War on Christmas
Remote and rugged, the state-owned Christmas Mountains near Terlingua in Big Bend country are for sale. The eager seller is General Land Office Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who believes the 9,269-acre ranch would be better off in private hands-as long those hands can clutch a gun.
The Richard King Mellon Foundation donated the Christmas Mountains Ranch to the land office in 1991 for “conservation and protection in perpetuity,” according to the deed. A foundation officer wrote in an e-mail, reported first in the Austin American-Statesman, that if the sale goes through, “the state of Texas (should) not look to the R.K. Mellon Foundation for any future help.” Land office spokesman Jim Suydam said that despite its name, the agency is not in the business of conservation. “We own property on behalf of the Public School Fund,” he said, “and our job is to make money on behalf of Texas schoolchildren.”
In an op-ed piece in the Statesman, Patterson cited personal hero Ronald Reagan: “Government is not the solution to the problem-in many cases it is the problem. The Christmas Mountains are no exception.”
The property was offered to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the National Park Service, Suydam said. Both agencies initially turned it down. However, a spokesman for Big Bend National Park told the Observer that the park was looking at ways to acquire the ranch. Suydam said the land office welcomed any proposal. But Patterson has said that he won’t sell the ranch to any entity that bans hunting or firearms.
If Texas is looking to the land office to solve its dire shortage of public parklands, it’s gazing in the wrong direction. “Private stewardship can be as good or better than public stewardship,” Patterson wrote in his op-ed. “If this is not true, then Texas is in trouble since 95 percent of Texas is privately owned.”
An auction for the property in September produced six bids. The top offer-a whopping $652,000-came from the retired chairman of trash company Browning-Ferris Industries Inc., who proposed permanently closing the mountains to the public. The second-highest bidder was John Poindexter, a Houston businessman who in 2005 tried to buy a 46,000-acre parcel of the Big Bend Ranch State Park from the cash-strapped Texas parks department. (The September auction was scrapped because of a technicality; a new round of bidding is under way. The land office will select a winner in November.)
Poindexter told The Big Bend Gazette that he wants the Christmas Mountains for “Texas bragging rights.”
This is Patterson’s Texas, where mountains are not natural wonders for public enjoyment, but set pieces in rich men’s pissing contests.
Kinky on Special
There’s a slight Willy Loman feel to Kinky Friedman these days. Every few months, he blows through town hawking a fresh batch of wares, but the same tattered charm is starting to feel a bit desperate. Kinky’s gig now, when he’s not writing, is buzz-generation and product placement. He’s shtick on legs with a goatee.
The musician-turned-author-turned-candidate was back at BookPeople in downtown Austin on October 9 to sign copies of his latest book, a reflection on his run for governor in 2006 entitled, You Can Lead a Politician to Water, but You Can’t Make Him Think. Nearly a year after election day, it sounded as if Kinky’s campaign had never ended.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the next governor of the state of Texas-Kinky Friedman!” bellowed Kinky’s ever-present sidekick, Jeff “Little Jewford” Shelby. Here was the same tired routine with which they had opened every campaign event-they drudged through it with the liveliness of people ordering wallpaper samples.
“Thank you very much,” Kinky said. “That’s Little Jewford. He’s a Jew, and he drives a Ford.” There was a smattering of laughs. The audience, which packed the bookstore’s second floor, had heard this bit many times before.
The presentation that followed-the recycled one-liners, the slapped-together stream-of-conscious musings-was almost a rehash of Kinky’s stump speeches. “Somebody blogged … that I have endorsed Ron Paul for president, which is not true,” began Kinky. “This is a singularly uninspired group of candidates that the two-party system has brought us. I think it’s George Washington’s worst nightmare: a country run by these two parties, lacking common sense and common honesty. … The politicians have so badly dropped the ball on immigration, education, and health care that all they can seem to do is to keep Kinky Friedman 20 feet away from the door of Katz’s deli with my cigar.”
He then encouraged the audience to visit his Kinky Friedman Web site (his converted campaign site) to order a batch of Kinky-brand cigars. “The sales are going great. Little Jewford is the CEO of the company, by the way. … Go to your favorite cigar store and tell them to order Kinky Friedman Cigars. K-F-C.”
Later, during the question-and-answer segment, Kinky became reflective, musing about whether he should have run as a Democrat. “The reason to run as a Democrat is pretty simple in 2010, if that were to happen. I think the Democrats historically listen to the voice of the people better,” he said. It was hard to square that with Kinky’s assertion a few minutes earlier that the two parties were the “crips and the bloods. … There ain’t a bit of difference between the two of them; they just use code words.” No matter, Jerry Falwell has a better chance of winning the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2010.
On September 24, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers published the first map in the Federal Register that details the course of a proposed fence along the Texas-Mexico border. Roughly following the Rio Grande, the proposed fence cuts off swaths of U.S. territory between the wall and the river. Construction is set to begin in the spring. Now, even those who believed “they’ll never do it” are joining residents of the Lower Rio Grande Valley who are fighting the fence [see, “Habitat for Inanity,” September 7].
