George L. Bristol has had an active career in business, fundraising, and politics, yet he found time to devote to conservation, which stemmed from a life-long love affair with national, state, and local parks. Bristol was born in 1941 in Denton, Texas. His father died in 1946, and George's mother was a school teacher and librarian. In pursuing her career, she moved the family frequently to a variety of Texas communities over the years: Beeville, back to Denton, Orange, Weatherford, and finally to Austin. When the family arrived in Austin, Bristol was 12 years old. He spent his teenage years in that city and has lived there most of his life. Today he lives in Austin and Forth Worth with his wife, Gretchen Denny. The two locations give him time to visit with their children and grandchildren.
In high school, Bristol played football, worked at a variety of jobs, and graduated in the top 10% of his class. The family made extensive use of Austin's parks and swimming pools, especially its signature Zilker Park, because they were close and free attractions. Furthermore, his exposure to outdoor recreation opportunities was enhanced, because in the 1950s, Austin was a relatively small city with easy access by foot or bicycle to the woods and creeks of the nearby Texas Hill Country. George and his brother were free to explore, BB gun hunt, fish, and enjoy the outdoors, as was the case in many smaller Texas towns. Much of this activity took place on private lands, but owners for the most part did not object. Many welcomed youngsters and their dogs. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.
After high school, Bristol followed a strong family tradition and enrolled at Texas A&M University. However, in the spring of his freshman year, he changed majors (to economics) and scholarships were more readily available in that field at the University of Texas, as were jobs, so he returned to Austin where he pursued a pre-law (economics) degree.
As a student, Bristol was active in the UT Young Democrats organization. The interest in politics was influenced by his parents. His father and uncle worked on NYA and WPA projects in the 1930s. After his father died, the monthly survivor benefit check the family received from the government was key to their financial survival. Thus, he personally experienced the value of the "safety net" established by the Roosevelt Administration in the 1930s and 1940s. His mother was active in the Democratic Party. When the family lived in Weatherford, she was the first female delegate from that community to be elected to the state's Democratic Convention in 1952.
In 1961, Congressman Jim Wright ran for the U.S. Senate. The Bristol family knew him well from their time in Weatherford. As a result, Bristol worked hard for Wright from his base at the University of Texas and among the Young Democrats. Wright failed to win the Senate seat vacated by Lyndon Johnson, but recommended Bristol to Stuart Udall who was Secretary of Interior. As a result, Bristol secured a summer job at Glacier National Park in the summers of 1961 and 1962. Bristol later stated, "This was the real beginning of my great outdoor experience. More important, it was a life-defining experience. 1 thought Glacier was the most beautiful place on Earth. I still do."
In 1962, again at Wright's recommendation, Bristol worked for the re-election of his local Democratic congressman, Homer Thornberry. In early 1962, President Kennedy was not popular in Texas, and it seemed likely that Thornberry would have a tough race. Bristol was given responsibility for helping in the rural areas in Thornberry's constituency and on campus. Thornberry was re-elected. He asked Bristol to go to Washington, D.C. and join his office staff for the new session in January 1963.
Bristol held this job from 1963 through 1964, first with Thornberry and then Jake Pickle. He was responsible for clipping and organizing newspaper articles from the constituency that were of interest to the congressman, including births, marriages, and death announcements. This meant he learned a great deal about the people and events in the 10ll] District of Texas. He also was one of the Democratic doormen in Congress, which meant he took messages, ran errands, and interacted with all of the Democratic Congressmen. It was a remarkable networking opportunity. It was, he said, "My best paying job, ever."
After attending the Atlanta Democratic Convention in 1964, where President Johnson was nominated, Bristol returned to Austin. His wife was pregnant, and he wanted to enroll in UT Law School. He quickly determined that law was not a career he wanted to pursue, so he moved on to join a public relations firm in Austin, capitalizing both on his wide network of contacts and political experience.
