Undammed and Unforgiving
Texas Parks & Wildlife
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Wyman Meinzer
You know how songs get stuck in your head?
There’s one written by the great Texas composer Billy Joe Shaver called “The Devil Made Me Do It the First Time” that wouldn’t go away while I was on the Devils River. The diablo connection was probably how it burrowed into my brain in the first place, but the story line was the gnawing part. The singer blames all his troubles on Satan the first time around, but says “The second time I did it on my own.”
Billy Joe had the river and me down cold.
My first time down the Devils was easy to explain. I’d only been hearing about it for the past 30 years. It was the great, lost Hill Country river, a spring-fed jewel on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau, running swift and fast through that vague badlands where Tamaulipan scrub — also known as South Texas brush country — fades into the Chihuahuan Desert, from somewhere between Ozona and Sonora down to just above Del Rio, where it dissolves into Lake Amistad. Its almost-Caribbean hue was striking, as pretty pale as a summer sky. The translucent water brimmed with smallmouth bass you could follow with your eyes, the clarity was so sharp.
The Devils lives up to its name. It is almost impossible to see, landlocked by sprawling ranches whose owners have been known to vigorously file trespassing charges and sometimes take even more extreme measures to discourage river use by outsiders. It is wild, empty country. Spotting wild turkeys is easier than spotting another human. Doing most of the floatable part of the river takes two days, requiring 15 miles of paddling on one stretch. There is no room for accidents. Rescues are out of the question. Once you get on, there is no turning back.
When I moved near the Blanco, a river that has become sacred in my life, the Devils always loomed. Half the time I’d talk to people about “my” river, the Devils came up, usually in the context of local river folks pointing out that the Blanco is the second-cleanest river in Texas.
“And what might be the cleanest?” I’d inevitably ask, never challenging the veracity of the claim.
My love of the Blanco, that “cleanest” superlative, and a developing obsession in paddling down rivers, beginning in an inflatable Sevylor and presently in a Yahoo sit-on-top kayak, led to the conclusion that if I really wanted to know what everyone was talking about, I’d have to get on the Devils.
That was easier said than done. Not only is the river in a very remote, lightly populated part of the state, the environment is particularly harsh, and the flow tenuous at best. It is reputed to be a homewrecker and heartbreaker that could tear lifelong friendships asunder. Too hot to run in the summer, and too cold to endure in the winter, it is best attempted in fall or spring. If one could get on the river at all, that is.
In a state where property owners have historically clashed with recreational river users, the Devils is arguably the most hostile. “You didn’t just risk getting shot, you might be held under fire for six hours,” one retired boater claimed, in relating what happened to him 20 years ago shortly after he put in at Baker’s Crossing and got separated from his canoe. Even touching the bank can get one arrested for trespassing. Ranchers like to invoke the Spanish Land Grant version of property rights, which accords ownership of a river to include its bottom.
Until 1988, paddling was downright impossible if you couldn’t do 25 miles in a single day. That’s the year the Finegans sold the Dolan Creek Ranch to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which designated the land as a state natural area with virtually no park infrastructure. That made it possible to run the upper 15.5-mile part of Devils from Baker’s Crossing — still a physically exhausting challenge — and legally pull out to sleep, then do 9.5 miles to the takeout, where fishing guide Gerald Bailey operates a shuttle service.
I managed to complete the run in two days, but only after hours of pulling my boat over shallow stretches, getting lost in jungles of river cane, running aground on the coarse, exceptionally abrasive limestone lurking just below the water’s surface, and paddling into relentless headwinds that kicked up waves in my face. Heeding the retired boater’s advice, on the few occasions I actually did touch a bank, it was of an island in the middle of the river. I felt a sense of satisfaction completing the journey, even while I was convinced I’d joined the silent majority whose first time on the Devils was their last. Maybe I’d run it again, I told myself, but only after an extended period of heavy rain, when the Pafford gauge was reading at least 500 cubic feet per second, twice the normal flow.
Less than six months later, I went back on my word. Somehow, my memory had erased all the nightmarish particulars of the first trip. I forgot sleeping for 12 hours straight at the end of the first day’s paddle because I was too exhausted to do anything else.
That’s the only excuse I can offer for returning to Baker’s Crossing in early March to do it again. This time, the flow is the same, give or take 20 cfs, from the previous October. And if conditions aren’t ideal, the one thing I recall from the first trip was, there is no such thing as an ideal day on the Devils. You work with what you get. At least overnight temperatures aren’t dropping into the teens, as they had two days earlier. Even Mary Hughey is reassuring. “The Devils River and kayakers get along just fine,” she tells me as she collects the camping fee from Joe Hauer and me at Baker’s Crossing. Canoes might drag the whole 15 miles down to the state natural area. But not shallow-drafting kayaks.
Hughey is the matron at Baker’s Crossing, the owner of the two-story mansion set by the banks of the tree-lined river and the surrounding campgrounds. A sweet lady who is training her 2-year-old grandson, Casey, for a career in the hospitality industry, she makes it plain to each and every boater camping out to be on the river by nine in the morning, or she’ll make darn sure they will. She gets enough heat from landowners downstream for letting people on to the river in the first place, she says, and she doesn’t need any more grief.
She also raises a warning flag. While talking about lack of rain, a common topic of conversation west of the 98th meridian, I mention the 10-year drought.
“Ten years?” she says. “It’s more like a 30-year drought. The river hasn’t really run since the ’70s.” She isn’t kidding. Thirty years ago, the headwaters of the Devils were generally recognized as being near Juno, 10 miles up the highway. These days, it barely holds a flow at Baker’s, though there is enough moving water to lull me to sleep the instant I climb into my sleeping bag.
We are on the river before eight the following morning, and reality rears its ugly head within 10 minutes, when the little riffle I ride disappears in a pool of gravel. Scrunch. I get up and pull; the first of more drags than I care to count. Somewhere in that first hour, I check the new seat I’d hooked onto my boat for back support and realize the zip pocket behind the seat is not watertight, but in fact self-baling. The topo maps I’d downloaded have turned to mush. I’ve left my river guidebooks in the car.
My first trip in October was with David Hollingsworth, who’d run the Devils before and brought along his GPS to pinpoint our location. This time, I am the experienced one, and now I have nothing — no map, no printed material, no help, since only a handful of people live along the river — nothing but my obviously defective memory. I calm down by reminding myself I’ve done this before. It is only two days. Heck, I could go without water for that long if I really had to. And we had plenty of water, trail mix and nutrition bars stuffed into our drybags. I decide doing it without any navigational aid would be liberating, with the understanding that mistakes would be unforgiven.
Hauer doesn’t believe me when I tell him it will take the full day to get down to the state natural area. Like me on any first time on a river, he keeps thinking the takeout is just around the next bend.
“Patience,” I counsel.
As long as I maintain a steady stroke, I can savor the sweet bliss of floating through a genuine wilderness practically devoid of power lines, roads or human presence — save for the occasional hunting shack. In Texas, no less. The views are sublime: a flock of mallards skittering off the water, coots diving, a killdeer swooping just above the water line, hawks surfing thermals high above, a great blue heron lumbering out of the river cane. A bass spooks from under a shallow shelf, tail flopping above the surface, startled by my intrusion. On almost every cliff overlooking the water, I see caves and overhangs, the types that provided nomadic people over the previous 6,ooo years with shelter and access to the other basic necessities of water and food nearby. There are more pictographs in the Devils, Pecos and Rio Grande watersheds than anywhere else on earth, save for the south of France.
My soundtrack is the steady splish-splish of every stroke, accompanied by distant squawks, chirps and screes, the occasional soft flutter of flapping wings, the intermittent whooshes of wind, and that Billy Joe Shaver song. It is a splendid river. More than once, I find myself on a tight rapid or in a gin-clear pool shaded by nearby groves of pecans and oaks, thinking I was back on the Blanco, more than 200 miles east. The cliffs, the outcroppings and the massive limestone the river cuts through brought Big Bend closer than it really is. Life is distilled to the sweet essence of river, land and sky. But I cannot get lost in the moment. After all, this is the Devils. You never know when the water will run out, or where the next crusty rock is crouching just under the surface, ready to snag an unwary boat. On some rocks, I recognize the distinctive blue streaks of my kayak, skid mark souvenirs from my first trip.
It is not difficult to focus on the dry, desiccated landscape and imagine something that during a much wetter period resembled the Hill Country. The first European to note the Devils’ existence, the Spaniard Gaspar Casta–o de Sosa, was not exactly impressed. He named it the Laxas, which translates as “feeble” or “slack.” Explorers and travelers who followed him held it in higher regard, naming it the San Pedro, and often lingering longer than planned, since it was the last rest stop before striking out west across the desert. St. Pete struck Texas Ranger Jack Hays as an uninspired name for the river when he came upon it in the 1840s, before he moved on to California. He reckoned the Devils would be a more suitable title. A military camp had been established on the river after the Mexican War. Another Texas Ranger, Capt. Pat Dolan, arrived to clear the region of outlaws in 1870, early enough to have his name attached to the falls.
That made it safe for E.K. Fawcett who, along with a group of friends, left his mark inside a cave above Dolan Falls on July 24, 1883. As the Devils’ first settler, Fawcett started grazing sheep by the falls, and others followed with goats and cattle. Eventually the grasses in the watershed were worn down to the nub, leaving rocks, prickly pear, cedar, mesquite and the occasional lechuguilla. The browsing down explained why I heard but a single calf on the trip. Not much is left for today’s livestock to eat.
Gary Garrett, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist who has studied the Devils extensively, confirms that the river is relatively unpolluted and undammed – less than 2 percent of all American rivers remain free of such impoundments, and the upper part of the Devils is the only free-running river left in Texas – and one of the most pristine in the southwestern United States. But he also makes clear that, like every river in Texas, the Devils has been impacted plenty. Its flow has declined steadily. Chloride, phosphate, cadmium, lead and mercury have been found in concentrations high enough to be potentially dangerous for aquatic life and human health. The Rio Grande cutthroat trout, once native to the region, disappeared long ago. The smallmouth bass, which attracts fishermen from all over Texas, is an exotic introduced to the river and, with the cessation of the practice of stocking exotics in the Devils, the smallmouths are just holding on, making the practice of catch-and-release on the river crucial to their survival. Garrett suspects the smallmouth and other exotics, including carp, black bullhead and blue tilapia, maybe contributing to the threatened status 0f the native Devils River minnow.
