With land swap, Big Bend state park could net nearly 600 new acres

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department could close a West Texas land deal Thursday that will net an additional 578 acres for the public and the possibility of expanded access to the state’s biggest park.

The exchange would involve swapping 607 acres of public land for 1,185 acres of the private, neighboring LaMota Ranch.

At 310,000 acres, Big Bend Ranch State Park is massive — and, in its piecemeal conglomeration, quiltlike: Since the initial 212,528-acre acquisition in 1988, a number of tracts have been added, leaving the park with nearly 100 miles of boundary in common with private landowners.

The lightly visited park lies to the west of the more popular Big Bend National Park and is a favorite of mountain bikers and backcountry campers who seek the solitude it offers.

Complex ownership histories, topography and the challenges of building fences on the rough landscape mean that management boundaries are often boundaries of convenience, state officials say.

One of the neighboring private properties is LaMota Ranch, which had donated more than 13,000 acres to the parks department in 2000. Now LaMota owners want to square up and fence in some of their land: The deal would reduce the boundary between the state and the ranch by 5 miles.

The deal “simplifies knowing where the property line is, which is better for TPWD and our neighbor — the existing boundary wanders around,” said Tom Harvey, a spokesman for the agency.

Calls to a listed number for LaMota Ranch were not answered.

Harvey said the new land would be similar to what the state was giving up — lots of rolling terrain. He said a portion of the new land, at the northern end of the park, is on higher ground, offering nice views.

“What’s really attractive is it gives us good access into the Cienega portion of Big Bend Ranch State Park, which has an important water feature. Previous access was a longer distance over worse roads from the other direction.”

But public access from the public road — Casa Piedra Road, which branches off U.S. 67, running from Marfa to Presidio — remains up in the air.

Questions of safety, security, natural and cultural resource protection, development costs, public demand, staffing requirements, monitoring and law enforcement would have to be answered first, said Ted Hollingsworth, who oversees land conservation for the department.

“The planning process can take a significant amount of time, so it is premature to speculate on whether or not this will ever be a public access point into the state park,” he said.

The deal with LaMota appears to stand in contrast to another Big Bend deal a decade ago that fell apart under public pressure.

With little public notice, Parks and Wildlife officials had hammered out a deal involving 46,000 acres of parkland, valued at roughly $45 an acre, with the owner of a neighboring resort before the American-Statesman revealed it. Included in that parkland were portions of Cienega Creek, home to two types of endangered fish and an endangered frog species. Days after the Statesman shed light on the 2005 deal, which department officials had defended as involving a little-visited part of the park and raising money for other land acquisitions, Parks and Wildlife commissioners quashed it.

After the kerfuffle, Parks and Wildlife commissioners approved a new policy governing major land transactions, with the goal of keeping the public abreast of the department’s plans to sell, buy or trade property.

“In retrospect, it would have been better had (the Parks and Wildlife Department) chosen to publicize it sooner and obtain more buy-in from interested groups that are in frequent communication with the department,” John Poindexter, the resort owner who was involved in the nixed 2005 deal, told the Statesman last week.

And so per state park rules, notices of a hearing this week involving the LaMota deal — which does not involve any portion of Cienega Creek but could lead to more access to it — were published in West Texas newspapers.

“This is a good deal,” said Andy Sansom, a former head of the state Parks and Wildlife Department.

Parks and Wildlife officials said they had received no advance negative response from the public.

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