Heritage, Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 1987 Page: 28
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Proposed Power Lines Threaten Scenic
Big Bend National Park
Submitted by Sally Buchanan
having Marathon, Texas, Highay
385 travels south to Big Bend
National Park. For forty miles, the only
signs of the human hand are ranch gates
and an unobtrusive power line. As the
road curves its way through a large valley
bordered by mountains, a breathtaking
panorama unfolds. The sense of unending
space is overwhelming.
If officials at the Rio Grande Electric
Co-operative have their way, ninety-foot
steel utility poles and thick steel cable
will soon punctuate the view. The new
poles will replace the existing forty-foot
wooden ones and increase carrying capacity
from 69 kv to 138 kv.
The co-op's plan has outraged local
landowners and park officials who question
the need for increased power and
worry about the effects on the fragile environment.
"We're really concerned because
we have a totally uncluttered approach
to the Big Bend National Park,"
says Ben Love, Jr., whose ranch fronts
Highway 385. Jim Carrico, superintendent
for the Big Bend National Park,
agrees: "There will be visual impacts
on an area that now is essentially undeveloped
and undisturbed and that provides
a nice setting for an entrance to Big
Bend without the usual development
found adjacent to many parks."
Yet Love, a private landowner, and Carrico,
a government official, feel equally
helpless against the might of the Rio
Grande Electric Co-operative. Formed
under the auspices of the Rural Electrification
Agency (REA), an arm of the Department
of Agriculture, the Rio Grande
Electric Co-operative serves a large district
extending from Dimmit County west
to El Paso. A privately held organization,
the co-op is owned by its users who are
represented by a fourteen-member board
In 1984, unbeknownst to the concerned
landowners and park officials, the
co-op's board approved a two-year work
plan that included the replacement of
fifty-four miles of existing transmission to
the west and south of Marathon. To fund
"There will be visual impacts
on an area that now is
essentially undeveloped and
undisturbed and that provides
a nice setting for an entrance
to Big Bend without the usual
development found adjacent
to many parks."
the project, the co-op planned to borrow
money from the REA. First, to satisfy
REA requirements, the co-op had to file a
Borrower's Environmental Report (BER)
in which biologists and archaeologists
testified in written reports that there
would be no environmental damage.
Upon approval, the REA issued the co-op
a Finding of No Significant Impact, or
FONSI. (If the BER had not passed, the
co-op would have been required to do a
detailed environmental impact study at a
Believing that the project involved
merely repair of the existing line, the
affected landowners did not discover the
scope of the project until August 1985, a
year and a half after the co-op's board approved
the project. Concern soon turned
to outrage when, upon receiving a copy of
the BER, the landowners discovered that
the biologists and archaeologists who had
submitted reports were also unaware of
the scope of the project.
Together with Susan Combs, a neighboring
landowner, Ben Love contacted
the scientists. "The people who did the
initial work were horrified when they
found out that they had signed off, saying
no impact, when they thought it was just
going to be a reconstruction of the existing
facilities," says Love. "They had no
idea that it would be the project that it
Love feels that the scientists were
asked specific questions that called for
specific answers. Biologist Del Weniger,
who prepared the plant reports, agrees:
"They didn't do a very complete [BER],
I'll have to say that. They were concerned
about endangered species mainly. They
Once built, power lines are there to stay, and
while threatened plant and animal life can be
quantified, the damage to the view cannot.
didn't ask me about any general effects on
the general environment or about the
effects on other plants."
Combs and Love found other faults in
the BER. The report mentioned animals,
like the alligator, that are not indigenous
to West Texas, and omitted many that are.
The BER claimed that the land would revegetate
easily, while in actuality, says
Love, scars remain from when the original
poles were put in thirty years ago.
Alarmed that the co-op was furtively
trying to push the project through, Combs
and Love contacted the REA in Washington,
D.C. Having already issued a
FONSI, the REA put the project on hold
and asked the co-op to redo its BER. In
the meantime, Combs and Love hired a
biologist to try to find a peregrine falcon
within two miles of the power line, a find
that could halt the project.
Another mystery remains for Love and
Combs: Why does the co-op want to undertake
such a project? They contacted
all the users concerned but were unable
to find evidence of a need for increased
power. "The co-op said that they needed
to do it because of the increased need
in the Big Bend Park area," says Susan
Combs. "That's what I understood at
first-that it was a capacity problem. So
we called the Big Bend National Park
who said, 'We don't need any more power.
We're doing fine. We don't have any expansion
So far, the co-op has been evasive
about proving the need, says Love. Before
Here’s what’s next.
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 1987, periodical, Spring 1987; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45438/m1/28/: accessed September 20, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.