October 26, 2019
Waco Tribune-Herald | By Mike Copeland
A beautiful deer welcomed a visitor at the entry of Mother Neff State Park on Thursday, unfazed by the vehicle a few feet away. It was obvious the doe had seen these shiny things before.
About 25,000 people a year visit the 401-acre park in Coryell County, just across the McLennan County line and hugging the oft-flooded Leon River.
It has prairies and oak and juniper woodlands, with secluded play and relaxation areas, campsites, hiking paths, an impressive visitors center. Its novelty attractions are tucked away here and there: a stone armadillo the size of a riding lawnmower or a Tic-Tac-Toe game made of wood chips.
But it also has a big problem with flood damage, one that friends of the park hope Proposition 5 will help remedy. The constitutional amendment Texas voters will consider on Nov. 5 would ensure that tax revenue generated by the retail sale of sporting goods would be spent supporting the state parks system and not diverted to other uses.
Waco’s state legislative delegation — Reps. Kyle Kacal Charles “Doc” Anderson and Sen. Brian Birdwell — have supported the measure.
Chronic flooding in recent years has clouded the appeal of Mother Neff State Park, forcing the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to restrict access to a swath near Leon River for months at a time. Gone from public enjoyment are towering pecan trees and grasslands ideal for picnicking.
Access remained blocked last week, the situation so frustratingly constant that the an official trails map includes a zone “closed due to flooding.”
In the immediate area there is testimony to the high water, including mud-caked trees, soggy structures and a dampness that hangs like fog.
“We call that the original Mother Neff State Park,” said Lois Anderson, secretary-treasurer of an association formed, in her words, to look after Mother Neff.
“I first saw the flooding in 2007, and I’ve seen water above the rooftops,” she said. “It’s a beautiful area over there, wonderful to see the deer, raccoons and possums. But we’re also seeing it fall apart before our eyes, which makes people upset and disgusted.”
Park friends hosted a fall festival at Mother Neff on Saturday. Activities included scavenger hunts and visits from local wildlife rehabilitation groups. Anderson assured that those attending would be urged to vote yes on Proposition 5, which has received broad support from advocacy groups such as Environment Texas and the Texas Coalition for State Parks.
Mother Neff is among four parks in the counties adjacent to Waco, all of which have issues associated with age or weather damage. The other parks are:
Meridian State Park, a 505-acre gem that wraps around Meridian Lake in Bosque County. Known for its fishing, hiking and Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps structures, it drew 38,732 visitors last year.
Fort Parker State Park, which covers a combined 1,458 acres of land and water between Mexia and Groesbeck in Limestone County. It welcomed 40,978 visitors last year.
Lake Whitney State Park, which sprawls across 1,280 acres next to Lake Whitney, a fishing, water sports and camping venue in Hill and Bosque counties. It drew 81,390 visitors last year, but the park suffered closures with lake flooding in fall 2018 and spring 2019, and TPWD recommends erosion repair and flood recovery projects.
The state since 1993 has earmarked revenue generated by the 6.25 percent sales tax on sporting goods to support the Parks and Wildlife Department and the State Historical Commission. But according to Texas Senate Research Center findings summarized on ballotpedia.org, appropriations often fall short of revenue estimates made by the Texas Comptroller’s Office.
Through 2017, the state collected $2.5 billion in sales taxes on sporting goods, but about 40 percent went to other areas of the state budget, according to the Austin American-Statesman. In recent years, too, money has been funneled to projects involving state parks damaged by Hurricane Harvey, which struck Texas and Louisiana, inflicting an estimated $125 billion in damage.
Anderson understands priorities, but she and other fans of Mother Neff have grown weary of funds being diverted to “pet projects and rainy-day funds.”
She said she realizes addressing the flooding along the Leon River will require more resolve, intergovernmental cooperation and funding than Proposition 5 might provide. Logjams have been known to transform the river from trickle to tempest in no time. Solutions may require collaboration upstream and downstream. Property owners, municipalities and agencies such as the Brazos River Authority, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Texas Department of Transportation may need to get involved, Anderson said.
But Proposition 5 shines a brighter light on the problem, she added.
Aubry Buzek, with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, said TPWD does recognize the challenges facing Mother Neff State Park.
“The original river bottom area of the park has been ravaged by flooding of the Leon River over the last 10-plus years,” she wrote in an email response to questions. “Funds to stabilize the CCC-built rock tabernacle and recreation hall and replace the day-use restroom are needed in this area of the park.”
The park, located about 32 miles from Waco, is saturated with history.
It owes its name to Isabella Neff, who donated the original six acres in 1921. Her youngest son, Pat Neff, served as the 28th governor of Texas and the ninth president of Baylor University.
The Civilian Conservation Corps, a voluntary relief organization for unemployed men active during the 1930s and early 1940s, built the rock tower, a stone picnic table and carved steps leading to Park Road 14, according to information available at the information center.
“Mother Neff State Park is quite an interesting place, with three distinct ecosystems,” said Waco businessman and park enthusiast Austin Meek. “I’ve been there probably 10 times the past five years, but have never been able to access that section nearest the Leon River. Hopefully, some of the money freed up by Proposition 5 will be used to address that situation.”
Meek said he voted early and supports passage of Proposition 5. He said state parks and public structures are invaluable assets that must be preserved, and made more accessible to the public, especially young people.
Early voting in the statewide election ends Friday.