But Garrett also gives me hope. “Stewardship is at a higher level here than on other Texas rivers, and property owners are utilizing TPWD resources to learn sound land and water management practices,” he says. The big ranches are staying big, thanks to attorneys and doctors who want to keep it that way, buying big chunks of real estate. The Nature Conservancy bought 10,000 acres within the watershed, including Dolan Falls in 1991, and has brokered sales of another 35,000 acres with conservation easements, meaning the land will remain undeveloped forever.
I arrive at the state natural area 15 minutes ahead of Hauer. Usually it’s the other way around. For all the exertion, we haven’t averaged even two miles an hour. Back home we could do twice that distance in less time. But we aren’t back home. We are on the Devils. And it has beaten us down bad. By the time Hauer crawls onto the rock shelf, he is declaring his fealty to the San Marcos River. Why come all this way to be brutalized? He is asleep before the sun goes down. I stay awake to watch the last light of day fade to dark while a couple of bats flutter erratically overhead. The last calls of a lonely mallard pierce the night. It is warm enough to sleep out without a tent, and cool enough to snuggle into a sleeping bag. I don’t care whether the wind whips up or if it drizzles before dawn. I am too wasted.
The second day begins with a short, less -than-a-mile paddle from the state natural area to the juncture where Dolan Creek, the most abundant of 32 tributaries, meets the Devils. The meager flow builds into a churning and hissing torrent, climaxing at Dolan Falls. Water gushes through four chutes carved from solid rock, adorned with maidenhair fern. I’d seen a similar setting once before, at the Narrows on the Blanco. And like the Narrows, running one of those chutes likely would have terminal results. We scout and ponder, craning our necks, and decide to portage, following the metal arrows on the rocks on the left bank.
Dolan Creek’s recharge makes the last nine miles a pleasure. Rapids carry the boats instead of stopping them. Picking a path through the reeds becomes a game of chance. Pick the right chute and get easy passage. Pick wrong, get out and drag. I even find a couple of spots where I can point my boat upstream and surf.
Although we’ve seen a scattering of trailers and cabins, one two-story structure high on a ridge above the eastern bank that looks like a hotel or a resort is the first real sign of civilization, other than all the posted No Trespassing signs. It is tobacco lawyer John Eddie Williams’ Rio Vista Ranch, I later learn.
We find Gerald Bailey’s place with no problem. His hillside home is marked by a canoe jutting into the air. Gerald is out guiding a fishing trip, his wife tells us, but Don Kelley will be over in a minute to drive us back. Don, one of the few other full-time residents of the Blue Sage subdivision, used to be a hunter and a fisherman when he first visited the Devils, but since he moved to a house overlooking the river from a high bluff, he says he’s become a naturalist out of necessity. “You can’t do much of anything if you live here, other than be a screwaround, because it’s so remote and far away from everything,” he says while he ties down our boats and loads us into his Suburban.
I happily pay Kelley $150 to shuttle us back to Baker’s once I see what passes for roads on the Blue Sage subdivision and knowing the next takeout is another 20 miles downstream on a part of the river that is more like a dammed-up lake. It takes an hour to drive the 14 miles out to U.S. Highway 277, and almost another two hours back to either the natural area or Baker’s.
We talk about wild turkeys. I’ve seen more on the Devils than anywhere in my life. We talk about how rocks seem to hold heat in this part of Texas longer than anywhere else, how untamed the river gets when it does flood, and how the same landowners with the hostile reputations are actually protecting the river and the caves and pictographs by discouraging tourists. I marvel how I hadn’t seen a piece of trash anywhere on the entire trip.
We talk about rain, and how it almost never does in these parts.
Hauer figures he left at least $100 worth of his Perception’s bottom on the caustic limestone in the river. His first time on the Devils may be his last. Me, once again I swear on a stack of Bibles that I won’t do it again until there’s been a really, really big dump in its watershed, which may not happen again in my lifetime.
Then again, that’s what I said the last time around. Before Billy Joe Shaver started rumbling around in my head.
[More about Water]
[Additional information on river laws can be found on Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Website at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/texaswater/rivers]
Guad is Good; Guad is Great
Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
It’s the finest recreational river in Texas, but how long can it last?
One late afternoon in mid-February, the day after the frst signifcant snowfall in 19 years, I launched a sit-on-top kayak from the low-water crossing near where I live onto my river, a tributary of the Guadalupe River. It was due for an inspection. It was early in the season for this kind of excursion, but I’ d been feeling the tug for weeks.
The calendar said winter, but spring was subtly stirring wherever I looked. A loud scree overhead identified the first pair of zone-tail hawks nesting in the top of a nearby cypress, none too happy with my presence. The first kingfisher flashed right in front of me, then skimmed above the water in full glide. A mockingbird hopped among the bare cypress branches, scouting for nest sites. A small turtle, its shell caked gray with mud, scooted atop a boulder to sun itself. A bass peeked out from under the base of the same boulder, submerged at the bottom of a deep hole.
With each dip of the paddle, I stirred up liquid diamonds that dazzled in the sunlight. The boat moved swiftly as I paddled through placid, deep pools, and scraped rock and fought currents. Where I could find them, I rode riffles and rapids, and whenever necessary, I sloshed through shallows, dragging the boat behind me.
While surfing the little rapids, I’ d occasionally get in a groove where I didn’ t have to paddle at all. Rather, I was suspended in the rapid, nose upstream, waves rushing downstream, motionless in the midst of perpetual motion, losing sense of time and even existence. In one of these trances, my meditative state was interrupted by a white-tailed doe stealthily sidling up to water’ s edge about 100 yards upstream to take a drink. She spied me about the same time I spied her. She took another quick drink, stepped gingerly on several flat rocks in the water before bounding into a pool and scampering up to cross over to the other side. Two larger whitetails followed, going through the same routine. Look, drink, scan again, step, step, plunge, step, step across. Negotiating around a particularly large limestone hazard, I glanced back to spot a great blue heron, the giant bird-queen of the river, moving upstream, flapping her pterodactyl-like wings just enough to keep her sizeable trunk above the surface of river.
None of the rapids were so much as class II-worthy. But on a mid-winter’ s day in Central Texas, I was more than satisfied. I couldn’ t imagine a better place to be on this earth. That thought stuck with me all the way back to the house even though my butt was numb and I couldn’ t feel my toes.
A River of Pleasure
Of the 15 major rivers in Texas, the Guadalupe is the Texas-most river, springing to life in the Hill Country, that sweet spot where east and west, north and south, coast and desert, tropics and prairie all converge, and diversity thrives and flourishes. The Guadalupe runs exceptionally cool, swift and clear until it reaches the fertile rolling plains, where it widens and muddies and roils through hardwood bottomlands and past the historic towns of Seguin, Gonzales, Cuero and Victoria before reaching the coastal prairie and its delta in San Antonio Bay.
The Guadalupe is the home of the state fish of Texas, the Guadalupe bass. It is the only river in the state that sustains a year-round trout population. Marked with dramatic stretches of limestone cliffs and tall bald cypresses on the upper half, and distinguished with water that begins gin-clear, evolves into an ethereal green-turquoise and ends an earth brown, it’ s the prettiest river in Texas. Fed by the state’ s two biggest springs – the Comal and San Marcos – and supporting abundant wildlife and several endangered species, the Guadalupe has attracted visitors for more than 12,000 years and today is probably enjoyed by more people than any other river in the Southwest.
But the water of this beautiful river is under pressure from growing urban demand. Whether the river will endure for another 50 years, much less 300, is not certain. For all its attributes and benefits – and in part because of them – the Guadalupe may be Texas’ most troubled river. Coveted by thirsty cities, tenaciously held on to by farmers and ranchers, exploited for new, competing uses as the population of Central Texas booms, the Guadalupe has a forbidding future, and that is a shame when you consider how many Texans take pleasure in it.
Back at the house, I estimated how many other people might have been on the Guadalupe and its main tributaries, the Blanco, San Marcos, and Comal rivers, that same February day. I figured at least several thousand. Fewer than 10 miles south of my little play spot, a flock of sailboats breezed across Canyon Lake, the sole significant lake on the Guadalupe, while several hundred people walked the dam over the course of the afternoon.
Downstream, several hundred more men, women, and children were spread out along the banks, tying flies to their lines, scanning the surface and casting into the fast-moving, chilly waters for elusive trout. A little farther down, a handful of hard-headed kayakers played in the waves around Hueco Springs and Slumber Falls, the most reliable whitewater in Texas. Up and down its length, even in winter, the river is a boon to recreationists. Canoeists and kayakers were paddling it, scuba divers were plying its transparent depths at Canyon Lake, duck hunters were sitting expectantly in blinds on its delta and birdwatchers were searching its forests and marshes.
Once the waters warm in the spring, the thousands enjoying the Guadalupe and its tributaries swell into millions. Each day, thousands of people head to Schlitterbahn on the banks of the Comal in New Braunfels and pay more than $25 to play in America’ s top-rated water park. On any hot day, some of the best river-swimming on earth is in the Guadalupe basin. The curious idyll of "toobing," as it is referred to around New Braunfels, Gruene and San Marcos, where the pastime is most popular, attracts tens of thousands of aficionados on Easter, Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends. The Tube Chute in Prince Solms Park in New Braunfels is a water flume that’ s been a tourist attraction for many decades. All told, no other river in Texas is so heavily used for recreation. Plain and simple, the Guadalupe is fun.
A Hill Country Playground
I have driven the length of the Guadalupe River in stages, exploring its multiple delights, tracing its geography. The river insinuates itself into the rocky oak-and-cedar scrub landscape of western Kerr Country very subtly. There are no specific headwaters, no gushing artesian spring. Dry washes and gullies gradually collect enough moisture from small springs to hold water in pools that stretch longer and longer until a steady, shallow stream trickles over a hard limestone bed and then tumbles out of the craggy hills towards the sea, more than 200 miles away.
