Tuesday, October 16, 2007

"No hunting, no firearms, no deal." --'Dirty Jerry' Patterson pushes liquidation of Christmas Mountains

Official won't sell land to National Park Service


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN -- Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson says he's going forward with a controversial plan to auction off the pristine Christmas Mountains to wealthy private interests despite renewed interest in the property by the National Park Service.

Patterson says he won't allow a delay of the sale, which could come as early as November, because the National Park Service will not allow hunting on the property in far West Texas. Patterson is a strong Second Amendment advocate who sponsored the state's concealed-handgun law.

"As he has stated in the past, Commissioner Patterson ... would not be willing to sell the Christmas Mountains to the National Park Service if it would mean that there would never be public hunting allowed on the property," Jim Suydam, Patterson's spokesman, said in a statement.

Controversial sales

Patterson's insistence on selling the 9,269-acre tract follows other controversial attempts by the state to sell public land to private interests. Last year the General Land Office presided over the proposed sale of 400 acres at Eagle Mountain Lake in Fort Worth, and in 2005 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department tried to sell 46,300 acres at Big Bend Ranch State Park to a wealthy developer.

Those properties ended up staying in government hands after public outcry. But the Christmas Mountains deal continues to go forward despite an outcry from conservationists and statements from those who donated the Christmas Mountains land to the state that they intended that it remain in public hands.

The School Land Board, of which Patterson is a member, was set to complete the Christmas Mountains sale last month. But it delayed completion until this month because of a glitch in the official maps of the property.

The state parks department and the national parks system had declined to buy the property, which is part of the Permanent School Fund Inventory. But on Friday, Patterson received a letter from William E. Wellman, superintendent of the U.S. Interior Department, saying the National Park Service wants to re-evaluate its position.

Wellman acknowledged in his letter that the National Park Service had earlier said that adding the Christmas Mountains to its inventory would not be feasible, but said it now wanted Patterson to delay the sale so the agency could reconsider acquiring the tract, which abuts Big Bend National Park.

"The National Park Service ... requests that you postpone the sale until we have time to finish our evaluation," Wellman wrote.

Nothing doing, Patterson responded.

"The National Park Service prohibits hunting and enforces an unconstitutional ban on the personal possession of firearms," Suydam said. "Commissioner Patterson's message to Superintendent Wellman was simple: No hunting, no firearms, no deal."

A 'pet issue'

Luke Metzger, director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, said the state will have broken its promise if the sale goes through to private interests. He said that it was "grossly irresponsible" of Patterson to take the property out of public hands and insist that only a few wealthy individuals have access to it.

"The original intent [of the donors] was that the land be made available to the National Park Service or the [state parks department]," Metzger said. "For him to stand in the way of that for some pet issue is grossly irresponsible. Some of the buyers have said that under no circumstances would they allow the public on there. ... It'll be owned by one rich guy who lets wealthy elites go hunting on it. This is far from the vision of the original donation."

The Christmas Mountains are at the northwest corner of Big Bend National Park. The property was donated to the state in 1991 by the Virginia-based Conservation Fund and the Pennsylvania-based Richard King Mellon Foundation on the condition that it remain protected from development.

Then-Land Commissioner Gary Mauro told the donors that the state agreed to restrictions that would allow transfer of the land only to the National Park Service or the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The General Land Office has said it had agreed to hold the property but cannot invest the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to fence it and protect it from poachers. The agency also has a fiduciary duty to earn money on state land for the Permanent School Fund, Suydam said.

Residents of the area say the Christmas Mountains are about 6,000 feet high. The terrain is mostly desert. The encumbrances on the land restrict almost any development, including road construction.

According to the Land Office, the School Land Board intends to make an award to the winning bidder as early as the School Land Board's Nov. 6 meeting.

R.A. Dyer reports from the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau, 512-476-4294

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