Given only 21 days to submit public comments for the Customs and Border Protection draft environmental impact statement, including to a government Web site that has been sporadically inaccessible, locals scrambled to detail harm to communities, tourism, wildlife, the local economy, and border culture. No Border Wall, a grassroots group that mobilized peaceful protests for months with rallies, a procession, and even a flotilla of kayaks, pleaded in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security for more time for comments and “dialogue” with locals, to no avail. Border Protection spokesman Brad Benson said comments received after October 15 will be folded into a final environmental impact statement, which won’t be completed for six to nine months.
Meanwhile, town mayors are refusing permission to federal workers to work on municipal property, and so are growers, although DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has said he will not allow communities to “veto” the fence, and may use eminent domain on private landowners. Mayor Pat Ahumada of Brownsville, the Valley’s largest city, where 22 miles of wall are slated to cut through property, hurriedly called for a public meeting to collect comments for submission. Chest pains that hospitalized Ahumada temporarily on October 4, he told the Rio Grande Guardian, were caused by stress from trying to protect his city from the wall.
The notice in the Federal Register said the structure will be 16 feet high and “aesthetically pleasing.” Expect a run on 17-foot ladders, folks in the Valley say, and residents don’t care how the thing looks.
The announcement also confirmed what many feared: the wall, sunk three to six feet into the ground, is set for construction along crumbling government levees. “We’re already facing another Katrina here if that river rises,” said a frustrated McAllen landowner. Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, guardians of tens of thousands of acres of wildlife corridor along the river, reckon that up to 75 percent of the refuge will be affected by the fence. The entire 550 acres of the Sabal Palm Audubon Center and Sanctuary south of Brownsville-where today walkers may travel through enchanted forest nearly untouched by time, amid native Texas flora that no longer grows elsewhere-will be isolated beyond the wall.
The Federal Register announcement is the first step in what is called the “scoping process” for a federal environmental impact statement. It calls for 70 miles of fencing in the Valley. Chertoff has not yet invoked the Real ID Act, a dazzling and unprecedented law that allows him to waive any other U.S. law to build the fence. He used it in Arizona and California, but Valley residents have threatened to challenge the act on constitutional grounds. That means, for the time being, environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Historic Preservation Act still apply along the Rio Grande.
The Odd Couple
State Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin and Rep. Warren Chisum of Pampa had ample material for teasing each other. The freshman urban Democratic senator and senior rural Republican house member addressed a 300-plus audience of Meals on Wheels donors and supporters at the Four Seasons Hotel on October 9.
“Kirk and I have always kind of been on the same page. Sometimes I have to get him to turn the book upside down,” Chisum said about their work together in this year’s legislative session.
The fundraiser celebrated House Bill 407, sponsored by Watson and Chisum, which will give $20 million in state funding over the next two years for organizations that provide meals to elderly or disabled people. The two legislators were deemed “the odd couple” as they championed the bill together during the 80th Legislature. Chisum said the bill was fiscally sound, because meal-delivery programs help keep some people out of nursing homes, where the state would be paying for more than just their meals. It passed both houses unanimously.
Watson, fresh from voting for toll roads at a regional planning meeting, said he regretted that his Senate Bill 668, which dealt with “greater accountability and transparency in the use of tolls,” died in the House.
“Listen, the House, we passed what little stuff the Senate sent over to us,” Chisum responded. As for toll roads in his district: “We’re just not much in for toll roads up there. We don’t know who would pay it,” Chisum said.
Looking forward to the 2009 session, Chisum said he’s forming a volunteer caucus about global warming. “We’re not going to discuss whether the Earth is getting warmer or colder, because I’ve already seen there’s plenty on both sides of that issue,” he said. “The issue is what we’re going to do about it, and are we going to destroy our economy?” Watson said Texas needs to focus more on higher education in developing its long-term economy.
Concerning the 2009 speaker’s race, Chisum said, “The field’s open. If anybody wants to get in, all you’ve got to do is get elected. Come on down.”
Battle of Goliad
The new fiscal year finds the folks of Goliad County waiting on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to decide whether Uranium Energy Corp. will be permitted to mine uranium in the area. But thanks to the county’s new budget, their legal guns are loaded.
When the Goliad Commissioners Court approved the county’s fiscal 2008 budget last month, it included a $150,000 line item for legal fees pertaining to the impending fight against the corporation’s permit. The county will also roll over some $39,000 left from last year’s budget to what is referred to as the “Uranium Mining Project,” according to Art Dohmann, president of the Goliad County Groundwater District and chairman of the county’s Uranium Research and Advisory Committee.
The money, Dohmann said, will be used to argue the county’s case against the corporation’s application with the TCEQ if the commission grants a contested case hearing on the matter. The county’s attorney, Jim Blackburn, requested one in early September. The money also may be used to coordinate opposition during an expected official public comment period.
Uranium Energy became publicly traded on the American Stock Exchange on September 28. A day earlier it issued an update on its progress in Goliad County. The corporation reported it has drilled more than 360 exploratory holes and completed extensive mapping and sampling of the region. It also reaffirmed its commitment to developing an in situ uranium recovery facility in Goliad.