West Texas, continued from page 9 mining town or build their own off-thegrid dwellings, and its location near the western entrance of Big Bend National Park. 0 ver the past decade, a reclusive billionaire named Brad Kelley has bought at least 20 ranches in Brewster, Jeff Davis, and Presidio counties accumu lating more than 400,000 acreshalf the size of Big Bend National Park. Kelley, a self-made entrepreneur who made his fortune building up and then selling a discount tobacco company and owning horse-racing tracks including the storied Churchill Downs, is known as a conservationist who raises rare black and white rhinos, gazelles, wildebeest, and pygmy hippos on land he owns in Florida. He is interested in introducing rare desert species on his ranches in Far West Texas. “There have been a lot of success stories about bison, wild turkey, and other creatures being brought back from the brink,” Kelly recently told the Sarasota, Florida, Herald-Tribune from his home near Franklin, Ky. “We want to use our space to cooperate with these sort of efforts.” Kelley and Amazon’s Bezos are hard HUDSPETH HUSTLERS The good vibrations of Far Out West Texas seem to peter out by Van Horn Texas Mountains Trail, 74 miles west of Marfa. Not that Van Horn doesn’t have some of the same qualities of its neighbors to the east: fairly stunning mountain scenery including the Guadalupe Mountains National Park a mere 63 miles away; the Jeff Bezos buy-in; the arrival of one of Texas’ oldest cattle ranching families, the D.M. O’Connor family of Victoria, who have purchased extensive property in the area; the visitor-friendly Red Rock Ranch; and the occasional John Madden visit to Chuy s Restaurant to inspect the shrine built in his honor. The local economy here runs largely off Interstate 10 in the forms of truck stops, motels, cafes, and convenience stores. This also makes it a distribution point for illegal drugs. The next county to the west is Hudspeth, where growth issues are of a particularly nefarious nature. The rugged basin and range landscape resembles the rest of Far West Texas. But the comparisons stop there. The county has a history of environmental exploitation mainly because few people \(3,334 at last check, mostly in Sierra live there. sports the oldest adobe courthouse in Texas and the silver spike commemorating completion of the second transcontinental railroad across the United States, all within a stone’s throw of Interstate 10. The town is best known for the Poo Poo Choo Choo and the sludge ranch \(see “Sued and Censored,” of business. Before that, Sierra Blanca was the proposed underground storage site for nuclear waste, an effort that was ultimately defeated by vocal resistance from leaders across Far West Texas \(see “West Texas Waste Wars,” March County was known for land sales advertised in the back of comic books and magazines and on late-night television commercials for as cheap as $5 a acre. Years were spent by county officials clearing the tangle of ownership claims, broken deeds, and delinquent taxes owed on these failed developments, but their scars are still etched in the desert sand, visible from the air when flying into El Paso International Airport, the marks of would-be streets and cul-desacs as mysterious as the Nazca lines in Peru. “Unfortunately, the county has no power to require land-use regulations,” explains Hudspeth County Judge Becky Walker. And so the land hustle continues, with the Internet being the medium these days. In the northern part of the county on US Highway 62/180, a Florida condo guru named Jerry Wallace bought the town of Cornudas between the Salt Flats and the Hueco Mountains, which consisted largely of the Cornudas Cafe, in March 2005. He changed the name of the town to WallaceTown USA and launched an aggressive advertising campaign on the Internet, announcing to web-surfers that “The Dealmaker’s In Town” and ready to develop “Texas’ #1 Resort and. Theme Park” by selling condominiums starting at $200,000, along with parcels of land. The centerpiece of the development is the theme park, an old west town with gunfights, cancan dancers, hayrides, and a parade down Main .Street every day. In the southern part of the county along Interstate 10, another Floridabased developer named Jack Giacalone has purchased several working ranches, subdivided the land into 20-acre increments, and renamed the spread Sunset Ranches. The land sells online for no money down and $135 a month to out-of-state buyers, many of whom buy the land sight unseen, oblivious to the absence of water or infrastructure. Making matters worse, Judge Walker says, is the participation of County Attorney Kit Bramblett, who has become an intermediary helping Giacalone purchase ranches. “The Internet has made this thing go like wildfire,” Walker sighs. The newly landed gentry are a sight to behold. “People come here to look at their property and don’t have a clue what they’ve bought,” says James Schilling, who sees them all the tune because they stay at his Sierra Lodge Motel, a historic rock motor court near Interstate 10 in Sierra Blanca. “They’ve bought 20 acres but what are they going to do with it? You can’t put two jackrabbits on it. There’s no water. A water well will cost more than the land, if you’re lucky enough to hit water. Our whole thing out here is water. There is not enough. But what can you do? We are a county of 2,000 people. You think they give a shit about what we say?” “Do you know it takes 80 acres to run a cow out here?” Judge Walker asks. “We’re a desert.”JNP 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 16, 2005
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