South Texas groups trying to stop state’s land swap with SpaceX

SpaceX rockets at the launch pad at the Brownsville facility on Oct. 20, 2021. Texas Parks and Wildlife is negotiating a land swap that would give the company part of Boca Chica State Park. (Michael Gonzalez/The Texas Tribune, Michael Gonzalez/The Texas Tribune)

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A coalition of Rio Grande Valley organizations have filed a lawsuit against the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, seeking to block the state agency from pursuing a land swap with Elon Musk’s SpaceX spacecraft company.

Last month, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission voted unanimously to pursue an exchange that would give 43 acres of Boca Chica State Park to SpaceX in exchange for 477 acres adjacent to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Rio Grande Valley residents opposed the exchange, arguing that Boca Chica is sacred to the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas and that the public park has long been a favorite recreational outpost for the majority Hispanic community in the Rio Grande Valley.

In the lawsuit filed last week in the district court of Travis County, environmental groups argue that the exchange is unlawful because the state failed to consider alternatives to giving away public land and failed to ensure the minimization of harm to public land. The groups also argue that the state did not consider the best interests of the local community. The suit states that SpaceX does not own the land the state would receive in the swap. The Texas Standard reported in January that Musk was still negotiating the purchase of the private land.

“This is just the latest example of our state officials failing to fulfill their obligations to Texans, whenever SpaceX is involved,” Marisa Perales, an attorney representing the three Rio Grande Valley organizations who filed the lawsuit, said in a statement. “Protecting public park land and the public's interest means saying ‘no’ to the demands of SpaceX, whose space flight activities have caused harm to public lands and wildlife habitats.”

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department acquired Boca Chica State Park, located at Texas’ southernmost point along the Gulf Coast, in 1994 through a federal program aimed to preserve the land. The area provides habitat for some endangered species.

SpaceX began purchasing land in the area in 2012 to build a rocket manufacturing and test launch facility. The lawsuit alleges that SpaceX’s operations have caused damage to public lands by increasing runoff of stormwater and creating pollution.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department declined to comment on the lawsuit but said the agency has, for many years, been interested in the 477 acres they will acquire through the land swap.

“The 477 acres offered to TPWD near Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge encompass one of the most biologically diverse regions in North America, sheltering endangered species, winter fowl and other migratory birds,” said Cory Chandler, an agency spokesperson. “The land has been of interest to us and the conservation community for many years and an exchange would create a tenfold return while allowing TPWD to work with partners in the region to plan for a new state park for public enjoyment with access for fishing, kayaking, wildlife viewing, hiking, biking and family gatherings in a rapidly developing region of Texas.”

Disclosure: 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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