Far Out Far West Texas
The Texas Observer
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 16, 2005
Mythic Texas gives way to Montana chic.
When the bumpy dirt road to this Far West Texas ghost town was coated with asphalt four years ago, Terlingua became convenient. Its days as a sleepy, unpretentious, off-the-beaten-path reinvented mining town were over. All along Farm to Market Road 170, the main drag of the greater Study Butte-Terlingua Microplex, just west of Big Bend National Park, there are signs of the change. Some are overt, such as the For Sale signs advertising West Texas Realty that seem to have popped up all over like mushrooms after a rain. Others are subtler, like the opening of La Posada Milagro, the new four-room rustic luxury lodge with high-speed Internet access and massage, yoga, and chi gong services. Up the road around Lajitas, fake historical markers signal a resort called the Ultimate Hideout that used political clout to reroute the state highway around its property to make it seem more exclusive.
I’d predicted Terlingua’s fate to one of the town’s residents, Betty Moore. Last August, while we were sitting inside Desert Sports, the recreational outfitter in Terlingua where Betty works part-time, she reminded me of what I’d said. Betty and I were playing a parlor game enjoyed around the Trans-Pecos, Big Bend region–that wide swath of mythic Texas between Fort Stockton and El Paso extending south of Interstate 10 to the Rio Grande: Where was the next best place? Rating a town’s buzzworthiness was an amusing way to compare notes and bullshit away some of a blistering hot afternoon. In a way, though, it’s becoming a serious subject, especially if you’re a homeowner, a prospective homeowner or second homebuyer, a realtor, speculator, hustler or seeker of All Things Cool.
The starting point of the game is always Marfa (pop. 2,424). The county seat of Presidio County has been under the microscope as an unexpected international art destination ever since the late minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to town in the early 1970s and began buying up vacant houses and buildings and ultimately, the old Army camp, which is now the Chinati Foundation, a world-class destination for fine art pilgrims. But it isn’t just Marfa that is hot and haute anymore. Folks who can spot a trend before the masses catch on are moving in all over Far West Texas. And if real-estate prices in Terlingua are climbing, almost any wide spot in the road with enough dwellings to call itself a town is fair game.
The same forces that have brought a cultural and economic sea change to the state of Montana over the past quarter century are at work in Far West Texas, mainly because massive chunks of land can be purchased by people of means who are looking for a refuge from the real world. That became evident last spring when Jeff Bezos, the billionaire who founded Amazon.com, bought 239,000 acres of barren ranchland in Culberson County in the flats north of Van Horn with the aim of building a private spaceport. The build-out of the Blue Origin aerospace testing and operations site on the old Corn Ranch at the foot of the Guadalupes is expected to take five years. Rockets firing from the desert floor will fit right in with the blimp refueling station at the Van Horn airport, and the tethered border control balloon farther east on Highway 90.
Montana’s makeover also started with high flyers–like Ted Turner, David Letterman, Tom Brokaw, and Jeff Bridges–who could afford huge pieces of acreage and the luxury of flying to their high country retreats for the weekend. They’ve since been joined by legions of CEOs and the crème de la crème of the creative class, who are goosing land prices out of the reach of working cattle operations, thereby completing Montana’s transformation from authentic western to mythic western.
Far West Texas has many Montana-like attributes, particularly mountains (albeit in the desert), giant ranches (tens of thousands of acres were requisite to support livestock operations in such an arid region), few people (less than 30,000 folks scattered over five counties larger than Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island), and easy access to the outdoors. Like Montana, Far West Texas is in reasonably close proximity to massive amounts of public lands. More than a million acres-worth of national park, state park, and wildlife management areas sprawl across south Brewster and Presidio counties in a state that is 95 percent privately owned.
Nowhere else in Texas is a string of small towns several hundred miles from big cities and airports actually gaining population. Most of the new residents are folks who move by choice, rather than necessity–for the wide open spaces, big sky, starlit nights, clean air, and for the things Far West Texas lacks, such as Wal-Marts, Starbucks, malls, and big-box stores. Even better, Far West Texas has its share of weirdness to accommodate the quirks and eccentricities of the rich and famous.
Betty Moore–who moved to Terlingua 25 years ahead of the curve, blowing off a sweet publishing gig in Austin to be a part-time river guide, part-time peregrine falcon researcher, part-time secretary, waitress, landlady, and book buyer–all means to allow her to explore every part of the desert worth exploring–offered her opinion about what still undiscovered town was prime to become cool.
“I think it’s going to be Sanderson,” she mused with her usual beatific smile. “There are some great old houses and buildings there. Adobes, too”
I agreed the whole region was undergoing a rapid makeover, but there were limits, and as far as I was concerned, Sanderson was over the line. Nope. No way.
I pointed out to Betty that no matter how appealing the housing stock and prices might be, Sanderson was surrounded by low canyons, not desert mountains. It was on the way to the Big Bend, not in the Big Bend. Our mutual friend Terry Tex Toler, who headed the Terrell County Economic Development Corporation long enough to have Sanderson officially designated as The Cactus Capital of Texas, had closed down his Savage Guest House in 2005 due to lack of business. The town just wasn’t ready to join the pantheon of Marfa, Marathon, Fort Davis, Alpine, and Terlingua as far out Far West Texas towns. If there was a next best place, my bet was on another town abandoned by the railroad in the flats between the Sierra Vieja and the Davis Mountains.
“Valentine is next,” I told Betty Moore with all sincerity.
The town of 200 may lack a gas station or any kind of store other than the post office, but it sure has cachet. I cited the Prada Marfa adobe art sculpture on Highway 90 near Valentine. It’s a full-scale reproduction of a retail outlet of the trendy minimalist Prada fashion line that was installed in October, causing quite the sensation. Within days, “Dum Dum” and “Dumb” had been spray-painted on the exterior and 14 shoes, all right foot, and six purses were stolen from the display window. The acts of vandalism may or may not have been committed by the artists themselves on their way back to the El Paso airport. Even if that wasn’t true, it made for a good story, which is an important element of life in this part of the state where people love to talk as much as they love to listen, and storytelling remains very much part of the cultural fabric.
Betty wasn’t buying. No way was Valentine about to get hot, she swore.
Maybe the media will give Valentine a boost. After all, Vanity Fair, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel and Leisure, The New York Times (three times in one month), Salon.com, and Art in America have all taken note of Far West Texas and Marfa in particular over the past year. So has The Wall Street Journal, which profiled part-time Marfa resident Quality Quinn on the trials and tribulations of social obligations and charitable giving in one’s second hometown.
Discovery has evidently come with a price. The message out front of Carmen’s Cafe on Highway 90 in Marfa still reads “Tie Your Horse and Come on In,” but the restaurant has closed. The Borunda Cafe, a storied culinary institution in Far West Texas whose family recipes date back to 1887, is no longer owned by a Borunda. The real estate market in Marfa is so overheated the city government has imposed a building moratorium while planning and zoning rules are being rewritten.
Robert Halpern, editor of the Big Bend Sentinel, the weekly Marfa newspaper I occasionally contribute to, thinks Marfa is faring the buzz better than residents in neighboring towns, who derisively refer to the locals as Marfadites, would like to admit. “Folks moving to town are not doing anything outlandish,” he says. “The adobes being remodeled are being done in the vernacular. The architecture investment has been a positive. Many new additions have been positive,” he adds, citing Ballroom Marfa, the contemporary arts and culture space run by Virginia Lebermann and Fairfax Dorn; Maiya’s Restaurant, which does northern Italian cuisine; the revitalized El Paisano Hotel where the cast of the movie “Giant” once stayed; and the Pizza Foundation, named in honor of all the arts foundations in Marfa.
Robert and his wife, Rosario Salgado Halpern, the newspaper’s publisher, have a catbird’s seat for viewing the Marfa and Far West Texas transformation. He’s a native of Alpine. She’s a native of Presidio. And as the town paper of record, they’ve seen it all. Both have embraced most of the changes while keeping tabs on what is lost in the bargain. They were friends of Donald Judd, the one person most responsible for this whole New Montana/Far West Texas phenomenon, and they and their children are docents at the Chinati Foundation.
If the Halperns’ strategy is to embrace change, it may be because there’s no alternative. “How do you control it, or can you even control it? No one has a lock and key,” Robert says.
Still, you wonder if it was better before the word spread, back when Judd was alive and employed more workers than any single business in town while shunning the kind of buzz and attention currently swirling around Marfa. For all the seeds he planted–the Chinati Foundation, the Judd Foundation, which oversees much of the property he bought and filled with rare artworks, and those infernal WWDJD? bumperstickers–there’s a real sense that if Judd were still alive (he died in 1994), the last place on earth he’d want to be is in Marfa, as his son, Flavin, insisted to me a few years ago. He’d rather be at his ranch, where no one could find him. Whatever Judd started, though, can no longer be stopped.
