Conservation Fund may consider donating Christmas Mountains, again
By MEGAN WILDE / The Big Bend Sentinel (1/17/08)
BREWSTER COUNTY – The foundation that donated the Christmas Mountains Ranch to the General Land Office in 1991 may get involved in transferring the property to the National Park Service, according to spokespersons.
In November, the School Land Board agreed to give the park service 90 days to come up with a proposal for acquiring the 9,269-acre tract next to Big Bend National Park. That period ends February 4, and the Virginia-based Conservation Fund, which originally donated the Christmas Mountains Ranch to the state through a Richard King Mellon Foundation grant, is waiting to see if the School Land Board will agree to transfer the property to the park.
“The fund is certainly willing to facilitate at any point in the deal to make sure the transaction takes place,” said Andy Jones, director of the Conservation Fund’s Texas office in Austin. “Obviously we’d love to see it go to the parks service or the public’s hands, as originally intended. I suspect once we see all the pieces of the puzzle in place then we’ll know how to react.”
The San Antonio Express-News reported last week that the fund was considering re-purchasing the property and donating it to the park. State Senator John Whitmire of Houston said he has been talking with the Conservation Fund and land office about that possibility.
Park spokesperson David Elkowitz, when asked about the possible donation, was cautious. “First it has to be decided if the state is going to be willing to give it to the parks service,” he said.
Whitmire said while it doesn’t make sense for the fund to pay for the land again, if that’s what it takes to keep the land in the public domain, he supports it.
“It’s nuts that they donated and now they got to purchase it again,” he said. “They seem at least willing to do it.”
Jones agreed it would be a little awkward, but said the General Land Office has a fiduciary responsibility with the state’s public school endowment, which the sale of the Christmas Mountains would fund.
“It was an unfortunate oversight at the time the deal was done,” Jones said. “The property was housed generously by [former Land Commissioner] Gary Mauro. At the time nobody realized we’d come to this.”
Land office spokesman Jim Suydam said Wednesday that Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson will not be making statements about the Christmas Mountains until early February, when the park’s proposal is due. At a meeting Tuesday, the School Land Board was slated to consult their attorneys about the property during closed session.
“There are so many moving parts with what’s going on,” Suydam said. “Until we have something to talk about, we’re not going to be talking as much.”
Patterson visited the park last week to meet with Superintendent Bill Wellman about the proposal, and Suydam said the commissioner would probably make another trip there soon.
The park spokesperson said last week’s meeting was mostly informational.
“We mostly just talked about the property,” Elkowitz said. “It was mostly just a chance to talk face to face.”
Whitmire decided to get involved in the Christmas Mountains issue about a month ago, following an effort to preserve a piece of park land in his Houston district.
“It was hard for me to believe we were going to sell donated land,” the senator said of the Christmas Mountains. “If you take donated land and sell it, you’re probably not going to get any more donated land. It could be very damaging to our relationship with foundations.”
He traveled to Big Bend National Park after Christmas to meet with Wellman and was pleased by plans for a trail connecting the park with the Christmas Mountains.
The senator added that legislation is being considered in Congress that would allow hunting in national parks. Patterson has previously objected to transferring the Christmas Mountains to the park, because firearms are prohibited in national parks.