Texas state parks are rural economic engines

As Texas’ population continues to rise, state leaders should consider more funding for state parks

For nearly a century, our state parks have preserved and showcased the iconic treasures that people associate with this state. From Palo Duro Canyon to Galveston Island, Texas’ parks are where every Texan can go to reconnect with the state, its history and culture and what it means to be Texan.

But Texas’ state parks are more than just cultural and recreational landmarks, they are economic engines – especially for rural communities.  

Texas’ state parks system was created in 1923 by the 38th Texas Legislature and then-Gov. Pat Neff when they established the State Parks Board and began the process of setting aside land and funding to create and maintain publicly owned parks.

Ever since, our 89 state parks have offered essential preserves for Texas’ natural habitats and historical assets — and invaluable refuges for Texans and tourists. 

Today, the value of Texas’ state parks has never been clearer. In the 2019–2020 fiscal year, Texas parks saw 7.3 million visits. The next year, use skyrocketed to a total of 10 million visits — a 37% increase.

Those visits have been economically essential for the communities and regions near state parks.

According to a new study by the Center for Public Finance at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy — part of Texas 2036’s “Investing in Texas” sponsored series — in 2020 (the most recent year for which data is available), outdoor recreational activities pumped an estimated $32 billion into the Texas economy. 

These activities also supported 300,000 jobs in 2020, or about 2.4% of total state employment. 

People and enterprises in the retail trade, manufacturing and arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services industries are especially tied to the economics of state parks.

And state parks are especially valuable for rural Texas counties. Between 2009 and 2019, rural counties with state parks saw GDP growth of 51% whereas rural counties without state parks had 45% growth. In percentage terms, this represents a 13% higher GDP growth compared to rural counties without parks. This translates into jobs: rural counties with state parks added more jobs than rural counties without state parks during the same period. And while more than half of rural counties without parks actually saw net population declines, most rural counties with parks saw net population growth, averaging at 5%.

Visitors flocking to rural-area parks spend more money in the local communities, especially in small businesses. They buy things like groceries, meals at local restaurants, recreational equipment at local shops, and gas, as well as paying for rental cars and hotel stays.

It all adds up to a big difference for local economies that see more tourism dollars and activity thanks to parks. The numbers show that state parks are powerful economic drivers for communities that need them. 

The Texas legislature has set aside funding necessary to help cover a backlog of deferred maintenance costs, but more is needed. Expanding the number of state parks could be a game-changer for rural communities by creating more opportunities for job growth and economic strength.

As attendance continues to increase, Texas must ensure these critical public assets continue to meet the needs of Texans who count on them.

Next year’s 100th anniversary of Texas’ state parks system, coupled with another legislative session, offers an important opportunity to invest in these economic engines and create a boost especially for rural communities that need it.

So let’s celebrate 100 years of Texas state parks by investing in these state’s natural wonders. In doing so, we will not only preserve and protect the places that define Texas, we’ll be expanding opportunities for Texans in all parts of the state to live happy, healthy, and productive lives.

John Hryhorchuk is senior vice president of policy and advocacy at Texas 2036. Dr. Joyce Beebe is a fellow at the Center for Public Finance at Rice University’s Baker Institute of Public Policy.

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