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Texas State Parks Director Ending 11-Year Tenure
AUSTIN – Major changes have swept through the Texas State Park system in the past 11 years under the direction of Walt Dabney, who joined Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1999. Dabney has announced he will retire Aug. 31, leaving behind an improved state park system that observers say ranks among the nation’s best and most innovative.
A 1969 Texas A&M graduate, Dabney took the reins of TPWD’s State Parks Division after 30 years with the National Park Service. At the helm of Texas State Parks, he was instrumental in working with constituent groups and the Legislature to transform a park system suffering from worn out equipment, deteriorating facilities and sagging employee morale into a better funded, more professional, customer-oriented and technologically savvy operation.
Dabney worked with state parks support groups such as the Texas Coalition for Conservation and Texans for State Parks to help articulate park needs and opportunities, including highlighting university research reported in 2005 which showed state spending on parks generated roughly $800 million in retail sales and accounted for almost 12,000 jobs.
In 2006, the Texas State Parks Advisory Committee led by former Senator John Montford studied issues facing parks and concluded “the financial problems facing our Texas park system must be addressed now,” adding that “Funding for state parks is an investment in economic, personal health and cultural benefits for the citizens of Texas.”
The Texas Legislature acted to address the issue in 2007 and 2009, approving new staff positions, appropriating tens of millions of dollars per year in increased funding for state and local parks, and putting before voters major bond issues to address a big park facilities repair backlog. Currently, $69 million in state park repairs approved by voters and appropriated by state lawmakers are underway in more than 40 state parks.
George Bristol, Texas Coalition for Conservation director, calls Dabney “one of those unsung heroes” who made the tenet that parks are America’s best idea a reality at the state and local level. “During very hard times for parks, Walt’s commitment, plus the support of thousands of citizens, helped make the case for increased funding for state and local parks.”
Dabney, 64, cites increased state funding for parks as a high point of his TPWD career.
“It was huge,” Dabney said. “Thanks to the legislature, we’ve been able to build a programmatic infrastructure that supports a modern-day park system, providing natural and cultural resource management, comprehensive law enforcement and all those components that lead to a successful park system.”
Dabney also is proud of the revamping of the state parks’ interpretation, prescribed fire, natural and cultural resource management and law enforcement programs, and the recent implementation of what he calls the nation’s best park business management system that includes a centralized, electronic park reservation system. He also singled out the Texas Outdoor Family camping and Free Fishing in State Parks initiatives as trend-setting efforts to reconnect an increasingly urban population with nature and the outdoors.
“It is with a mix of sadness and great pride that we wish Walt Dabney well on his departure from the department,” said Carter Smith, TPWD executive director. “Walt brought unflagging passion and energy to foster a sense of professionalism and high standards of excellence for Texas State Parks. I particularly appreciate his creation of a comprehensive leadership development and training program for staff, and his emphasis on interpretation to help visitors enjoy and understand their parks. Walt leaves behind a well-prepared team that will continue his work to build and maintain a world-class state parks system.”
Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission Chairman Peter Holt of San Antonio echoed Smith’s sentiments, citing Dabney’s fortuitous return to Texas at a time when state parks needed his leadership.
“Walt’s commitment to a better park system for Texas helped turn the tide, so today our parks are beginning to flourish with increased staff and improved facilities,” Holt said. “He was the right leader through a difficult time, and our state parks will long bear the benefit of his legacy.”
Dabney admits that in retirement he’ll miss most the people with whom he’s worked the past 11 years. But he’s confident he’s leaving behind an organization with enough depth and talent to build upon the park system’s growing success. Dabney leaves behind a system of 93 state parks and historic sites comprising more than 600,000 acres and 1,500 employees.
“Texas Parks and Wildlife won’t be the same without Walt Dabney, but it will be better because of him,” said Scott Boruff, TPWD deputy executive director for operations, who oversees the State Parks Division. “Walt will be remembered for his absolute dedication to providing recreational and educational opportunities for the common man, and for his fierce and compassionate support for his staff and colleagues.”
In announcing his pending retirement, Dabney urged his colleagues to “remember always that what we are doing in this business makes a difference to the quality of life of all we serve, to the protection and conservation of some of the special places in Texas, and in a very real way, to the economic well-being of the state.”
A nationwide search is planned to find a new state parks director.
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