SpaceX, TPWD Boca Chica land swap approved despite opposition

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The tracts in green show the land that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department would provide to SpaceX in proposed land swap. The land in orange is Boca Chica State Park. (Courtesy: TPWD)

During a special meeting Monday, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission voted unanimously in favor of a resolution to authorize TPWD Executive Director David Yoskowitz to pursue acquisition of about 477 acres near the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge-Bahia Grande Unit in exchange for approximately 43 acres from Boca Chica State Park.

SpaceX proposed the land swap in order for it to “expand its operational” footprint at the company’s Boca Chica rocket production and test site. TPWD called the special meeting after the item was pulled from the agenda a day before its Jan. 25 regular meeting, after criticism that TPWD failed to follow rules governing the publishing of public notices.

According to Jason Estrella, TPWD land conservation branch manager, prior to the January meeting the department received 1,332 public responses to the proposed swap, 1,068 in opposition and 264 in support. Prior to Monday’s meeting, the department had received 989 additional total responses, 327 in opposition and 662 in support, he said.

The resolution also received several letters of support for the proposal, Estrella said, including letters from state Sen. Morgan LaMantia; state Rep. Janie Lopez; state Sen. Charles Perry, chairman of the Senate Committee on Water, Agriculture and Rural Affairs; state Rep. Trent Ashby, chairman of the House Committee on Culture, Recreation and Tourism; state Sen. Brian Birdwell, chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development; Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar; and the Texas State Parks Advisory Committee.

Letters in opposition to the proposed swap came from the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, the Another Gulf is Possible Collaborative, Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, and Save LNG.

A handful of those present at Monday’s meeting voiced support for the proposal, including Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. and Cameron County Commissioner David Garza, who both said they had had initial concerns about the proposal, which blindsided the county when it appeared on TPWD’s Jan. 25 agenda.

“Before this meeting, Cameron County expressed valid concerns regarding the proposed acquisition of these properties,” Treviño said. “We were initially troubled by the lack of communication between (TPWD) and Cameron County regarding this significant proposal.”

The county got on board following “constructive dialogue” with Yoskowitz and his team, Treviño said.

“By endorsing this land exchange we not only expand opportunities for outdoor recreation but also cultivate a profound respect for the environment that sustains us,” he said.

Treviño also thanked the commission for more than $15.3 million in TPWD grants the county has received that “significantly enhances quality of life for residents and visitors.”

A general map showing the areas of a proposed land swap between the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and SpaceX. (Courtesy: TPWD)

Garza said he had had concerns that the county was left out of TPWD’S planning and that the county had been trying for years to acquire the 477 acres to protect it from commercial development. After being brought up to speed on TPWD’s plans, he was now a supporter of the proposal, Garza said. TPWD’s plan is to preserve the land in perpetuity while also opening it up to recreational and educational opportunities for the public.

“I do want to say that CC is totally committed to partnering with you to develop this area,” Garza said. “We look forward to providing more access to the Lower Laguna Madre.”

Commission Chairman Jeffery Hildebrand expressed appreciation to Garza and Treviño for the county’s support.

“We do too look forward to partnering with Cameron County, because our job here is we want to make the lives of the citizens in Cameron County better,” he said. “That’s more access to open spaces so that they can experience the great outdoors.”

Dozens of public speakers lined up during Monday’s meeting to condemn the proposed swap, among them Mary Angela Branch, who spoke on behalf of the environmental nonprofit Save RGV.

She pointed out that TPWD’s own research from 1992 that identified 523 species in the Boca Chica area where the 43 acres — mostly small, non-contiguous acreage boxed in by private development courtesy of SpaceX and lacking public access — are located. Of those species, 179 were plants and 344 were animals, Branch said.

“There are few habitats like this on the entire Texas coast,” she said. “You cannot assign the ecology of Boca Chica to the 477 acres of Tamaulipan thorn scrub. Shore birds don’t forage or nest in thorn scrub. Cameron County, formerly opposed to this swap, now supports it. It is unclear what deal was made or promised to coerce county support.”

Branch noted that Texas voters in November approved a $1 billion appropriation for the purchase, protection and conservancy of state parks, adding that the 477 acres could be acquired with the money rather than giving up part of Boca Chica State Park.

“If the Texas coastal preserves still mean anything to you at all, you must protect them,” she said.

Alex Ortiz, speaking to the commission by phone on behalf of the Sierra Club Lone Star chapter, described the deal as “still a net loss of land.”

“The change in conservation value of the 43 acres of Boca Chica State Park is almost entirely attributable to SpaceX development, he said. “And so to cede 43 acres to SpaceX for additional development will only cause further harm for communities and wildlife that call the Rio Grande Valley home.”

The commission’s approval of the land swap is just the first step. An environmental assessment will have to be done, other agencies need to be consulted, and the deal needs to be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to TPWD officials.


Commentary: Proposed TPWD land exchange receives county support