Last month, after an almost six-year ordeal to find a steward for the Christmas Mountains tract owned by the General Land Office, a deal was struck to transfer the property to the Texas State University System for use as an open-air classroom.
The reaction across Texas was swift and positive, from the Austin American Statesman to the Sierra Club, to Environment Texas, the deal got a big a thumbs up. The Statesman went as far as to say the people of Texas should be “grateful” and the deal is a “good one.”
I’m not sure if anyone from the Statesman’s editorial board, the Sierra Club or Environment Texas has ever been to the Christmas Mountains, but I’m surprised they could be so swiftly duped into supporting such an incomplete agreement.
In December 2005, I broke the story about the proposed sale by the General Land Office of the Christmas Mountains in south Brewster County.
In 2006, I broke the story about John Poindexter, Houston industrialist and owner of Cibolo Creek Ranch in Presidio County, being interested in buying the property.
On several occasions I’ve met with General Land Office Commissioner Jerry Patterson while he visited Brewster County. I’ve ridden all terrain vehicles all over those mountains with Patterson, and hiked them on two occasions. I’ve also met with and interviewed potential private buyers and met and interviewed a variety of state and national park officials about the issue.
Perhaps of greatest importance, I’ve met and interviewed local residents and officials, the people whose lives will be most affected by a change in ownership. So often it is these people, their thoughts, fears and opinions, that are subordinated in public policy debates.
Given my long-term interest in the Christmas Mountains, and the controversy surrounding the range’s fate, I offer some observations:
In 1991, when The Conservation Fund deeded the 9,269-acre Christmas Mountains to the GLO, numerous conservation easements were included in the gift deed, including a stipulation that if the GLO disposed of the property, it first be offered to Texas Parks and Wildlife or the National Park Service. The well-intentioned numerous deed restrictions would make the Christmas Mountains an undesirable piece of property to most other parties.
Both agencies initially declined the property when offered it by the GLO. It should be noted that the entire debacle of the Christmas Mountains over the last six years could have been avoided if either agency had accepted the property back in 2005.
It should also be noted that GLO Commissioner Patterson has criticized the glacially slow speed at which the National Park Service implements policy change. For a guy who began an earnest attempt to rid the GLO of the Christmas Mountains in 2005, I don’t think I would go there.
The gift deed also included a stipulation that in the event those land agencies declined the property, the GLO could not dispose of the Christmas Mountains without the consent of the donor, The Conservation Fund.
In 2005, without the prior consent of The Conservation Fund, the GLO decided it would sell the property to fulfill its fiduciary responsibility to the Permanent School Fund and the people of Texas. In 2005 and 2006 the “fiduciary responsibility” was the narrative put forth by the GLO for selling the property.
The potential sale caused a maelstrom of state and national negative publicity on the proposal, and the General Land Office—and Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who hatched the idea. Whether it was the public uproar in response to the proposed sale, or the inevitability of lengthy and costly litigation that killed the sale may never be known. I’ll go out on a limb and say it was a little of both.
In 2008, a new administration at Big Bend National Park was receptive to accepting the Christmas Mountains. At the request of Patterson, the Park Service commissioned a proposal outlining the scientific, recreational, and protective services attributes on why the Park Service should incorporate the Christmas Mountains into the park.
Commissioner Patterson rebuffed the proposal, citing the Park Service policy—at the time—of guns being banned in national parks.
Indeed, by 2008, the narrative had changed from the notion of the GLO fulfilling fiduciary responsibility of selling the Christmas Mountains, to the narrative of “No guns? No deal.” Maybe the bad press and possible litigation lubricated this narrative leap?
In 2008 we wrote an editorial expressing the wisdom we saw in having the Christmas Mountains become part of Big Bend National Park.
Fast forward to September 2011: The General Land Office and the Texas State University System sing the praise of the land as open-air classroom.
Last month, at a press conference announcing the transfer, a jubilant Patterson described the transfer as “Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Feliz Ramadan, Feliz Navidad!—whatever works.” Texas State University Chancellor Brian McCall chimed in with a “Jingle Bells, baby!”
While the idea of an open-air classroom is a great and I’m all for celebrating holidays, let’s take a peek at the transfer agreement between the land office and the university system.
Rats, looks like this Christmas Mountains Christmas, we got sold some coal.
A quick look at the agreement reveals a disturbing fact regarding the transfer: hunting is allowed in the classroom.
Yes, on page one of the agreement (long before any mention of the academic merits of the open-air classroom) is the stipulation that “Existing hunting leases shall be honored and access for legal hunting purposes maintained to include legal carrying guns and ammunition.” (I don’t know who wrote the agreement but I’m glad they put all the academic stuff like “high resolution gravity measurements” on pages two through six.)
For some reason, all the press releases from the General Land Office and the university system that extol the virtues of the open-air classroom fail to extol the virtues of hunting. What a brilliant mix: researchers and students hunched over, taking notes, close to or on the ground in their quest for knowledge just a short distance from hunters in their quest for that elusive mule deer or javelina.
Futhermore, in 2008 the National Park Service wrote an exhaustive proposal regarding the possible acquisition property. Listed as one of the several outstanding reasons why the Park Service could manage the area was, “The Park has extensive experience in managing public use in backcountry environments including law enforcement, search and rescue, and emergency medical expertise.”
In the event anyone has an accident while hunting or studying or researching in this new classroom, who might save you is not mentioned in the agreement. Maybe Brewster County Sheriffs Department? Maybe not. Don’t worry, be happy.
Last month, when I interviewed Patterson regarding the transfer, I asked him about patrolling and emergency response in the Christmas Mountains. Said Patterson “Why do we need somebody? Why do we need to patrol?… If I venture to a remote area and screw up, I’m a dumb ass.”
If the idea of mixing hunting in an open-air classroom and the lack of emergency services don’t sway you into believing this is a poorly-executed, poorly-thought-out document, I offer the following: Cited in the transfer agreement as a bona-fide research interest that befits the new open-air classroom is the plight of a poor researcher from Lamar University who has been conducting field studies in Big Bend National Park for over two decades. For over twenty years, his work has evidently been hampered because he “has been unable to make comparisons to those at higher elevations such as the Christmas Mountains.”
Did anyone proofread this document? Look at a topographical map? Google Earth? Anyone, anyone? At a peak elevation of 5,728 feet in the Christmas Mountains and a peak of 7,832 in Big Bend National Park, it will be difficult for this chap to find those “higher elevations” in the Christmas Mountains.
While the transfer of the Christmas Mountains to the state university system has potential for greatness, the recent agreement is an insufficient document. Just as the transfer from the Conservation Fund to the General Land Office in 1991 was lacking, so too is the agreement between the General Land Office and the Texas State University System.
— John Waters, Publisher
In this photo from our April 2008 issue, Texas General Land Office Commissioner Jerry Patterson (above) took a break while hiking through Big Bend National Park to the Christmas Mountains. Since that time, the GLO has entered into easement agreements with the Park Service and the property Owners Association of Terlingua Ranch allowing access to the Christmas Mountains through both the park and Terlingua Ranch. (John Waters, photo)