Luke Metzger met with Alice on June 28, 2023 to share more about the work Environment Texas does and the Centennial Bill coming up on the November ballot.
Luke, please introduce yourself and let us know a little about you:
I'm Luke Metzger, the Executive Director of Environment Texas, and I've been in Texas for twenty-three years. I'm married and have three kids and we have a goal to visit every state park in Texas, so we spend a lot of time camping and in nature. It's so great to see our kids drop the tablets and just go run free in the wild and start campfires, and swim in wild rivers. You just notice a dramatic improvement in their mood and their relationships with each other, the fighting stops, and they just start having a lot of fun. I've been a big fan of nature all my life. I was an army brat, so I spent a lot of time in Germany and my formative years were over there. As a boy scout growing up there, I got to go see some beautiful places camping in the Alps and hiking in the Black Forest. I just came to love nature through some of those early experiences and have stuck with it ever since, and then decided to make it my profession by advocating for the environment.
I also went to college in California, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life in my senior year. I was involved with a lot of different kinds of activist causes and was looking at grad school and I remember taking a spring break trip up to the Redwoods in Northern California. After living in Los Angeles for four years with all the sprawl, smog, and concrete jungle it just kind of wore on my soul and when I went up to the Redwoods, my just soul lifted. I think at that point it drove home to me my love for the environment and nature and I decided to get a job working in environmental advocacy right out of school. I worked first in Santa Cruz, California for two years organizing college students around environmental issues and then moved to Texas in 2000 to help start up our office here.
Please tell us about Environment Texas and the work your organization is doing.
Environment Texas is a nonprofit advocacy group working for clean airand water, parks and wildlife and a livable climate. We do a lot of policy work at the local, state, and federal level working to win stronger protections for our environment whether it's at the legislature or city halls and sometimes we sue polluters so we're also in the courtroom. We talk to corporations directly and ask them to make changes to be more environmentally friendly. We've had a really big focus around expanding protections for wild places and wild things and a particular focus around state parks going back to around 2006. We first launched our campaigns around everything from expanding funding for state parks to increasing funding to protect land over the Edwards Aquifer that feeds Barton Springs, working to protect the Neches river out in east Texas where we were part of coalition that helped create a national wildlife refuge out there to protect the river. Protecting nature has been a big focus of ours for a long time. We work on a whole range of different issues including clean air and water, climate, and clean energy in addition to the parks and wildlife work.
This past legislative session we did a lot of work around clean energy working to defend wind and solar power, which are critical strategies towards reducing carbon emissions and getting off fossil fuels which we know are just so damaging to our health and our environment. Right now, for example, we're in the middle of a heat wave that has killed a lot of people and scientists have said that it's five times more likely that this heat wave has happened because of climate change. We've got real world examples of just how harmful our reliance on fossil fuels and emissions from their combustion are. It is critical that we get off fossil fuels and move towards one hundred percent clean energy. At the same time as we're seeing this heat wave, one thing that's been great is just seeing how wind and solar power have really shown up in a big way producing as much as forty percent of our electricity during some of the hottest days of the year which is really impressive and a huge growth from where we were ten, twenty years ago. Just solar power for example, is double just in the last year, so an incredible growth, but there's also been a lot of attacks on clean energy that we've been working to fend off.
We're also working to expand the use of electric vehicles and move our transportation sector off gas diesel powered vehicles towards one hundred percent clean vehicles and one thing that's helping both on the electric vehicle and the renewable side is the Inflation Reduction Act that Congress passed last year, which is providing more than $360 billion in funding to help transition to clean energy and includes a lot of tax startups and rebates that will help Texans do things like buy an electric car or get solar panels for their homes or replace a heat pump or water heater with a more efficient heat pump or other things. We've been doing a lot to educate the public about these opportunities to help transition towards clean energy homes. We are also doing work around suing ExxonMobil right now over violations of the Clean Air Act at their refinery and chemical plant in Baytown which is just outside of Houston. We got a federal judge to order them to pay a 20 million penalty which was the largest clean air, citizen suit penalty in US history because the company had violated its clean air permit thousands of times putting out millions of pounds of dangerous chemicals into the community and so we're now defending that victory at the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Centennial Bill recently got passed and people will have the opportunity to vote on it in the November election.
Can you please share more about the impetus for this bill and what it means for Texas?
Texas, according to our report released last year, is ranked 35th in the nation for state park acreage per capita.
If you took away Big Bend Ranch State Park, which is about half of the acreage, we would rank much lower. Many of our parks are just packed with people and so often you have to book a campsite many months in advance to have a chance to get in which is very frustrating.
