Desert Blooms

Jetports and elite resorts may do what border bandits and blistering heat couldn't: rob Big Bend of its rugged beauty

Like many locals, she's not sure about the changes in Lajitas.

"It seems like they're bringing in people for the wrong reason," Alex says. "The type of person they want to attract isn't going to appreciate this country with its openness and vistas and ruggedness. They'll come because it's a resort with a swimming pool and a golf course."

She is worried about many of the newcomers to Big Bend bringing their big-city needs with them. Remoteness and lack of amenities kept most people away, but now the school and clinic and power and water are making it much easier for people to live here.

Lajitas was rebuilt to resemble an Old West town, but the Old West in Big Bend may have to make way for cell phones and golf courses.
Allan C. Kimball
Lajitas was rebuilt to resemble an Old West town, but the Old West in Big Bend may have to make way for cell phones and golf courses.

That's the same sort of thing that bothers Kirby Warnock, editor of the Big Bend Quarterly and a descendant of one of the area's most prominent pioneer families.

"All our cities are getting to look all the same," Warnock says. "You came out here to get away from all that crap. Here you felt you were on the frontier, and you were. You had to adapt to Big Bend; it was part of our barbed-wire soul. But now they want Big Bend to adapt to them."

Ivey recalls a time just 20 years ago when you could buy land for $10 an acre almost anywhere in Big Bend. Now the price can be $2,000 an acre and up.

"Historically, the locals get weeded out in a place like this," he says. "It's pretty scary. Not many people will be able to hold on, because they won't be able to afford the taxes, and that's when you truly lose the community and the authentic part of Big Bend."

And that has Alex worried about keeping her home.

"Lajitas trophy homes will make my home 23 miles away so expensive I won't be able to live here, because I won't be able to afford the taxes when I retire," she says.

County officials hope the tax base will increase, because so far taxes haven't kept pace with the demand on services, says County Judge Beard.

That's been made even more important since the federal government cut back on the annual amount it pays Brewster County in lieu of taxes for the national park.

"It's a loss of $75,000 for us," Beard says. "That's a drop in the bucket for a metropolitan area, but for us it's two and a half jobs."

Many Big Bend veterans worry most about another drop in the bucket: their water supply.

Warnock notes that fairways on the Lajitas golf courses will be green and thirsty. Manicured lawns at the amphitheater and picnic area by the river crossing will want daily drinks as well.

"Where are they going to get all that water? Whose well is going to go dry when they pump out all the water Lajitas will need?" Warnock asks.

It's a question he knows more than a little about. His family's alfalfa farm near Fort Stockton was wiped out when rancher Clayton Williams pumped Comanche Springs dry.

It's happened in Terlingua Ranch, too. Ament Lake and several private wells were inadvertently pumped dry by road construction crews in the late 1980s.

Developer Smith thinks he has the answers. He has gone upriver and purchased several farms and ranches just to get their water rights. Plus he's spent more than $1 million digging new wells.

"I own 23,000 acres, which we discovered sits on its own aquifer," Smith says. "We drilled several wells. Nobody else can drain from it. It can only be tapped by us, and the recharge rate is high enough to do several times what we're planning to do."

But the amount of water getting into the park has been very low recently, and trips by rafting companies through the canyons have been adversely affected, Dowdy says.

"The lower canyons right now are almost impossible unless you want to hike pulling a boat behind you," he says. "Anything that takes water out above the canyons is going to be a problem. Even El Paso is looking to Big Bend for more water."

Meanwhile, New Mexico cities are using more and more Rio Grande water before it ever crosses into Texas. The burgeoning metroplex of El Paso/Juárez is using so much water that the Rio Grande is little more than a trickle from there south to Presidio.

Today, so little water flows to Brownsville that the Rio Grande didn't even reach the Gulf of Mexico for five months this year.

Simon, of the park conservation association, says the loss of water will kill off the right kind of visitors, ecotourists, for Big Bend.

"More water means we could sustain the rafting industry, and that's one that belongs in Big Bend, and it's been suffocating," he says. "Keeping more water in the river is better than building a new road."

Fears about the entire ecosystem figured into the park association's decision to designate Big Bend as one of the most endangered parks.

"We have deep concern for Big Bend," says Simon. "For centuries it was the back of beyond. It was about as far as you could get from modern industrial America and the seat of power in both countries, so it was protected by its distance. It always had a low population density and low resource use levels that never stressed the ecosystems to the breaking point."

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