At Boneyard Draw, on Farm-to-Market 1340, a sheer 60-foot limestone bluff in the distance marks a bend in the drainage, the first hint of canyons to come. A wooden sign identifies a "parking bird-viewing area" on the perimeter of Stuever’ s Ranch. Just below the crossing is the turnoff to the Kerr Wildlife Management Area, where the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been testing cedar (Ashe juniper) eradication, brush-clearing and other water-saving land management strategies. In addition to being a center of whitetailed deer research, this WMA holds one of the great concentrations of wild turkeys in the state.
Less than a mile down the road, I detour down a county road, towards Cherry Springs Ranch, Guadalupe Bluffs Ranch, and the Price’ s Joy Spring Ranch Bed & Breakfast. At a low-water crossing, I find the river, sparkling in the sun, the palest of greens with a slight tinge of blue, scooting over the hard rock bed.
A mile farther, the river is moving full-tilt and roaring to life, with a deeper blue tint, a ribbon of sustenance snaking along a narrow alley guarded by soaring cypress trees and flanked by high bluffs, some rising up 100 feet above the water surface. Turkey buzzards politely wait on a fence post while I pass before resuming clean-up duty on a mangled piece of road kill.
A slide leading directly into the water on the banks of Mo Ranch Camp marks the beginning of the "camp run," consisting of Camp Waldemar and Camp Stewart on the North Fork, and Camp Mystic, Heart O’ the Hills Camp and Camp Arrowhead on the South Fork. Crider’ s rodeo arena and dance patio is also on the south fork. There’ s not too many places in this world where a couple can two-step under the summer stars to the sounds of western swing fiddles and the steady rush of the river.
The Guadalupe widens, narrows, and spills from limestone shelf to limestone shelf as it moves past patios, swings and ornate rockwork of dream ranches owned by CEOs, corporations and churches. In one field by the river, scale replicas of Stonehenge and two 13-foot-high Easter Island statues have been erected.
The North Fork and South Fork join just below the Hunt Store, a community gathering spot for vacationers, hunters, fishermen, swimmers and visitors for more than 80 years. Several generations of the wealthiest, most influential Texans have spent the summers of their youth on this part of the river, learning the basics of life and being exposed to a wilder, more untamed version of the natural world than exists near the cities they come from. Small wonder riverfront property here has been the most coveted real estate in the Hill Country for decades.
Anyone can glean a semblance of that experience by passing a night at an old-fashioned resort such as the Waltonia Lodges on the Guadalupe River, or jumping in and cooling off at Schumacher’ s Crossing, the first significant swimming hole with easy public access on the river.
The bluffs fade farther into the background from the river as it flows between Hunt and Ingram. Ingram Dam creates large enough pools to support a bass boat or a one-man sailboat and offers younger river rats the pleasure of dam sliding.
Parks become more plentiful farther downstream: Louise Hays Park on the south bank through most of Kerrville and Kerrville-Schreiner Park east of town. In both parks, people are disc throwing, fishing and hanging out. The river gains stature but loses a little bit of its curb appeal as it flows past Kerrville, Center Point and Comfort, the bluffs considerably diminished, most of the cypress logged out long ago.
The magic returns just below Comfort and Interstate 10, as the Guadalupe narrows, snakes and curves through a verdant valley, parts of which have been cultivated by German farmers from the same families for more than 150 years. To stumble upon the hamlets of Welfare and Waring practically hiding under giant oak motts is like discovering a lost fairyland.
Though the entire 89-mile length of the Upper Guadalupe qualifies as a wilderness river experience – save for the dam in Ingram and all the low-water crossings – the 39-mile middle section between Seidensticker Crossing below Waring to the privately owned Bergheim Campgrounds at FM 3351 conveys the sensation of being somewhere Out There, with more heifers on the banks than humans, more fish in the water than folks.
Below Bergheim and Edge Falls, the 1,939-acre Guadalupe River State Park and the adjacent Honey Creek State Natural Area offer public access to four miles of unspoiled riverfront, more than any park on the Guadalupe and situated a mere 30 miles north of downtown San Antonio. The park attracts hikers and mountain bikers, as well as toobers, swimmers, and paddlers.
Every Saturday at 9 a.m., Honey Creek opens its gates for a walking tour of the ecologically fragile environment, which encompasses several native species of plants and animals, including the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.
I keep looking for the right superlative to describe the upper Guadalupe’ s blend of wilderness and playground, and one remark sticks in my mind. At Kerr WMA I stumbled upon Anthony Glorioso, a fresh-faced, curly-headed college student from Poughkeepsie, New York, who was working as a field assistant on a study of wild turkeys by radiotelemetry. Glorioso had never been to this part of the world before, he said.
Asked about his first impressions, he lit up.
"It’ s like Africa!" he exclaimed.
The New Yorker got it. The Guadalupe is that special.
The most intense recreational use of the river is along the 40 miles of streambed from Highway 281 through Canyon Lake – one of the finest inland spots in Texas for sailing and windsurfing – and below Canyon Lake to Gruene and New Braunfels. In New Braunfels, the Comal – at three miles in length often called the country’ s shortest river – joins the Guadalupe, providing additional flow from Comal Springs. The crowds come for the natural beauty, the dependable flow, and, in summer, relief from the heat. Even in the middle of August, the water temperature remains brisk, rarely climbing over 70 degrees.
The 8,200-acre Canyon Lake was created by the construction of an earthen dam in the mid-1960s. Through managed releases, the dam tempers the wild swings between drought and flood that define the typical stream flow of Texas waterways; the Guad has water when other rivers may not. Since the release is from the bottom of the dam, chilled water is the norm and a boon to the stocking of trout. And since Guadalupe River Trout Unlimited reached a settlement with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, the flow is supplemented through the hottest, driest months of the year.
In July 2002, Canyon Dam was put to the test by weeklong storms that dumped close to 30 inches of rain into the watershed. The dam functioned precisely as its engineers intended. When the water level in the lake reached near the top of the dam, overflow went over the spillway for the first time ever. The torrent from the spillway carved a dramatic gorge out of the countryside, accomplishing several thousand years of erosion in a matter of days. The result – a dramatic red-dirt gorge pocked with springs, pools and pouroffs – is being studied by geologists. But sometime in the near future, parts of the gorge will likely become another recreational opportunity.
I’ m disturbed to learn that recreational users have not been given a seat at the table in regional water planning, although permit amendments have been approved to draw more than twice as much out of Canyon Lake as has been historically allowed. While it is common knowledge that recreation is the major economic engine for Canyon Lake, the Lower Guadalupe, the village of Gruene, and the town of New Braunfels, no research has been done to calculate the total economic impact of having a bountiful, flowing Guadalupe.
Recreational opportunities do not stop at Interstate 35. Despite all the focus on the Upper Guadalupe, the river offers plenty of diversions and opportunities after exiting the Hill Country. Between New Braunfels and Seguin, the river widens into Lake McQueeney, a wider-than-normal part of the river. Still, it holds enough water to attract boaters, swimmers, and water-skiers, including the Ski Bees, the first water-ski gang I ever wanted to join.
Twenty miles north of Lake McQueeney is the starting point of the Texas Water Safari, which bills itself as the "World’ s Toughest Boat Race." Last summer I stood on the banks of San Marcos Springs, the second-largest spring in Texas and the headwaters of the San Marcos River, and watched a couple hundred crazies go through last-minute preparations before beginning the 260-mile test of physical and mental endurance. Staged every June since 1963, the race from San Marcos to Seadrift follows the San Marcos River to Gonzales, where it joins the Guadalupe, and down to the coast. While the Safari is technically a race, the challenge for most entrants is to finish the course in 100 hours, which earns racers a pin.
I heard racers’ tales of Hallucination Alley, a side effect of sleep deprivation that has been experienced by most of the contestants who’ ve done the race. I met Julie Basham and Ann Best, two 40-year-olds attempting the race for the first time, and Julie’ s dad, or his ashes in an urn, at least. "Before he died, he said he wanted to watch me finish," Basham explained. She was going to spread his ashes at the finish, if they made it that far (they did). John Bugge introduced me to his 9-year-old granddaughter, Jessica, who became the youngest paddler to complete the race. Ian Adamson, a 38-year-old professional adventure racer and four-time Eco-Challenge champion from Sydney, Australia, put the safari in perspective: "To me, this is the best boat race I’ ve ever run, starting in a clear, freshwater spring and a tight channel and winding up in swamps with alligators and the coast." Talking to them made me want to do the race, too.
But there are more leisurely ways to enjoy the pleasures of the lower Guadalupe that don’ t require a hundred hours of paddling. The "Guadalupe Loop" is a birding route sponsored by the towns of Victoria, Cuero and Gonzales that includes sites along the river. Situated between Luling and Gonzales, Palmetto State Park offers a birding trail that meanders through a lost swamp rife with palmetto palms. In winter, the park is home to large roosting flocks of caracaras. The Athey Nature Preserve and the adjacent Riverside Park in Victoria is one of the hotspots on the Loop, offering birds such as the river’ s specialty, the green kingfisher.
Near the confluence of the Guadalupe and San Antonio Bay, the tidal marshes and riparian woodland of Guadalupe Delta below Victoria are a whole other world, where heat, moisture and fertile soil conspire to cook up a piquant stew of marine and terrestrial life. Birders flock here to spot anhinga, American bittern, glossy ibis, Ross’ s goose, bald eagle, Virginia rail, Couch’ s kingbird, golden-crowned kinglet, winter wren and late neotropicals.
The Guadalupe feeds them all.
Sustaining the Guad
Yes, the Guad is great, but for how much longer? In 2002, the nonprofit environmental group American Rivers designated the Guadalupe one of the top 10 most endangered rivers in the United States because of demands placed on it from growing Central Texas cities.
