A Texas Sized Pickle

The curious case of the Christmas Mountains.

More than 95 percent of Texas is private property. The federal government owns less than 2 percent of the state's total land mass, a vestige of the Texas Republic's 1836-46 stint as an independent nation.

Therefore, federal and state agencies usually leap at the opportunity to acquire Lone Star State land if it provides public access for recreational pursuits such as hunting.

But not in the curious case of the Christmas Mountains, 9,270 acres of wilderness adjacent to 800,000-acre Big Bend National Park in West Texas's Brewster County.

The land was donated to Texas in 1991 by Virginia-based Conservation Fund and the Pennsylvania-based Richard King Mellon Foundation on the condition that it remain undeveloped. The idea was for the Texas General Land Office to give it to either the National Park Service or Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

However, neither agency wanted the land because it would cost an estimated $1 million to rid it of invasive plants, restore washed-out fluorspar mine roads, and buy access through private property that rings all but one of its 18 miles of perimeter. It would then take $100,000 a year to manage it.

Besides, the Texas General Land Office cannot just give land away. It must hold it or sell it for market value to raise income for the Texas Permanent School Fund. It can accept land for scientific, conservation, or educational value, but it must fit the plan for benefiting the school fund. Since the Christmas Mountains provide no income, the agency's only recourse was to sell it.

In 2007, it put the land up for private bid. The highest offer was $652,000 -- $70 an acre -- from prospective investors who envisioned using it for leased hunting. Officially, the sale was canceled because property maps were inaccurate, but the real reason was the controversy kicked up by environmentalists, the Conservation Fund, and Mellon Foundation, who claimed deed restrictions prevent commercial, industrial, or agricultural activities in the Christmas Mountains.

Opponents feared the public could be shut out of the land or it could be developed. Luke Metzger, director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, said it was "grossly irresponsible" to take the property out of public hands and insist that only a few wealthy individuals have access to it. "It'll be owned by one rich guy who lets wealthy elites go hunting on it," he said.

The stalement languished for three years. But now, another potential private investor has reignited the controversy by expressing an interest in acquiring the land, prompting the National Park Service to step forward with a promise to also bid and incorporate the Christmas Mountains into Big Bend National Park.

State Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, an ardent Second Amendment advocate who packs a .22 Magnum in his boot, recently reiterated his long-standing vow not to sell to a buyer that prohibits hunting or gun possession on the land. While firearms are permitted now in Big Bend, it is illegal to discharge them and hunting is forbidden there as it is in nearly all national parks.

"No guns, no hunting, no deal," Patterson said in a February e-mail to Metzger.

Patterson said archery or limited rifle hunting could be possible compromises if the NPS was to purchase the land. Big Bend Superintendent William Wellman said the NPS studied designating the mountains as a preserve to allow hunting, but the relatively small numbers of game -- which include mountain goats, bear, whitetail deer, javelina -- would yield only a few permits a year and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to regulate, so the prospect is unlikely.

Meanwhile, the private bidder is offering a more expansive vision for the land. Businessman John Poindexter, who owns the Cibolo Creek Ranch -- a 90-minute drive from the land -- submitted the second-highest bid three years ago. He said he is still interested, though he estimates it would cost nearly $1 millon to rid the area of invasive plant species, fence it and restore enough of the old roads to make it accessible.

Poindexter, who calls himself an "ardent conservationist," said he would repopulate the Christmas Mountains with elk and buffalo and, eventually, open it up for lease hunting.

The quagmire presents a quandary for Second Amendment advocates, conservationists, and public-land hunters. Here, increased public access through the NPS would deny hunting an area with relatively marginal game populations, while private investment could dramatically enhance wildlife habitat and improve hunting -- which the feds don't want to do -- but limit access to paying customers only.

For more, go to:
- Texas land boss says he might sell the Christmas Mountains;
- Save the Christmas Mountains;
- State keeping Christmas Mountains -- for now;
- Christmas Mountains sale as rocky as terrain;
- Hiking Big Bend;
- Christmas Mountains;
- Big Bend National Park;
- National Park Service firearms regulations;
- Big Bend chat;
- Federally owned land in Texas;