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‘All the stars aligned.’ How Fort Worth conservationist paved path for constitutional amendment to fund Texas parks

Just over 20 years ago, George Bristol was finishing a six-year term on the board of the National Park Foundation, the charitable arm of the U.S. National Park Service. Following his appointment by President Bill Clinton, Bristol focused his energy on creating a viable fundraising strategy and raising the profile of national parks in the public eye.

However, friends told him there was trouble with parks in his home state of Texas. In 2000, Bristol went to see Andrew Sansom, then the executive director of Texas Parks and Wildlife.

“I said: ‘What can I do to help?’” Bristol recalled. “He wrote on a tiny sheet of paper: ‘Money.’ Somewhere in all of my boxes, I’ve got that little note that says ‘Money.’ You could look around and, sure enough, we did need money.”

That conversation spurred Bristol to spend the next two decades convincing Texas lawmakers to increase the amount of state funding sent to the 95 parks, historic sites and natural areas overseen by Texas Parks and Wildlife.

His efforts paid off in 2019, when voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment dedicating all sales tax revenue from certain sporting goods to the parks division and the Texas Historical Commission. Previously, lawmakers reserved the rightto allocate much of the tax revenue to other uses.

“People want parks, and they are willing to pay for parks,” Bristol, now 81, said. “I never got discouraged. I’d always figured we’d win.”

His contributions to the Texas conservation community will be on display Thursday at Fort Worth Wild, an annual fundraiser held by the Friends of the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge.

The event will honor Bristol, who serves on the board of the friends group and has been key in raising money for improvements to the center, said fellow board member and friend Marty Leonard.

“We had a good board prior to George, but it’s much better with George,” Leonard said. “He brought a level of knowledge, experience and expertise to us because he’s been so involved with parks. He elevated the level of work tremendously.”

Vegetation lines the lake at the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Bristol’s passion for parks began while he was a student at the University of Texas at Austin. Born in Denton, he lived in several Texas towns, including Weatherford, before his family settled in Austin in the mid-1950s. Bristol’s mother was a history teacher and enjoyed sharing historic places and nature with her children.

But it wasn’t until Bristol spent the summer of 1961 working at Glacier National Park in Montana’s Rocky Mountains that he discovered a lifelong love for the country’s parks.

“It was an experience I’ll never forget, and I never did,” Bristol said. “Getting up in the morning and going outside to get ready for work, and there were all those mountains and waterfalls and animals from deer to grizzly bears. It was the most powerful thing I’ve ever seen or experienced.”

Over the next three decades, Bristol worked as a political advisor and fundraiser for Democratic politicians, including Hubert Humphrey, Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Clinton. He split time between running a public relations firm from his home bases in Austin and Fort Worth and co-owning a hotel resort in Whitefish, Montana — the same area he fell in love with as a college student.

After a stint as chair of the Texas Conservation Foundation in the 1980s, Bristol leveraged his relationship with the Clinton campaign to request an appointment to the National Park Foundation. His term included the creation of the foundation’s partner program with companies ranging from Canon and Kodak to American Airlines and Time-Warner.

He wanted to bring the same energy back to Texas, beginning with the formation of the nonprofit Texas Coalition for Conservation in 2001. Bristol’s central goal was to ensure more funding was permanently allocated to Texas Parks and Wildlife so the agency’s budget would be insulated from political pressure and economic ups-and-downs.

A 1993 state law allowed up to 94% of sporting goods sales tax to go to parks, but just 40% of the revenue was allocated to state parks over the span of 20 years, according to The Texas Tribune.

Some lawmakers were not a fan of permanent earmarking because they wanted all budgeting power to stay with the legislature, Bristol said. However, when he spoke with lawmakers about how the sporting goods funding had been diverted from its original purpose, they started to come around.

“Dan Patrick had run on transparency in budgeting,” he said. “Patrick right off the bat saw this was a scam. They voted for the parks to have this money, but then they used it for something else.”

Over time, Bristol formed a bipartisan coalition with the common goal of improving park maintenance, obtaining more land for preservation and making parks accessible to the state’s booming population.

By the time the Texas legislature passed legislation to enable a constitutional amendment on the 2019 ballot, nearly 80 groups had signed on to Bristol’s lobbying efforts. Their ideologies spanned from “tree huggers” to parks advocates to “the hook-and-bullet types,” Bristol said, referring to outdoorsmen and hunters.

The art of bipartisanship and working across differences was in Bristol’s wheelhouse, thanks to his early experience working with Humphrey, Bentsen and longtime Congressman Jake Pickle.

“When I first got started, they wouldn’t talk to each other,” Bristol said. “By the time we got to the 2019 enabling legislation and the constitutional amendment, it was a marvelous operation, and they worked together. They signed letters together and went to see House and Senate members together. All the stars aligned and it got easier.”

Bristol and his wife, Gretchen Denny, joke that he’s retired three times, starting in 2013. That year, Bristol sold his home in Austin and moved full time to Fort Worth. In 2015, he “retired” again after believing he had legislative support behind sporting goods funding for parks.

Finally, after the 2019 constitutional amendment passed with 88% support, Bristol moved forward with his third attempt at retirement – or at least his version of it. He remains active in fundraising for the Fort Worth Nature Center and spent the past two years working on a manuscript for his fourth book, which will come out next year to mark the centennial of Texas’ parks system.

Now, Bristol has time to dedicate to his other passions, including poetry and nature photography. With the COVID-19 pandemic causing sporting goods purchases to surge, Bristol is confident he won’t need to come out of retirement again to find more money for Texas parks.

“That 88% support is going to protect us, certainly past the upcoming (legislative) session and the centennial of the state park,” he said. “This money was supposed to have been spent on parks all along. We put all the pieces together to get it to parks, and it’s going to remain that way.”