In the two years since Carter Smith took over as executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, a hurricane has pummeled the coast, destroying two state parks, and the agency has canceled its popular Austin-based Wildlife Expo, which introduced thousands to the hunting, fishing and camping life.

At the same time, invasive species — from aquatic plants in East Texas lakes to burros at Big Bend Ranch State Park — have strained ecosystems across the state.

That's a trio of major challenges for the head of an agency with 3,100 employees and a budget of more than $468 million.

Smith, 41, a seventh-generation Texan who grew up hunting and hiking on his family's Hill Country ranch, was the first outside hire for the post in more than 20 years. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission plucked him in January 2008 from the Nature Conservancy, where he worked as Texas state director.

Environmentalists hoped his background at the conservancy would put a new emphasis on conservation.

At the same time, hunters demanded that he remember the importance of tracking deer and reeling in fish in a place where the opening of hunting season is practically a state holiday, and park users wanted Smith to keep pushing for more improvements to facilities just starting to recover from years of neglect and budget cuts. So far, all sides say Smith has earned high marks.

A Texas Tech University graduate with a master's degree in conservation biology from Yale University, Smith said the transition from conservation to government wasn't much of a stretch.

At the Nature Conservancy, he headed a nonprofit organization that has purchased land for more than 30 nature preserves since 1964 and helped broker land preservation agreements for scores of private landowners.

He was known for spearheading major acquisitions, including 24,500 acres near South Padre Island for the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. He forged partnerships with city and county governments to protect water resources and helped lead support for ballot initiatives for conservation, including a campaign that raised $90 million to protect the Edwards Aquifer.

In his new role, he heads an agency charged with managing and protecting the state's wildlife, wildlife habitat and parklands.

Smith calls Hurricane Ike, which lashed the Texas coast in September 2008, the defining event of his tenure so far. Two parks — Sea Rim State Park, which was destroyed by Hurricane Rita in 2007 and was two months from reopening when Ike hit, and Galveston Island State Park, one of the most popular parks in the system — were devastated.

"We initially suffered $100 million in damages at 40 facilities, in ways big and small," he said.

A new master plan is in the works for the Galveston park, and Sea Rim will be redesigned with a smaller footprint and less infrastructure.

Under Smith's watch, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department decided to eliminate the expo — a popular two-day event that drew about 40,000 people to the agency's Austin headquarters to learn about fishing, camping and hunting — when it lost financial sponsorships in 2009. Instead, a smaller version of the expo hit the road, partnering with established events like the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. The idea, Smith said, is to reach more people outside of Central Texas.

"That was a gut-wrenching decision because of its tenure and success for 17 years," Smith said.

The agency will decide in August whether to reinstitute the expo in Austin next year.

"I think everybody's disappointed that Expo has gone away, but I think we understand it's turned to outreach, taking it on the road. The jury is still out whether that's better or worse," said Karl Kinsel, executive director of the Texas Deer Association.

Kinsel said that Smith gets mostly high marks from the state's hunting industry and that he has done a good job of getting input from hunters and landowners when making decisions that affect them, such as setting hunting regulations, bag limits and season dates.

The proliferation of invasive species has presented another challenge. Outbreaks of the fast-growing giant salvinia, which form mats at the water's surface, have occurred in lakes in East Texas, and zebra mussels, which foul water and clog pipes, are now living in Lake Texoma.

Chemicals and manual removal can help control invasive species, but officials say they need help from the public in reporting outbreaks early and cleaning their boats when they move from one lake to another.

Just before Smith took over as executive director, controversy bubbled when agency employees shot and killed non-native burros that were trampling vegetation and fouling water at Big Bend Ranch State Park. The agency placed a moratorium on the killings, but efforts by a rescue group to round up wild burros since have been ineffective, Smith said.

"Our agency has a strong stance against invasive or exotic species causing harm," Smith said, adding that the agency probably will have to decide whether to reinstate lethal means of controlling the burros. "Our decisions to control them are not always the most popular, but we're not afraid to make them."

