About Air and Water

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

UPDATE ACTION ALERT: 9200+ acres of Texas Public Land to be offered to private bidders Nov. 6th

By Faith Chatham - DFWRCC - Oct. 17, 2007
Crossposted on Texas Kaos and Epluribus Media and Daily Kos and Burnt Orange Report.
Nov. 6th (ELECTION DAY) the Texas Land Commission will meet to receive bids from private bidders for 9200+ acres of land in Brewster County (Christmas Mountain) which were deeded to the permanent school fund in the hope that they would be preserved for use by the citizens of Texas and managed environmentally.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson favors selling them to private bidders. Environmental groups such as the Environment Texas oppose selling the land to private bidders. Commissioner Patterson sent me an e-mail earlier this week with his reasons for favoring private ownership. He did not mention "hunting" in that e-mail. He stated that the National Park Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife had refused to accept the land. His email, sent on Oct. 15th, is misleading.

Last Friday (Oct. 12th) the National Park Service notified the General Land Office of Texas that they will consider making Christmas Mountain part of Big Bend National Park. Environment Texas reports that Commissioner Patterson objects to this plan on the basis that Federal Park lands are not open to hunters.

Commissioner Patterson's e-mail stated that the land will be offered for bid on Nov. 6th. It appalls me that this important hearing will occur on ELECTION DAY. Usually those most committed to our political life are "otherwise engaged" on election day!

Luke Metzer, Director of Environment Texas, wrote:

On Friday, the National Park Service announced they would like to add the Christmas Mountains to Big Bend National Park. Big Bend's superintendent asked Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson to delay the sale of the Christmas Mountains to private interests in order to give them time to put together a proposal.

Unfortunately, Patterson turned the park service down, saying he didn't want them to manage the property unless they changed their policy that prohibits concealed hand guns on the property. This is a completely unrelated issue and shouldn't stand in the way of the protection of the Christmas Mountains.

The good news is that Patterson is only one of three votes on the School Land Board, the body which will decide what to do with the Christmas Mountains. The other two members are appointees of Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Please sign our petition to Gov. Perry and Attorney General Abbott asking them to direct their appointees to stop the sale of the Christmas Mountains.

If the link won't work, please paste this into your address bar:

For more information, see the article below.

Official won't sell land to National Park Service
By R.A. DYER - Fort Worth Star-Telegram

AUSTIN -- Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson says he's going forward with a controversial plan to auction off the pristine Christmas Mountains to wealthy private interests despite renewed interest in the property by the National Park Service.

Patterson says he won't allow a delay of the sale, which could come as early as November, because the National Park Service will not allow hunting on the property in far West Texas. Patterson is a strong Second Amendment advocate who sponsored the state's concealed-handgun law.

"As he has stated in the past, Commissioner Patterson ... would not be willing to sell the Christmas Mountains to the National Park Service if it would mean that there would never be public hunting allowed on the property," Jim Suydam, Patterson's spokesman, said in a statement.

Controversial sales

Patterson's insistence on selling the 9,269-acre tract follows other controversial attempts by the state to sell public land to private interests. Last year the General Land Office presided over the proposed sale of 400 acres at Eagle Mountain Lake in Fort Worth, and in 2005 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department tried to sell 46,300 acres at Big Bend Ranch State Park to a wealthy developer.

Those properties ended up staying in government hands after public outcry. But the Christmas Mountains deal continues to go forward despite an outcry from conservationists and statements from those who donated the Christmas Mountains land to the state that they intended that it remain in public hands.

The School Land Board, of which Patterson is a member, was set to complete the Christmas Mountains sale last month. But it delayed completion until this month because of a glitch in the official maps of the property.

The state parks department and the national parks system had declined to buy the property, which is part of the Permanent School Fund Inventory. But on Friday, Patterson received a letter from William E. Wellman, superintendent of the U.S. Interior Department, saying the National Park Service wants to re-evaluate its position.

Wellman acknowledged in his letter that the National Park Service had earlier said that adding the Christmas Mountains to its inventory would not be feasible, but said it now wanted Patterson to delay the sale so the agency could reconsider acquiring the tract, which abuts Big Bend National Park.

"The National Park Service ... requests that you postpone the sale until we have time to finish our evaluation," Wellman wrote.

Nothing doing, Patterson responded.

"The National Park Service prohibits hunting and enforces an unconstitutional ban on the personal possession of firearms," Suydam said. "Commissioner Patterson's message to Superintendent Wellman was simple: No hunting, no firearms, no deal."

A 'pet issue'

Luke Metzger, director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, said the state will have broken its promise if the sale goes through to private interests. He said that it was "grossly irresponsible" of Patterson to take the property out of public hands and insist that only a few wealthy individuals have access to it.