“Far West Texas might well be the next Montana, but is that good?” asks Larry Francell. Francell is the director of the Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, and a resident of Fort Davis, where he’s a County Commissioner. The land boom has swept up Highway 17 to Fort Davis, 21 miles north of Marfa. With a population of 1,050, the unincorporated county seat of Jeff Davis County is landlocked by the Fort Davis National Historic Site, the Davis Mountains State Park, and big ranches that dominate the Davis Mountains. Those conditions, along with the presence of the McDonald Observatory and a campaign to lock in conservation easements by the Texas Nature Conservancy, may jack up real estate prices, but they are precisely the kind of amenities that make Montana so appealing, and explain the loud outcry locally and statewide when John Poindexter–the owner of the Cibolo Creek Ranch resort down the road near Shafter–tried to purchase several thousand acres of the Big Bend Ranch State Park for $45 an acre.
Francell said he’d heard about a lot in Limpia Crossing, the only subdivision in the Davis Mountains between the town and the McDonald Observatory, originally priced at $7,000 that went for a quarter million recently. He knew for certain that the effective tax rate in the county has risen due to the flurry of construction. “There’s even two mini-mansions going up in town,” he says. “One of them is being built by a Marfadite. A lot of Outlanders are moving in and bringing real money, as opposed to the indigenous rich. But at this point, it’s subtle, like old age–you suddenly wake up and you’re old.”
The land rush extends east of Marfa along US Highway 90 through Alpine (pop. 6,079)–the county seat of Brewster County, home to Sul Ross State University, and the biggest town in the Trans-Pecos–all the way to Marathon (pop. 600). That bucolic gateway town to Big Bend National Park was a sleepy little ranching community not too long ago. These days, Marathon’s practically bursting at the seams, with four art galleries, several new shops and cafes, and a slew of second-home residences. J.P. Bryan, the man who brought modern upscale tourism to the Big Bend when he and his wife Mary began refurbishing the Gage Hotel in the early 1980s, has been eclipsed by Russ Tidwell, a lobbyist for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association who is working the tourism angle with his Chisos Gallery, the Captain Shepard’s Inn bed & breakfast, the Cottonwood Station barbecue restaurant, and the Adobe Hacienda Lodges, south of the railroad tracks. Since the Anglo part of Marathon north of the tracks has been pretty much bought up, properties on the Mexican side of town south of the tracks are going now too. You can tell which ones are Adobe Hacienda lodges by the BMWs and Lexuses parked out front.
The development boom extends 30 miles south of Marfa as well, to the aforementioned Cibolo Creek Ranch, three historic adobe forts refashioned into a rustic luxury resort where rooms go for $450 a night, but not to Presidio (pop. 4,167), the dusty border town whose great hope at the moment is a pork-barrel highway project called La Entrada al Pacifico that other towns in the Big Bend and Trans-Pecos are fighting. Once notorious as the Hot Spot of the Nation for its high summer temperatures, Presidio is too poor and too desperate to qualify as a Far Out town of Far West Texas.
On the other hand, Terlingua (pop. 100 or so; nobody knows for sure), 67 miles east of Presidio along the River Road–one of the most scenic drives in this part of the world–is most definitely a Far Out town, mainly due to the creative desert rats who came to reinhabit the adobe ruins of the old mining town or build their own off-the-grid dwellings, and its location near the western entrance of Big Bend National Park.
Over the past decade, a reclusive billionaire named Brad Kelley has bought at least 20 ranches in Brewster, Jeff Davis, and Presidio counties accumulating more than 400,000 acres–half the size of Big Bend National Park. Kelley, a self-made entrepreneur who made his fortune building up and then selling a discount tobacco company and owning horse-racing tracks including the storied Churchill Downs, is known as a conservationist who raises rare black and white rhinos, gazelles, wildebeest, and pygmy hippos on land he owns in Florida. He is interested in introducing rare desert species on his ranches in Far West Texas.
“There have been a lot of success stories about bison, wild turkey, and other creatures being brought back from the brink,” Kelly recently told the Sarasota, Florida, Herald-Tribune from his home near Franklin, Ky. “We want to use our space to cooperate with these sort of efforts.”
Kelley and Amazon’s Bezos are hardly the first high rollers to move in. Long before they showed up, there were lavish spreads tucked back in the mountains, like the Sibley castle in the Glass Mountains north of Marathon, and Don McIvor’s Scottish castle in the Davis Mountains. The late industrialist Justin Dart, who spearheaded passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, kept a place near Blue Mountain outside of Fort Davis.
Jeff Fort, founder of Tyco Industries and part-time Marfadite, has rehabbed and reopened the Chinati Hot Springs in the desert west of Presidio. Houston attorneys Dick DeGuerin and Tim Crowley have bought up choice properties in and around Marfa. Hamilton Fish, president of the Board of Trustees of the Nation Institute, has a second residence in town. When Ed Albee is signing books at the local bookstore, Laura Wilson is showing photographs in a local gallery, playwright Wallace Shawn is staging plays in a local theatre, and John Waters is doing a local speaking engagement, there’s a sense that if you haven’t bought in yet, you’re way too late.
Carla McFarland, a former Dallasite who bought the Holland Hotel–the historic Alpine hotel designed by Henry Trost, the great architect of the Southwest who also designed the Gage in Marathon and El Paisano in Marfa–insists that Alpine, which has experienced the Montana effect in its own way, is different.
“There’s a lot of people buying up stuff thinking it’s going to happen here,” she says. “Which fucks up your tax base and fucks up your people who’ve lived here all their lives. Instead of the tenfold increase in Marfa, the Carla Prediction is we’re going to see a 50 percent increase here in Alpine, maybe even a twofold or threefold increase in price. We’re OK. I don’t think it’s going to be as wild as Marfa, but there are some opportunities.”
This means a run on adobe, especially neglected, crumbling, and cheap-for-the-price adobe, which in Far Out West Texas translates to property south of the tracks–the historically Mexican part of town. All the good Marfa adobe may have been scooped up. Not so in Alpine, which, according to a Texas Historical Commission study, has an abundance of adobe structures exceeded only by El Paso. And as McFarland points out, “Who wants to live in El Paso?”
“My business partner looked at a crumbling adobe south of the tracks going for $42,000,” she says. “It was being sold by a guy who’d bought it last year for $32,000.”
The business partner, Andrew Nelson, is further evidence of the Montana effect in Far West Texas. Nelson is a writer for National Geographic Traveler magazine who moved to Alpine from San Francisco by choice after visiting while researching an article on rail travel. Two of Nelson’s friends–Tom Michael, an editor for Britannica.com, and Katherine Shaughnessy, a writer specializing in gracious living–stopped in while driving from Chicago to Savannah in search of a place to settle down and raise a family. Three weeks later, they bought a place in Alpine too. Michael is now the general manager of KRTS-FM, the National Public Radio station that will soon begin broadcasting to the region to complement KVLF-AM/KALP-FM in Alpine, the only commercial stations in the Trans-Pecos, and three low-power community stations.
Alpine remains relatively down to earth, where function trumps form, Carla McFarland contends. “Marfa people have to drive to Alpine to get their Prada dry-cleaned,” she says. “You can’t get a prescription filled in Marfa. If you’re having a heart attack, you have to come to Alpine for a defibrillator.”
But it is not without its airs. The annual Gallery Night weekend puts more people in the streets than any other community event. A brewpub has opened in the Holland Hotel. La Tapatia Cafe changed its name to La Trattoria to better reflect the Italian heritage of owner Allyson Santucci. And Sul Ross State University, which used to be famous for its rodeo teams, has added a Writer in Residence to the faculty. That writer, David Marion Wilkinson, who partnered with Alpine resident Joaquin Jackson on Jackson’s memoirs One Ranger, is sold on his new sense of place. “These people are more alive, and live with greater joy,” the former Austin resident says. “I feel like it’s a privilege to be among them.”
We’ve started to have conversations about what’s going to kill the fatted calf,” says Robert Halpern, musing over what the tipping point will be, if there is a tipping point. “Will it be the militarization of the border?” he wonders. “The Border Patrol used to be huts and temporary buildings. Now it’s these huge complexes. The Marfa airport is getting a $16 million upgrade in facilities for the Border Patrol and US Customs.” Rich folks don’t much cotton to building castles in militarized zones. Maybe La Entrada, the envisioned superhighway from Presidio to Midland will do the trick, bringing enough truck traffic, noise, and pollution to neutralize any sense of specialness.
