Christmas Closer for Big Bend?

General Land Office rejects private bids for Christmas Mountains.

On Tuesday, the General Land Office moved nearer to letting the Christmas Mountains Ranch in West Texas become part of Big Bend National Park by rejecting private bids for the land. The decision leaves only one offer on the table, a land-management proposal from the National Park Service. But the next step remains unclear, with Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson proposing independent action to open the ranch up to hikers and hunters.

The three-person School Land Board voted unanimously Tuesday to allow two private bids worth roughly $700,000 each, from Southwestern Holdings and Mike Craddock, to expire. Both bidders included land-management plans that would allow limited public access and, eventually, hunting. The NPS proposal would add the 9,269-acre stretch of arid backcountry to neighboring Big Bend: It would be open during the day and for permitted overnight hiking but with no hunting due to low game populations and safety concerns. Big Bend National Park spokesman David Elkowitz said the land could be integrated seamlessly into the park's management plans. "Although it's a big tract, it would be a small proportion of the park," he said.

But the NPS would still have to pay for the land. Donated in 1991 by the Conservation Fund with the intention it become parkland, the tract was placed in the Permanent School Fund land portfolio. The board, which manages the portfolio, is bound by a prudent investor standard and cannot give land away. If the board accepts the NPS' offer, the NPS would either have to buy the land directly or find a third party to buy and donate it.

While board members Todd Barth and David Herrmann both favor transferring the land to the NPS, the board could not legally discuss the proposal at this meeting, as it was not on the posted agenda. "Here's the Open Meetings Act working to the detriment of the public," Patterson said.

After the meeting, Patterson held his own press conference as land commissioner. He has instructed his staff to draw up a permanent, binding public-access easement between Big Bend and the ranch and will ask the Texas congressional delegation to find funding for its purchase by a federal agency. However, Patterson, who opposes the NPS policy against hunting on its land, said he may allow quail and dove hunting this season and would prefer the land go to a federal body that allows hunting.

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