Ed Ornelas for the Rivard Report
Conflicts between energy producers and conservationists are nothing new in Texas, but a recent fight in Val Verde County centers around wind farms and whether they belong in one of the wildest natural areas left in the state.
Members of the Devils River Conservancy, whose group includes landowners with property on the Devils River, have launched a campaign called “Don’t Blow It,” to advocate against wind development along the Devils and Pecos rivers north of the Texas-Mexico border.
They fear an explosion of wind farms would threaten the historic character of the region. They also say it would affect local tourism, with people from cities like San Antonio and Austin coming to fish and float the Devils River, hunt at properties along its banks, and view the up to 4,000-year-old rock art that ancient cultures left behind.
Wind turbines and their flashing red lights “wouldn’t be great looking, but I feel like there’s so many larger implications,” said Sarah Strunk, a San Antonio digital marketer whose family owns the sprawling Hudspeth River Ranch, where the Devils River begins.
The ranch has been in the family since 1905, according to Alice Ball Strunk, Sarah’s mother. They practice pasture rotation for their 1,500 sheep, 1,200 goats, and 50 cattle, which keeps the plants healthy and does not allow soil to slough off into waterways, she said.
“This place has this wild, extremely natural habitat, and we’ve tried to keep it that way,” Sarah Strunk continued. “If those spaces are just continuing to disappear, where can you go for wild spaces?”
Visitors from outside the region value the Devils River for its crystal-clear water, striking limestone cliffs, and abundant fish and wildlife. The river also faces pressure from littering and pumping of groundwater, which feeds the springs that maintain the river’s flow.
Texas Parks and Wildlife has invested substantially in the river, purchasing the nearly 20,000-acre Del Norte unit in 1988 and another 18,000 acres 13 miles downriver in 2011. Both are now part of Devils River State Natural Area.
Private conservation efforts have worked in tandem with the state. The Nature Conservancy also protected around 129,000 acres of riverfront property using conservation easements. Its 4,700-acre Dolan Falls Preserve safeguards the land around the confluence of the river and the spring-fed Dolan Creek.
So far, Val Verde County has only one wind farm – the Rocksprings wind project completed by French company Akuo in late 2017.
The company’s website states that the 150-megawatt wind farm produces enough clean power to supply nearly 70,000 households while keeping nearly 285,000 tons of global warming carbon dioxide gas out of the atmosphere.
At the time of its completion, Walmart was set to begin purchasing one third of the energy from the project, according to an October 2017 Akuo press release. The other two thirds would go to "another international company."
"This complex project has taken shape because we have been able to call on prominent partners, as well as a competent and highly-committed local team," Akuo Chairman and Co-Founder Eric Scotto said in a statement at the time. "Rocksprings is undoubtedly a model for all our future projects to follow.”
Akuo officials did not respond to a Friday phone call and email seeking comment.
Devils River Conservancy President Randy Nunns said its members are “all in favor of renewable energy,” but want to see wind farms built where land already has been disturbed and converted to other uses.
Dell Dickinson, a rancher and conservancy advisory board member whose ranch house lies about 18 miles from the center of the wind farm, calls the farm an “abomination.”
“This area here represents one of the last remnants of wild Texas,” Dickinson said. “From my standpoint, that includes all of Val Verde County with the many treasures it has to offer to the citizens of Texas.”
Click through the gallery below to see more images from Devils River.
Though about a dozen landowners leased their properties for the Rocksprings project, county land records show that one of the largest parcels included in the wind farm is owned by Brazos Highland Properties, a company based in Houston.
Records show that Brazos Highland has accumulated more than 128,000 acres in Val Verde County, though it's not all contiguous. That adds up to 200 square miles, or a little less than half the size of San Antonio's city limits.
That’s why conservancy members fear a rush of wind development is only a matter of time.
Before passing to Brazos Highland, the large parcel was first purchased by David Frankens, a Lufkin, Texas, investor who has been buying up land in Val Verde County. Most of the property now owned by Brazos Highland were first bought by companies tied to Frankens, records show.
Frankens did not return email and social media messages seeking comment. A phone number associated with Frankens had a full voicemail and was not accepting messages.
“I’m a capitalist and so I don’t have any problem with people making money,” said Dickinson, who ranches sheep and goats at his Skyline Ranch, which has been in his family since 1942.
“Having said that, I also believe there’s caveats to property ownership,” he said. “I don’t believe it gives you the right to harm your neighbor, and that’s what I believe is happening.”
On their “Don’t Blow It” campaign website, conservancy members warn of how the blinking red light that top each turbine would make it harder to see the nightly display of stars and planets. They say the wind farms could negatively affect migrating birds and bats, among other concerns.
Wildlife scientists have found that wind projects do kill birds and bats, though at varying rates depending on the environment. Studies have shown wind projects can kill three to six birds per megawatt per year, according to the American Wind Wildlife Institute.
For a project the size of the Rocksprings wind farm at 150 megawatts, that would be 450 to 900 birds per year. Bat kill rates vary more significantly – ranging from one to two bats to more than 30 bats per megawatt per year, according to the institute.
“The eagles are saying NIMBY; the bats are saying NIMBY,” said Nunns, referring to the common acronym for Not In My Backyard.
In conflicts over land use, neighbors and opposition groups can sometimes be referred to as NIMBYs – people who reflexively oppose new projects simply because they don’t want to live near them.
Dickinson has given much thought to whether his group is engaging in NIMBYism. He offered a nuanced take on their motivations during a recent phone interview.
“I agree it’s NIMBY, I really do,” Dickinson said. “However, it needs to be taken in the proper context. To me, it’s a great attitude for all of us to take, because the Devils River, after all, belongs to all of us … Once it’s gone, we can’t get it back.”