Perhaps more than any other Texas river, the Guadalupe faces a diminishment of its flow in the coming years. The thirsty city of San Antonio is looking to the Guadalupe for more water. One plan under close consideration and considerable discussion involves taking water from near the mouth of the Guadalupe at the town of Tivoli and piping it 120 miles back to San Antonio. The project is estimated to cost from $683 million to $785 million, or more, depending on design. The flow of the Guadalupe is also potentially affected by pumping in unregulated parts of rapidly growing Comal and Hays counties, which are part of the Guadalupe basin. This explosive development includes more than 20 golf courses built in the last 20 years, each consuming from 500,000 to 1 million gallons a day.
The Guad is beset by a combustible mix of historic laws, traditions and a rapidly growing number of users and uses for the river whose collective demand could soon outstrip the existing supply. The "rule of capture" is still the building block of Texas water law. Under it, groundwater belongs to the owner of the property above it, and plans are in place for excessively pumping underground reservoirs that provide the Guadalupe its sustenance. Surface water, such as the river and its tributaries, belongs to the people of the state, and is managed under the Prior Appropriation Doctrine which says, "First in time, first in right." Surface water, too, is being coveted as a resource that can be moved and sold to the highest bidder.
The problem is that the real price of water, in terms of its effect on wildlife and recreation, have yet to be calculated. Thirty-five miles away from the mouth of the Guadalupe as the black-bellied whistling duck flies, I ran into Tom Stehn, the whooping crane coordinator of Aransas/Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge. Stehn had been a speaker at the eighth annual A Celebration of Whooping Cranes and Other Birds in Port Aransas, the town’ s end-of-winter birding and ecotourism festival. When I found him, he had finished hearing Norman Johns, the water research scientist for the National Wildlife Federation, lecture about freshwater inflow, a major unresolved issue in Texas water planning.
Without fresh water from the Guadalupe, the health of shrimp, oysters, fish and other marine life in San Antonio Bay and other nearby bays will be at risk, Johns explained. His PowerPoint presentation layered current water usage and projected water usage in 2050 onto historic data from the great drought of the 1950s. The numbers suggest the likelihood that in the next drought of record, the population of blue crab, the main food source for whooping cranes, will crash, jeopardizing the most successful recovery of an endangered species in Texas.
Stehn joined the long line of witnesses telling me how remarkable the Guadalupe is. After all, what other river nourishes 198 whoopers during the winter so they can fly up to near the Arctic Circle for the summer? Without the Guadalupe, thousands of visitors wouldn’ t be coming to the refuge to try to spot the tallest bird in North America.
The final stop on my tour of the Guadalupe River was at Austwell, a sleepy little community on the western bank of Hynes Bay, the northwestern thumb of San Antonio Bay, where the Guadalupe meets the sea.
"You carry it in. You carry it out," reads the hand-painted sign by water’ s edge. A single lighted dock juts out into the water. Two men lean on a rail, their fishing lines dipping down.
Wind is a constant, bending the sea oats and cattails northward and stirring up mud in the shallows to add a brown earth tone to the pallet of rich green slate and pale blue hues streaking the expansive bay. Ducks settle contently in salt marshes, shielded from the wind. A redbud blooms near a stack of crab traps, and a Texas lantana is showing all colors, the first clear signs of spring’ s arrival. Austwell is quiet and silent and like some of the stretches of the Upper Guadalupe, refreshingly remote and disconnected.
I start to approach the two fishermen on the dock, but think better of it.
Maybe they’ re in the same zone of solitude I was farther upstream that late February afternoon. If they’ re not, maybe if they’ re left alone long enough, they will get there. I walk away, leaving them be, shaking my head in amazement that the Guadalupe is the reason they are there. My river is a special river indeed.
[visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine – July Issue]
Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
How growing demand, fuzzy legal rulings and plain old stubbornness have turned Kinney County into a hotbed of water politics.
Unless you frequently travel U.S. Highway 90 between San Antonio and Del Rio, you probably don’t know where Kinney County is. Depending who you talk with, the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District is either the poster child for how not to manage groundwater, or the last best defense for rural areas fighting big cities that covet their water.
The sparsely populated county is located in that transition zone between the Edwards Plateau and the South Texas Brush Country on the edge of the Chihuahuan desert. Brackettville, the county seat and largest town, with a population just shy of 2,000, is directly across the highway from one of Kinney County’s natural treasures, Las Moras Springs, the ninth-largest group of springs in Texas, which discharge about 160 gallons of water a second. Fort Clark, which was built around the springs by the U.S. Army in 1852, thrives today as a gated residential community.
In 1959, Brackettville became famous as the location where the major motion picture, The Alamo starring John Wayne, was filmed. The movie set was preserved by landowner Happy Shahan and promoted as a tourist attraction called Alamo Village. But a couple of years before the movie was filmed, something more significant happened in Kinney County. While drilling an exploratory well northwest of town in search of oil, drillers hit water. So much water that when Senate Bill 1 — the landmark water legislation mandating that all regions of Texas secure water supplies for the next 50 years — was passed in 1997, Kinney County came into play.
The abundance of groundwater, the county’s small population, the growing demands of thirsty cities and Texas water law have made Kinney County ground zero in Texas’ water wars, as water marketers, legislators, attorneys and lobbyists grapple with the new local groundwater district over how much, if any, water can be pumped and sold outside the county without impacting water supplies, springs, creeks and streams inside the county.
From all outward appearances, the February 22, 2005, meeting of the board of directors of the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District at the Kinney County Courthouse in Brackettville is perfunctorily bureaucratic — board members and the general manager gather around a table to discuss audits, groundwater availability models, recharge numbers, well violations, management zones and a newsletter. The language bandied about is as complex as the aquifers the board is charged with overseeing — the Kinney County portion of the Edwards Aquifer, the Edwards-Trinity zone and the Austin Chalk zone — all of which lack definite boundaries separating one aquifer from the other.
But that only partially explains the tension in the room, which emanates from 11 people sitting in the gallery separated from the board by a railing. They represent the interests of those in Kinney County who want to sell their water. One holds an audio recorder, another a video camera to record the proceedings. From the comments overheard in the hallway during a break, they are a frustrated bunch. They felt that the board was ignoring allocations recommended by Steve Walthour, the hydrologist hired by the board to advise them on pumping permits. Board member Christopher Ring’s family corporation got more water than Walthour recommended; almost everyone else got far less than what they asked for. Allocations were based on land acreage, not on hydrology. They said board members had spread fear among voters that the county’s water was going to be stolen, in order to assure election of five of six board members opposed to moving water out of the county. The board refused the offer by WaterTexas, which most of the folks in the gallery were aligned with, to pay for a study of available groundwater. They even alleged that General Manager Darlene Shahan was working with her husband, Tully Shahan, the county attorney, to thwart their interests.
After the meeting, I head east to Hugh and Dennette Coates’ place in the Anacacho Mountains, where Hugh Coates loads me up with legal briefs and talks about the Pinto Valley farmland he bought in 1988. “We have big water there, shoots straight to the ground. Never has been a pump that’s sucked air in that valley,” he says. And yet, the groundwater district just allotted him less than one third of what the board’s consultant recommended. “It’s like coming to your house and saying, ‘You can have one bath a month,’ ” Coates complains.
Some of the other folks attending the groundwater district board meeting show up at the Coates’, too: Jewel Robinson, the publisher of The Brackett News and a Pinto Valley landowner who has applied for a pumping permit not to sell water, she says, but to assure flow in the creek that “means so much to me”; her son Wesley; Beth Ann Smith, the groundwater district board member who typically casts the lone dissenting vote in board matters; her husband, Richard Smith; Tony Frerich, the co-owner of Kinney County Wool & Mohair; Jennifer McDaniel, who works at the wool house, and her husband, Jim McDaniel, the last cotton farmer in the county.
Over a sumptuous spread of real South Texas Mexican food, they detail the unpleasantness that’s been visited upon them since the city of Eagle Pass first approached several of them eight years ago to see if they’d be interested in selling their water. Their willingness to sell has run headfirst into a board that they say is unwilling to compromise but keeps changing the rules anyway. The pumping caps set by the board are arbitrary, they say. Allocation of such measly percentages amounts to a property rights “taking” (in a legal context, “taking” refers to a government action assuming ownership of real property by eminent domain). They believe that anyone on Pinto Creek downstream from the Shahans and the Rings is getting shorted. Jim McDaniel, the farmer, got 41 percent of what he asked for and will have to go back to the board in July for more water in order to finish his crop. Still, he admits, if he ever gets the permitted amount he seeks, he’s inclined to sell his water and get out of farming altogether. Things have gotten so ugly, Dennette Coates relates, “They’re telling us not to eat in a particular restaurant; they’ll spit in your food.”
I’d heard a whole other story earlier in the day in Tully Shahan’s law office across the street from the county courthouse. Tully Shahan is the county attorney. His wife, Darlene Shahan, is the general manager of the groundwater district. Both have been instrumental in forming the groundwater district and leading the fight against exporting water from the county. The way the Shahans tell it, approximately two-thirds of permit applicants were trying to thwart the will of the county’s voters who elected the groundwater district members. Every sitting board member was reelected despite opposition, they point out. By going to state legislators and lobbyists, filing lawsuits and seeking to have the district dissolved, a tyranny of the few was destroying the board’s good work, or at least bankrupting it through costly legal fees.
“Eight tenths of one percent of county property is irrigated,” Tully Shahan says, “and the irrigators are trying to tell us what to do with 100 percent of the water.”
The water purveyors have lobbyists, they say. The district can’t afford one. “We have the highest tax rate and lowest budget of anyone out there,” says Darlene Shahan. “We are very limited in what we can do as a district. More than two-thirds of the current budget is being absorbed by legal and consulting fees.”
Tully Shahan produces an interim report by Senator Ken Armbrister, the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Water Policy, issued before the Legislature convened last January. It proposes dissolving the Kinney County Groundwater District and bringing the county under the jurisdiction of the Edwards Aquifer Authority. the legislation introduced to accomplish this goal is HB 3571 (sponsored by Rep. Robert Puente) and SB 1857 (sponsored by Sen. Frank Madla). The move would leave the county without representation and cost the town of Brackettville at least $24,000 a year for water it is now getting for free, Tully Shahan contends. He pulls out another newspaper clipping that quotes Armbrister as saying the 1904 State Supreme Court decision on Rule of Capture is not in the Texas Constitution.
