A mountainous tract of West Texas land that has been a point of contention between the General Land Office and environmental groups will serve a new purpose — a research and educational area for university students.
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson announced today that the Christmas Mountains, a remote 9,269-acre property in Brewster County that adjoins Big Bend National Park, will be transferred to the Texas State University System. The agreement, which is yet to be finalized, stemmed from conversations between the two agencies that began several months ago.
“The transfer not only accomplishes my goal of ensuring conservation and recreational opportunities for the land, but preserving thousands of acres for Texas hunters,” Patterson said.
Texas State University System Chancellor Brian McCall, a former legislator, said the educational initiatives will include biology, archaeology, mapping and wildlife studies. All the activities will be funded through grants and existing system dollars, and he said he expected that there would be “no infrastructure investment.”
Among the institutions that will do work on the mountains is Sul Ross State University, located in nearby Alpine. The university will conduct research on the land as part of its Borderlands Research Institute for Natural Resource Management.
“You can even sit out there and be inspired to write some poetry,” McCall said.
The Christmas Mountains became state property in 1991 when the Richard King Mellon Foundation donated the land. Stipulations in the agreement called for strict conservation measures and limited public use. The GLO, whose mission includes generating revenue from its land holdings, realized its hands were tied by the agreement and that it couldn’t properly preserve or mange the land. Patterson began to pursue a transfer of the land.
In 2006, private developers submitted several bids for the tract. The bids were pulled following criticism from environmental groups. An initial agreement in 2008 to transfer the land to the National Parks Service failed because Patterson insisted the public should be able to carry guns on the land, but the federal agency prohibited it. Congress has since overturned the ban on bringing handguns into national parklands.
“The past proposals weren’t bad, but they didn’t have the educational component to them,” Patterson added. “The inclusion of the Texas State University System makes it better.”
Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, called the agreement a “reasonable outcome.” Keeping the land for public use and respecting conservation clauses in the original agreement had been the main goal of environmental groups from the outset.
“Texans need and deserve more opportunities for public access to the great outdoors of our state,” Kramer said.