"The original intent [of the donors] was that the land be made available to the National Park Service or the [state parks department]," Metzger said. "For him to stand in the way of that for some pet issue is grossly irresponsible. Some of the buyers have said that under no circumstances would they allow the public on there. ... It'll be owned by one rich guy who lets wealthy elites go hunting on it. This is far from the vision of the original donation."

The Christmas Mountains are at the northwest corner of Big Bend National Park. The property was donated to the state in 1991 by the Virginia-based Conservation Fund and the Pennsylvania-based Richard King Mellon Foundation on the condition that it remain protected from development.

Then-Land Commissioner Gary Mauro told the donors that the state agreed to restrictions that would allow transfer of the land only to the National Park Service or the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The General Land Office has said it had agreed to hold the property but cannot invest the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to fence it and protect it from poachers. The agency also has a fiduciary duty to earn money on state land for the Permanent School Fund, Suydam said.

Residents of the area say the Christmas Mountains are about 6,000 feet high. The terrain is mostly desert. The encumbrances on the land restrict almost any development, including road construction.

According to the Land Office, the School Land Board intends to make an award to the winning bidder as early as the School Land Board's Nov. 6 meeting.

Please sign our petition to Gov. Perry and Lt. Gov Dewhurst asking them to direct their appointees to stop the sale of the Christmas Mountains.

On Oct. 15th, I emailed Commissioner Patterson:
from: dfwrcc
10/15/2007 7:20 AM

Dear Commissioner Patterson,

Please don't auction off the Christmas Mountains Ranch. The sale is an insult to the land's donors, who intended the land to be used by the general public for recreation, and could cause future donors to think twice before donating land to the state. It's also unclear how the development restrictions on the property will be monitored and enforced and whether the public will have access.

I see your action as irresponsible and detrimental to the welfare of Texans. The very people you say you are targeting to help with this sale, children, will be harmed by auctioning off public land.


Jimmie Chatham
Arlington, TX 76011

His response arrived sent on Oct. 15th:

from: Commissioner Patterson
Oct 15 (2 days ago)
to: dfwrcc
date: Oct 15, 2007 1:55 PM
subject: Re: Don't sell the Christmas Mountains!
mailed-by: glo.state.tx.us

Thank you for your concern regarding the sale of the Christmas Mountains Ranch in Brewster County. I would like to take this opportunity to provide some background information that may enlighten your opinion on this issue.

The conveyance of the 9,200+ -acre Christmas Mountains tractproperty to the state s Permanent School Fund in 1991 was intended to protect this land and restore it to its natural state, and while ensureing limited public access. For 16 years now, this these goals hasve not been fully met. I believe private stewardship of the Christmas Mountains will result in both better protection and restoration forof the land and allowunprecedented limited public access.

Since 1991, attempts by the Land Office to open the Christmas Mountains to limited eco-tourism were frustrated by the many encumbrances placed on landit by the Conservation Fund. Over the years, poachers, trespassers, and invasive plant species have infiltrated the Christmas Mountains.

In a further attempt to conserve the land via government resources, the Land Office offered it to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the National Park Service on multiple occasions, as outlined by the gift deed restrictions.

Both government entities declined this offer. Yet, private, conservation-minded interests have expressed an interest in purchasing the land and spending substantial sums to care for, preserve, and maintain the area s environmental and ecological treasures.

In the case of the Christmas Mountains, government management is not necessarily the best solution. Transferring the Christmas Mountains to private interests could not only better achieve the conservation goals set forth by the Conservation Fund, but generate revenue for the benefit of Texas school children.

On September 18, the School Land Board met for a public meeting to evaluate the proposed sale of the Christmas Mountains. The Board listened to about 17 concerned Texans, most of whom expressed legitimate issues that we discussed at length. I believe the communication was very beneficial and hope the participants agree. Furthermore, during the meeting, the Board rejected all six bids for the purchase of the property because an error was found in the map that delineated the property in the original bid specifications. The Board will now offer the tract for re-bid and consider those bids at the November 6 meeting.

Transferring the Christmas Mountains to private interests could not only better achieve the conservation goals set forth by the Conservation Fund, but generate revenue for the benefit of Texas school children.

I know many are concerned that selling this property to a private party will lead to its commercial development. However, by law deed restrictions, the Christmas Mountains can never be developed, no matter who owns the land. When the property is again offered for sale, all bidders will be required to submit a proposed management plan that ensures that the intent and goals of the conservation easement reservedthose restrictions in the gift deed will be fulfilled. The plan must reflect prior experience and other qualifications in land management and address the bidder s intended uses of the property. The plan must also include provisions for wildlife management and for limited public access.

If you have any further questions about this issue, please contact Hal Croft, Deputy Commissioner of the Asset Management Division, at (512) 463-2785.