Maybe the real cool places will just move farther off the map. Shafter, the mining ghost town between Presidio and Marfa is gussying up with fewer and fewer ruins for sale. Presidio could come into its own. If Ultimate Hideout owner Steve Smith drops another $100 million and doesn’t run out of water, perhaps he’ll actually realize his vision to make Lajitas another Palm Springs, although someone should break the news to him that while Los Angeles is a two-hour drive from Palm Springs, Midland is at least four hours from Lajitas. The villages of Ruidosa and Candelaria, where the pavement ends on FM 170, the River Road, are relatively undiscovered. And don’t forget Kent.
Despite all the stories I’d read and the complaints I’d heard, Far West Texas appears to be pretty great in the here and now, no matter what’s coming, or how it used to be. The unease under the surface, though is palpable. Where do all those rugged individualists who make the Trans Pecos and the Big Bend so appealing go when they sell out to the outsiders? Stockton? Odessa? El Paso? Valentine? Sanderson? And does the sense of place they’ve instilled go with them, leaving the newcomers with a movie set version of the real thing, just like Aspen, San Francisco, and Jackson, Wyoming, have become?
Some of the outsiders moving in are so obnoxious, they justify the endless gossip about them (e.g. Steve Smith of Lajitas). But others deserve praise. You’ve got to admit, a coffee shop that roasts its beans on premises like the Brown Recluse in Marfa would be a welcome asset to any community in which it was located. What makes Far West Texas one notch better is the Mexican abuela around the block from the Brown Recluse. As long as she continues to serve up giant breakfast burritos in the small dining room built onto the side of her house, the changes are welcome. But when the abuela can no longer afford to live in Marfa, whatever it is that makes Far West Texas so far out will be lost. In its wake will be the Texas version of the Hamptons, or a dry variation of Aspen, where the service workers have to be bussed in from 70 miles away because they can’t afford to live there any more.
Donald Judd learned that early on. These days, it’s easier to find a Gap in Soho, the downtown Manhattan neighborhood of warehouses and old skyscrapers that artists like him first began inhabiting in the early 1960s, than it is canvas and painting oils. Real artists can’t afford to live in Soho any more. Will real cowboys, ranch supplies, feed stores, and saddle shops suffer the same fate in Far West Texas?
Far West Texas is not for everyone. People come for the incredible scenery, breathtaking vistas, and rugged beauty. Some of them decide to stay. But many leave shortly afterwards due to the relative lack of goods, services, and modern conveniences, especially “when they figure they have to drive two hours to get anything,” as Alpine realtor Joy Parsons told me. Such was the celebrated case of Bridges of Madison County author Robert James Waller, who used his royalties to move from Ohio to a ranch near Alpine, and stayed some years before departing for a more civilized place outside Fredericksburg (at least he found his second wife in Far West Texas).
In early December, I stopped in Sanderson, the Cactus Capital of Texas, with a group of people that included my friend Betty Moore. The town was as empty as ever. But I began to see it the way Betty saw it. Buying a couple blocks of a real downtown including a vacant department store would be pretty cool, I thought to myself. Sanderson had a few things going for it, all right. Whether or not it was far out enough to qualify as a far out Far West Texas town was still a bone of contention, but at that particular moment, the hand-cut, skin-on French fries at Piruli’s, the only restaurant in town open after 2 p.m., were far out enough for my tastes.
Joe Nick Patoski loves to visit Far West Texas, but lives in the Hill Country village of Wimberley, which resembles certain far out towns in Far West Texas in more ways than he’d sometimes like to admit.
Hudspeth Hustlers (sidebar)
The good vibrations of Far Out West Texas seem to peter out by Van Horn (pop. 2,435) the Crossroads of the Texas Mountains Trail, 74 miles west of Marfa. Not that Van Horn doesn’t have some of the same qualities of its neighbors to the east: fairly stunning mountain scenery including the Guadalupe Mountains National Park a mere 63 miles away; the Jeff Bezos buy-in; the arrival of one of Texas’ oldest cattle ranching families, the D.M. O’Connor family of Victoria, who have purchased extensive property in the area; the visitor-friendly Red Rock Ranch; and the occasional John Madden visit to Chuy’s Restaurant to inspect the shrine built in his honor. The local economy here runs largely off Interstate 10 in the forms of truck stops, motels, cafes, and convenience stores. This also makes it a distribution point for illegal drugs.
The next county to the west is Hudspeth, where growth issues are of a particularly nefarious nature. The rugged basin and range landscape resembles the rest of Far West Texas. But the comparisons stop there. The county has a history of environmental exploitation mainly because few people (3,334 at last check, mostly in Sierra Blanca, Fort Hancock, and Dell City) live there.
Take Sierra Blanca (pop. 533), which sports the oldest adobe courthouse in Texas and the silver spike commemorating completion of the second transcontinental railroad across the United States, all within a stone’s throw of Interstate 10. The town is best known for the Poo Poo Choo Choo and the sludge ranch (see “Sued and Censored,” March 22, 1996) both thankfully out of business. Before that, Sierra Blanca was the proposed underground storage site for nuclear waste, an effort that was ultimately defeated by vocal resistance from leaders across Far West Texas (see “West Texas Waste Wars,” March 28, 1997). And before that, Hudspeth County was known for land sales advertised in the back of comic books and magazines and on late-night television commercials for as cheap as $5 a acre. Years were spent by county officials clearing the tangle of ownership claims, broken deeds, and delinquent taxes owed on these failed developments, but their scars are still etched in the desert sand, visible from the air when flying into El Paso International Airport, the marks of would-be streets and cul-de-sacs as mysterious as the Nazca lines in Peru.
“Unfortunately, the county has no power to require land-use regulations,” explains Hudspeth County Judge Becky Walker.
And so the land hustle continues, with the Internet being the medium these days.
In the northern part of the county on US Highway 62/180, a Florida condo guru named Jerry Wallace bought the town of Cornudas between the Salt Flats and the Hueco Mountains, which consisted largely of the Cornudas Cafe, in March 2005. He changed the name of the town to WallaceTown USA and launched an aggressive advertising campaign on the Internet, announcing to web-surfers that “The Dealmaker’s In Town” and ready to develop “Texas’ #1 Resort and Theme Park” by selling condominiums starting at $200,000, along with parcels of land. The centerpiece of the development is the theme park, an old west town with gunfights, cancan dancers, hayrides, and a parade down Main Street every day.
In the southern part of the county along Interstate 10, another Florida-based developer named Jack Giacalone has purchased several working ranches, subdivided the land into 20-acre increments, and renamed the spread Sunset Ranches. The land sells online for no money down and $135 a month to out-of-state buyers, many of whom buy the land sight unseen, oblivious to the absence of water or infrastructure. Making matters worse, Judge Walker says, is the participation of County Attorney Kit Bramblett, who has become an intermediary helping Giacalone purchase ranches.
“The Internet has made this thing go like wildfire,” Walker sighs.
The newly landed gentry are a sight to behold. “People come here to look at their property and don’t have a clue what they’ve bought,” says James Schilling, who sees them all the time because they stay at his Sierra Lodge Motel, a historic rock motor court near Interstate 10 in Sierra Blanca. “They’ve bought 20 acres but what are they going to do with it? You can’t put two jackrabbits on it. There’s no water. A water well will cost more than the land, if you’re lucky enough to hit water. Our whole thing out here is water. There is not enough. But what can you do? We are a county of 2,000 people. You think they give a shit about what we say?”
“Do you know it takes 80 acres to run a cow out here?” Judge Walker asks. “We’re a desert.”–JNP
- Texas Mountains In this book, Laurence Parent and Joe Nick Patoski join forces to offer breathtaking views of the Texas mountains. With magnificent images and words, they take us on a journey not only through the familiar Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains, but also through lesser-known ranges with evocative names such as Sierra Diablo, Eagle, Chinati, Beach, and Christmas.
- The Ultimate Big Bend Hike Six days and 70 miles of aching backs, oozing blisters, lost toenails, lightning storms and unimaginable beauty. [Texas Parks and Wildlfe magazine, Travel Feature]
- Hangin’ Out With … Joe Nick Patoski interview in MyWestTexas.com
Park and Parcel
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
April 7, 2006
Last summer, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department commissioners contemplated selling off 46,000 acres of Big Bend Ranch State Park, the largest state park in Texas, to John Poindexter, the Houston businessman who owns the nearby Cibolo Creek Ranch luxury resort. The proposed sale, endorsed by TPWD staff, was pretty much business as usual for the department, where selling parkland, transferring state parks to counties and cities, and downgrading state parks to “wildlife management areas” are all in a day’s work. But when news leaked out that a chunk of the 299,000-acre state ranch on the Rio Grande was up for grabs, a sudden public outcry led the parks commissioners to reject the proposal-unanimously.
