Former Texas official Susan Combs, now overseeing endangered species policy in the Trump administration, has long argued that species habitat protections are a burden on ranchers and other property owners.
But 30 years ago, in a case involving her own property in the Big Bend region of West Texas, Combs sounded more like an environmentalist on the issue.
When the Rio Grande Electric Cooperative proposed building a 92-foot-tall steel transmission line across her ranch, she and neighboring, politically connected landowners joined with the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society and other environmental groups in opposition. Besides arguing that the line was expensive, unnecessary and poorly designed, Combs said it could harm endangered birds and plants in the area, according to an American-Statesman review of Public Utility Commission documents related to the case.
Since the episode, Combs made a name for herself in Texas — as a western Travis County lawmaker, state agriculture commissioner and state comptroller — working to undermine federal limits on land use in areas where species are threatened with extinction.
To replace a more modest power line, one that had been strung along wooden poles roughly three decades earlier, the company proposed a 54-mile line that ran from east of Alpine toward Persimmon Gap, at the northern end of Big Bend National Park, and a 44-mile line running southwest from Persimmon Gap toward Study Butte, on the park’s western side.
Speculation at the time was that Rio Grande Electric Cooperative officials were looking to serve a potential resort across the Rio Grande in the remote Mexican border town of Boquillas.
In a 1987 motion addressed to the Texas Public Utility Commission, Combs, a fourth-generation rancher and lawyer who lived in West Austin, argued the line would harm the “environmental integrity” of the area around her West Texas property.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife field supervisor wrote the cooperative’s wildlife consultant in 1986 to warn that the endangered and threatened species found in the area of the transmission line included the American peregrine falcon, Davis green pitaya succulent and Nellie cory cactus. He also wrote that a new population of endangered Lloyd’s hedgehog cacti had been discovered within 150 feet of the existing transmission line right of way.
Testifying on Combs’ behalf before public utility commissioners, who had the power to green-light or deny the transmission line proposal, were biologists with the Audubon Society and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
One testified that the electric cooperative had failed to evaluate the habitat for the black-capped vireo, a bird that at the time was being considered for endangered species designation.
“That the present line has been in place for 30 years does not indicate the proposed line will not impact falcons (or any other birds) in flight,” Audubon Society biologist Murray Walton said.
“The probability of finding all specimens growing in the corridor is small, and any destruction of endangered plants, their habitat, or potential habitat for these endangered species is an adverse impact,” he continued. “The proposed method of construction would not minimize damages to vegetation.”
He said that other endangered plants, beyond the Lloyd’s hedgehog cactus, could exist along the right of way.
Ken Kramer, former head of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, said Combs had approached the Sierra Club and Audubon Society about working together to oppose the transmission line — not the other way around.
“We interact a lot with landowners who don’t get involved in the conservation movement until something like this hits their area,” he said. “Obviously, she had a personal stake in keeping the transmission line off her property.”
In 1995, Combs reported that she and her family owned 60,000 acres in Brewster County. At the time, she managed 20,000 acres for a relative and leased 50,000 with a partner, for a total of roughly 130,000 acres.
Among her partners in the transmission line fight were politically connected neighbors with spreads of their own: J.B. Love Jr., a Marathon attorney; San Antonio philanthropist and conservationist Sally Matthews Buchanan; and A.S. Gage Ranches, one of the state’s largest cattle operations.
“These were big ranches that had really nice environmental conditions, as far as not having been disrupted a lot by human activity,” Walton told the Statesman.
“When her property or pocketbook is affected — she’s an attorney who uses all the tools available to her,” Walton said of Combs.
He said he was not paid by Combs to testify.
Ultimately, the Public Utility Commission rejected the power line.
Clashes over species protections
A few years later, as battles were joined between developers and environmentalists over endangered species and water quality protections in the Austin area, Combs embarked on a political career. Combs first won election in 1992 as a Texas House member representing western Travis County, and she set to work on rolling back environmental regulations like the city of Austin’s newly enacted Save Our Springs ordinance.
At a rally of environmentalists at the Capitol in 1995, then-Austin City Council Member Brigid Shea held a sign that read “Jesus had Judas; Austin has Susan Combs.”
Combs did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
But in 1995, interviewed for a story about property rights legislation she was carrying in the Texas House, Combs told the Statesman the species argument was one of several she had made in 1987 to defend her ranch from the transmission line.
