Christmas Comes Early for Texas State
General Land Office gives the gift that keeps on giving
Environmentalists and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson smiling together? It must be Christmas. Or, at least, it must be the Christmas Mountains. After four years of fighting, the rugged mountain range near Big Bend National Park is being transferred from the General Land Office to the Texas State University System to become an outdoor classroom and research area.
As part of the deal announced on Sept. 15, Patterson said there will be "limited" hunting opportunities on the land, but the main purposes will be academic. TSU Chancellor Brian McCall said, "We're interested and committed and determined to preserve and conserve but also to use this property for research." While the closest beneficiaries will be the students at Sul Ross State University in nearby Alpine, McCall said it would be open to "any Texas universities [for] archaeology, geology, mapping, wildlife studies. It's even a good place to sit on a stump and write a poem."
Environmental groups had pushed for the land to be transferred to the National Park Service – a move that Patterson opposed because of the federal agency's strict gun control rules. However, the Conservation Fund, Environment Texas, and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club have all applauded this new proposal. In addition to the academic opportunities, Environment Texas Research & Policy Center Director Luke Metzger said, "It keeps in line with our goals of keeping the Christmas Mountains in public hands."
The mountain range had sat quietly on the GLO's inventory since 1991, when it was donated to the state by the Conservation Fund. However, Patterson sparked a firestorm in 2007 when he tried to sell the 9,269-acre tract to private landowners (see "Keeping Our Land Public," Sept. 28, 2007). It is hardly desirable commercial property: The arid land, which is home to lizards, mule deer, javelinas, and small birds, is protected by a series of conservation easements and surrounded by private land. The only public access is through a one-mile stretch adjoining Big Bend park – an entranceway that only opened in 2008 when Patterson signed a permanent easement between the mountains and the park (see "Christmastime for Big Bend," April 18, 2008). But the tough and inaccessible environment, which makes it so unappealing for development, is exactly what TSU wants. Patterson said that his staff first proposed the transfer four months ago, and McCall noted that the land was "a natural fit for our university and Big Bend." With the exchange coming during TSU's centennial year, he added, "We appreciate the birthday present and the Christmas present."