In this instance, advocates for parks made their voices heard. Yet, the underlying problems with the state’s management of public resources didn’t go away.
Within three months of the almost fire sale at Big Bend Ranch, Texas Parks and Wildlife was so short on cash that 73 jobs were eliminated. The new Government Canyon State Natural Area, 16 miles from downtown San Antonio, is closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays and limited to day use only. The Devil’s River State Natural Area is open only four days a week as well. The Resaca de la Palma World Birding Center in Brownsville, scheduled to open in two years, has neither a staff nor a budget. The north shore of Choke Canyon State Park has been closed, along with the park’s swimming pool. The San Jacinto Monument is shuttered due to building and fire code violations and antiquated elevators. After the Parks and Wildlife ferry to Matagorda Island State Park burned in 2003, ferry service to the island was ended and last October the state park was declared a state wildlife management area. The agency could no longer afford to operate the barrier island as a state park.
Other properties were handed off. Lake Houston State Park is now operated by the city of Houston, Lubbock Lakes was transferred to Texas Tech, and Kerrville-Schreiner State Park is now the property of Kerrville. Reimer’s Ranch, the newest showcase park in the Austin area, is operated by the county, not the state. New local parks such as Blue Hole in Wimberley, the new city park in Hondo, and Dick Nichols Park in Austin were funded by matching grants from TPWD to get established. That grant fund was $17 million two years ago. Today, it is $5 million. One agency official went so far as to dis restroom facilities at Goose Island and Galveston Island state parks as “Third World.”
But the surest sign that things aren’t so hunky dory is the more frequent violation of Parks and Wildlife’s unwritten commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of the Legislature.” Normally, Parks & Wildlife personnel have been known as quiet creatures, meek and mild as birders. They’d rather walk on eggshells than complain about funding. Otherwise, vindictive legislators might give them even less. But here was Walt Dabney, the director of state parks for Texas Parks and Wildlife, on a December speaking tour in Cooper, Giddings, and other communities affected by parks cutbacks, explaining to the people of Palestine why the Texas State Railroad was eliminating roundtrip departures from Palestine, costing the town considerable tourist dollars. There was no other option, he insisted. “We have stretched the budget as far as we can by using [prisoner] and community service labor in addition to park camp hosts.”
Joining Dabney in Palestine was Parks and Wildlife Commissioner John Parker, who bluntly told the gathering, “The problem lies with the Texas Legislature.” A month later, speaking at Bastrop State Park to the annual meeting of the nonprofit group Texans for State Parks, Parks and Wildlife Commission Chairman Joseph Fitzsimons and Commissioner Parker offered advice on how to inform legislators of the dire financial straits of the state’s parks. Executive Director Bob Cook used his “At Issue” column in Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine to make clear the agency was low on funds and its infrastructure was failing. With a little investment, he said, parks could deliver great returns.
If only those sentiments echoed across the great divide.
Studies conducted by Texas A&M, Texas Tech, the State of Texas, and the Texas Parks Coalition over the past eight years have all reached the same conclusion: The majority of Texans consider parks an important measure of quality of life and are willing to pay more taxes for more green space. Yet the leaders of Texas act as though they’ve never heard of such studies. And the gap between what the public wants and what its politicians deliver is growing wider.
It’s hard enough managing a parks system under that kind of guidance, especially when the definition of a park includes a 26-mile steam railroad, a mountain tramway, a 100-year-old battleship, and several 19th century mansions and restored frontier forts. But when increased operating expenses eat up $8 million of the budget in four years and then the Lege lops $2 million more from an already anemic $51 million budget, the duct tape begins to loosen.
No one forced Walt Dabney to accept the task of running the parks division of Texas Parks and Wildlife. As a 30-year veteran of the National Park Service, he didn’t need the gig. Lately though, he’s started to wonder about his decision, he admitted recently in his office at Parks and Wildlife headquarters in southeast Austin. “I came here seven years ago, rebuilt the staff, got rid of what little deadwood there was, [and] we’re in our third session of training park superintendents. We’ve got lots of good things going on, but I walked into a system that was totally underfunded. We got to ’06 and we ran out of rope.”
Dabney said the average age of a vehicle in the parks fleet is 10 years old. “We’ve replaced four vehicles out of a fleet of 900 over the last four years,” he said. “We’re lucky to get hand-me-downs from game wardens with only 120,000 miles on them. We’re thrilled, because we’d be walking otherwise.” Watching the budget get pared back puts Dabney in a “no more Mr. Nice Guy” mood. “Texas isn’t taking care of what it’s got, we’re not adding anything new, and we’re going backwards in a state that is growing so fast.” He wasn’t even looking over his shoulder to see who was listening. “I don’t think the rank-and-file senator or representative really knew how bad this was,” he added.
The buck, indeed, stops at the statehouse, where the prevalent attitude toward state parks in Texas seems to be: You want open space? Then work hard, get rich, and get a 10,000-acre spread of your own. Over the past 10 years, the Lege has commissioned several studies as part of its planning for 21st century growth. The findings have been studiously ignored. Former state representative Rob Junell (D-San Angelo), who held the purse strings to the TPWD budget as chair of the House Appropriations Committee, tried to sit on the 2001 study conducted by Dr. David Schmidly and Texas Tech that suggested Texas ought to acquire 1.4 million acres of new state park land and 500,000 acres of local parks inside the Dallas-Houston-San Antonio urban triangle within the next 30 years.
The response from then-TPWD Commission Chair Katharine Armstrong–yes, the now-famous member of the Dick Cheney-Harry Whittington hunting party–was dismissive. “We are not going to launch into a great big acquisition campaign,” Armstrong told the Austin American-Statesman. “If I could wave my magic wand and realize everything in the Texas Tech study, perhaps I would. My goals have to be tempered by reality. We don’t have the resources to do that.” Instead, Parks and Wildlife launched the Land and Water Strategic Plan, calling for four new parks of 5,000 acres each or more inside the urban triangle. Five years into that 10-year plan, the project has yet to be funded.
Some legislators do fight for their local parks because they understand the economic impact of parks on surrounding communities, but no Texas legislator has emerged as a champion of parks across the state. Perhaps lawmakers just haven’t felt enough pressure. Park users may number in the millions, but as a special interest group they could take a few tips from Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse or Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “I’d hardly ever see park advocates at the commissioner meetings until the Big Bend Ranch flap,” Joseph Fitzsimons said. “Hunting and fishing advocates show up in big numbers and let you know where they stand on issues.”
The way Parks and Wildlife is structured contributes to the problem, starting with the nine commissioners who oversee the agency. They may be interested in conservation but most are privileged enough to spend their quality time outdoors on private ranches or farms. Typically there are only one or two commissioners who are strong advocates for parks in the tradition of Mickey Burleson, Nacho Garza, Tim Hixon, Terry Hershey, and Bob Armstrong.
Fitzsimons and Parker have assumed that role on the current commission. But rarely has there been a commissioner appointed specifically to look after parks first, rather than wildlife. It has been that way ever since the State Parks Board and the Texas Game and Fish Commission were merged into Texas Parks and Wildlife in 1963 by Governor John Connally in the name of a streamlined bureaucracy. The current structure is unlikely to change.
The two divisions are on different footing. The wildlife budget comes from Fund Nine, a federal excise tax on guns and gear and from hunting and fishing licenses. The parks budget is tied to a state sales tax on sporting goods. Unlike the Fund Nine monies, which the Lege can’t raid or cap because it is a federal tax, the state tax proceeds for parks are capped by the Legislature at $32 million, considerably less than the $100 million the tax currently generates. The balance goes into general revenue.
Texas ranks 49th in per-capita spending on parks among the 50 states (thank God for Mississippi). Even Arkansas has passed Texas by upgrading its system to meet current and future demands through a quarter-cent sales tax earmarked for parks. Walt Dabney tells a story about friends from up north who used to come and spend the winter in Texas state parks. “Now they just make day trips into Texas because they’re spending the winter staying in Arkansas state parks. Their parks are in better shape than ours are.”
Quality-of-life factors, such as parks and amenities, are second only to an educated work force as the top criteria companies use when evaluating locations, Dabney said. In 2001, when Dallas-Fort Worth was one of three finalists for Boeing’s new corporate headquarters, DFW and Texas offered more tax breaks and incentives than Chicago and Illinois did. But Boeing ended up going to Chicago, which includes 87,000 acres of open space, parks, and forests in Cook County in its quality-of-life portfolio. Instead of increasing funding of parks to make Texas more attractive, Texas leaders responded with cutbacks. Dabney says that’s a dumb way to operate a government, especially if you’re trying to operate it like a business. “Tourism is the second or third component of the Texas economy and parks are the biggest component of the tourism segment,” he said. “If you’re not taking care of that, that’s bad economics.”
