Research has found that connecting with nature can be beneficial to our health and well-being. Children, for example, that are allowed to explore outdoors have been shown to be socially and emotionally healthier than those that stay indoors more. Unstructured outdoor play is also credited as one of the most direct ways to combat childhood obesity, and natural vitamin D exposure from the sun is known to help prevent a host of diseases,
as well as treat and prevent depression.
While getting outdoors is as simple as stepping into the backyard, Texas Parks and Wildlife offers an opportunity to connect with nature and loved ones like no other, with a list of activities that seems almost endless—including biking, birding, boating, fishing, hiking, camping, hunting, horseback riding, geocaching, rock climbing, swimming and stargazing, to name a few. Perhaps the best part is that it can be done in magnificent parks throughout the state, surrounded by towering pine trees, old oaks, picturesque trails and/or shimmering lakes.
Bill Smart, a park superintendent for Tyler State Park, has been with Texas Parks and Wildlife for 30 years, with 23 of them in management. His love of the park system runs deep, as does his knowledge of its history. “I started working here in college as an hourly employee,” he explains. “I left for five years for another job, but in 1982, I got laid off. It got me thinking about what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, and I realized that the camaraderie and work atmosphere is just wonderful. There’s no other agency like it.” In 1993, Smart returned to the parks, where he has remained.
As early as the 1860s, Texas and several other western states passed the first laws to protect fish and wildlife against commercial harvesting. In 1895, the Texas legislature created the Fish and Oyster Commission to regulate fishing, and the game department was added to the commission in 1907. The State Parks Board was created as a separate entity in 1923, and in the 1930s, projects of the federal Civilian Conservation Corps added substantially to the state’s parklands.
In 1951, the term oyster was dropped from the wildlife agency’s name, and in 1963, the State Parks Board and the Game and Fish Commission were merged to form the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The legislature placed authority for managing fish and wildlife resources in all Texas counties with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department when it passed the Wildlife Conservation Act in 1983. Previously, commissioners’ courts had set game and fish laws in many counties, and other counties had veto power over department regulations.
“Even in the 1920s, people were recognizing the importance of getting out into a natural setting,” explains Smart. “While parks were being developed in conjunction with the National Park Service, officials were cognizant of encouraging people to embed themselves in nature.”
Smart says the goal of getting individuals and families outdoors remains, and it has certainly developed over the years. “Many people come to our parks because of the memories of the location. Perhaps they came here with their parents or grandparents. Our goal today is to lay the foundation for a positive experience that creates memories for the entire family. We want our visitors to become generational customers.” He plays his own part in that experience by sharing his love of the parks. “I love the history of the parks and I want to share that with people so that they can truly appreciate their park experience.”
Today, more than 90 state parks can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, but it always comes down to the main attraction: the beauty and simplicity of nature. Throughout the year, the park hosts regular programs for visitors that aren’t just educational, but also recreational for urban visitors that may be unfamiliar with spending time in the great outdoors.
One program that is gaining attention for its informative fun is the Texas Outdoor Family (TOF) program, designed to teach families the basic outdoor skills they need to enjoy a great overnight camping experience. Families learn how to set up and break down camp—including the tent; fire starting; outdoor cooking; geocaching; how to use GPS; and more. Guided walks and outdoor activities such as fishing, kayaking, wildlife watching (depending on the site location, facilities and the season) are part of the memorable workshops. Best of all, families can enjoy stargazing and stories around the campfire, or share encounters with night owls, crickets and other wildlife.
Another activity that is gaining steam is geocaching, which is a type of treasure hunt using a portable GPS unit or an app on a smartphone to help participants find hidden “caches” placed by people all over the world. Geocaches are everywhere—from just down the street to the most remote wilderness areas, and range from small containers to large boxes containing many different items, including a logbook to sign, tradable items for kids and adults and more. The game, when played responsibly, has been embraced by Texas State Parks because of the fun and health benefits the sport creates for its players.
The agency launched the Texas State Parks Geocache Challenge after witnessing the fun that families were having geocaching during the TOF program. The beauty of the program is that people can join the agency in discovering hidden items while revealing exciting facts and stories about Texas State Parks. According to Smart, special geocaches are hidden in many state parks, historic sites and natural areas. “By finding hidden treasure in the state parks, we hope people slow down, discover more corners of the parks and take the time to relax along the way,” he says.
Geocaching is primarily based through the website Geocaching.com and is free. Participants simply create a user name and go from there. After each visit, users log in and record their adventure. A code is given for each location, and rewards are given for visiting. “It’s just a great way to get families involved and excited about the parks and what they may discover,” notes Smart. “We want to give them a true outdoor experience—some have never been in the outdoors, so it’s important to provide options. And we certainly do that.”
For more information and a schedule of activities and events, visit TPWD.state.tx.us.