Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"You don't have to be a muckraker to smell the stench of Texas-style cronyism in Patterson's bald land auction. It's called a GLO cash grab."

State's fire sale threatens Christmas Mountains gift

Sept. 17, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Anybody who thinks being an American historian is dull and musty work has never written about Theodore Roosevelt and U.S. conservation. Instead of sitting quietly in a stuffy library, much of my recent research on our 26th president has been done visiting all 58 of America's national parks. Ranking the magnificence of these "national heirlooms," as Roosevelt called them, is certainly a fool's errand. But I can say, with complete confidence, that Texas' own Big Bend National Park is a very top-tier site along with Yellowstone and Yosemite.

Equally as spectacular, located just northwest of Big Bend's border, are the ethereal Christmas Mountains, a scrubby wildlife paradise replete with herds of deer grazing in the high chaparral. The incalculable groves of mesquite and cacti which grow unfettered in this rugged terrain, in fact, constitute some of the most timeless acreage in the Southwest. Over the years I've asked Big Bend rangers about the future of the Christmas Mountains. They've repeatedly assured me that it would someday become a national monument or state park or an adjunct northern unit to the national park. The land was too extraordinary not to be. Texas, I was told, had been gifted nearly 10,000 acres of the Christmas Mountains by the Mellon Foundation in 1991, one of the top philanthropic outfits in America. What a wonderful story, I remember thinking. East Coast philanthropy aimed at saving the last vestiges of Wild Texas.

So you can imagine my deep chagrin when I learned last week that Commissioner Jerry Patterson of Texas' General Land Office is hellbent on selling this stunning natural heirloom to the highest bidder in an eBay-like fashion. Actually, it's more elitist than that. Patterson has decided to screen various deep-pocketed bidders to determine which multimillionaire best meets the "fiduciary and conservation goals" of the School Land Board, which oversees the Christmas Mountains under his aegis. You don't have to be a muckraker to smell the stench of Texas-style cronyism in Patterson's bald land auction. It's called a GLO cash grab. Nowhere else in America would a state commissioner have the hubristic gall to even try such a garage-sale stunt with public lands donated by a powerful foundation whose mission is land preservation.

Selling our Christmas Mountains (and reneging on Texas' promise to the Mellon Foundation) is scandalous, something akin to chiseling the Alamo or the San Jacinto Monument for profit. Essentially, Patterson has told Texas hunters and bird-watchers and heritage lovers to buzz off. If he goes through with the brazen act, using legal loopholes as his fig leaf, he will forever be remembered in the annals of land management as an untrustworthy double dealer. It is hard to believe that the great Col. James Earl Rudder, leader of the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion on D-Day, an all-seasons hero who understood the value of a handshake deal, has a successor at GLO who would try such a cheapjack ploy.

Here are the facts. The Mellon Foundation (through the Conservation Fund of Arlington, Va.) had given the Christmas Mountains, named to celebrate both Jesus' life and our annual December holiday of his birth, to Texas as a flat-out gift back in 1991. It was pure Mellon Foundation as Santa Claus, an incredibly noble gesture. Because only about 5 percent of Texas land is publicly owned, nearly the least in the entire United States, a fact which has long frustrated state hunters and bird-watchers, the Mellon Foundation, one of the largest funders of open space preservation, had only one string attached to their beneficence: that the state take care of the land wisely. Under Patterson's tenure Texas has not done that.

Today in Austin, as the hour-glass sands have started running out on George W. Bush's White House years, Patterson, who took over the GLO in 2002, has decided to quickly sell the Christmas Mountains because the state, he says, needs cold cash. In other words, Patterson is poor-mouthing Texas all over America, portraying us as down-on-our-luck rubes, unable to run public parks or ward off poachers from state lands. Essentially, he blames his 1991 predecessor, Garry Mauro, for accepting the Mellon gift in the first place. In a Louis L'Amour novel such blatant passing-of-the-buck usually got a man hung up on the wrong side of a noose.

The Mellon Foundation has screamed foul at Patterson and has demanded the land be either maintained by the state (as promised) or returned. One-hundred percent opposed to the Patterson sale, the foundation is determined not to be swindled. Pathetically, Patterson's bad faith response to the Mellon Foundation has been akin to "sorry boys," next time "read the fine print." Stubbornly, he clings to his absurd rationale that he must sell the Christmas Mountains to protect the land against poachers. Talk about capitulating to the bad guys. That's like Houston Police Chief Harold L. Hurtt saying we're selling off the Galleria because the handbag muggers are relentless.

The No. 1 enemy of true hunters, of which I am one, is poachers. We want them all arrested, fined and, in repeat cases, put in jail. Texas is supposed to be a law-and-order state. Unfortunately, Patterson has buckled under to the poachers' wanton disregard for the law. Instead of stopping them like you'd think an ex-Marine would do, he's simply throwing his hands up in frustration and selling off the pristine land as if he's cable-host of QVC. His other chronic whine is that invasive plant species are taking over the Christmas Mountains and a multimillionaire can find better ways to get rid of the unwelcomed vegetation. All U.S. national and state parks are grappling with this same invasive species problem. All are solving the dilemma by creative biology —not Lincoln Day Sales.

Over and over again Patterson has tried to scrap Wild Texas for cash. In 2006, for example, when he sought to sell Eagle Mountain State Park in Fort Worth to developers to build condos, it was shot down by angry citizens (many of them Republicans) who thought they had bought homes next to the state park only to have Patterson try selling it right out from under their noses.

Such governmental blindsiding of citizens is now known in Fort Worth as "Pulling-A-Patterson." Meanwhile, the Mellon Foundation is threatening to never interact with Texas state officials again if the GLO Christmas Mountains sale becomes a fait accompli.

Don't get me wrong. Conservation means development as much as it does preservation. Developers, in fact, have made Texas a great state. Our cities hum with innovation and prosperity because of them. But once in a while developers need to stand up to defend patches of untrampled wilderness.

Christmas Mountains is one of those special Lone Star places worth fighting for. President Roosevelt didn't set aside U.S. parklands for the rich and mighty (as Patterson seems to think). They are saved for the people's use.

Texas citizens have a right to enjoy the Christmas Mountains for recreational purposes, ranging from back-packing to bow-hunting to studying the 42-million-year-old volcanic ash for geological purposes. Carve up the rest of Texas, but leave the state parks and Conservation Fund-gifted lands alone.

Anybody who believes in Texas hunting and heritage needs to pick up a telephone and tell Patterson that what he needs most is to take a hike, preferably up the 5,728-foot tallest peak in the Christmas Mountains where he can see the utter magnificence of the land for mile upon mile. Or come to the public hearing in Austin today at 10 a.m. (Stephen F. Austin Building in Room 170) and urge Patterson to do the right thing and leave God's unmarred beauty alone.

For as President Roosevelt warned us 100 years ago, "There has been in the past in this country too much of that gross materialism which, in the end, eats like an acid into all the finer qualities of our souls."

Brinkley is professor of history and fellow at the Baker Institute at Rice University. His most recent book is the best-selling "The Reagan Diaries."

© 2007 Houston Chronicle: www.chron.com

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