Line in the Sand

Squeezed by new development on Galveston's west end, fishermen are trying to hang on to an honored Texas tradition: driving on the beach

San Luis Pass, he says, "is one of the last great tidal passes we have, and it's been used and misused, and it's time to bring that to an end."

He says there's been no development so far on the last 3.2 miles of beach near the pass, but ecological damage is "blatant and obvious and undebatable." He adds, "Continuous vehicular traffic and the compaction of sand on the beach makes it difficult for vegetation to get a foothold." A wide array of birds nest on the beach, he says, "and I can tell you that they are directly impacted by 4,000-pound vehicles driving over them."

Even when they aren't ramming heedlessly into nesting birds, cars and trucks still cause damage, ecologists say. Local birder and marine biology expert Jim Stevenson of Galveston Environmental Services says in a 1998 study that a car passing over hard sand may not appear to do significant damage. But "any object which weighs in the tons, driving over delicate invertebrate animals, kills dozens of tiny creatures each trip down the beach," his study reports. "These are the food source of many shorebirds."

Preliminary plans would limit beach driving to the western tip of Galveston Island, shown here in an aerial photo (the gulf is to the left).
Courtesy of Ted Eubanks
Preliminary plans would limit beach driving to the western tip of Galveston Island, shown here in an aerial photo (the gulf is to the left).
The beach fight has made a political activist out of fisherman Tim Lopas.
Daniel Kramer
The beach fight has made a political activist out of fisherman Tim Lopas.

A January drive on the beach, however, doesn't bring to mind the crushing of tiny creatures. Instead, the cement-hard beach is desolate, with ghostly tendrils of loose sand blowing across the wide, empty space.

On the bay side of San Luis Pass is a grassy marshland; landward of the vegetation line is considered private property owned by the San Luis Development Corporation. But the marshland is scored with a handful of dirt roads that -- through constant use -- are better maintained than some Hill Country farm roads. At one Times Square-like intersection, four or five roads come together to form a plaza in the grass.

Eubanks says he's studied beach environments across the country. "Texas is unusual because of its Open Beaches Act. I applaud it, but the mistake that is made is people assuming that every Texan that comes to the beach has to have their car with them."

Ah, but isn't that indeed what a great number of Texans assume? "You go to the pocket parks, you go to the pedestrian-only beaches in the summer, and they're empty," says bait shop owner Lisa Martinez. "The only beach that's packed every day of the summer is the last 3.2 miles down here."

She says three quarters of the people who come to her shop are unaware that they soon may not be able to drive on the beach. "The residents of the subdivisions who want the beaches left open don't think anything will happen. They say, 'Dugan's dad tried it ten years ago and he couldn't do it, and there's an Open Beaches Act,' " she says. "And others, I expect in summer when they find it closed it will be the first they know about it."

Lopas hopes to prevent that. "We can always go to court," he says. "We haven't found a lawyer willing to take the case for free, but eventually we'll find that diamond in the rough, someone who fishes down here. I'm just concerned that it will happen too late."

He says he's "read just about every open-beach case there is" and that the fishermen, because of their long use of the beach, will have a strong argument. He also plans to staff booths at local boat shows to educate occasional users of San Luis Pass.

"If ten or 20 or 30 homeowners lose, but the 21 million people of Texas gain the open beaches the law says they should have and that they've always had, then I think that's a good trade-off," he says. On the other hand, he says, "the minute we let one stretch of the last 3.2 miles go, all we're saying is that it's all right to just keep on going, like you have for the last 17 miles of Galveston from the seawall on down. So we want this area open and we want it open forever."

But the tradition that Lopas sees is, to others, just another pastime whose time has come and gone. "The very idea of driving from one end of the island to the other because 'My granddaddy did it'…is ludicrous," homeowner Kay says.

Barr views it as fishermen making an argument for convenience. "They don't want to carry their gear -- they want to drive right up to the beach, or cruise the beach to find the perfect spot where the fish are hitting. But I would argue that you have to look at what's best for the entire island of Galveston."

In many ways this argument about Galveston is not being waged by Galvestonians -- a fact each side is quick to cite. Fishermen come in but don't spend much money here, homeowners argue; homeowners may weekend on the island but spend most of their time in or around Houston, fishermen retort.

Mohn, head of the property owners association, says he's trying to convince at least one spouse from each property-owning family to register as a Galveston voter. With only about 36,000 voters on the island, he says, "your vote would count much more here."

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