During a 2005 visit to Brownwood, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said that the business of the Texas Land Office is to make money for the Permanent Texas School Fund. Patterson was the keynote speaker at the Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerceís annual banquet. He said the office had brought in record revenues the previous year, more than $484 million. He had also spoken to a group of area civic and business leaders when they visited Austin earlier in the year.
For many of us in the area, Pattersonís informative program in Austin and entertaining banquet encore were the first we had ever paid attention to the Land Office. Thatís changed recently though, because Patterson seems dead-set on selling a pristine part of West Texas that in 1991 was donated to the citizens of the state. Despite protests from several Texas-based groups, not to mention the propertyís donors, the 9,269-acre property that abuts Big Bend National Park is expected to go to the highest bidder when the School Land Board ó which Patterson chairs ó meets on Nov. 6.
This is not Pattersonís first controversial attempt to sell state land. Two deals involving state land, one near Fort Worth and another at Big Bend Ranch State Park, eventually fell through, in large part due to public outcry. The current auction and sale appears to be headed down a different path though, and some would argue the reason is Pattersonís beliefs about the Second Amendment.
After originally turning down the property, the National Park Service recently told Patterson that it would like time to re-evaluate its position. When the property was donated to Texas 16 years ago, it came with the understanding that it would be transferred to only the National Park Service or Texas Parks and Wildlife. Due to financial constraints the state system does not want the property, which is home to the Christmas Mountains, and Patterson isnít speaking to the National Park Service on principle. That principle is his belief in the publicís right to bear arms.
Critics of the sale argue that Patterson is using the Second Amendment as the reason he wonít work with the National Park Service. Firearms are banned at national parks. Gun owners are required to remove ammunition and store their weapons upon entering national parks, a policy thatís been in place for a century. William Wellman, Big Bend National Parkís superintendent, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the courts had found the regulation constitutional. Patterson wants to allow hunting on the donated property, and his spokesman said that Texans should be allowed to bear firearms. In fact, he said, Patterson wonít accept any bids, from public or private interests, that do not provide for hunting on the property.
At least one environmental group has decided to try and enlist the governor or attorney general to help block the sale, but spokesmen for both offices say they will leave things with the School Land Board. Other groups, including the Texas Coalition for Conservation and the Sierra Club, have encouraged Patterson and the other board members to open negotiations with the National Park Service, but without success.
Patterson is selling to land to generate money for the state, and by all accounts this land sale will do just that. Refusing to speak to the National Park Service because of a perceived conflict over the Second Amendment is short-sighted. The land was donated based on an agreement that was made by one of Pattersonís predecessors in the Land Office, and he should honor that agreement, whether he personally approves or not.
This is not a gun-rights issue, this is a land conservation issue, and Patterson is making a mistake with the publicís land by not considering offers from the National Park Service or any other group or individual based solely on one issue. He was correct when he told the Brownwood audience that his officeís primary role is to raise revenue, but it must do so with the publicís best interest in mind. This sale does not.
Bill Crist is associate publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.