End of the Bend?

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

What amuses him is that many of the people criticizing him the loudest were among the first to ask Angie Dean for jobs when she opened the ruin as a restaurant.

A few years ago, the area from Terlingua to Study Butte had only a gas station and a restaurant or two, depending on the season. It now has several restaurants and four motels, three RV parks, a rock shop, a health food store, an auto repair shop, a massage therapist, a couple of art galleries, gift shops, a medical clinic, the funky but popular Study Butte Store, and the funkier La Kiva underground bar and restaurant. Even designer java can be had at the Terlingua Springs Coffee House.

County Judge Beard says the demand for services outstrips the increase in the tax base.
Allan C. Kimball
County Judge Beard says the demand for services outstrips the increase in the tax base.

A 16-mile road into Terlingua Ranch paves the way, at least partially, toward an uncertain future for this community on the east boundary of south Brewster County. When the county completes the roadwork in a couple of years, residents debate what kind of growth it will bring.

The 32-room lodge and restaurant at Terlingua Ranch used to cater mostly to landowners but is now trying to draw tourists to an area that prides itself on an ecology-friendly existence.

"Most of the people who have moved into the area, mainly the Terlingua Ranch area, are people that live fairly lightly on the land. They like the harsh environment and they're doing innovative things so as not to be a problem," says Don Dowdy, chair of the Big Bend Region of the Sierra Club in Alpine.

Many of the newer homes use cisterns for water, solar power for electricity, and composting toilets.

Tom and Betty Alex, for example, are constructing a straw-bale home, which looks much like a big rock so they don't pollute the view from the adjacent national park. The Alexes are park employees who have lived in the area for 20 years.

"I have no problem with people coming in and building on 40 acres like we have, but I have a problem with five-acre tracts," says Betty Alex. "There's development, and there's bad development."

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."

Many of the newcomers to Big Bend are bringing their big-city needs with them, she worries. 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.

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. The locals are seeing dollar signs because it's the first time they've ever been paid a living wage and they get hospitalization, too. "But every one of them owns land and owns a house. What happens when their living wage can't pay the taxes?"

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.

Last year, the loudest sound a Lajitas visitor would hear early in the morning was the wind blowing across the graveyard or a rooster crowing across the river in Paso Lajitas.

Today, the visitor will hear those roosters accompanied by the chugging of water sprinklers. 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.

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