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Behind The Story of The Christmas Mountains

The Christmas Mountains are a desert mountain range in the Trans-Pecos region of west Texas adjacent to Big Bend National Park. Last Fall, the state tried to sell the mountains, but that brought out such a storm of protest that the sale was stopped. The matter remains unresolved.
KUHF correspondent Wayne Bell takes a look into the history and significance of this spot on the map.


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The pre-history of the Christmas Mountains of West Texas dates back to volcanic activity 45 million years ago, more or less. The current story about the Christmas Mountains has its genesis on an exact date, a famous date, June 6, 1944.

“The deed to the Park was given to President Roosevelt on D-Day.”

That’s Bill Wellman. The park he’s referring to is Big Bend National Park, where he is the Superintendent.

“Big Bend National Park is often called Texas’s gift to the nation.”

But it did not include the neighboring Christmas Mountains: To show their importance, the Superintendent spreads a large map.

“One of the prettiest…maybe the prettiest drive in the Park is the Ross Maxwell Drive. When you drive north, once you come over the hill, pretty much your whole view is looking right straight into the Christmas Mountains.”

In conservation parlance, the mountains are a major feature in the ‘viewshed’ of Big Bend.

“The area that you can see from any given spot in a national park is the viewshed. More and more, throughout the country, the quality of the visitor experience in the park is affected by the viewshed outside of the park.”

The view, the vistas, the grand landscapes of Big Bend are a major reason why this park is so beloved. Preserving this view is at the heart of the Christmas Mountains story.

The story’s next chapter begins in an unlikely place, the Corpus Christi Yacht Club. A group of friends here formed Terramar Corporation, a land development company. In 1969 they bought 100,000 acres of relatively cheap desert land around the Christmas Mountains adjacent to Big Bend National Park, and tried out a novel development idea: selling recreational land in the desert. They called it Terlingua Ranch. Alida Lorio, manger for the Terlingua Ranch Property Owners Association, explains.

“They were selling tracts of land for hunters, campers, rockhounds. They didn’t envision it as a residential development. A buyer could buy a small tract here in Terlingua Ranch and have access to 30,000 acres of hunt parks, including the Christmas Mountains. And I would say that was the primary attraction. Certainly that was the primary emphasis on the marketing”

Marketing was through direct mail and ads in big-city newspapers. Many tracts were bought sight unseen for a high price with a no-money down installment plan. To local folks like Bill Ivey, who grew up nearby, it looked like another desert land scam.

“I really feel that Terlingua Ranch was intended to be a get-rich-quick scheme. But it turned on them. They found out that there is something a little more genuine about the Big Bend, that people that came to the Big Bend Really loved it, and they sold a lot of land.”

After 12 very successful years, Terramar had subdivided and sold all the land it could sell. What remained were the rugged and undevelopable hunt parks, the Christmas Mountains being the largest. Once again, connections at the yacht club in Corpus helped, in the form of a friend and member, Thomas Henderson. Cornelia Henderson Gates is his daughter.

“My father found out that the hunt park properties were for sale. And being kind of a romantic, he was interested in purchasing the Christmas Mountains.”

It was a gift to his family, and the Hendersons owned and enjoyed the mountains for 9 years. But Tom Henderson knew it was temporary.

“He had a number of conversations with Jim Carrico through the years, trying to get the Christmas Mountains into the Parks system.”

Jim Carrico was Big Bend’s park Superintendent at the time. He took the idea to Washington.

“There wasn’t much interest on the part of the higher-ups in the National Parks Service in pursuing that. It was pretty well based on the politics of the time.”

The first effort to preserve the Christmas Mountains had collided with Reagan-era desires to limit federal government, and the rising property rights movement, which took encouragement from the President’s 1987 Economic Bill of rights.

“Property rights are central to liberty and should never be trampled upon.”

“My father was an oil and gas geologist. And in the 1980s the oil business was declining. So, he took a loan out to keep his business going. One of his gas wells blew out and burned.”

Tom Henderson’s loan was called in by the bank, which took possession of his collateral — the Christmas Mountains.

In an office in Austin, someone was keenly interested in what the bank would do next. His name: Andrew Sansom. He had just been appointed Executive Director of Texas Parks and Wildlife.

“The Christmas Mountains went on the market, for sale. And my friend, Jim Carrico, who was an extraordinary superintendent at Big Bend National Park, contacted me to see whether or not we could find a way to purchase the property. So, I contacted the Conservation Fund.”

The Conservation Fund in Arlington, Virginia was acquisitions agent for one of the greatest land conservation philanthropies in history. Larry Selzer, current CEO at the Conservation Fund.

“The Richard King Mellon Foundation has always had a passion for conserving America’s great land legacy. In the late 70’s they began a campaign all across the country to protect America’s natural, cultural, and historic sights. It stands as the largest charitable gift for conservation in the history of the United States.”

Parks and Wildlife’s Andy Sansom wanted to make sure the Christmas Mountains would become part of that gift.

“Because of its rugged beauty, its potential as an addition to the public conservation estate out there, primarily Big Bend National Park, and because it could be had at a Bargain!”

The bargain was $27.40 an acre. But, there was a catch.

“Well the most important component was a specific request from a public agency that would ultimately own and manage the lands. The Christmas Mountains being a very unusual exception in that the agency, Texas Parks and Wildlife, at the time was not in a position to take title to the property.”

It seems Parks and Wildlife’s new director, Andy Sansom, had inherited a problem.

“Even in those days we were beginning to sag under the lack of funding that the Legislature had provided. And so we began to look for another public entity, either for permanent conservation or as an interim owner that would hold it until either the Parks Service or Parks and Wildlife was ready to acquire it.”

They found the General Land Office, managers of the Permanent School Fund. In Texas, state lands are managed as a trust account whose profits benefit public education. Conservation is not the primary mission, and that presented a problem for the Conservation Fund, as Larry Selzer explains.

“Because it was going to an atypical owner we felt that we needed to make sure it would be managed accordingly.”

The tool for achieving that is a conservation easement: a set of permanent restrictions that are attached to the property, in this case, restrictions on almost everything.

“Those include agricultural, commercial or industrial activities, motorized vehicles, subdividing, all of the things that one would view as inconsistent with wilderness.”

With that permanent protection in place, the Christmas Mountains were given to the State of Texas two days before Christmas, 1991. The recent attempt to sell that gift is what has been in the news. That has gotten the legislature’s attention, and when they meet next January, look for another chapter in the Christmas Mountains story.

From Austin, I’m Wayne Bell, KUHF Houston Public Radio.

“Our Christmas Mountains report was co-produced with KUT in Austin.”

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