Or sometimes people have an experience like I did where you decide on a whim to say, “alright kids let's get in the car, we're going to a park” and then you get there, and the gate is locked because they've hit capacity and no more people are allowed in the park. That's had a real impact. That just means that people don't have as much access to nature as they might otherwise and it's also been bad, certainly for wildlife, as Texas is growing so rapidly. We're converting about twenty football fields of land to develop into homes and businesses every hour in Texas and the critters of the state have fewer and fewer places to live. We thought it was critical then to set aside more land for state parks, both for the wildlife, but then also for people to be able to go and visit and recreate because we know just how important access to nature is as all the studies show how beneficial, particularly for children, getting outside is for their physical, mental, and spiritual health.
We knew that this year is the Centennial of the state park system celebrating a hundred years and so we thought this was a good time to push for an expansion in the state park system. Back in 2019, we were part of a coalition that helped win a constitutional amendment to guarantee that sales tax on sporting goods would go to fund our state parks and that was a huge win. The state parks for a long time had been on a rollercoaster of fund cycles where some years were so bad that they proposed closing as many as twenty state parks because they didn't have enough money to operate them. They also had a huge backlog of needed maintenance and repairs. The sporting good sales tax then put them on much more even footing. They had the funding to maintain and keep the parks open to catch up on the backlog of repairs, but that funding didn't really put them in a position to grow the system, it just helped them maintain the existing system.
We decided this year to make a big push for expanding the system and we thought this was a good year because of the Centennial, but also because the state had a $32 billion surplus that they had to spend, and they had to figure out ways to spend that money down, so we just decided to ask for a billion dollars for state parks. When we first proposed it, a lot of people thought we were crazy. I had a legislative staffer email me and tell me that this was an unrealistic pie in the sky ask and that I should come up with a more sensible ask for maybe $75 million. I took that into consideration, but I ultimately decided that no, I think our one billion is the right ask because there is a great need for it.
There was a study done in 2001 by Texas Tech University that estimated that Texas needs to add about 1.4 million acres of state parks by 2030 to keep up with demand for recreation. In the twenty years since that report came out, we've only added about 200,000 acres so we still need to add more than a million acres to hit that goal. We knew that it was going to take multiple billions of dollars to be able to buy a million acres and we thought a billion dollars was the right ask because politically that seemed like a very ambitious goal already, but perhaps winnable. Then if we pair that ask with private philanthropy dollars and federal money, that could add up to a lot of money and help us get close to that one-million-acre goal. If the governor signs the bill, it would be a historic win, and the biggest investment in state parks in Texas history if it finally becomes law, but it still needs voter approval. This November Texas Parks and Wildlife could potentially buy land for dozens of new state parks and that's very exciting.
The next step is that voters must approve it this November. It's one of about fourteen constitutional amendments that are going to be on the ballot along with investments for water, broadband internet, and other things. It will be a constitutional amendment because they must change an existing amendment. There are some stipulations on it because we wanted to make it not subject to any legislative appropriations. We didn't want the legislature to be able to raid the funds anytime they wanted. We wanted to protect it and keep it outside of the normal treasury. To do that, we had to add the cut of an amendment to the constitution to make it a dedicated fund. We learned our lesson with the sporting goods sales tax. They had promised to use it all for state parks, but ultimately until the constitutional amendment happened, only about forty percent of the money went to the parks. The rest of it went for other purposes. It was clear that we needed a protected dedicated fund for this money.
How can our partners at Texas Children in Nature Network help to get this bill passed?
Network partners can formally endorse the Centennial Bill if they are interested. Otherwise, whether you formally endorse it or not, partners can educate others that it's on the November ballot and explain what it does, which I think is also really valuable. If partners want to get even more involved, Environment Texas is planning to have a big campaign. We're going to do some paid advertising and we also want to have a speaker's bureau where we train people on some of the talking points and the messages of the measure and send them to go out and speak to garden clubs, Republican women clubs, at boy scout troops and just fan out across the state and speak to groups about the need for more nature and the historic opportunity we have with this particular measure. We'll also be looking for volunteers to help write letters to the editor of the newspapers and potentially set up tables at state parks to pass out literature. There will be many different opportunities like that if the members of the network want to get more involved.
How does Environment Texas directly make a difference in helping kids and families connect to nature?
I think the main work that we do is through policy and just working to secure funding to create more spaces for families to go visit natural areas. We've also supported several bond measures in Austin and Hays and Travis counties over the years to buy more land which provides more opportunities. During the pandemic we also put together what we called the Nifty Fifty Activities which is a set of ideas of how parents can expose kids to nature and it’s available on our website. It’s a list of fun things that you could do around the home and in your neighborhood to get your kids outside and learn more about nature. We're excited to be new members of the Texas Children in Nature Network and hopefully we'll have more opportunities to connect kids and families to nature in the future.
How can Texas Children in Nature Network be part of your work?
We are very interested in the Green Schoolyards that are a part of the City of Austin School Parks Initiative, which I think is just super cool. Thanks to the work of the Texas Children in Nature Network, it has really been a leader on this front. We work statewide and so I'm excited about taking the idea and educating elected officials all around the state to get them to adopt policies like Austin has implemented to create and support Green Schoolyards.
Thank you, Luke, for your time today.