- Associated Press - Sunday, July 19, 2015

PIPE CREEK, Texas (AP) - Superintendent James Rice spends each day maintaining 3,757 acres of Hill Country land northwest of San Antonio in hopes that it will eventually be open to the public.

He is the only employee at the Albert and Bessie Kronkosky State Natural Area, so that means an average day includes everything from filing paperwork to stomping through brush to catch a glimpse of the rare birds and plants that fill the property near Pipe Creek in Bandera County.

“I’m the superintendent here, and that sounds all big and grandiose, but I’m the only employee,” he told the San Antonio Express-News (https://bit.ly/1RxEpw9) with a laugh.

In 2011, the property was donated by the Kronkosky Family Estate to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, but it remains closed because of the lack of funding needed to build the roads and other infrastructure necessary to open it for public use.

But all that could change in 2017, when Parks and Wildlife asks the Legislature for additional funding to begin the design process for the area.

Rice, 59, and a group of volunteers - mostly retired nature lovers - spend hours each day surveying and cataloging the various species of salamanders, plants and birds that call the area home.

There have been at least 100 birds cataloged, including the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and the tiny black-capped vireo.

“Do you want to see a rare plant?” he asked at a recent tour. “No” was not an option.

Jumping out of a bright orange Parks and Wildlife ATV and into a creek bed, he ducked under branches on his hands and knees to show off the Boerne Bean, a beanlike vine found only on the Edwards Plateau.

“What makes this place unique is the amount of very rare plants that we have,” Rice said. Sycamore leaf snowbells and Texas wild mercury are other plants that grow abundantly in the area.

The land also earns its State Natural Area designation because of its thriving population of golden-cheeked warblers and the rare salamanders found in its creeks. A state natural area is much less developed than a state park because of its unique geologic or environmental value.

Rice is optimistic that additional funding will be approved.

“Everyone is on the same page with this piece of property,” Rice said. “I would be surprised if we were not open within 10 years.”

But that comes with a price. It will take at least $16 million to open the space to the public, according to Rice.

The Kronkosky land is just one of six swaths of donated land, totaling more than 60,000 acres, being preserved by Parks and Wildlife.

There are also plans to donate Powderhorn Ranch, more than 17,000 acres of property in Calhoun County, to Parks and Wildlife. The nonprofit Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation recently purchased the area to donate to the agency.

Other pieces of donated property are further along in the process to open to the public than the Kronkosky land.

During the past legislative session, lawmakers included $2.7 million in remaining proceeds from the sale of Eagle Mountain Lake property to go toward designing the Palo Pinto Mountains State Park in the city of Strawn. The design phase is just one step before construction.

According to Carter Smith, executive director of Parks and Wildlife, the agency’s goal is to allow limited access to the areas during the long process of opening each park.

Another slice of natural Texas land is even closer to opening than Palo Pinto and Kronkosky. The Devil’s River Dan A. Hughes Unit will likely open to the public within a year, thanks to additional funds, Smith said.

The Legislature approved the department’s $720 million budget this session. A chunk of that money - $68 million - will go toward capital construction projects to update deteriorated water systems, restrooms and public buildings.

Smith said the agency’s first order of business will be to repair Blanco State Park after it was damaged in the May floods. Then funds will go toward capital repairs at many parks where buildings are in serious need of repair.

So it may be a while before Texans will see all 60,000 acres of donated land, but Smith said the department has time on its side.

“Many of the sites acquired were done so with thinking about future generations,” Smith said.

The state agency hasn’t always been so fortunate.

In the 2012 budget, the department received $550 million despite requesting almost $200 million more than that. After the cut, the department was forced to lay off 111 employees.

This year, the park system won’t have to rely only on a shaky state budget.

Rep. Lyle Larson authored a measure that will ensure that 94 percent of the state’s sporting goods tax will go toward Parks and Wildlife. Previously, the Legislature would divert the revenue from that sales tax to balance the budget.

“For the first time, we really have some predictability and security to plan ahead,” Smith said.

Larson, R-San Antonio, said the previous taking and diversion of funds, “was not conservative government.” The lawmaker filed the legislation three sessions in a row after he realized that Texas parks were falling short when compared with others across the country.

“It’s compromised the experience Texans have had in our parks,” Larson said.

Over a decade, Larson estimates, the revenue from the tax will bring in billions of dollars.

Until then, Rice will continue planning the future of the land he has taken care of for years.

He points to different areas of the land while explaining, “This is where the visitors’ center will go,” or “This is where cars will drive in.”

Although the plan is to develop only 50 acres of Kronskosky, Rice said he hopes to preserve as much of the natural space as possible.

“I want to show the public we can develop an area in a sustainable manner,” he said. “We don’t want to impact the natural resources.”

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Information from: San Antonio Express-News, https://www.mysanantonio.com

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