“What we’ve been doing is very parochial,” admitted Fitzsimons. “It’s ad hoc. There’s still not a plan to say how are we going to acquire new land, how are we going to tie the demand and the constituency to the service. The fish and wildlife constituency stay drilled into the department on a daily basis, from the squirrel hunters to the catfishermen to the bowhunters. They know their money [from hunting and fishing licenses] is going to the fish and wildlife division. They’re making sure they’re represented. But when you buy a canoe or a kayak or a mountain bike, you don’t have any expectations the sales tax from that is going to a place where you can use it. The sporting goods tax is a joke. It’s essentially GR [general revenue]. The sales of paddle craft have quintupled in the past 10 years. But I don’t have any more kayak trails to offer.”
The state of affairs has become so sorry that several wise men were recruited by Fitzsimons–a San Antonio attorney whose family owns extensive ranchland around Carrizo Springs–for a state parks advisory board. Among them are John Montford, who pushed through the sporting goods sales tax when he was a state senator; Andrew Sansom, the executive director of Parks and Wildlife under Governors Clements, Richards, Bush, and briefly, Perry; and George Bristol, a longtime fundraiser and advisor to the former Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who also sits on the board of the Texas Retailers Association and heads the Texas Parks Coalition. Bristol is pushing to lift the cap on the sporting goods sales tax and protect it from future raids and freezes. “If this Legislature, individually and collectively, says they believe in user taxes and user fees, and does not honor those user fees–I don’t care if it’s toll roads, parks, or what–then they got a real problem of honesty with the people of Texas,” Bristol said.
Bristol also said he was encouraged hearing Dabney and Fitzsimons speaking out. “Walter and Joseph and their predecessors get very goosy. They don’t want to talk money. They can say they need things but they wouldn’t touch money on a bet because they are fearful it looks like aggrandizement and empire-building, and they know when they go to the Legislature they’re going to get their asses handed to them. My advice to them is, "Boys, you’ve already had your ass handed to you. You might as well get up there and fight back."
Of all the returning wise men, none casts the long shadow that Bob Armstrong does. The former legislator, General Land commissioner, Parks and Wildlife commissioner, environmental advisor to Ann Richards, and one time assistant secretary of the interior is the only conservationist to have a queso dip named after him at Matt’s El Rancho restaurant in Austin. Armstrong should be resting on his laurels for swinging the deal that made the Anderson Ranch into Big Bend Ranch State Park. “I had thought after doing my duty to get Big Bend Ranch made a park for Texas, I’d go home and do something else,” he said. But he could no longer ignore the current parks crisis. “I’m back to look out for the ranch.”
It’s time, Armstrong said, that Texas suck it up and look forward. “We’ve got precious few parks and we’re going to grow immeasurably over the next 20 years,” he said. At the same time, he pointed out, “The average parks user isn’t on the commission, but there ought to be somebody there looking out for parks.”
Armstrong said he didn’t take umbrage at the commissioners for considering the sale of a piece of the Big Bend Ranch. He knew the circumstances too well. “When you’re out of money, you begin to do strange things,” Armstrong chuckled. “This is an example of people that are struggling to get what they want from the staff and here was a chance that maybe they could sell off a little bit of land and do some good things on the other parts.”
But he wasn’t buying that rationale either. “I sent a letter to the commissioners [after the Big Bend Ranch dust-up]. I said something like this should be considered not for what your problem is, but from what generations in the future are going to be saddled with. Your decision should be based on generations from now. This is such a small part of the budget–0.0007 percent–that to not upgrade our parks is just plain bad business. I don’t want there to be any kind of cap on the sporting goods tax. Parks should get the money it was intended to get so it can do things like repair the Matagorda Island ferry.”
Losing Boeing to Chicago should have been a wakeup call. The state should have gone on a green-space binge. Money alone won’t seal the deal. Compared to the Trans Texas Corridor, the Texas Water Plan, and all the multibillion-dollar big-ticket items being dreamed up to plan for future growth, a Texas 2050 park plan costs chump change, with guaranteed returns. If the current $35 million annual budget throws off $1.2 billion to local economies, as the number crunchers claim, think what a $500 million upgrade would throw off.
The solutions are simple. Raise the cap on the sporting goods tax from $35 million to $85 million, as Rep. Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville) has proposed. Better yet, eliminate the cap on the sporting goods tax altogether, as Armstrong suggests. Make it an honest user tax. Last year’s take of more than $100 million is more than enough to operate the parks division and to launch a program to buy more parkland for future generations. And the governor would do well to occasionally appoint a member to the Parks and Wildlife Commission who is a parks-first advocate. If nothing else, that would bring a different point of view to the table.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Commissioner Joseph Fitzsimons dared to dream, wondering aloud if instead of selling off part of the biggest park in the state system, “why can’t we have a deal with John Poindexter in reverse–give him and his Cibolo Creek guests [direct] access, like we give that B&B by the Hill Country State Natural Area? Is it too crazy to say why shouldn’t we have it all?” Fitzsimons was right. We should have it all. But he knew as well as anyone that it was too crazy to take seriously. Bob Armstrong was reminded of that when he said, “People tell me I’m a communist when I talk about the need for Texans to have open space.”
“The people of Texas have to decide what they want for a park system,” Walt Dabney said. Visualize the people telling their legislators. Visualize Rick Perry using parks as part of his campaign, as he did back when he ran for lieutenant governor and used the Franklin Mountains State Park as a backdrop. Visualize any statewide candidate weaving a statewide parks plan into his or her stump speech. If that ever happened, Texas’s wide open spaces might be more a reality than a myth to the 25 million Texans who don’t own a ranch or a farm.
Back in Black
Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
With or without a stocking program, the black bear is returning to East Texas.
It’s usually little more than a footprint in moist soil or a dark blur darting across a dense green forest, leaves rustling and branches cracking in its wake. Some sightings are more specific: a mammal as big as a person, only heavier, that can stand up like a human and run like a deer. A few reports in recent years are quite detailed, like the one in February 2005, on Interstate 10, one-fourth of a mile west of the official Texas welcome center in Orange, when traffic screeched to a halt as a bear rambled around the highway median. Or the regular sightings at an RV park on the Louisiana side of Toledo Bend Reservoir. None should be too surprising — since the subject at hand pays less attention to state lines than people do.
All of them bear witness, as it were, to the obvious:
Black bear are coming back to East Texas.
“What we’re seeing here is a regional bear expansion,” Nathan Garner declares matter-of-factly. An affable bear of a fellow (more black bear than grizzly, actually), Garner is the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s regional wildlife director for East Texas, overseeing a staff of 60 covering 57 counties. He also knows a few things about bears. His interest began as a child growing up in the Houston area and continued as a college student pursuing a biology degree at the University of Houston, then at the University of Montana, where he worked on a border grizzly project under Charles (Mr. Bear) Jonkel. His graduate studies at Virginia Tech included tracking 47 black bears around the Appalachian Mountains.
The black bear is afraid. By nature, they’re less aggressive because they didn’t have to be aggressive to survive as a species. They survived by retreating or climbing.
He can tell you that black bear can actually be brown, red or even blond, stand 5 to 6 feet tall and weigh up to 400 pounds, that they’ll eat anything and that they are not aggressive towards humans. “Grizzlies will charge when trapped,” Garner says. “The black bear is afraid.” Unless you get between a mother and her cubs, that is. Black bear coexist with deer. “By nature, they’re less aggressive because they didn’t have to be aggressive to survive as a species. They survived by retreating or climbing.”
Garner will also tell you that Bud Bracken of Honey Island had 305 bear hides when he stopped hunting and that, while the last native Ursus americanus in the state may have been shot in Polk County almost 50 years ago, 47 verified sightings throughout the Pineywoods, the Big Thicket and along the Sabine River since 1977, as well as hundreds more anecdotal sightings, have been recorded since.
To prove how ripe East Texas is for the American black bear (Ursus americanus americanus) and its subspecies cousin, Ursus americanus luteolus, the Louisiana black bear that historically roamed East Texas, Garner takes me on a tour of a couple hundred miles’ worth of bear habitat in the central and southern Pineywoods.
Even as black bear were being hunted out of Texas, Garner explains, recovery programs in adjacent states were underway. Beginning in 1958, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission moved 254 bears into the Ouachita and Ozark mountains from Minnesota and the Canadian province of Manitoba, the most successful restoration of a large carnivore population in the U.S. One hundred sixty-one black bear from Minnesota were moved into Louisiana between 1964 and 1967 to bolster the few hundred Louisiana black bear remaining. The ban on hunting bear in Texas in 1987, and regionally in 1992, when the Louisiana black bear was listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act, further bolstered bear numbers to the point of expanding their range as close as a few miles north of the Red River in McCurtain County in southeast Oklahoma and along the Sulphur and Sabine rivers. A permanent black bear population is just a matter of time.