Darlene Shahan insists the district is doing what the Legislature intended — protecting existing water supplies and users before allocating pumping permits. “Why did we enter into hearings in August, spend money on technical studies, give people an open forum and due process?” she asks. “One hearing was 13 hours. [Water sellers are] saying that we were going to rubber stamp the hydrologist’s findings. If that was the case, the board wouldn’t have sat through those hearings. The water sellers just don’t like how the board is interpreting the rules. The board is doing their best to protect the water according to Chapter 36 of the Texas Water Code and the local rules. We’re being as conservative as we can.”
To illustrate why the board is taking the cautious approach, Tully Shahan drives me out of town to the family ranch, a 16,000-acre spread just north of Brackettville, where the headwaters of Pinto Creek are located. He takes a modified golf cart through a pasture down to the rough creek bottom where the creek emerges out of a rocky outcropping and runs pure and shallow through the oak scrub. The cart scoots up over and around limestone gravel shoals to a perch overlooking a small tributary of the creek. A few stone skips away, bubbles float to the surface marking the main spring. The creek bottom, fully visible, shimmers with a pale blue tinge of purity.
Shahan then drives to another spot near a fence line. On the other side are wells that were drilled in the early 1960s that immediately dried up six wells on his family’s land, forcing him to drill new wells at considerable expense. The direct cause-and-effect have given him pause ever since, he says.
A little after eight the next morning, I meet Zack Davis at the Davis Hardware Store and Ranch Supply in downtown Brackettville. Davis, a tall, jut-jawed Kinney County native like Tully Shahan, is taking me to his farm in the Pinto Valley, about 5 miles northwest of town and about 20 creek miles upstream of the Rio Grande. Like most folks in the county, Davis wears many hats — veterinarian, farmer, rancher, former small businessman (after 26 years, he sold his store), husband of a pharmacist, father to six kids.
Pinto Valley is a small 4-mile-by-1-mile basin along Pinto Creek that is locally known as the “honey hole,” Davis explains, an exceptionally abundant source of recharged groundwater where most of the county’s irrigated farming occurs, marked by an almost straight line of artesian wells that run down the valley. Land within a mile yields no water at all. “I had a hydrologist out here once who’d studied this area,” he says. “He told me this solved a mystery — now he knew where all the runoff in Edwards and Real counties up on the Edwards Plateau went.”
After the bounty of water below was discovered in 1957, the Pinto Valley was intensively farmed for vegetables over the next 25 years. Buildings that once housed packing sheds and loading docks speak of that brief period when one-third of the nation’s cabbage and a good chunk of America’s onions were raised in Pinto Valley. But by the 1980s, economics prompted farmers to switch to livestock feed crops such as sorghum, oats, millet, Bermuda grass and alfalfa.
Even with more than enough water, farming and ranching are dicey propositions, acknowledges Davis. “There’s five to 10 percent of the livestock that there was in 1978. If we didn’t have hunting in this county, you could turn the lights out.” In fact, the hunting economy in Kinney County generates more dollars today than farming and ranching combined.
He drives his truck over a fresh field of oats, scanning the sheep and cattle grazing on the bright green cover to spot any legs sticking out of the furrows. Some sheep fall asleep while grazing and fall into a furrow and can’t get up, Davis explains. He finds several and puts them upright.
He stops to demonstrate just how much water there is in the honey hole. Using a large wrench to open a valve in a tangle of pipes, he unleashes a torrent of cool, clear water that shoots out of the pipe with enough force to knock a person down. That sort of abundance, along with queries from Eagle Pass, then Laredo, prompted Davis to organize farmers interested in selling water rather than using it to farm. His search eventually led to WaterTexas, an Austin-based company hired to represent the sellers’ interests. Ironically, one of the first things WaterTexas’ Dan Pearson told Davis was that Kinney County needed a groundwater district before exportation could begin.
Selling water is a higher, better use of the resource, Davis says. “If City X comes in and says they’ll pay me more than what I’m making on this, what am I going to do?” Davis asks. “Over in Uvalde, they built a Wal-Mart on prime farmland. This water is no different. It’s taking a different value than if we farm it. This water getting valuable isn’t my idea. It’s something that happened. It still has to be a managed, regulated resource.”
He still believes in the concept of groundwater districts, just as he believes in the Rule of Capture. “The Edwards Aquifer Authority scares me like it did 12 years ago [when the county successfully petitioned to be left out of the EAA’s jurisdiction]. At the same time, it can’t be any worse than what we have now.”
Davis sat on the groundwater district board until he resigned out of frustration and still sits on the board of the Plateau Region J regional water planning group along with Tully Shahan; the group oversees water planning in a zone that runs roughly between Del Rio and Kerrville. He views the Shahans and the Rings as co-conspirators bent on pressuring smaller landowners downstream like himself. “We feel like they’re trying to choke us out financially. They want to make it so we’ll have to go to them for their allotment if we want to sell water. But we’re fortunate. We don’t have to depend on the farm as our sole source of income. They’re not going to get my farm.”
Davis pulls his vehicle over by the banks of Pinto Creek. “I’ve seen it go bone-dry while the artesian wells are flowing,” he says, gazing over the spread of low oaks and mesquite and blindingly green, lush fields of oats and alfalfa that are fed by the artesian wells. He drives back to Brackettville, heads north to the other side of the Shahan and Ring properties all the way to Nueces Canyon, a stunning sliver of lost Hill Country scenery on the west fork of the Nueces River. Davis grew up on this land and has maintained the family homestead here. He gazes proudly over the rugged hills and fertile bottomland and says, “There’s not enough money in this world to dry up springs. You’ve lost touch with reality if money means more to you than something like this.”
Despite the effect of artesian well pumping on Pinto Creek, Zack Davis believes there’s plenty of water to give and relates the story about when Las Moras Springs went dry in 1964 (due to drought and heavy pumping for irrigated farming, according to many accounts), Brown & Root, which had bought Fort Clark after it was decommissioned, sent tanker trucks to fill up on water from an artesian well in the valley and drove the water to Brackettville.
The prospect of the groundwater district being dissolved and water speculators taking over groundwater in the next county prompted Jay J. Johnson, the owner of a bed & breakfast in Del Rio, to organize the West Texas Springs Alliance in March 2005, joining other groups throughout central Texas in the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance who are fighting water marketers. “Kinney County is a test case. If a fast one can be pulled on the naive citizens here, the same fast one can be pulled on any other board in any other county that is rich with water,” says Johnson. “I maintain that the true farmer or rancher should be allotted and receive the water that they need to conduct the agricultural business on their land. On the other hand, I’m totally opposed to anyone who would exploit and siphon from our aquifers so that water can be exported to the metro areas,” he says.
Kinney County Judge Herb Senne points out that the commissioners court, as well as the city councils of Brackettville and Spofford, passed resolutions supporting the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District and opposing its dissolution by the Texas Legislature.
“The voters of their county were given a choice whether to put a district in place. Seventy-eight percent of the people who voted in the elections said yes. That same ballot had the option of how to fund the district and 65 percent of those who voted chose to fund it with an ad valorem tax. If that doesn’t show the district is clearly the choice of the voters in Kinney County, I’ll eat my hat.”
Anecdotal evidence on both sides of the issue fails to address other lingering questions: Exactly what constitutes a private property taking? What constitutes degradation of a natural resource like a spring? Who pays for the degradation? Is there a right of guaranteed stream flow? How connected are the headwaters of Pinto Creek to the artesian wells in Pinto Valley? If the Legislature dissolves the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District, what does that say about groundwater districts being the state’s preferred means of locally controlling groundwater use, and what does it say about preserving the Rule of Capture?
No matter what legislators, lawyers, lobbyists, judges, entrepreneurs or bureaucrats say or do, springs are vital to the environmental and economic health of Kinney County, just as they are everywhere else in Texas.
Though the feuding has spilled over into churches, schools, businesses and all over the county, each and every one of the folks I visited with has more in common with each other than they’d care to admit: They are passionate about protecting their land, guided by a deep and abiding love for its beauty, which in the respective cases of the Shahans, Coates and Davises is directly tied to the water.
Politics aside, Kinney County has some of the best water anywhere in Texas. The riparian corridor along Las Moras Creek below the headwaters was as alive with wildlife as anywhere in the Rio Grande Valley river brush just after sunrise one morning. The sight of artesian water gushing out of well pipes, pure, clean, cool, pushed as high as 20 feet in the air by underground pressure, is downright miraculous.
Some of the hows and whys of that miracle are answered by Gary Garrett at the Heart of the Hills Fisheries Science Center near Ingram. Garrett is a TPWD biologist who has studied the springs and creeks of Kinney County extensively. He wastes no time explaining their delicate condition.
“The headwaters of Pinto Creek are biologically unique. It’s one of only four places on earth where the Devils River minnow exists. It’s a natural lab scientists hardly ever see. Pinto is really two creeks. North of Highway 90, it’s quite a healthy system. That’s where the Devils River minnow thrives. South of the highway, the level of sulphur in the water is higher [writer’s note: and emits quite an odor], salinity goes up, ammonia goes up, turbidity goes up. The Devils River minnow is no longer found. Instead it’s the red shiner, which does well in a polluted environment.
“The value of rare, unique species is that they are biological indicators,” Garrett explains. “If there’s no value other than that, it is extremely important. I don’t mind water leaving the county if it doesn’t affect the flow of the springs and streams. The question is, how much? When they irrigate, some of the springs stop flowing. Those springs need to flow, that creek needs to flow. The death of an aquatic system ultimately affects humans. Keeping them healthy is healthy for all of us.”
A century after the Texas Supreme Court decision upheld the Rule of Capture by declaring groundwater too “mysterious and occult” to regulate, the mystery remains, in Kinney County at least.
[visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine – July Issue]
The Ultimate Big Bend Hike
Texas Parks and Wildlfe magazine
By Joe Nick Patoski
Photography by Laurence Parent
Six days and 70 miles of aching backs, oozing blisters, lost toenails, lightning storms and unimaginable beauty.