In 1968, Bristol returned to Washington to work on President Johnson's re-election campaign. When Johnson withdrew from the race, he signed on with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and at the age of 28 was appointed Southern Coordinator, responsible for all of Humphrey’s convention and campaign activities south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Humphrey lost to Nixon, but Humphrey asked Bristol to remain in that position for the party. Then Bob Strauss from Texas was recruited to be the DNC treasurer and subsequently its chair. Bristol worked with Strauss and played a central role in rebuilding the Democratic Party. They erased its debt and helped it recover from the trauma created by Nixon's win and George Wallace in the South. When Bristol was working at the Democratic Party National Headquarters, the offices were burglarized in the notorious Watergate break-in that ultimately led to the resignation of President Nixon.
In 1973, Bristol returned to Texas and worked for a corporation in Dallas. At the same time, he periodically returned to Washington to assist on specific projects. In late 1973, Bristol was approached by Senator Lloyd Bentsen to take responsibility for his political affairs in Texas. Bentsen had a sizeable staff, and the job required Bristol to move back to Austin. When Bentsen ran for president in 1976, Bristol was financial director of his campaign as well as campaign director for the senator's 1976 Senate re-election bid. Following 1976, Bristol established his own public relations firm. For the next 20 years, Bristol had a central role in all Bentsen's campaigns and in his Texas fundraising. He was also involved in other high-profile public projects, such as the visit to Houston of Deng Xiaoping in 1979, raising funds for the restoration of the Texas Capitol Building, and co-producing an ABC two-hour special saluting Texas in its Sesquicentennial in 1986. He had a host of private clients, including Braniff Airlines, Phillips Petroleum, and various charitable foundations.
Since his early experiences at Glacier National Park, there had been little opportunity to be personally involved in park or conservation issues, but he regularly took his family to vacation at Glacier. This exposure to the park nurtured his interest in photography and poetry as creative outlets. He has received numerous awards for his photography and has been published in many outlets. He decided he needed more formal training in poetry, so enrolled in the MFA in Writing (poetry) program at Vermont College and graduated with a master’s degree in 1997. His poems have been published in numerous journals and magazines. He was chosen in 1999 by The Maryland Poetry Review as the winner of the 3rdAnnual Chapbook Contest with Borders and Other Barriers. In 2000, he received the PEN Texas Award in Poetry. In 2002, another chapbook, Natural Selections, was accepted for publication by Pudding House Publications. Consider the opening stanza of "Perfect Reflections":
Like a finely sculpted woman emerging
out of early morning shower steam
into a dappling of natural light flowing
through a moon-painted window,
the breasts of Denali rise
from under hair-streaming contrails,
silently bathing in the first kiss of sun
and last dance of Northern Lights.
The continued exposure to Glacier resulted in Bristol forming a partnership that built a ski lodge in Whitefish, Montana, in 1981. This led to his involvement in a partnership in a larger 156-room resort hotel, Grouse Mountain Lodge, on a golf course in the area. Through his engagement in the area, he continued to expand his interest in parks and conservation. This interest and his strong Texas political network, led to Bristol's appointment as chair of the Texas Conservation Foundation in 1983, which was a small Texas state agency. He remained in this position until 1988. During his tenure, he engineered major land gifts to the San Jacinto Battleground from Phillips Petroleum and Diamond Shamrock.
Through his work with President Jimmy Carter in the late '70s, Bristol indicated his desire to be appointed to the National Park Foundation, but the opportunity did not arise. In 1992, he worked for Bill Clintons election efforts. After Clinton won, Bristol received a call from Little Rock, Arkansas, asking him to consider joining the Clinton administration in Washington. Bristol declined, but again requested a position on the National Park Foundation (NPF) Board. He was appointed in 1994, when an opening became available, and he served in that role for seven years.
Bristol called it, "the best non-paying job I ever had," and it placed him centrally in the park and conservation arena. When he joined the Board, another member, who was a fellow Texan told him, "This is a $5,000 club which goes fly fishing at a nice place once or twice a year, thinks good thoughts about the parks, feels that they have done something useful for conservation and little else."
His goal at NPF was to change its role. There were no fundraising strategies or programs in place. Bristol was an enthusiastic nature photographer and had good connections with executives of Canon and the company's advertising agency. Using these contacts, he arranged a sponsorship with Canon, which committed them to investing $ 1 million in NPF. He announced this agreement at his first meeting as a board member. It was the first $1 million plus contribution NPF had received, beyond the gifts provided by Laurance Rockefeller. Canons continuing commitment grew to over $7 million in the next several years.
