Jerry Patterson promised a “surprise announcement” when he invited the media to a Monday press conference to discuss the sale of 9,269 West Texas acres that happen to be home to the Christmas Mountains. Patterson had drawn fire for his plan to sell the rugged property, which was donated to the state in 1991, to private investors rather than transferring it to the state or national park systems.
Patterson put the ball squarely back into the court of those who opposed the sale to a private interest by giving the National Park Service 90 days to meet or exceed the winning bid. Patterson said the two bids for the property both exceeded conservation goals set out by the Conservation Fund, the organization that arranged the original donation to the state. The Permanent School Fund board was to meet Tuesday to award the bid, but Patterson’s announcement puts off that vote until at least next year.
There probably would not be as much public conversation as there has been had both the state and national park systems agreed to take on the land originally. According to some published reports, both turned down the property due to financial constraints. Patterson said in an e-mail that the reason the systems turned down the property was because “it is essentially surrounded by private property and accessible only via private roads over that private property.” The property is actually situated adjacent to Big Bend National Park.
Patterson, as Land Commissioner, has a financial obligation to the state because his office is one that is charged with raising revenues. This sale, he says, is one way of accomplishing that. He also says that the two current bids include, “stringent management plans to guarantee public access, and offer educational opportunities and construction of a hiking trail to the nearby Big Bend National Park.”
In a letter to the editor published in the Bulletin last week, Jack Lamkin, who is president of the Friends of Big Bend National Park board of directors, said that part of the attraction of the area is its isolation and rugged terrain. In a letter to Patterson, Lamkin urged the land commissioner to re-consider his position and to offer the property to the National Park Service in order to expand Big Bend National Park.
A sticking point in the sale continues to be hunting on the property; something Patterson has said must be included in any successful bid for the land. “Hunting is still a part of this deal. Hunting is allowed in the original gift deed, and will be a part of any land management plan for Christmas Mountains,” Patterson said at the press conference.
The rub is that the National Park Service does not allow hunting, or loaded firearms for that matter, at any of its parks.
The Park Service maintains that its ban on hunting is constitutional and has worked for a century so there’s no reason to change. Patterson says the service can seek congressional approval to waive the rule on the property in question — and that not allowing hunting will be a deal breaker.
Patterson has heard the critics of the sale and has convinced the bidders to agree to a 90-day waiting period. He should be commended for that. As a Second Amendment advocate, though, he has taken a strong stance on the hunting issue — a stance that he should soften. By making that a requirement for any new owner to allow hunting, Patterson is effectively eliminating some entities, such as the National Park System, from the bidding process.
In doing so, he risks damaging the fragile eco-system found in that part of the state. Patterson agreed in an email to the Bulletin that this is indeed a conservation issue. Now it’s time for him to act on that statement and remove the hunting requirement.
Bill Crist is associate publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.