There are hikes, and there are blister-popping, back-breaking, toe-throbbing, mind-bending hikes. Hiking across the Big Bend falls into the latter category. That became clear once five other reasonably sane, able and physically fit adults and I set a course across 70 miles of empty desert, rugged mountains and steep canyons, carrying our tents, sleeping bags, food and water on our backs for six days and five nights.
Only a handful of people have attempted to transect the bend where the Rio Grande makes its grand detour through three majestic canyons in extreme Southwest Texas on the way to the Gulf of Mexico. One of those people, Craig Pedersen, told me about his solo trek. When Laurence Parent, the photographer with whom I collaborated on the book Texas Mountains, proposed it, I couldn’t resist. We both thought we knew Big Bend pretty well, having hiked the South Rim and the desert and floated its canyons.
But walk across it?
That was a new one. Maybe that’s because the Chihuahuan desert isn’t the most user-friendly terrain on earth, limiting long hikes to winter months, and only with considerable planning, support and desire.
With a combined million and a half acres of public lands among Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, the Big Bend is the only region of Texas where you can actually contemplate a journey like this. I’d witnessed as Laurence scaled Mount Livermore and scooted around the Chinatis like a mountain goat while carrying 60 pounds of equipment on his back, so I knew he could do it. I figured I could, too. Six years ago I completed an eight-day, three-canyon crossing in Mexico’s Copper Canyon complex, though Tarahumara Indian porters and several burros accompanied us on that hike.
Laurence plotted a 70-mile route from Rio Grande Village, near the terminus of the paved road in the southeastern part of the national park, to Lajitas, the gated resort at the national park’s western boundary. We each rounded up two friends to accompany us, and hired Desert Sports, the Terlingua outfitter, to provide shuttles and water drops.
The night before departing, we met Raymond Skiles, a national park wildlife biologist, who’d hiked from Adams Ranch, east of the national park, to Lajitas solo, only he hiked over the Chisos Mountains instead of skirting the range, as we were planning. He offered advice on where to camp on the Dodson Trail and climb the Mesa de Anguila and plenty of encouragement. At least he didn’t think we were crazy like everyone else seemed to.
On March 2, Laurence, Shelly Seymour and Jeff Whittington, my two friends from Dallas, and I hit the trail under the cottonwoods of Rio Grande Village around 11 a.m., carrying small day packs for 3 miles to the Hot Springs, where our shuttle driver, Rick Willing, met us with our big backpacks. From there we bushwhacked across the desert towards Glenn Springs. Everyone was able; conditions were perfect, though Laurence complained he was coming down with a cold. The sun stayed behind a cover of high clouds most of the day, keeping daytime temperatures in the 70s, and it didn’t rain.
No rain was important. Several long miles were through bentonite, a spongy, absorbent clay formed from volcanic ash that turns to mush when wet. It hadn’t rained in a couple weeks, but I was certain if it had rained one day more recently than it actually had, we would have gotten bogged down in the soil.
We didn’t see another soul after Hot Springs, though we did cross a well-worn path of footprints northbound from San Vicente, Mexico. But there was still plenty to see. The low desert was in early spring bloom, awash with tiny white and pink bicolor mustard, yellow composites among the prickly pear, ocotillo, dagger, pitaya and candelilla, with bursts of Big Bend bluebonnets that perfumed the air.
The foothills of the Chisos and familiar landmarks such as Mule Ears Peak and Elephant Tusk appeared to be another world away.
Geographic weirdness was everywhere. Grasslands alternated with expanses of nothing but rock, sand and gravel. Fist-chunks of burnt wood littered one quarter-mile, as if a pit cooker had just tumped over, only this wood was petrified. Some ridges were so devoid of vegetation and so violently uplifted by geological forces that their tilted layers resembled marble swirls. Wildlife sighting was limited to Jeff spooking a giant jackrabbit, Laurence spotting a coyote, Shelly tracking a hawk and a swarm of bees buzzing past. No black bear or mountain lion. I kept focusing on Rick’s advice: “Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. A gallon a day, minimum.” I kept drinking even when I wasn’t thirsty.
We finally reached Glenn Springs just after sunset, almost making camp in a cemetery until Shelly recognized the crude wooden crosses and cairns – remnants from the early 20th-century village that was raided by bandits in 1916. We ate and talked, Jeff admitting he almost “bonked” that afternoon. “I would’ve thrown up while we were resting on that big rock, but all I had in my stomach was Starbursts.” That prompted me to eat all my freeze-dried dinner to carb up, even if I wasn’t that hungry. Falling asleep was easy.
The second day’s hike was 12 miles with a 2,000-foot gain in elevation. After following the Glenn Springs and Juniper Canyon Trail dirt roads into the grasslands, we met Rick, who delivered water, and Keri Thomas and Elizabeth Comer, two friends of Laurence’s. Keri had climbed Pico de Orizaba, the 18,000-foot volcano in Mexico, with Laurence the previous year. Elizabeth ran marathons. Like Jeff, they were both 34. Unlike Jeff and the rest of us, neither had been to Big Bend.
Progress slowed on the Dodson Trail, part of the Outer Mountain Loop, due to the steep ascent. By late afternoon, we passed behind Elephant Tusk, the landmark peak that appeared so achingly distant the day before.
We stumbled into camp by Fresno Creek in Fresno Canyon, a tiny trickle in a tight crevice in the sparse woodlands beneath the South Rim of the Chisos, less than an hour before sunset. We enjoyed supper within earshot of running water and gazed upon stars like nowhere else. Elizabeth lost one of her big toenails. Laurence complained of blisters. Carrying all that photo gear was having an effect. I developed saddle sores on my hipbones. My clothes were getting funky and my hair matted, but I slept so well that I was busted the next morning, along with Shelly, for snoring.
Day Three began with sunlight playing off the South Rim and the dulcet tones of Elizabeth’s voice, “Yea, it’s fresh underwear day.”
We started late in the morning with a steep, 500-foot ascent to the highest point of our trip, a mile above sea level. Jeff sprinted ahead of the rest of us so he could pause in solitude and get what he calls “epiphanies.” So far, he’d had one and a half, he reported.
At the saddle of the Chisos, we could see where we’d been and where we were going, from the Del Carmens to the Mesa de Anguila. It was difficult comprehending how far we’d already walked. Near its end, we veered off Blue Creek Trail and bushwhacked through high desert. We were an hour late to Ross Maxwell Drive, the paved road where Rick Willing waited with another water, food and underwear swap, and the weather forecast – 20 percent chance of rain today, 50 percent tomorrow, which explained the overcast skies and refreshingly cool breezes.
Fresno Creek had been a camper’s delight. The lunar surface beneath the Chimneys, the landmark cluster of small pointed pinnacles where we made camp on day three, was creepy. No breeze, an impenetrable darkness brought on by thick cloud cover, the way wolf spiders’ eyes glowed when a flashlight shined their way, the story Jeff told during dinner about camel spiders in the Sahara that ate their victims’ flesh and the sounds of little things scurrying around my sleeping bag prompted me to crawl into Shelly’s tent, until I crawled out again minutes later because my nose was so stuffed up from a lingering cold. Somewhere near dawn, I crawled back in after the rain started.
The flesh on two of Laurence’s toes had become infected and oozed pus. My lower back and right hip throbbed. Elizabeth’s toes were getting torn up too. Jeff said he had picked up my lingering head cold. Now it was raining. Did we dare go back? No way. We donned rain ponchos and pressed on. The rain was enough to draw the fresh scent from creosote – the perfume of the Chihuahuan desert – but ceased within the hour.
As we left camp, Laurence pointed out some petroglyphs near the base of the southernmost pinnacle. The first 5 miles below the Chimneys was a pleasant stroll through low desert, including several washes thick with Big Bend bluebonnets. The last 5 miles were mostly along Old Maverick Road, the dirt road shortcut to Santa Elena Canyon from the park’s west entrance.
We made a final water/food/underwear/socks/trash exchange at Shelly’s SUV parked by Terlingua Abaja, and made camp on a grassy bank of Terlingua Creek. Santa Elena Canyon was behind us, less than 2 miles away. Its 1,500-foot vertical west wall was the one we were supposed to climb the next day.
Day Five: The flesh on the bottom of three of Laurence’s toes had been rubbed raw. There was a 30 percent chance of rain. I wondered about Keri and Elizabeth’s resolve, especially after observing Keri shave her legs the night before. We could declare victory, celebrate what we achieved, and ride back to Terlingua in Shelly’s SUV.
“What’s the prognosis?” I asked Laurence, who was staring at his feet.
“Go for it.”
He was hurting, but he was too proud to bag it now.
We skirted the base of the mesa for 3 miles, picking our way through grassy plains and around ridges of bentonite, looking for an old, unused pack route up the canyon wall that Raymond Skiles told us about. Keri was nearing heat exhaustion to the point that Laurence proposed blowing off climbing the mesa and cutting across the flats towards Terlingua until Shelly spotted a cairn that marked the way up.
It took a little under an hour to scale the front wall, with considerable difficulty. On top, we discovered several more walls beyond. It was a terribly long slog. Almost every day of the trip someone would ask late in the afternoon, “How much farther?” The reply was always, “Oh, ’bout a mile, mile and a half.” This time it wasn’t funny.
“Today’s been a bitch, y’all,” Laurence declared as we finally dropped backpacks on a rolling plain near Tinaja Lujan. We’d covered 8 miles in seven and a half hours.
“I was getting demoralized,” Shelly admitted. “I’m freaking exhausted and want to get it over with,” Jeff said. Elizabeth was busy applying moleskin to her feet. Keri was exhausted. I didn’t move for 30 minutes after I dropped my pack, I was so tired.
Thunderstorms lit up the night sky as I fell asleep. When I heard a loud clap, I dragged my sleeping bag into Shelly’s tent. Lightning flashed, thunder cracked and rain came down hard for close to an hour.
At daybreak, the air had a pristine scent. “I’m glad we’re alive,” Laurence muttered as he emerged from his tent. “That lightning was less than a mile away. We’d pitched our tents close enough to each other that if one had been hit, all of us would have fried, with no one left to do CPR.” Elizabeth said she had a dream that we’d taken too much water from the tinaja and were being punished by the storms.