The Canon partnership was the inspiration of the NPF's Proud Partner program. During Bristol's time on the board, NPF signed sponsorship agreements with Ford, Kodak, American Airlines, Time-Warner, and Discovery, by which the companies each contributed $10 million to NPF in cash or in-kind services (especially advertising) to enhance the connection of Americans with their parks.
Three other initiatives that Bristol helped organize at NPF were a revamping of the National Park Service and NPF's public image efforts, the minting of a commemorative one-dollar silver coin by the U.S. Mint that netted over $1.5 million for NPF, and the launching of the Park Partners program. The latter was championed by Bristol and David Rockefeller, Jr. They persuaded Laurence Rockefeller to provide $1 million for the program, contingent on the raising of an additional $1.5 million. This created momentum for forming active local citizen "Friends of the Parks" groups. Not surprising, Glacier National Park was one of the first organized and funded. Bristol has proudly served on the board of what is now the Glacier National Park Fund since 1999.
In the summer of 2000, as his term on the NPF Board was ending, Bristol visited with Andy Sansom, who was executive director of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) to discuss leading a similar effort in Texas. As a result, he established the Texas Coalition for Conservation (TCC) in 2001.
Texas parks' biggest problem was money, or rather the lack of it. "As popular and essential as parks are, they never had a real spokesperson for funding. The constituency was too broad and too diverse," Bristol noted. In 2001, the TCC began work in earnest to build a coalition among diverse groups, while at the same time stressing the economic benefits which accrued from a well-funded park system. The funding mechanism was in place. It was the states "sporting goods tax," but it had been capped at $32 million in 1995, yet it was generating close to $90 million by 2001. Bristol recalled:
2001 was not the year. Nor was 2003 the year. We couldn't have picked a worse period. September 11, 2001 brought everything to a halt for months, and in 2003, the state was confronted with a $10 billion deficit, a real donnybrook. Nevertheless, we did pick up support and interest around the state and in the media, mainly through "The Economic Contributions of Texas State Parks" that TCC commissioned from Dr. John Crompton at Texas A&M University. Those surveys of 80 parks laid the solid basis that parks were not only good for the spirit and the body, but also are good for the pocketbook, particularly for local communities and merchants. Local chambers and the press came to recognize that their park was an essential part of their community and its economic well being.
In 2004, Bristol contacted a former TPWD commissioner, Ernest Angelo, who was close to the Texas House Speaker, Tom Craddick, Together they developed a strategy for enhancing funding for state parks in the 2005 legislative session. They took their plan to Speaker Craddick, who agreed to support it. In order to give the Speaker the support he would need, most of the pre-legislative organizing had to be accomplished through outside organizations, individuals and the media because there had been a longstanding history of TPWD's leadership having an interest only in wildlife, hunting, and fishing, and not in parks. Fortunately, such support was available from the Texas Outdoor Recreation Alliance (TORA), the Texas Recreation and Parks Society (TRAPS), and many others across the state.
In 2005, Representative Harvey Hilderbran, with the support of the Speaker, sponsored HB1292, which, if passed, would have lifted the sporting goods sales tax cap from $32 million to over $80 million and would have restored park funding to adequate levels. However, it was not to be. Bristol recalled: "HB1292 was locked and loaded to pass the House, but the legislature got into a financial meltdown over school financing, which stymied the legislature and knocked out over 200 bills which had requests for additional funding. This included HB1292."
Bristol was sorely disappointed. When he starred TCC in 2001, he committed to a four-year effort and envisioned success in 2005. However, after the legislative session was over, the Speaker and other key leaders persuaded him to persevere through the next session, which would be in 2007.
Soon after the 2005 legislative session concluded, a highly controversial action galvanized public opinion in support of additional resources for state parks. There was a proposal by the TPWD commissioners to sell 40,000 acres of the Big Bend Ranch State Park. The public and press were incensed. Bristol made sure the media were well informed about how little money TPWD had which created the rationale for this sale. Lead editorials in all the major Texas city newspapers decried the situation. In early 2006, it got worse when state parks ran out of money. Staff were laid off. Many parks were partially closed, and programs were curtailed or eliminated, particularly those designed for young people. These unfortunate milestones opened the eyes of many Texans and bolstered public support to increase state parks funding. Bristol commented:
We had a perverse lucky break. With all the prior work we had done, media across the state had so much background on the parks funding issue, and the major papers were already writing about this. Everyone came to recognize the crisis. Our parks were crumbling. It became their own parks that were in jeopardy, rather than some distant, impersonal parks system. It hit close to home.