The bigger question is, Will Texans greet the bears with open arms or loaded ones?
Garner is responsible for coming up with the answer. He’s invested four years heading the committee that recently completed the East Texas Black Bear Conservation and Management Plan, 2005 2015. Now he’s spearheading the ETBB task force and still keeping options open for the most controversial element of the plan — relocating 30 females with cubs to sites in East Texas under TPWD oversight.
The migration of black bears into a former habitat is viewed as a positive indicator for the ecosystem by black bear advocates, who see long-term benefits in increased eco-tourism.
As a biologist, Garner sees the obvious benefits in bringing back wildlife to its former native habitat. But as an administrator, he understands too well the wariness some humans have warming up to the idea. “How dare you put my child at risk?” one mother challenged him at a public meeting. For that reason, Garner makes clear that the relocation idea will move forward “only if there is strong support.” If public sentiment stands against TPWD helping to establish colonies, the project won’t happen.
But in one sense it doesn’t matter, because black bear are coming anyway.
Surprisingly, public reaction has been largely positive. Pollsters from Michigan State University surveyed 3,000 Texas households and 485 people who showed up at 10 town meetings that TPWD conducted around East Texas. The results were illuminating. The majority of those attending the public meetings supported the return of black bear to East Texas, and 70 percent of the written comments by mail were positive. The largest turnout was the 108 people who showed up in Kountze, in the heart of the Big Thicket. Meetings in Texarkana and Beaumont attracted the fewest. The greatest opposition was voiced by residents living near the Big Thicket preserves. Garner is not satisfied. “I want 75 percent,” he says.
A significant element of the East Texas bear plan is the mix of public and private stakeholders. Representatives from the Big Thicket Association, a landowners group from Newton County, the Texas Department of Transportation, Temple-Inland Corporation, the East Texas Beekeepers Association and the Alabama-Coushatta nation all had a seat at the table alongside various state, federal and NGO entities. The value of the partnership becomes evident when Garner veers south, then west of Lufkin to South Boggy Slough, where Don Dietz lives. Dietz is a biologist for Temple-Inland Corporation, the timber products giant that controls more than 1.2 million acres of East Texas woodlands, including South Boggy Slough.
Healthy black bear habitat translates into healthy forests, as far as Temple-Inland is concerned, Dietz explains, as we drive past clear-cut pine plantations, conservation forests of hardwoods that will never be touched and SMZs, the streamside management zones that provide critical riparian habitat for wildlife on the move, including black bear.
“We would not be for the bear if we thought it would negatively impact how we manage our timber,” Dietz states frankly. “Temple-Inland wants to make money off timber. As it is, biodiversity is in our best interest. We have seven bald eagle nests on T-I property in Texas.”
Dietz points out how selectively clear-cut land encourages growth of sedges, grasses and berries for bear to feed on in early spring. Pine plantations provide trees for denning and loafing. Mixed forests provide berries through summer. Hardwood bottoms in the SMZs provide downed woody debris full of grubs and other insects for bears to eat and drop the nuts to satisfy black bears’ dietary needs in the fall. If TPWD’s relocation program gets the green light, Temple-Inland has committed to hosting release sites in several locations, according to Dietz. Bear in the woods are good for the land and good for business. “They’re coming,” Dietz says. “I had dinner with a guy two weeks ago in San Augustine County who’s seen a bear twice in the past few weeks.”
“That’s 20,000 acres of the best black bear habitat in East Texas,” Garner says as he drives away. “That habitat offers bears everything they need. The Neches River corridor is the keystone. When I drive through the country, I think bear will do better on managed lands because they’re managed for diversity.”
Somewhere around the Angelina National Forest, he turns from the main highway and promptly gets lost on a network of unmarked back roads surrounded by forests and woodlands. “There’s groceries and cover in there,” Garner says, squinting into an impenetrable thicket. “It’s the roads that present the problem,” he says, changing direction again, “because roads bring people.”
The majority of those attending public meetings supported the return of black bear to East Texas, and 70 percent of the written comments by mail were positive.
Many roads also lead to hunting club cabins tucked in the backwoods, which is one asset Garner hopes to tap into. Hunters get back in the deepest woods, so they’re likelier to ID bears. Their cabins are also destined to be bear magnets if the clubs don’t take measures to properly store and dispose of garbage. Communicating with hunting clubs now will save a lot of hassles in the future, Garner believes.
The nuisance factor looms large. Black bear may be shy and prone to run, but they adapt quickly to humans. Garbage cans, raiding of deer feeders, bee hives and stock pens are all potential problems. As omnivores, black bear have been known to occasionally dine on small animals, be they wildlife, livestock or house pets. If measures aren’t taken to keep garbage lids secure, pet food out of reach, wildlife feeders monitored and so forth, bad stuff can happen.
What seems relegated to the past is human hostility towards bears. Some folks are still inclined to regard them as pests and vermin that should be eradicated, such as realtor Fuzzy Harmon, who told the Lone Star Eagle weekly of Marshall, “It makes about as much sense to spend money on bears as it does to stock Lake O’The Pines with piranha.” (For the record, piranhas are not native to East Texas; black bear are.) But Harmon’s sentiment is clearly in the minority.
“We’re never going to change those folks,” Garner admits. “There are people against this who are antigovernment and still mad about the Big Thicket,” portions of which were declared a national wildlife refuge, he acknowledges. “But I didn’t walk away from any town meeting discouraged.”
Garner’s patience with such concerns and fears, warranted or not, reflects one blueprint he’s followed while articulating Texas policy, the Black Bear Conservation Committee plan initiated in 1990 to promote the recovery of the Louisiana black bear. The Baton Rouge-based BBCC, whose members include Garner, Dietz, TPWD’s Ricky Maxey and several other East Texans, oversees the successful bear recovery programs in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma, while raising public awareness and putting in place a plan for dealing with bears that cause damage, in concert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Louisiana Fish & Game Commission.
In Jasper, at the TPWD offices, Garner hands me off to district wildlife biologist Gary Calkins. Calkins knows the southern hot zone of potential bear habitat along the Sabine and Neches river corridors well enough to fret about the area’s future.
“Bottomland hardwood forest is the most diverse ecosystem in East Texas,” he says. “It’s home to 500 vertebrates and 1,150 plant species, but 75 percent of these forests have been lost since settlement.” More loss, he fears, is just around the corner. While Temple-Inland remains a dominant presence, Calkins has observed other large timber companies such as International Paper and Louisiana Pacific selling off tracts to forest investment companies (among them, Harvard University) more interested in short-term profit than long-term conservation plans. “Some are pretty good stewards,” Calkins allows. “But others have no interest in biodiversity. They want to cut and get out. The northern part of East Texas has already gone through these growing pains. Here in the southern end, we had it made for awhile.” But with the short-term profit mentality moving in, he says, “all of it is at risk.”
Perception issues are less worrisome. He’s heard the comment, “My kids are going to be at the bus stop and the bears are going to eat them,” a dozen times.
“I try to explain that I’m more concerned about the neighbor’s dog running loose that’s going to hurt their kids.”
While cruising through a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campground on the western shores of Lake B.A. Steinhagen between Jasper and Woodville, Garner surveys trashcans and camp sites that may have to be retrofitted. He breaks into a “Hey, Yogi” voice, assuming the cartoon character Boo Boo Bear spying a “pic-a-nic basket.” Garner is trying to emphasize the need for humans to dissuade bear.
Having had close-up encounters with black bear in Minnesota, in the Mexican state of Coahuila and at many zoos, I have been persuaded by Garner’s tour that East Texas is primo bear habitat, as long as the people of East Texas let it be. But I am also impatient enough to hope public support will materialize for a restocking program that will bring them back sooner rather than later.
- See A Bear?
- Call TPWD. One of the bear plan’s goals is to resolve human-bear conflicts. If you see a bear, or have a bear problem, call your TPWD game warden or wildlife biologist or the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at (800) 792-1112 or at regional offices in Tyler (903) 566-1626, San Antonio (830) 569-8700, Kerrville (830) 896-2500 and Alpine (432) 837-2051
- Don’t feed the bears. Period.
- What if a bear approaches?
- Don’t panic, don’t shoot and don’t approach. Don’t run, either, says the TPWD Black Bears in Texas brochure. Back away slowly, with arms overhead to increase the size of your appearance, talk firmly and in a low pitched voice. If a bear stands on its hind legs, it is not preparing to attack. It’s trying to see, hear and smell you. If a bear is in a tree, leave it alone. It’s afraid. And NEVER approach a bear cub.
