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Texas greenlights negotiations with SpaceX for Boca Chica State Park land exchange

By Alejandra Martinez, The Texas Tribune

Texas greenlights negotiations with SpaceX for Boca Chica State Park land exchange” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission voted unanimously Monday to pursue an exchange that would give 43 acres of Boca Chica State Park in Cameron County to Elon Musk’s SpaceX spacecraft company.

The state park land would be swapped for 477 acres adjacent to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, an area the agency has been interested in for many years because it’s “one of the most biologically diverse regions in North America” and provides habitat for endangered species and migratory birds, the agency said.

The vote grants Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staff the authority to begin negotiations with SpaceX for the land swap, including conducting environmental assessments that could take up to 18 months.

At a press conference after the meeting, Several South Texas community and environmental groups held signs reading “protect Boca Chica Beach” and said they are disappointed with the agency’s decision.

Boca Chica, a 1,354-acre park located at Texas’ southernmost point along the Gulf Coast, about 20 miles east of Brownsville, has long been a favorite swimming and fishing destination for the majority Hispanic community in the Rio Grande Valley.

At Monday’s TPWD meeting in Austin — the last opportunity for people to give feedback on the land swap — almost all chairs were occupied and people stood in the back. During nearly four hours of public testimony, most speakers opposed the exchange, including some who drove more than 300 miles to Austin from Brownsville in three minivans.

“Boca Chica Beach is the first place that my little brother went to a beach. I went there the day my sister was born and most recently I spread my uncle’s ashes there. Please do not give SpaceX an inch because they will take a mile,” said Emma Guevara, who grew up in Brownsville and is now a member of South Texas Environmental Justice Network and a field organizer in Brownsville for the Sierra Club.

Stephanie Garcia, a TPWD spokesperson said in an email last week the exchange would not affect public beach access through the park or along State Highway 4. Garcia said the 477 acres the state would receive is located along the Lower Laguna Madre — the shallow bay between the coast and South Padre Island — and would increase public beach access.

Garcia added that the small tracts that make up the 43 acres the state is exchanging do not include any water frontage and are surrounded by private properties or existing SpaceX facilities. According to the agency, the land the state is receiving could be used for fishing, kayaking, hiking, camping and birding.

SpaceX did not respond to an emailed request for comment regarding what the land will be used for. Texas Public Radio reports SpaceX has a massive expansion project underway, which includes employee housing and office space.

At Monday’s meeting, some said they feared the development would potentially harm endangered species like ocelots, Piping Plover birds, and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles.

TPWD has done a land swap before. In 2019, TPWD acquired 1,280 acres for the JD Murphree Wildlife Management Area in Port Arthur in exchange for 126 acres that Port Arthur LNG used to expand its facilities to export natural gas.

This was the second time the agency scheduled a vote on the Boca Chica land swap — the first was delayed in late January after public backlash by conservationists and some South Texas residents who said the deal was being rushed and TPWD violated its open meetings code by not providing enough notice to Spanish speakers about the proposal.

Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr., who originally opposed the land swap because TPWD did not involve him in the decision making, said he now supports it for conservation reasons.

“This land (the state would receive) is a treasure trove of biodiversity,” Treviño said at the meeting. “Let us embrace this opportunity to safeguard our natural heritage, foster community engagement and create enduring legacies for generations to come.”

Environmental groups and community members are not convinced, pointing out that SpaceX has restricted public access to the beach before.

In 2021, Treviño ordered the beach to close for about 500 hours over 100 separate days for SpaceX rocket operations. Rio Grande Valley community, Indigenous and environmental groups sued county and state officials in 2021 for allowing SpaceX to restrict and close public access to Boca Chica Beach, claiming that beach access is protected by the state law. The lawsuit is still ongoing.

At Monday’s meeting Kathryn Lueders, a general manager for SpaceX’s launch site Starbase, said she believes both SpaceX and the state are winners in a land exchange.

“Those launches are exciting the young minds that are watching them … children become what they see,” Lueders said as people booed behind her. “Today it is not an aspiration to be a rocket scientist and work in the Rio Grande Valley. It is a reality. And one day we hope those kids that are following the launches are seeing themselves and a future spacecraft launching.”

Juan Mancias, the Tribal Chair of the Esto’k Gna Tribal Nation of Texas, said he opposes the land exchange because it will limit access to his tribe’s sacred areas.

“This land is our ancestral land. These were lands that were fishing areas for my people,” Mancias said. “If you are looking at us as if we don’t exist, we are here.”

As the meeting continued, some criticized TPWD, saying they were not giving Spanish-speakers enough time to speak, provided subpar translation services and held the meeting six hours from the homes of community members who would be most impacted by the swap.

Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, asked TPWD staff to stop the vote. Reed said Texas voters approved $1 billion to buy more land for the state parks system, which could be used to buy the 477 acres and keep the existing state-owned 43 acres.

TPWD Commission Chair Jeffery Hildebrand said new state park funding would be used to develop the 477 acres into a state park if the negotiations are successful.

Last year, a SpaceX rocket launch sent dust and debris raining down on South Texas neighborhoods when it spun in circles and exploded after takeoff. During Monday’s meeting some residents said they felt their houses move during the launch and others said debris broke windows.

A coalition of environmental groups concerned about environmental harm later sued the Federal Aviation Administration, alleging the government did not do enough to protect against or mitigate “significant environmental harm.”

Disclosure: The Texas Parks And Wildlife Department has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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