Commissioner, General Land Office

Before posting this, I attempted to reach Deputy Commissioner Hal Croft. I was referred to Jim Suytam, Press Secretary for the General Land Office. He was unaware that this letter had not been revised. He stated that the National Park Service has not made a formal offer for Christmas Mountain. He said that the Oct. 12th letter "merely states that they are willing to reconsider their refusal and that is far from being a concrete offer."

I told him that I was appalled that the meeting of this importance is scheduled on November 6th, which is election day. Mr. Suytam said: "The Nov. 6th meeting was set over a year ago when they made up the calendar." My response was: "Whether last week or a year ago, it is unconsciousable for state agencies to set meetings on Election Day. Citizens in Texas most active in the political system are engaged on Election Day. When making up calendars, agencies should not schedule meetings on Election Days. It minimizes citizen's participation in the process."

The Texas Observer has a good article on this same subject.

Seems Brewster County doesn't want it to become Federal Park land because they don't want to lose tax revenue.
Minutes of the Big Bend Regional Sierra Club Meeting,
September 18, 2001
Jim Walker, Secretary

Brewster County does not want to see the Park expand because of the tax issue. Federal payment in lieu of real estate taxes is now about $300,000 per year. The Harte Ranch, now State owned, does not pay taxes or payments in lieu of taxes.

From those same minutes are some facts about Big Bend National Park:
There are about 325-350 thousand visitors to BBNP every year. About 65-75% of the visitors are Texans year after year - indeed, Texans gave the park to the National Park Service. By and large, visitors follow the park regulations. As our population ages, our use of the Park will change.

At that meeting Ranger Lou Good, Management Assistant, Big Bend National Park said:
Service and Resource Management functions are the most underfunded. The park needs trained professionals, for example, to research dinosaur finds. Furthermore, BBNP is on the list of the 10 most threatened national parks, needing more construction, and better water and sewage facilities.
Wild and Scenic Rivers Plan. This plan and the Management Plan were worked on simultaneously, which was not a good idea as the plans were very different. Attempts to craft a WSR Plan 20 years ago were not successful, resulting in much hostility from landowners. The landowners thought a plan was in place, but it wasn't. Thus, the landowners had been misled, and they have long memories.

The Park Service decided to form a partnership plan with landowners, environmental groups, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and commercial and private "paddlers." People were suspicious and hostile, so efforts were made to alleviate these feelings. It was pointed out that the government has no control over private lands, unless condemned. Land will not be condemned.

The Park Service agreed to three things:

1. There will be no new access sites. Heath Canyon and Dryden Crossing in Terrell County will remain the only access.

2. No increase in visitor numbers (about 2,200-2,600 per year)

3. No condemnation of land.

An article titled "Christmas Mountains Selloff" in the The Alamo Sierra Club's newsletter V OL. 41 NO. 9 OCTOBER 2007 (http://texas.sierraclub.org/alamo/pdf%27s/Sierra%20NL0710P1234.pdf }

Many Texans are outraged at this attempt to privatize the Christmas Mountains, located 12 miles northeast of Terlingua near Big Bend National Park. Over 3,000 people have written in protest, and many attended a hearing in Austin on September 18 to condemn the plan.
The land was donated to Texas in 1991 by the Richard King Mellon Foundation through the Conservation Fund with the intent of providing public access and protecting the Christmas Mountains as a viewshed of Big Bend National Park. The Mellon Foundation has publicly opposed the proposed sale, which would set a terrible precedent.

Future donors will think twice before offering land to the people of Texas if it could end up in private hands so easily.

Funding constrictions on the state and federal park services seems to be the reasons they initially refused to accept the land. The article continues:

Both the National Park Service and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department refused the parcel when originally approached by the General Land Office, but that may be understandable given the funding limits under which both have been forced to operate.

The General Land Office views the property as a liability, and Commissioner Patterson has gone so far as to say "You can't have a public park and a pristine environment on this tract of land." He believes that private owners would do a better job of managing it than the state has. (Not a good reflection on the quality of our state government!)

For narrow technical reasons the School Land Board rejected the six bids received, which ranged from $10,500 to $652,000. John Poindexter, who almost got part of Big Bend Ranch State Park recently, was one of the highest bidders. Commissioner Patterson said that despite objections he hopes to reopen the bidding process and sell the land in November.

The bids range from only about a dollar an acre to about $65 dollars an acre. Patterson's claim that it is more prudent to sell so that it will generate revenue for the school children of Texas is a "thin argument" at best. Judging from the six bids received thus far, the price per acre will generate much too little revenue to "help" the school children of Texas substantially. However, the natural riches of experiencing the desert and the rare opportunity to be able to expand a National Park with this much adjacent land is of greater value to children and adults in Texas and the rest of the USA.

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