The Christmas Mountains
Patterson speaks up
Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson isn't trying to be grinchy about the Christmas Mountains. The proposal by the General Land Office to sell off 9,269 acres of West Texas has resulted in a lot of mudslinging at the commissioner. Original donor the Conservation Fund has threatened to never give land to Texas again. Time magazine even accused Patterson of selling off a chunk of Big Bend National Park. "I didn't know I had the authority to do that," he replied.
The School Land Board postponed the sale until early February, to allow the National Park Service to bid to add it to Big Bend National Park. Patterson said this gave people time to dispel some myths about the land and the original donation. "The objective in 1991 was not to turn this into a park, but just, if we don't do something, it's going to be subdivided," he said. While accepting that his opponents had valid opposing viewpoints, he said, part of the criticism comes because he is doing his job. "I'm the Realtor for the state of Texas," he said. While he can take on land of scientific, conservation, or educational value, it has to fit in with plans for keeping the Texas Permanent School Fund buoyant. "My original plan was to sell it and give the proceeds to the Conservation Fund, but I discovered I can't do that," Patterson said.
On Dec. 6, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, appeared to give Patterson an out by suggesting he leave the matter to the next Legislature to solve, including extending public access. "There's really good news there," Patterson said. "At least he recognizes there's no access."
Out of the 19-mile perimeter, only one mile adjoins Big Bend; the rest is surrounded by private land. This, Patterson argued, would make access difficult enough, but the topography of the area makes it near impossible. There is no road access from Big Bend, and if there were, visitors would almost immediately be faced by the sheer cliff of Christmas Mountain itself. While the ridge provides views of the park, from that side it is reachable only by experienced climbers. Patterson said locals were concerned that potential visitors would trespass along the privately owned road across Terlingua Ranch Estates to the east.
So far, two private bids have been received, both of which propose restoring the land for wildlife, while eventually allowing limited hunting. Both have agreed to build connecting trails for permanent public access from the park. Patterson said he feels this approach, rather than overstretching the parks budget more, is the best for the public and the land. "I got this letter from this guy in New York saying, 'Aren't you concerned about your legacy?'" Patterson said. "I'd be suspect of any politician that runs around talking about his legacy."