Fairfield Lake State Park sits about 150 miles north of Houston, just east of Waco. It boasts a 2,400 acre lake; a favorite fishing spot for anglers across the state. You can stay at 134 campsites, some which offer breathtaking views of the lake. Hike to the Ski Cove Overlook or the Dockery Trail Overlook where you could spot all kinds of wildlife including Bald Eagles. You can reserve the dining hall or amphitheater for group events. Enjoy the views as you hike, bike, or ride your horse down the multi-use trails. Come for the day and cool off in the swimming area, have a picnic or utilize the fishing pier or boat ramp. Get a dose of history at the Hill Homestead Well or the Chancellor Union Cemetery with graves dating back to 1915.
Sounds like a wonderful place right? Don’t you want to visit right away? Sorry, Fairfield Lake State Park closed on February 28, 2023 to make way for a private golf course and high end gated community.
The announcement of it’s closure via a press release from Texas Parks & Wildlife (TPWD) on February 14th shocked residents across the state. Still, this is proving to be an ever fluid situation as many Texans are rallying behind the park to try to keep it open. After a meeting of the House Committee on Culture, Recreation & Tourism on March 9, 2023, it was suggested the park open again, just for day use. Starting Tuesday, March 14, TPWD will provide free day-use-only visitation on a first-come, first-served basis until the park reaches daily capacity. No overnight stays or reservations will be taken.
Many of us just assumed all state park land was owned by the state and the security of our state parks was simply tied to adequate funding, not to the whims of a private landowner. Yet here we are, staring at the possibility of being one state park less in the year of the Texas State Parks centennial.
What Happened with Fairfield Lake State Park
Since it’s opening in 1979 Fairfield Lake State Park’s 1,460 acres of land on the south side of Fairfield Lake were leased from Vistra Corp. at no cost to TPWD. Over the years TPWD invested $72 million into the park in the form of buildings, renovations, campsites, docks and more. The lake, trails, and facilities were enjoyed by over 80,000 people last year alone.
From 1971-2018 Vistra operated the Big Brown Power Plant on the north side of the lake. The plant utilized the lake water as a cooling reservoir, keeping Fairfield Lake much warmer than average temperature. This created a unique habitat for fish like bass, crappie, perch, catfish, and red drum as well as over 250 recorded species of birds and others species as well.
After the power plant closed Vistra sought to sell 5,000 acres, including the area of Fairfield Lake State Park and the lake itself. They notified TPWD. At the time TPWD did not have the funds to purchase all 5,000 acres and they continued to lease the land through fall of 2022. The property was publicly listed for sale in 2021.
Here’s where the information gets a little blurry. There are reports that TPWD attempted to purchase just the park land but Vistra would not split the land. Vistra states TPWD never submitted an official bid on the property.
The passage of Proposition 5 in November 2019 sent 100% of sporting goods sales tax to fund TPWD and the Texas Historical Commission. This change meant TPWD now has the money to purchase all 5,000 acres according to department’s executive director David Yoskowitz. The problem is, the property is already under contract with Todd Interests, with a listing price of $110.5 million, and it may be too little, too late.
In a statement, TPWD said they hoped to partner with the buyer to continue a lease, or acquire the park land from the new owner. There’s a lot of he said/she said that’s reported from here forward. There’s talk of selling water rights off as well. As with anything, somewhere in the middle of all the talk lies the truth.
According to reports, Todd Interests, plans to turn the park land into a gated community of multi-million dollar homes and a private golf course. In short, they’ve shown zero interest in keeping the state park a state park.
On February 13th TPWD received a lease termination notice, allowing them 120 days to vacate the property. The park facilities, trails and lake access officially closed to the public on February 28, with lease termination slated for June 13th this year. In the coming weeks park staff will remove equipment, public boat ramps, and a fishing pier.
There have been many questions posed about how the land purchase was handed by TPWD. Could they have done things differently? Faster? Could the land have been saved? Can it still be saved? It’s great to look at the past to see how things can be done differently in the future, but the fact of the matter is, we’re still losing a great state park.
How Fairfield Lake Could Still Be Saved
If there was a Hail Mary to save a state park, State Rep. Angelia Orr threw it with vigor on February 14th when she filed TX HB 2332. Orr’s district includes the area where Fairfield Park resides. In a last ditch effort, HB 2332 would allow the state to preserve Fairfield Lake State Park by granting the power of eminent domain. That is, if it passes.
“Fairfield Lake State Park has been treasured by the local community and park lovers across the state for decades, and I am proud to do my part to help preserve it,” said Orr. “With approximately 95% of the land in Texas being privately owned, public parks like Fairfield Lake State Park are essential to our Texas families.”
So what can an everyday citizen do? You can call or write your State Rep. in support of HB 2332. Whether you voted for your Representative or not, their job is to represent you and hear your thoughts on issues. It is so easy to call or write a letter. Even my 9 year old wrote a letter to our representative.
If you’re not sure who represents you, visit wrm.capitol.texas.gov and type in your address. A list of everyone who represents you both on the state and federal level will pop up, click their name to see their contact information.
There is also an official petition created by Orr’s office, which can be signed here https://www.angeliaorr.com/save-fairfield-lake-state-park
After the House Committee on Culture, Recreation & Tourism meeting on March 9th, Fairfield Lake State Park will reopen to day use guests, for free, on a first come first serve basis. This is your chance to take in everything Fairfield Lake State Park has to offer before it could close for good. “Since closing the park in February, we have heard an outpouring from Texans who would love to visit their park,” said TPWD State Parks Director Rodney Franklin. “While we still stand committed to reaching a compromise that would save Fairfield Lake State Park for future use, our team will be working hard to keep this gem as accessible as possible for as long as possible.”
Why Losing Fairfield State Park is a Statewide Concern
This year is the 100th anniversary of Texas State Parks, and we’re starting out by losing one of our 89 parks. Not great. What this whole situation has brought to light is Fairfield Lake State Park is not the only state park on leased land, it’s one of 15 across the state. Two of which are owned by, you guessed it, Vistra Corp.
On February 8th Governor Greg Abbott attended the Texas State Parks Centennial Celebration. In his keynote address he stated, “Our state parks are drivers of our booming tourism industry, inviting both Texans and out-of-state visitors to witness the majesty of Texas up close….We must work together to ensure that what makes our state so unique and beautiful is here for generations to come.”
With the number of people moving to Texas and in the increase in State Park popularity during the pandemic our Texas State Parks have seen more traffic than ever. In 2021 more than 10 million people visited our state parks, a 33% increase over 2012.
State Park visitation brings tourism revenue to smaller communities like Fairfield, Texas, with a population of 2,896 (2001). State Parks are an important part of our ecosystem, economy and our community as Texans.
Will Fairfield Lake State Park be saved? I don’t know. If it’s not, at the very least the loss of Fairfield Lake has made it a martyr for the rest of the Texas state parks on leased land. It’s brought to light the dire need to preserve our public green spaces, and to bring about systems and legislation to preserve other parks on leased land.
No matter the future of Fairfield Lake State Park, it still holds very special memories for myself and my family. It’s the first place I put in my paddle board when my daughter was only 3 years old. It’s also the first park we visited after our house fire, when we had to replace all of our camping gear. It’s the park where I fell in love with hiking and where a raccoon family visited our campsite and took a feather our daughter had left for them. I hope this special place can be saved, if not, it’s time to turn our eyes to the other state parks and what we can do to make sure they stay available to our children’s children and beyond.
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