogs over an open fire and singing “Kumbaya” to the stars. All three officeholders live near the property and are advocating creation of a park that would either get limited public use or remain what it has been since 1980 — an untouched wilderness and conservation easement. They point out that the property is adjacent to Eagle Mountain Lake, a main source of drinking water. The proposed park also includes wetland areas that conservationists say are particularly valuable and growing scarcer. “We need to make environmentally sound decisions with whatever we do with that property,” said Geren, who is advocating hike-and-bike trails. “It’s not big enough to develop as an overnight park. There are water quality issues on anything that happens out there.”

Lewis fears that camping or boating facilities will attract visitors to disrupt the ecosystem. “The lake, as it stands now and has for a while, has too much traffic,” he said. “We don’t want to add more traffic on the highways and lake.”

Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society also prefer limiting development to hike-and-bike trails.

Rep. Lon Burnam favors some public access but eschews commercial development. “There is no real tangible economic benefit that would come from building a golf course on land that could be used for the public,” he said. “They’ll be turning paradise into a parking lot.”

Staff writer Jeff Prince contributed to this story.

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