We were exhilarated. The views from the top were stunning. We could see the Sentinel marking the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon, the Rio Grande, the village of San Carlos 12 miles into Mexico, mountains in every direction. The walk down the mesa was positively chatty.
We paused at the last, great sweeping vista before our final 1,000-foot descent to Lajitas. The end of the trail was a golf course. The unnatural green of heavily irrigated grasses prompted grumbles and proposals to turn around. A golf course resort was no place to end a rugged adventure. “I’m feeling post-partum,” Shelly said on our final few hundred yards towards the course maintenance building. I saw a Coke can tossed among the creosote. This time I didn’t bother picking it up.
Jim Carrico, the former superintendent of Big Bend National Park and project manager of planning for Big Bend Ranch State Park, picked us up. In his four and a half years as national park super, he said he knew of only two parties who’d hiked across the Big Bend like we did. As for the golf course, he laughed. “People like you and me just don’t understand golf and jets.”
Somewhere on the drive back to Desert Sports, I saw myself in a mirror for the first time. The greasy hair and stubbly beard were not a pretty sight.
I fetched my car and drove Jeff back to his vehicle at Rio Grande Village, our starting point. The hour drive gave us time to ruminate on what we’d done, punctuated with several “We did that?” epiphanies, along with a full view of Santa Elena and the Mesa de Anguila sloping towards Lajitas. From the road, it looked as flat and smooth as a baby’s bottom. We knew better.
The shower back in Terlingua was delicious. For the rest of the evening, I took great pleasure in answering Terlingua friends and acquaintances when they inevitably asked, “What are you doing out here?”
Laurence’s feet finally healed, though he had a head cold for two more weeks. Jeff said he had flu-like symptoms for three weeks once he got home. Elizabeth, Keri and Shelly had their complaints. My lower back required some manipulation to get right and still acts up now and then. Despite all that, we’ve all said we’d do it again. Walking across the Big Bend will do that, to a few souls at least.
[visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine – August Issue]
- Texas Mountains
University of Texas Press
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. Buy Now from UT PRESS
[visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine – August Issue]
Top 10 Swimming Holes
Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
A springs fanatic picks his 10 favorites (plus a few honorable mentions).
Of all the features that define natural Texas, nothing speaks to the soul quite like springs do. As the source of water in its purest, most pristine form, springs are the basic building block of life. They present themselves in a manner as miraculous as birth itself, gestating in the womblike darkness of an aquifer deep underground until pressure percolates, pushes, and forces the water up through cracks, fissures, and faults in the limestone cap until it bubbles, seeps or sometimes even gushes, to the surface, magically turning everything around it lush and green. Springs feed creeks, streams and rivers, and nourish plant and animal life. Springs are why Texas has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years.
As far as I’m concerned, though, the greatest thing about springs is that they create swimming holes, which are the very best place to be in Texas in the summer. The greatest concentration are clustered in the Hill Country, where human activity around San Marcos Springs, the second largest springs in Texas, has been traced back more than 12,000 years. Like me, the ancients must have figured out that immersing in cool artesian spring water was a pretty smart way to survive a hot day in August.
I endure the heat gladly when I’m close to a spring-fed swimming hole. The endless string of broiling days and sweltering nights that wear down the spirit and sap the want-to and can-do in even the hardiest of souls — that’s my favorite time of the year. Springs are why.
The great spring-fed swimming holes of Texas run the gamut from wild and unsullied to tamed and civilized. All of them promise a shady place to cool off, cool down and cultivate the lazy streak that resides within us all. The swimming hole is my church, a holy place to splash in water clean and clear enough not to have to worry, with at least one big rock to lie out on and jump off of, and ideally a rope swing hanging from a tree limb. Settings like that are compelling evidence there is a higher power.
I have written about swimming holes on numerous occasions for several publications. I live where I live for the swimming hole, which all of my family enjoys in the summer. I plan road trips around swimming holes. I’m always on the prowl to find new ones.
There are literally hundreds of these liquid jewels scattered across Texas, many of them known, some secret, all defying the logic of geography, geology, climate and progress. Without springs, I would not be here. Without springs, I don’t think Texas would be here, either.
Having to select my 10 favorite swimming holes is not unlike having to choose among your children, knowing I’m leaving out sweet spots like Mankin’s Crossing on the San Gabriel, Tonkawa Falls in Crawford, the state parks at Colorado Bend, McKinney Falls, and on the Guadalupe River near Boerne, the entire Medina River, Burger’s Lake in Fort Worth, the Paluxy River in Glen Rose, Possum Kingdom Lake west of Mineral Wells, Tule Canyon Lake near Silverton, Chain-O-Lakes near Cleveland, Hancock Springs in Lampasas, Las Moras Springs at Fort Clark in Brackettville, the Slab in Llano and the 7A Crossing in Wimberley, just to name a few. The following 10 are chosen at my own personal peril and risk, because they’re just my opinion. You likely have your own top 10. Either way, we should all quit arguing and jump in, feet first, eyes closed. Biggest cannonball splash wins.
1. Balmorhea State Park, Toyahvale
Back in the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps lined the banks of San Solomon Springs, the biggest springs in West Texas, with native stone and built a classic bathhouse to provide easier access to 78-degree water that is Caribbean-clear and brimming with pupfish, tetras, catfish and turtles. Those features and its picturesque location in the Chihuahuan Desert with the Davis Mountains on the horizon conspire to create the finest natural swimming experience on earth.
[See also “The Park That Time Forgot,” in the April 2005 issue.] (432) 375-2370 www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/balmorhe/
2. Barton Springs, Austin
As development has sprawled beyond the pool and the creek upstream all the way to its headwaters some 30 miles away in Hays County, Barton Springs is more remarkable than ever. There are times when the water is so clear it’s as if nothing has changed in the last 100 years. I derive a great deal of pleasure watching friends get hooked the same way I did at Barton’s more than 30 years ago. Two recent converts I know begin their day at 5 a.m. in the springs, with downtown skyscrapers and the moon providing all the illumination they need to navigate the dark waters. That’s a little too extreme for me, but they know like I know there is no better urban swimming hole on Earth. Period.
(512) 476-9044 www.ci.austin.tx.us/parks/bartonsprings.htm
3. Landa Park, New Braunfels
The 1.5 million-gallon, spring-fed pool at the Landa Park Aquatic Complex on the Comal River in New Braunfels is a compact version of Barton Springs without the crowds, fed by the biggest springs in Texas. A few hundred yards downstream on the Comal River is the Prince Solms Tube Chute, a cheap thrill ride that inspired the nearby Schlitterbahn, consistently rated as the best waterpark in America. Thanks to the constant 73-degree water temperature, snorkelers and divers can do the entire mile-long stretch of the river year-round.
(830) 608-2160; www.ci.new-braunfels.tx.us/parks/Landa%20Park.htm
4. Krause Springs, Spicewood
This sublimely picturesque natural swimming environment consists of several pools on Little Cypress Creek, fed by a small waterfall tumbling from springs on the exquisitely manicured bluff above. Krause Springs is privately owned, but overnight camping is permitted. (830) 693-4181.
5. Sewell Park, City Park, Rio Vista Park,
San Marcos River, San Marcos
The San Marcos River begins at the bottom of Spring Lake, an impoundment where the second biggest complex of springs in Texas pumps out thousands of gallons of pure water, spilling over two small dams before winding swift, crystal-clear and cool (70 degrees year-round) on a short, two-mile run as a semi-tropical waterway ideal for tubing, snorkeling or wading. The flow in some spots is so strong, you can point upstream and swim in place, getting a good workout among the turtles and fishes in the wild rice without going anywhere. There’s even a small dam to slide down to keep things interesting.
Sewell Park (on Texas State University Campus): (512) 245-2004.
City Park, Rio Vista Park: (512) 393-8400. www.ci.san-marcos.tx.us/departments/parks/ParksFacilities.html
6. Schumacher’s Crossing, Guadalupe River, Hunt
This storied hole on Highway 39 was popular long before Hunt became a favorite Hill Country destination for wealthy families from Houston and San Antonio in the early 20th century.
Contact West Kerr County Chamber of Commerce (830) 367-4322 www.wkcc.com
7. Neal’s Lodges, Concan/Garner State Park,
Rio Frio, Leakey
The whole stretch of the Rio Frio between Leakey and Concan is made for tubing and splashing. But these two historic spots dating back to the 1920s on the banks of turquoise-tinted Frio, one of the most gin-clear bodies of water in the Southwest, are a cut above the rest when it comes to swimming and floating among the cypresses. (830) 232-6118
8. Hamilton Pool, Hamilton Pool Nature Preserve,
Thirty miles southwest of downtown Austin, Hamilton Creek transforms into a 50-foot waterfall that tumbles into a steep canyon shaded by a near-perfect cave overhang with a nice sandy beach at the opposite end of the natural pool. Access to this idyllic grotto is limited.
(512) 264-2740 www.co.travis.tx.us/tnr/parks/hamilton_pool.asp
Blanco River State Park, Blanco (tie)
A sentimental pick, mainly for the sweet pleasure of pulling off the highway just after sunset at the end of Labor Day weekend last year for a swim in the gathering darkness, the park’s hole is created by a low dam spanning the river with a small pool area below the dam for that cement-pond swimming experience. (830) 833-4333; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/blanco/
9. Devil’s Water Hole,
Inks Lake State Park, Burnet (tie)
The red granite cliff, a Highland Lakes landmark, is rife with small falls fed by Spring Creek following heavy rains and offers a 25-foot promontory from which to jump (feet first, of course) into this dammed portion of the Colorado River.
(512) 793-2223; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/blanco/
10. San Felipe Springs, Del Rio
This swimming hole on San Felipe Creek in the small city-owned Horseshoe Park is a welcome oasis on the edge of the desert, even though busy Highway 90 crosses nearby. Flanked by improved banks of native stone, shaded by stately pecan, elm, maple and mulberry trees, lined with a hard limestone bottom, and fed by the fourth largest springs in Texas, the pool is shallow enough near the banks for kids to stand in and long enough to swim short laps.
Horseshoe Park: (830) 774-8454.