In 2006, Bristol helped persuade the chairman of TPWD to appoint a state parks advisory committee to review and recommend state and local parks' funding needs. Bristol ensured that knowledgeable and influential Texans were at the table. Its chair was a former long-time legislator who had been chair of the Senate Finance Committee, John Montford. He was well respected, and his credibility was an important factor in the ultimate success of the mission. In his Senate role, he had been responsible for passing the original "sporting goods tax" in 1993, so he was intimately familiar with TPWD's financial sources and growing plight.
The committee worked closely with TPWD staff and identified $105 million to meet essential park needs. They recommended that the cap on sporting goods tax revenue be eliminated in order to provide that funding. Those recommendations were unanimously approved by both the committee and the TPWD commissioners, who sent it to the legislature as the department's 2008-2009 budget request. Bristol observed, "Going into the 80th Legislative Session, we knew we were going in with solid support (over 120 House members and 25 Senators), and we eventually got it through, but not without a lot of heartburn, tie-ups, earmarking, and other issues. We had to fight for it right to the end." Indeed, it was the last bill passed on the last day the legislature was in session. The bill effectively increased parks funding for the next biennium from $120 million to $300 million! Some of this was much needed capital funding for renovations, but the annual operating budget for parks was nearly doubled.
The state parks director commenting on Bristol’s role observed: “What a champion of the state parks system. George Bristol never quit. He didn’t do it for himself; he did it for the people of Texas.” Bristol noted: “Conservation is a never-ending battle, like schools or other important societal matters – you have to have people who keep positioning parks and land conservation funding. It’s not that legislators want to kill parks. They’ve just got so many things to deal with. You have to position parks and keep it in front of them.”
With that in mind, Bristol chose to help make that "positioning" case once again in 2009. With the support of TORA, TRAPS, the Texas Outdoor Partners, the TPWD Commissioners, and hundreds of local organizations and individuals, they keyed on three essential areas: protecting and expanding the budget appropriations, protecting the integrity of the "Sporting Goods Tax," and ensuring that the Sunset Bill passed. The Sunset process in Texas is how the state periodically reaffirms or denies an agency's existence or makes recommendations for improvements. All too often, some legislators try to amend it to advance their personal causes or revenge personal grudges. With the help of a new Speaker, Joe Straus, his chief of staff and key senators, all three goals were achieved. But, again, it took a concentrated and session-long effort. At the end of this session, the chair of the TPWD Commission said, "It is hard to identify someone in recent history who has done more for the health and vitality of Texas' parks then George Bristol. His tireless advocacy and leadership on their behalf are without equal. The citizens of Texas owe him an enormous debt of gratitude."
According to Bristol, one of the most challenging aspects of advocating for parks is getting people excited about the nitty-gritty.
I have found that many people, including legislators, are more interested in concept and policy than funding the day-to-day maintenance and operations necessary for our parks systems: facilities, campgrounds, fencing, and roads. These facilities have got to be there and be in good condition so people have a rewarding park experience. If not, people will leave and never come back. They will even go to other states to enjoy better state parks. That is a fact. If you don't believe it, call Arkansas!
While stressing the economic benefits of parks and their attraction as a major tourist draw, if properly funded and maintained, Bristol always goes to the underlying theme of his personal philosophy of the reason that parks are an essential aspect of our lives:
The reason for conserving the last best places for the greatest number of our citizens is to let all be of the Earth in a most wholesome setting. From that connection comes civility and patriotism. Deep and lasting civility and patriotism because having a sense of, and a stake in, place gives every experiencing citizen pride of ownership.
Trust for Public Land. (2008). Saving Our Parks: How George Bristol Became a Conservation Hero for Texas. Conserving Land for People: Texas TPL Newsletter 8(1), 1.8-11.