Staffers also shoot aoudad sheep, another non-native species, to control their population at Big Bend Ranch State Park. Biologists say the sheep transmit diseases to native bighorn sheep, which they hope to re-establish at the park in coming years.

Smith said that realizing the public's demand for high quality parks on Texas' most treasured landscapes ranks high on his priority list.

"My favorite park is probably the last one I visited," he said. "They're all special in their own way. I'm terribly smitten with Caddo Lake, I never pass up a chance to visit the Davis Mountains, and I love to watch the bats at Devil's Sinkhole."

In mid-November, he stood on a ridge, admiring the sweeping view of Oso Canyon, a deep gorge that slices through Big Bend Ranch State Park in far West Texas, where he went with his wife, Stacy, for a weekend celebration to introduce the public to new trails and campsites. At more than 300,000 acres, that vast, cactus-studded expanse is the biggest of the 91 state parks that Smith helps oversee.

It's a tough job on a tight budget. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is funded primarily through hunting and fishing license sales, state park entrance and camping fees, and a dedicated portion of the state sporting goods sales tax.

Over the years, some facilities had fallen into disrepair, campgrounds had closed, and park hours were cut to save money. The gloomy picture of neglected parks with moldering infrastructure has brightened somewhat in the past two Legislative sessions.

In June 2007, six months before Smith took over from retiring Texas Parks and Wildlife Executive Director Robert L. Cook, the Legislature approved $182 million in additional funding for state and local parks in the 2008-09 biennium. That allowed the agency to fill park employee positions, start to repair facilities, open campgrounds that had closed because of limited funds, extend park hours and designate about $36 million in grants for city and county parks.

The department landed another — but smaller — increase from the Legislature in 2009.

"We have turned the tide," Smith said. "There's a heightened awareness among Texans of the importance and value of state parks to quality of life, the economy and the value of our watershed."

Paid state park visits have risen slightly in the past few years to about 4.5 million in 2009. Hunting and fishing license sales also have increased slightly, with a total of about 1.9 million sold, despite a 5 percent increase in their cost.

"I think the obvious challenge for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the state as a whole is balancing the need to maintain parks with a growing population," said Laura Huffman, who took over Smith's job at the Nature Conservancy. "In the midst of the current state budget, that's a challenge for all involved."

Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said Smith has done a good job of balancing the needs of multiple constituencies with different ideas of the agency's role.

"He understands that part of the reason for state parks is to provide recreational opportunities to the growing urban population of the state, and he's keenly aware of that need," Kramer said. "Because of his background in conservancy, he understands that the state parks system is also a place where you can conserve natural resources and have to make sure recreational opportunities do not impede on that basic need to conserve wildlife and habitat wherever possible."

Today, 95 percent of Texas lands are privately owned, and the state leads the nation in the amount of farm and ranch land lost to development. That means the state has to rely on landowners and stewards to take care of wildlife, Smith said. It also means the public lands Texas does have are strained by overuse.

"As the state continues to grow, so do pressures on natural resources and the demands of the public to access those resources," he said.

Smith wants to increase from 15 to 25 percent the portion of the state's private land that operates under department-approved wildlife management plans. He emphasizes scientific practice in that management.

The commission that hired Smith also thinks he's doing a good job.

"He has high sensitivity to private landowners and can get their cooperation for anything he wants to accomplish in conservation," said Peter Holt, chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. "This is a guy who can talk to cattle raisers and the Sierra Club."

But the job, Holt said, is going to get tougher, especially as water issues intensify.

Still, the agency's biggest challenge, Smith said, is remaining relevant in a state where each generation is more urban and removed from the outdoors than the last.

"What are we as an agency going to do to engage and inspire 24 million people to value the state's treasures?" Smith asked. "That's a Herculean proposition — to engage and inspire them to get out of doors."

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994