Patterson backs off on park deal
While the remaining presidential candidates were flying around the country at a breakneck pace, trying to shore up or add to their support in two dozen states on Super Tuesday, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson was backing off a limb. Sort of.
He now says he'll try to work out a deal to have the Christmas Mountains sold by the School Land Board to the National Park Service or other public entity, rather than to a private bidder.
It was a fairly adroit job. He had earlier sought to have the School Land Board, of which is he is one of three members, sell the Christmas Mountains, adjacent to Big Bend National Park, to one of two private bidders.
The resulting furor was enough that the other two members of the board -- David S. Herrmann of San Antonio and Todd F. Barth of Houston - had apparently told Patterson that they agreed with newspaper editorials and a considerable number of Texans: Texas would be going back on its word on a deal the Land Office had struck with the Conservation Fund when it accepted the land as a gift in 1991 -- that if it changed hands, it could only be conveyed to the state or national park system without the permission of the Conservation Fund.
That gave the National Park Service, which, along with the Texas park system, had earlier turned down the 9,269-acre plot, a chance to change its mind. And officials there did, developing a plan for the mountains to be added to the Big Bend Park.
Tuesday's meeting of the Land Board was to vote unanimously to turn down the two existing private offers to buy the mountains. But since the park service's management plan had come in too late to be posted for a hearing, Patterson said the board was forbidden by the Texas Open Meetings Act to discuss it.
Patterson said it could be discussed at a future meeting, but said it might be a year or more before any decision is reached.
"We needed to resolve the issue of the two bidders that had money on the table," Patterson said. "With the question of private ownership resolved for now, we can now more fully explore the option of public ownership."
However, Patterson seems to be hanging onto his "Guns and Roses" theme. He had insisted at the earlier meeting that he would not allow the property to go to any entity unless public hunting were to be allowed. The National Park Service forbids hunting.
The state tract shares just one mile of its 19-mile perimeter with the Big Bend Park.
Patterson said he's instructed his staff to draw up a permanent public easement for that mile, and any future means of entrance that might come about.
Patterson said he's made three trips to the mountains since November, including a twoand a-half day trip during which he entered the park on all-terrain vehicles through private land, and also made the four-hour-plus trek through the park to get to the state tract. The hike is pretty, Patterson said, but once the state tract is reached, an almost vertical incline makes it very difficult to continue
There are other ways to get into the mountain range, such as from Terlingua Ranch, but only with the permission of the private owners of the other 18 miles of border, Patterson said.
While saying he now is seeking to sell the land to a public entity like the National Park Service, Patterson said he's working with members of Congress to get a federal designation and appropriation for the Christmas Mountains, to provide for long-term maintenance of the area while allowing public hunting governed by state gun laws.
Patterson said while the park service generally does not allow hunting, several other federal agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service, do permit hunting.
"Federal ownership and hunting in the Christmas Mountains are not mutually exclusive," Patterson said. "It is possible to do both. We will explore all options at the federal level."
And in the meantime, the sale that a few months ago Patterson seemed to indicate was urgent goes into a limbo while those seeking to keep the land in public hands thread through Patterson's partly successful effort to save face.
"He just continues to be stubborn and put up new barriers," said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. Keeping the land in public hands is good, he said, but leaving it with the Land Office passes up services like archeological assessment and others that the National Park Service can provide.
"We have a great proposal on the table," Metzger sighed.
Contact McNeely at dmcneely@austin. rr.com or (512) 458-2963.