Blue Hole, Wimberley
This storied hole should bust back into the Top Ten next year when it reopens as a city park. The hole is in the process of being purchased by the Village of Wimberley, aided in no small part by a $1.9 million grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department after being saved from development by local resident Peter Way.
See Also: Water Wars How growing demand, fuzzy legal rulings and plain old stubbornness have turned Kinney County into a hotbed of water politics. [Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, July 2005]
[visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine – July Issue]
The Park That Time Forgot
Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Boasting the world’s largest spring-fed pool and a retro-cool motel, Balmorhea State Park is the great oasis of the Chihuahuan Desert.
To most people looking on a map, Balmorhea is just a state park. But intrepid travelers who willingly make pilgrimages across several hundred miles of lonesome highway to this 49-acre spread in Far West Texas know Balmorhea is much more than that.
To them to us, I should say, since I’m one of the longtime true believers Balmorhea is the great oasis of the Chihuahuan Desert, the most scenic gateway into the Big Bend, and a delightful, low-key, and relatively undiscovered retreat off the beaten path in the middle of nowhere, yet still within eyeshot of Interstate 10.
In my particular case, Balmorhea is underwater nirvana, the finest natural swimming experience on earth. The World’s Largest Spring-fed Swimming Pool, as the park’s 3.5-million-gallon centerpiece is billed, is so big a 200-foot circle around the springs and a large rectangular tangent it takes a good 15 minutes of a steady crawl stroke to circumnavigate its perimeter.
The cottonwood-shaded grounds, crisscrossed with footbridges over the small canals, and the distinctive Spanish colonial white adobe, red-tile-roof bathhouse, lovingly constructed in the 1930s by Company 1856 of the storied Civilian Conservation Corps, are soothing to the eye. So is the backdrop of the Davis Mountains rising majestically from the Madera Valley, the land mass dwarfed by the spacious wide-open western sky that sprawls overhead.
That setting is merely a prelude to the scenery underwater. Pure, pristine, ancient artesian water flows from at least nine springs 25 feet below the surface in the middle of the pool at a rate of more than 20 million gallons a day. The water is a constant 76 degrees year round, refreshingly cool in the summer heat and surprisingly warm in the middle of winter, and so clear, the terms "gin-clear" and "crystal-clear" don’t do it justice. Visibility is 80 feet, farther than one can see underwater in most of the Caribbean Sea.
The clear water and intense, sharp sunlight conspire to zap the waterscape with rays of Technicolor, fairyland light that illuminate thousands of minnow-sized Pecos gambusia and Comanche Springs pupfish both listed as endangered species and tetra, dozens of black catfish hovering near the bottom, and several families of Texas spiny soft-shell and red-eared slider turtles working every corner of the pool. In the winter, coots and bufflehead ducks live on the surface.
Over the past three decades, I’ve managed to go swimming at Balmorhea every month of the calendar year. Many times I’ve had the pool all to myself, like I did two days after Labor Day last year. The solitude, I must admit, was quite a delicious feeling. I felt very privileged to be there at that moment.
Timing is everything. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the pool can be packed on weekend days with as many as 1,500 day trippers from nearby towns such as Fort Davis, Alpine, Marfa, Pecos, Presidio, and as far away as Midland, El Paso and Juarez. Most weekends during the rest of the year, the circular middle of the pool above the springs, and the 18-room white adobe San Solomon Courts cottages and adjacent campgrounds fill up with scuba divers from all across Texas and as far away as New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. The pool is large enough to qualify as open water for scuba certification.
Weekdays, more often than not, it’s all yours.
Regardless of when I come, I’m struck by the wonder that a pool of this magnificence and aquatic abundance can exist in a dry, harsh terrain that annually averages 8-14 inches of rainfall. Dora Ceballos, a 20-something woman from El Paso whom I met on my last visit, affirmed the special nature of the place. "We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses," she explained while watching several friends splash in the shallow area by the main steps. "How can you not believe in the miracles of the Creator, seeing this? I had no idea this was here. Next time, we’re bringing the kids."
She’s right. Water like this belongs in the Texas Hill Country, where most of the other great swimming springs in Texas are located. And sunsets like this are straight out of the American West, Mesilla Valley at the very least, especially when you’re finishing a plate of New Mexico-style stacked green chile enchiladas on the patio of the Cueva de Oso restaurant back in town.
Town, 4 miles from the park entrance on State Highway 17, is the real Balmorhea, population 500, so named for Balcomb, Moore, and Rhea, the three Scottish developers who began irrigated farming operations in the valley in the late 19th century.
The water has been around since before man arrived. Humans have been utilizing it for thousands of years. Indians were farming near the springs when the first Spanish explorers crossed this territory in the 16th century. Today San Solomon Springs sustains 12,000 acres of cultivated cotton, sudan grass and alfalfa.
San Solomon Springs is a cienega, the Spanish word for desert marsh, a very unique and rare environment. Much of the cienega was destroyed when the pool was constructed. The pool and the park were initially under the stewardship of the Reeves County Water District No. 1 and were annexed into the Texas Parks and Wildlife system in 1960. In 1996 the unintended marshland damage was mitigated when TPWD established a three-acre cienega below the motel and adjacent to the campgrounds. Planted cottonwood, cattails and bulrushes have flourished. The pied-billed grebe (not seen since 1937) and the green heron have returned.
The above details came from Tom Johnson, the park manager of Balmorhea. Like the Jehovah’s Witness, he too confirmed Balmorhea is hardly the typical Texas state park.
"People that come out here all the time don’t want anybody else out here. They want it as their own private oasis," he says.
But the numbers don’t lie. The annual visitation count is up to more than 200,000 and rising, ranking Balmorhea one of the top ten most-visited state parks. "For a little park out in the middle of nowhere, those numbers are way up there. We have a busy season, and a busier season."
Dove hunters book up motel rooms in early September. Birders from the eastern United States flock to the park to witness western flyway migrations in the spring and fall.
Cyclists regularly stop to ride the local roads. West Texas and New Mexico motorcycle groups hold rallies in town. Rock hunters drop by while seeking out Balmorhea blue agate. Word of mouth has prompted an increasing number of long distance travelers on Interstate 10 to pull off and spend a night in the comfort and quiet of motel rooms with 18-inch adobe walls before resuming their cross-country trek. Then there’s the growing number of urban refugees "trying to get out of the city and wanting to find an unspoiled place," Johnson says. "They’re coming here. They don’t like the TVs in the room, they don’t want phones, and they don’t want us to make it too nice. They’re happy that the nearest Wal-Mart is 53 miles away."
And why not? With simple retro-cool CCC motel kitchenettes for $60 a night, a dive shop next door that sells air and rents masks and snorkels, nearby restaurants, a cafe/soda fountain, an RV park, and the new Laird Ranch bed & breakfast with private dining facilities, Balmorhea Lake three and a half miles downstream from San Solomon Springs, and endless vistas of wide open spaces no matter where you look, why bother going anywhere?
Johnson fetched a trove of old postcards and photographs of the springs and the park out of his desk to show me the cult of Balmorhea is no new thing. Two photos are of Tom Johnson’s father on a high diving board in the 1940s. His father and mother, residents of Van Horn, 67 miles west, were pool regulars when they were growing up. Many cards identify the pool as the "world’s largest." Comments written on the back politely acknowledge the dusty surroundings and occasionally violent weather: "…the country here is so much different from our part of the state."
"We came here but a tornado broke loose over us. What a night!"
On Johnson’s wall are a couple of publicity photographs. One is the Paladins, a modern greased-up rockabilly band from Los Angeles who stop in whenever they’re going to or from Austin, The handwritten message accompanying the band’s autograph declares: "This is the greatest place in the world."
Another publicity photo on Johnson’s wall is signed by Divin’ Sam Hernandez, the first and only American to win the Acapulco Cliff Diving Championships. "He’s a truck driver now," Johnson said. "His route is from Los Angeles to Dallas, and he says this is the only place between those two cities worth stopping for a swim."
The longer one pauses, the greater the appreciation for the simpler pleasures of Balmorhea. The playground next to the pool has all the swings and slides a kid could ever need. Picnic shelters with small cooking pits may be no big deal in Dallas or San Antonio, but on this part of the desert, the tables and benches, the shade awning, and the grass around them are luxuries. The small network of canals emanating from the springs into the restored cienega provides a subtle, sweetly melodic soundtrack while observing the abundant aquatic life thriving in the see-through water. It’s an elementary, sometimes deeply spiritual exercise comparable to contemplating a tidal pool. (Shorter attention spans will benefit from the window wall viewing area of the San Solomon cienega as well as the adjacent observation deck.) The mere act of sitting on the porch outside a motel room takes on its own appeal. Hang around long enough and you’ll finally make sense out of the older couple who spent at least half of one day reclining in their folding beach chairs by the pool without ever moving.
One February day a couple of years ago, I emerged from the water to encounter a weathered old man gazing onto the scene. He was from California, he told me, and he hadn’t been to Balmorhea since the days shortly after it was constructed. Back then, he said, there were dances staged on the pavilion and a Mexican cafe that operated on the premises. He was passing through and just wanted to see if the old place was still there. He seemed reassured it was. His experience synched with the first impressions two clean-cut gentlemen wearing leather chaps had when they stumbled onto the park last September while riding their motorcycles from Big Bend National Park back home to Kansas. "This is the park that time forgot," one whispered to the other as the ranger checked them into their room for the night.
All kinds of people from all over are Balmorhea fans, I’ve come to find out. From unsuspecting bikers from Kansas to the husband and wife walking in tandem in matching shirts, shorts and knee socks to the peregrine falcon biologist in search of relief from the heat to the displaced bathing beauties in bikinis making like lizards and lying on the concrete wall by the pool to work on their tans.
It’s convinced me that no matter where I go or where I may end up on this earth, sooner or later I, too, will come back to Balmorhea, just to see if it’s still there, just to get that feeling again of being in a park that time forgot in a place that feels like it should be somewhere else. It will be worth the trip, I’m sure.
See also: blog Kinney Water Wars
[visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine – April Issue]
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.”
[Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine]