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A Walk on the Beach, A Breath of Fresh Air, A Discovery of A Shell, And Yourself .. . P.O. Box 8 Port Aransas, TX 78373 IN FAR WEST Texas an empty stretch of road leads south from Marathon to the Big Bend National Park. For some 40 miles, highway 385 cuts through nearly untouched land a serene, sublime desert basin bordered by the sculpted foothills of the Chisos Mountains. If you look closely, you will see wooden power lines in the distance, running parallel to the highway. But if officials at the Rio Grande Electric Cooperative have their way you won’t have to look so closely. Plans are underway to construct 90-foot steel utility poles with thick steel cables. Along a 54-mile route beginning west of Marathon and running south to the Park’s boundary, new poles will replace the existing 34foot wooden ones and available power will increase from 69,000 to 138,000 volts. The co-op’s plan has outraged local landowners and park officials who question the need for increased power and worry about the effects on the fragile environment. “There will be visual impacts on an area that now is essentially undeveloped and undisturbed and that provides a nice setting for an entrance to Big Bend without the usual development found adjacent to many parks,” says Jim Carrico, Superintendent of the Big Bend National Park. Ben Love, whose Persimmon Gap Ranch lies in the path of the proposed line agrees: “We’re really concerned because we have a totally uncluttered approach to the Big Bend National Park.” Traditional adversaries when it comes to issues of federal intervention, landowners like Love and park officials like Carrico have come together to try to stop the co-op. In 1984, the board of Rio Grande Electric, a member-owned co-op which serves an area roughly the size of southwest Texas, approved the replacement of the 30-year-old line. Planning to fund the project with loans from the co-op commissioned and filed a Borrowwhich biologists and archeologists stated Blair Calvert Fitzsimons is a freelance writer in San Antonio. in written reports that there would be no environmental damage. Upon approval of the report, the REA issued a Finding of No Significant Impact, or FONSY. Believing that the project merely involved repair of the existing line, landowners and park officials did not learn the details until a year and a half later. Concern turned to outrage when it was discovered that the environmental report was a rubberstamped report signed by biologists and archeologists who were also unaware of the project’s scope. “They didn’t do a very complete [BER],” biologist Del Weniger who prepared the plant report said later. “They were concerned about endangered species mainly. They didn’t ask me about any general effects on the general environment or about the effects on other plants.” The report mentioned nonindigenous animals, like the American alligator, while omitting many important native species. When alarmed landowners notified the REA in Washington, the agency put the project on hold. At the REA’s request, the co-op has recently commissioned another environmental report. Besides the environmental question, there is also a question about need. In its BER, the co-op originally cited the Big Bend National Park as the source of need for additional power. Then-park Superintendent Gilbert Lusk later responded in a letter that “the Big Bend National Park is identified as one of the main reasons for the new line yet we have had no contact with you regarding our need for additional power.” The co-op has yet to file the required certificate of need with the Texas Utilities Commission. Interviewed recently, Bud Gwartney, director of the co-op, maintained that “the old line is worn out and we don’t have the capacity to serve the growing load. Ironically, that area’s one of the fasteSt growing in the Rio Grande system.” Ben Love disagrees. A lawyer and a rancher, Love has talked to ranchers, park officials, DuPont plant representatives at La Linda on the border, and officials of a tourist development at Lajitas \(a project of Houston developer Love said, “if there was something going on down here in terms of development that would really require tremendous additional electrical power, especially something that was revenueproducing for the area, I don’t think any one of the landowners would have any violent objections if there was not other way to do it. But we can’t find that [need].” Love asks why the co-op is borrowing money for the project when it has just announced a 20 percent rate hike throughout the district because of revenue losses. Love is not alone in his opposition to the project. The Texas Historical Commission, which monitors the historical and cultural aspects of projects with federal involvement, has voiced concern about damage to archeological sites and damage to the view. “There are provisions in the federal law that anything that is a visual intrusion to a [federal] park must be considered,” says LaVerne Herrington, the Commission’s deputy, historic preservation officer. Yet park officials have little recourse in halting threatening development nearby. “Many of the problems facing the parks these days are coming from outside their boundaries, and they are really helpless in dealing with them,” said Destry Jarvis of the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. House and Senate committees have both sponsored bills that would have provided national parks’ jurisdiction over development on neighboring federal lands but no bill was ever passed. “We have no jurisdiction,” said Donald Dayton, National Park Service deptity regional director in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “All we can do is to cooperate with the landowners and try to encourage preservation.” Landowners like Ben Love would like to keep it that way. “I think we all Big Power Lines For Big Bend By Blair Calvert Fitzsimons THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15