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TribBlog: Parks Department Set to Decide on Devil's River Purchase

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission is set to vote later this month on a deal to buy a Southwest Texas ranch for $13 million — a change from an earlier, controversial land-swap proposal.

Devil's River Ranch

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission is set to vote later this month on a deal to buy a Southwest Texas ranch.

The Parks and Wildlife Department came under heated criticism last month when it proposed swapping private ranch property with the Devil's River State Natural Area — and paying $8 million. That proposal was shelved, and now the commission will decide whether to buy the ranch outright and add it to the existing natural area.

Rod Sanders, owner of Devil's River Ranch, agreed to sell the property to the department for $13 million, less than the $15,875,000 the property value was appraised for this year, the department said in a press release today. The acquisition would be funded with $4 million in state and federal money, plus $9 million from private donations. A briefing will be held in Del Rio on Thursday.

Last month, days before the commissioners were set to vote on the initial proposal, an Austin American-Statesman article raised questions about relationships among Sanders, the department and the deal’s land broker, Texas conservation real estate giant James King. The article questioned why the department seemed in a rush to seal the deal. But Scott Boruff, executive director of operations at the department, said the commissioners were clear during public meetings that Sanders was in a hurry to sell his property by the end of the year for tax purposes.

Kevin Stubbs of Expedition Outfitters, who has been guiding tours on the Devil's River for several years, says landowners on the river don't fault Sanders for wanting to get rid of the property for tax purposes.

“I think it's a great plan, if [the department] can fund it,” Stubbs said of the new proposal.

The Sierra Club said in a statement today that it supported the proposed acquisition.

Anglers, paddlers, nearby landowners and conservation organizations had expressed concern over the initial land swap proposal and the short time allowed for public input. On Nov. 3, a day before the department was set to approve the exchange at a public meeting, the Conservation Committee of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission recommended that the department shelve the land swap and explore other options.

Some critics of the land swap proposition claimed the department was trading resource conservation in favor of recreation. But Carter Smith, the department's executive director, refuted those claims. “We absolutely are not interested in subjugating one part of the mission in order to benefit another part of the mission. We see those as inextricably linked,” he said.

Though the two properties will likely operate under the same superintendent if the acquisition is approved, the Devils River Ranch property will expand recreational opportunities on the more developed part of the river while maintaining the pristine environment campers, paddlers and homeowners cherish now at the state natural area.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission will hold a meeting to hear public testimony on acquisition of the Devils River Ranch at 9 a.m. on Dec. 20 at Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Austin headquarters.

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