Combs said she had learned during the case that the endangered Lloyd’s hedgehog cactus lived in rock crevices on her ranch.
“They’re flourishing under my fond tutelage,” she told the Statesman.
As agriculture commissioner and then as state comptroller, Combs continued to focus on endangered species issues. In 2011, when she was the state’s top economic official, she persuaded lawmakers to shift oversight over species protections from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to her comptroller office.
In that position, Combs clashed often with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Interior Department, over restrictions imposed by the Endangered Species Act, which she viewed as an impediment to the state’s business development.
A 2015 Statesman investigation found that Combs was an active opponent of the law, using her budget to finance studies on species that some academics criticized as politically skewed. She regularly found fault with proposals from Washington to list species as endangered, variously citing inadequate science, low-ball economic impact projections or insufficient notification of local residents. During a 2013 legislative briefing, she referred to proposed species listings as “incoming Scud missiles.”
She also battled federal biologists over protection of the dune sagebrush lizard, whose habitat overlays West Texas oil fields. Federal officials later agreed not to list the rare lizard, instead allowing a state-sponsored protection plan financed by the oil and gas industry. Combs’ replacement, Comptroller Glenn Hegar, also a Republican, last year fired the private company that had been charged with overseeing the work.
Combs continued to resist the Endangered Species Act after leaving office. Her unused campaign money helped fund a petition to delist Central Texas’ most famous endangered species, the golden-cheeked warbler, whose protected status prohibits development on valuable land in and around Austin. Though the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the effort, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush in 2017 filed a lawsuit pursuing the dispute.
The Statesman revealed in 2015 that Combs and a high-ranking official in Bush’s office – Anne Idsal, now the head of the Texas regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – had pressed military officials at Fort Hood, prime habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, to play up the impact of the bird protections on military training as part of the delisting effort.
Combs was recently named the acting assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks at the U.S. Interior Department.
“Putting Combs in charge of the Fish and Wildlife Service is like appointing an arsonist as the town fire marshal,” said Stephanie Kurose, endangered species specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Combs’ history demonstrates her fanatical commitment to stripping away critical protections for our most vulnerable animals, not protecting them. As long as her industry pals make a profit, she won’t think twice about letting a species go extinct.”
Combs “fought every new listing in Texas” while she was in state government, said Melinda Taylor, director of the University of Texas Kay Bailey Hutchison Center for Energy, Law, and Business, and former director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s ecosystem restoration program.
Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said Combs “is highly qualified and we are more than confident that she will be an effective manager at Fish and Wildlife and Parks.”
The transmission line fight was “consistent with her perspective on property rights,” Kramer said.
As an official, Kramer observed, “she definitely made comments that were questioning federal endangered species protection.” As a property owner, however, Combs was “taking advantage of legislation protecting endangered threatened species.”
Combs still owns property in Brewster County, according to records with the Brewster County Appraisal District.
Looking back, the transmission line proposal, which would have been paid for by a substantial rate increase, “was a boondoggle at best,” said Dan Laws, who retired Friday as the cooperative’s longtime general manager. (He didn’t work for the cooperative at the time of the transmission line proposal and was involved in fighting the line on the part of Texaco, a cooperative customer.) He said an engineering company had convinced the cooperative it needed the extra capacity, and that it stood to benefit from the project. He said the original line that still runs from the Alpine area to Persimmon Gap continues to be sufficient.
The black-capped vireo was listed as endangered in October 1987 — nearly a year before the Public Utility Commission decided to nix the line. This month, federal officials said they were removing the bird from the endangered species list, with experts citing its recovery as a success story.
Lloyd’s hedgehog cactus was taken off the endangered species list in 1999 after new scientific evidence suggested the plant was not a distinct species but rather a hybrid not evolving independently of its parental species — thus no longer qualifying for protection.
Asher Price has covered energy and the environment for the American-Statesman since 2006. In numerous stories, he has explored the politics of endangered species protections in Texas and the cozy relationship between top state officials and the oil and gas industry. He’s also revealed how state agencies fund research, often required by federal law, that justifies activity that runs counter to environmental protections. He’s the co-author of “The Great Texas Wind Rush: How George Bush, Ann Richards, and a Bunch of Tinkerers Helped the Oil and Gas State Win the Race to Wind Power.”