Westside Bears: an Unlikely Success Story
In the late 1980s, black bears from the northern state of Coahuila, Mexico, began migrating across the Rio Grande into the Trans-Pecos region, returning to a home range that had been unoccupied for nearly 50 years. The recolonization movement was a natural process, surprising many wildlife experts.
“If you look at all of Texas, the eastern two-thirds of the state had the best habitat, precipitation, vegetation and ecological system for bears,” says David Holdermann, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department endangered resources specialist who lives in Alpine. “The Trans-Pecos, ironically, has one of the lesser natural carry capacities to support bears.”
But the black bears (Ursus americanus) continued to migrate — driven perhaps by scarcity of food, drought or some natural instinct that told them there were richer resources, remote mountains and sparse human population to the north.
Holdermann says his best guess is that there are now around 80 black bear in the Trans-Pecos, primarily in the southern sections of Brewster, Terrell and Val Verde counties — some of the state’s most remote, inaccessible terrain.
Of that figure, the breeding population probably numbers around 30 to 40 bears, says Holdermann. Extensive state and federally funded research in the past decade has focused on determining the extent of recolonization, including monitoring bears’ movements through radio collaring, habitat analysis and field studies of bear sightings and bear depredations.
A biological key driving the bear recolonization process is the philopatric factor, which means a female black bear will allow her female offspring to remain on her home range. However, male offspring are forced to disperse outside the mother’s home range.
“Because of this pattern,” says Holdermann, “males will range farther outward, searching for a new home range with mates. Consequently, what we see is a slow, incremental expansion by females into new areas. Males are generally finding everything they need to expand except suitable females.” Male black bears may range over a 100-square-mile area.
The resident breeding black bear population is believed to occupy an area covering the Chisos Mountains in the center of Big Bend National Park, the Dead Horse Mountains and the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area (near the eastern edge of the park), the Del Norte Mountains (south of Alpine), the Davis Mountains (near Fort Davis) and the Guadalupe Mountains (south of the New Mexico border). Bear sightings, usually involving males, have also occurred in other areas of West Texas, but far less frequently.
The primary black bear breeding habitat in the Trans-Pecos is the Chisos Mountains.
Raymond Skiles Jr., the chief wildlife biologist in Big Bend National Park, estimates the current number of female black bears in the park to be around 15. The figure is down from a peak female population of around 30 bears in 2000, although Skiles believes the number is now increasing again.
“We had a precipitous decline starting around 2000 2001, following a failure in the food supply because of drought conditions,” says Skiles.
Even though black bears appear to be in a new recolonizing phase, he warns, “The population isn’t safe and secure here. We don’t know now how many bears are breeding females. It’s a very tenuous existence. We need a couple of good years to get that breeding population back up.”
Since 1987, Skiles has devoted a large portion of his time to studying black bears and devising programs and methods to lessen the chance of conflict between bears and park visitors.
“We’ve had to go through an immense change to adapt to the bears,” he says. Changes include an extensive public education program, the creation of bear-proof trash containers and food-storage lockers for campers, bear-proof landfill operations for waste disposal and the development of a bear management and research team. The work has paid off: no major incidents involving bear-human encounters have occurred in the park.
TPWD wildlife specialist Holdermann recalls an example of male bear migration that occurred in Alpine in June 2003, when a young, mature black bear was found wandering in the downtown area. Holderman received an emergency call at his home about 1 a.m. He loaded a dart rifle with Telazol, an immobilizing chemical that interrupts an animal’s nerve transmission system.
“We darted it in one shot and it took five minutes to be immobilized and drop from the tree,” he recalled. Nicknamed the “Courthouse Bear,” it was fitted with a radio collar and transported and released in the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area — all within five hours. In a few months, the bear had migrated 75 miles north to the Del Norte Mountains, about 15 miles south of Alpine, where it remained until radio contact was lost earlier this year.
Public opinion on bear recolonization is narrowly divided, according to a recent TPWD-sponsored survey. A questionnaire mailed to 1,100 landowners in nine Trans-Pecos counties who own at least one section of land received a 42 percent return response. Black bear recolonization was not favored by 46 percent, favored by 40 percent and not answered by 14 percent.
Holderman notes that the TPWD approach to the recolonization process is not proactive. The recolonization has occurred naturally. The state’s primary role has been to monitor the process, gather research data, attempt to minimize threats of bear-human contact and educate the public.
The migration of black bears into a former habitat is viewed as a positive indicator for the ecosystem by black bear advocates, who see long-term benefits in increased eco-tourism and the return of a sense of “wildness” to the region.
Private landowners are an important part of any natural recolonization process, Holdermann notes, since 96 percent of the bears’ range is on private property.
“Once we’ve fully characterized how landowners feel about the black bear population, at that point we need to step back and ask what it means to the future of the bear population,” he says.
“The negative attitude toward black bears reflects a strong pattern that has grown from the frontier experience — it generally extends to all large predators. It’s a legitimate point for people to be concerned about property. The development of a successful bear strategy will have to include those private property interests, as well as the creation of a viable black bear habitat.”
[see also Big
Bend Field Notes]
Desolate Majesty: Preserving beauty without borders
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Texas and Mexico, the Big Bend region is high in biodiversity and low
in footprints. It’s a place so untamed that if something doesn’t bite,
stick, or sting, it’s probably a rock.
Photograph by Jack
You know you have arrived in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert when
it feels as if you have fallen off the edge of the Earth and into the
rabbit hole. Nothing is as it appears. Moths are the size of hummingbirds.
Are those twin pillars of black igneous rock (a landmark known as Mule
Ear Peaks) ten miles (16 kilometers) away or fifty (80 kilometers)? Visibility
reaches more than a hundred miles (160 kilometers) on a clear day, and
since there are few roads or buildings to use as milestones, distance
is difficult to judge. A jackrabbit runs so fast across the hardpan that
its hind legs stretch ahead of its front ones, like in a cartoon. A black
bear rambles through high desert canyons, picking its way through the
yucca and prickly pear, oblivious to the fact that it seems out of place
in this landscape. But that’s OK. No one is around to notice.
Legend says that after God created the rest of the world, he dumped the
leftovers into this giant sandbox. The devil is supposed to be sealed
up in a cave on the south bank of the Río Bravo del Norte (known
on the U.S. side as the Rio Grande), except when he escapes on a swing
hung between nearby mountains. This is a place where water runs uphill,
where rainbows have to wait for rain. The line between myth and reality
blurs. Stare long enough at the Chisos Mountains or the Sierra del Carmen,
the two mountain ranges, known as sky islands, that anchor the territory,
and they levitate above the plain. And you haven’t had a drop of tequila.
But you are under the influence of something stronger. Try inhaling the
scent of creosote bushes after it rains and not feel light-headed. It
is a powerful aphrodisiac. Walk across 80 miles (130 kilometers) of low
and high desert, as I have, and an appreciation develops for what others
might dismiss as a moonscape. Without trees or shrubs to get in the way,
the view is unobstructed: 500 million years of geologic turmoil and erosion
is laid bare over miles of fine sand, gravel, rocky rubble, spongy bentonite,
lava spewed from volcanic eruptions.
The vast Chihuahuan Desert has long been known as El Despoblado, the land
of no people. The name remains accurate today: The wildlife population
still exceeds the human one. But in this part of the desert, on both sides
of the border between Texas and Mexico, another name is taking hold: El
CarmenBig Bend Transboundary Megacorridor, a label only a conservationist
could love. It is two and a half million acres (one million hectares)
of one of the most biologically diverse desert regions in the world–the
largest block of protected land in the Chihuahuan Desert.
The idea of preserving this place started with a dream. In the 1930s advocates
in both Texas and Mexico wanted to create an international peace park.
That idea never took off, but what is emerging in its place is far larger
and more ambitious. On most maps, the megacorridor is blank space, the
only mark a squiggly line for the river that doubles as an international
boundary. It is dominated by six separate chunks of protected land that
hang off the Rio Grande like clothes whipping around a clothesline. On
the Mexico side, it includes the Cañón de Santa Elena in the
state of Chihuahua and the Maderas del Carmen in the state of Coahuila.
On the Texas side, two state protected areas flank Big Bend, a U.S. national
park named for the sharp curve where the Rio Grande’s southeasterly flow
takes an abrupt turn to the north, like a car swerving to avoid an armadillo.
The sixth piece is a ribbon of land on the U.S. side of the river itself.
From the air, the region is distinguished by huge cracks, crags, wrinkles,
and crevices, apparently devoid of life. On the ground, it is no more
welcoming. The temperature can reach over a hundred degrees (38ºC)
on a summer day and sink below freezing on a winter night. The wind can
blow 50 miles (80 kilometers) an hour for days on end. We are talking
rough country. Civilization is far away, no matter what direction you
came from. The remoteness is intimidating. Bad things happen. That can
mean a rattlesnake bite, a scorpion sting, a stealth hit by an assassin
bug. You might get stabbed by a spiny tip when you stumble into a low
lechuguilla cactus, or scraped by the branches of a catclaw, or impaled
by a horse crippler cactus. As locals say, if something doesn’t bite,
stick, or jab, it’s probably a rock.
Beneath their armor, some plants possess valuable food or medicine. Take
the sotol, a succulent with swordlike leaves and serrated edges, which
proliferates on the high Chihuahuan Desert. Its bulbs, when baked underground
for 48 hours as the ancients did, taste like steamed artichoke. The same
bulbs, properly fermented into moonshine, pack a wallop similar to tequila.
There is always the chance you’ll die of thirst. The You Can Die possibilities
are endless, which keeps some visitors–350,000 a year to Big Bend National
Park–from coming back. Those who do return are left to ponder the remarkable
grit of the hardy few who have managed to survive in this spare, unforgiving
environment. Not to mention the roadrunners and kangaroo rats, so adapted
to the arid climate they don’t even need to drink.
Contradictions come naturally here. The landscape is 90 percent desert
yet erupts into cliffs 1,500 feet (460 meters) high and mountains above
8,900 feet (2,700 meters). These skyscrapers are home to penthouse residents
such as bigtooth maples, quaking aspens, and Douglas firs. They soak up
water snagged from the clouds–up to 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rain
a year–while their neighbors on the desert floor must make do with less
than 10 inches (25 centimeters). When it does rain, mostly during the
summer “monsoons” from July through September, spindly ocotillos sprout
leaves and spew flaming red shoots from the tips of their woody spines.
Stalks of yucca burst with huge bouquets of tough, creamy white blossoms
as big as ladling spoons. The candelabras that emerge from the heart of
agaves sag heavily with radiant yellow blooms. This whole lot of nothing
is full of life.
As tough as it looks, the Chihuahuan Desert is a fragile place. Few humans
have stepped here, but footprints fall heavily in the desert. Since the
1800s, the region has been mined, logged, hunted, and overgrazed. Now
it is being allowed to heal its wounds, helped along by governments, corporations,
and individuals on both sides of the border. In 1944, Big Bend National
Park was established, and a joint park with Mexico was envisioned. But
it wasn’t until 1994 that the Mexican government designated more than
a million acres (405,000 hectares) as the Cañón de Santa Elena
and the Maderas del Carmen Flora and Fauna Protection Areas. In 1999,
a cement company arrived on the scene, not to pave paradise but to preserve
it. Cemex, the Mexican cementmaker with operations in 50 countries, has
purchased hundreds of thousands of acres along the border to set aside
This is a different model of conservation. Mexico lacks the funds to purchase
land for parks or wildlife habitat, a situation becoming increasingly
common in the United States. So on the Mexico side of the corridor, much
of the protected land is privately owned. Mining has been allowed to continue.
Rather than removing the 5,000 ranchers and farmers living within the
protected areas, as U.S. national parks historically have done, conservationists
are teaching them why it’s in their interest to protect the land. The
goal is to give residents a sense of stewardship that national parks do
not. “You have to understand, the concept of wilderness doesn’t presently
exist in Mexico,” says Patricio Robles Gil, an environmentalist and architect
of the partnership with Cemex. “In Spanish, we don’t have a word for wilderness.
This is all new, but it could be the model beyond a national park.”
After a long day working in the desert, a group of conservationists gathers
for a dinner of steaks and tortillas at the Cemex reserve’s main lodge.
There is talk of the future. Already, a couple of adjacent areas are being
proposed to join the two protected areas on the Mexican side. They discuss
reintroducing the grizzly bear, the Mexican gray wolf, and bison–all
believed to have been native to the area. Anywhere else, such talk would
be dismissed as a fairy tale. In the Transboundary Megacorridor, such
dreams seem possible.
And why not? The desert bighorn sheep has been reestablished, as has the
pronghorn antelope. Decades ago, only a few remaining black bears could
be found tucked away in the isolated mountain ranges of Coahuila. A group
of Mexican ranchers decided to quit hunting bears and start protecting
them instead. Now you see black bears on the Texas side of the river again.
Wildlife pays no attention to international boundaries.
To its true believers, the megacorridor is the whole world boiled down
to its essence. It is “pure raw,” says a conservationist who has fallen
under its spell, one of the last places on the North American continent
where wild trumps humanity, and one of the only spots where wilderness
is actually expanding instead of contracting. At a time when most of the
Earth’s stories focus on what is being lost, that is a contradiction worth
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Bend Field Notes
Big Bend Field Notes
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
The author jumps over a watery passage in the Chihuahuan Desert. Two and a half million acres (one million hectares) of this desert straddle the Texas-Mexico border in a block of protected land known as El CarmenBig Bend Transboundary Megacorridor. The area is one of the most biologically diverse desert regions in the world, so Patoski had to watch his step. As the locals say, if something doesn’t bite, stick, or jab, it’s probably a rock.
Photograph by Jack W. Dykinga
While researching this story, I joined five other people and walked across the bend in the Big Bend, a six-day, 80-mile (130 kilometers) hike. That may have been the most physically difficult trek I’ve ever attempted. It was certainly the first time I’d ever done extended overnight backpacking. My lower back ached for weeks afterward.
Eight months later, I’d forgotten the pain and–for the first time ever–soloed in a canoe through 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the lower canyons of the Rio Grande. The lower back acted up for a while after that, too, but in a good way. Both experiences underscored the efforts one endures in search of the kind of solitude many seek but few ever realize, regardless of lower back pain.
“If you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes; it’ll change.” That old homily about Texas weather popped into my head after I dodged the bullet that photographer Jack Dykinga and Mexican environmentalist Patricio Robles Gil took.
After spending a couple days in Big Bend National Park, plotting and planning our adventures and camping out near Old Ore Road, I headed back to civilization while Jack and Patricio prepared to paddle Santa Elena and Mariscal canyons, two of the three major canyons on the Rio Grande within the boundaries of the national park.
When I left them on a Saturday morning, the skies were clear, and the temperatures had already climbed to around 70 degrees (20°C). It looked like it was going to be a warm and sunny early spring day. But I hadn’t driven more than an hour when the winds started whipping up out of the north and dust kicked up on the horizon. By the time I reached Fort Stockton, about 120 miles (190 kilometers) north of the park, the temperature had dropped to the upper 40s.
I talked to Jack a week later to ask about his trip through the canyons. “It was the trip from hell,” he said wearily. Once the winds began to blow, they didn’t quit for a week, with some gusts exceeding 65 miles (105 kilometers) an hour. More than once, their canoe was blown away from their campsite. Jack’s sniffles turned into a full-blown case of the flu, and he passed it on to Patricio. I waited until he was finally done with his complaints. “Welcome to the Big Bend,” I replied.
The Cemex preserve in the Sierra Del Carmen, is 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Boquillas Crossing on the Rio Grande, as the crow flies. Driving there on rough dirt roads used to take a little more than two hours, once you paid a boatman two dollars to row you across to Mexico in his dinged-up Mexican johnboat. It was a funky way to travel, made more adventurous knowing there was no customs or immigration on the Mexican or the U.S. side (although U.S. Border Patrol highway checkpoints and Mexican military stops manned by bored uniformed teenagers toting automatic weapons loomed farther in the interior). This was too middle-of-nowhere to justify permanent posts. Then September 11, 2001, happened, and everything about the Borderlands changed–including traditional means of crossing the river.
A drive between those same two points now takes at least ten hours. Heightened border security put an end to the freelance ferry tradition. In the past, almost all ferry passengers were tourists from Big Bend National Park bound for Boquillas del Carmen, a primitive village of 300 about a mile from the river, whose residents largely supported themselves selling food, drink, quartz, overnight accommodations, walking sticks, quilts, and trinkets to the visitors. Now the village is slowly depopulating; half of the people have already left.
In the high country of the sierra, I found another Boquillas resident, David, one of the boatmen who used to row visitors across the Rio. These days, he tends to a tricked-out log cabin lodge the Cemex corporation has built overlooking a dammed-up stretch of a clear-running creek. He’s glad to have a job, he said. On weekends, he can go home to Boquillas. It could be worse, David added. Other locals who still call Boquillas home work in Musquiz, another 50 miles (80 kilometers) distant, and many there return home but once a month.