By Brian Besch
Most years, Texas gets a short period in the spring and fall when the weather turns nice and getting outside doesn’t make one freeze or fry. It’s a time for travel and getting out into nature.
Livingston State Park is in the nature business, so it wasn’t good timing to have issues that kept patrons away from mid-March to early May. Closures of any type aren’t ideal, but that small window of chamber of commerce weather was mostly lost.
“Our main water line that supplies water to the water tower here in the park, which provides all of the drinking water and all of the restrooms with water, broke,” Ranger Joel Janssen said of the reason for closing. “We were unable to provide any water to the entire park. That meant all of the water fountains were down, all of the campsites were down and all of the restrooms. For public health and safety, we were unable to be open to the public because we just couldn’t provide them with the facilities they would need in order to be safe and healthy here at the park.”
In order to keep busy, improve the park and maintain a staff presence, employees and volunteers got to work.
“We decided to improve conditions in the park, so everyone banded together,” Janssen said. “The office ladies and the office staff and the park store — everyone got involved in working on trails and doing big projects that are normally outside of their wheelhouse. It really enabled us to do a lot of things that we would not have been able to get done without piecemealing it here and there. We’ve had this list of tasks we wanted to do as far as improvements in the park. Really, this closure was the perfect opportunity for us to get those done since we couldn’t be open to the public. It was a chance for us to really improve conditions in the park for visitors.”
Janssen mentioned dropping trees near campsites and working on trails while no one was around to be disturbed. Boardwalks were coated with non-slip paint without need to close the trail.
Volunteers and park hosts continued to live in the park, despite no running water. The park generally preaches refilling water bottles to cut down on plastic waste, but needed to use pallets of bottled water in order to accommodate those providing labor. Some staff continued to take deliveries and answer phones.
The problem coincided with the beginning of spring break at Livingston ISD, lasting until the second day of May. There was an attempt made on a few different dates to open for day-use, but water problems persisted and a long-term closure seemed the only option.
“Instead of putting a patch on the water line, (we decided to) go ahead and get the right parts ordered and get everything in,” the ranger said. “We added a huge sand filter to the system, because sand was coming up through those lines that had broken. Throughout the entire time, we maintained proper cleanliness of the water, but we were under a boil water notice just in case. That has since been rescinded. Folks are able to drink the water and use it in their campers in the park and all of the restrooms are back open again.
“We ended up having to close the park Saturday of spring break around noon and ask everyone to vacate the park. That’s never the call you want to make, but for the health and safety of the public, we had to evacuate the park. That is never an easy thing to do, to go around to every campsite and say, ‘Sorry you have a brisket cooking, but we have to close the park immediately.’”
Jansen was forced to inform around 100 campsites of the immediate closure, admitting they weren’t fun conversations. However, he said everyone was cordial and understood.
This wasn’t the first pause from the public. Over the past couple of years, time was also utilized when Covid-19 became an issue, causing restricted access and social distancing.
“We saw a drop off right at first and we got some major renovation work done,” Janssen said of the early spike of cases in Texas. They actually closed the fishing pier off and the entire park store area. We put a brand-new bulkhead and sidewalk in there. They put a new ADA ramp that leads from the parking lot all the way down to the fishing pier. They put a brand-new fish cleaning station and now it has screen all the way around it, so you don’t have mosquitoes bothering you and there are no flies in there. That was a major undertaking. A couple of years before that, we had parts of the park closed, where they would close a loop or two and they redid the roads and the driveways. We took out all of the old tent pads, because tents are a lot bigger than they used to be and they wouldn’t fit.”
Many stayed home at the onset of Covid-19, but within six months, Janssen said they began making their way back. In fact, there was an increase in numbers from those pre-Covid.
Roads, driveways and parking spots all have large sweeping curves to accommodate larger vehicles and RVs. When the park was built back in 1977, camping units and recreational vehicles were much smaller. Some trees have been cut to provide enough room, but volunteers, including scouts and master naturalists, were available to help plant a tree for each one eliminated.
“We were able to get back to the more native species of trees here at the park, versus the trees that were planted before it was turned into a state park, because 100 years ago, this was all cattle pasture basically. We are trying really hard to get it back to its native ecosystem, which is obviously a goal of all state parks.”
Next year, Texas Parks and Wildlife turns 100 and there will be centennial celebrations at every park with special events geared toward promoting state parks and sharing their history.
“It will be how we have changed over 100 years, but the experiences have stayed the same. That experience of camping and enjoying the outdoors, of catching your first fish or taking a hike in the woods has never changed. We have always provided that experience.”
For those new to the camping experience, a program is available to teach the basics.
“Texas Outdoor family is a program we have where you can sign up for a weekend and you pay a nominal fee around $75. It includes all of your camping permits and they provide camping gear, so they are going to bring a tent, they are going to start a fire, they will provide one dinner for you, and you bring the rest of your food. They are going to teach you how to make a fire, how to take kayaks and bicycles out, and they will even show you geocaching and using a GPS to find cool, hidden objects in parks. For folks that are kind of nervous or not sure where to get started, they provide that experience and expertise and you have rangers staying the night with you out there to make it more comfortable.”
Janssen mentioned the health benefits of enjoying nature and that some doctors are prescribing nature as a de-stressing agent. He said a study has shown that kids today spend seven minutes outdoors and seven hours in front of screens.
“If I can get kids to play in the dirt for five minutes, I have them hooked. That part of nature and free play in the outdoors is something we are missing. Folks that haven’t been here in five or six years are literally seeing a brand-new park. I have the coolest job in state parks, because I get to help kids catch their first fish, shoot their first bow and arrow, go out on a kayak for the first time or see a bald eagle. It is really neat to watch them put their phones down for a few minutes and just enjoy nature.”
Reservations for the park can be made about five months in advance and the group activity center can be booked a year in advance for weddings or family reunions. It is easier to get a campsite on weekdays, whereas weekends are almost always fully booked. The time between Memorial Day and Labor Day is a busy season and visitors may experience difficulties entering the park on weekends without a reservation. For natural resource protection and management, the number of vehicles and people are restricted.
Visit their website at tpwd.texas.gov for a list of upcoming activities at the park. All programs are free and they also hold events for church or school groups with enough advanced notice.