SARITA – Johnny Vela, among the latest in a long line of KenedeÃ±os who have worked for generations as coastal cowboys in South Texas, knows the friendly history of the legendary side-by-side Kenedy and King ranches.
“That’s what we’ve always thought,” said Vela, standing outside his modest home a couple of blocks from the Kenedy County courthouse.
Vela and other townsfolk also know that nearly a century and a half of peaceful coexistence has been shattered – and not because of rustling, fences or anything else that might have set neighboring ranches to battle in the Texas of yesteryear.
This modern fight is about wind-powered turbines, namely those the Kenedy’s overseers want and the King’s operators don’t. And instead of duking it out on their vast expanses of largely unspoiled range, it’s a war of words mostly waged in office buildings in Houston, San Antonio, Corpus Christi and even Portland, Ore.
“(King Ranch Chief Executive) Jack Hunt goes around telling lies and misquoting information and has no technical skill whatsoever, trying to mislead the public that wind energy doesn’t exist and doesn’t add any value, doesn’t produce much and is a tax debacle,” said John Calaway, whose company plans to build 157 turbines on a plot now owned by the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation.
Calaway oversees the project from the 40th-floor downtown Houston branch of Babcock & Brown, an Australia-based investment firm.
The mere mention of Hunt’s name might cause smoke to come from his ears if he weren’t so opposed to carbon dioxide emissions.
‘Last great habitat’
Likewise, at the King Ranch’s 16th-floor headquarters in the Galleria area, Hunt gets agitated just thinking about 400-foot-tall turbines picketing the pristine coastal prairie of Kenedy ranch land, which is nearly surrounded by King parcels.
Hunt says Sarita Kenedy East, who until her death in 1961 was the last surviving descendant of ranch founder Mifflin Kenedy, would disapprove.
“People who knew Mrs. Kenedy said she’d be spinning in her grave if she knew these lands were being used for this purpose,” said Hunt. “I don’t think this use is consistent with what the Kenedys had in mind. This area is important environmentally – it’s been called ‘the last great habitat.’ The King Ranch family feels very strongly about stewardship.”
The other wind project is proposed by PPM Energy, which plans to have 267 turbines spinning on another section of the Kenedy Ranch owned by the John G. Kenedy Jr. Trust, which was established upon the death of his childless wife, Elena.
PPM Energy spokeswoman Jan Johnson, lacking the emotion of Calaway, calmly says her company’s project is on course for operation in 2008.
“It’s not uncommon to have a few highly vocal opponents,” said Johnson, whose firm – a subsidiary of Scottish Power – is based on the seventh floor of a Portland building.
Both the foundation and the trust, while separate entities, give heavily to Catholic charities and see the projects as moneymakers for a variety of causes they support.
“We are satisfied that the proposed wind farm project helps advance Mrs. (Elena) Kenedy’s express wishes to preserve the ranch for the benefit of future generations, both in terms of ensuring continued ranching operations, as well as protecting the environmental sensitivities of the area,” according to a joint statement from the trustees, nephew Pablo Seuss and Frost Bank, which is based in a 21-story building in downtown San Antonio.
Marc Cisneros, a retired Army general who heads the Kenedy Memorial Foundation, rejects Hunt’s claim that he and the trust are willing to sacrifice the unique South Texas environment for a quick payday from wind speculators.
“We at the Kenedy Foundation do not take a back seat to the King Ranch or anyone else in concern for wildlife,” said Cisneros from his 17th-floor office in downtown Corpus Christi, adding that “what wildlife worries about is someone shooting at them,” a swipe at the King Ranch’s prominence as a hunting destination.
“We looked at (the wind proposal) very carefully. We were very cognizant of conserving wildlife. We have quantitative data that show it’s not an issue.”
That data is constantly flowing into Calaway’s offices at Continental Center. A diesel-powered radar site, which sits on the lonesome Jaboncillos Pasture somewhere between U.S. 77 and the coast, has been taking continuous sweeps of the airspace since September, tracking every bird to see if dozens of spinning rotors would pose a threat.
“We’re not seeing the ‘river of birds’ that Jack Hunt talks about,” said Calaway, who holds research predicting minimal impact to bird populations. Plus, he said, the turbines practically stop on a dime if a major influx of birds does pour into the area.
Oversight at issue
Hunt admits he doesn’t know whether the turbines will whack a single bird. His problem is that there’s no regulation of building land-mounted turbines in rural areas, so no government body will vet the project.
And Hunt won’t merely take wind operators at their word.
“We haven’t seen any of that bird data,” he said. “It’s not peer-reviewed. How can you trust it when basically it’s been done by the people they’ve hired to do it? … If I wanted to build a feedlot down there, I’d have to have all kinds of permits.”
The issue has been a struggle for bird advocates such as the Audubon Society, which also supports clean energy.
“On balance, Audubon strongly supports wind power as a clean alternative energy source that reduces the threat of global warming,” Audubon President John Flicker wrote in December, outlining the organization’s position.”Location, however, is important.”
Hunt also needles wind projects about federal, local and ratepayer subsidies they receive and successfully fought to prevent them from getting tax abatements in Kenedy County. In return, supporters of the wind projects note the King Ranch receives generous agriculture subsidies, which Hunt acknowledges.
“That’s irrelevant. We participate in the national farm program, and we have to be competitive,” Hunt said.
He noted that a natural gas-fired plant could be built on a smaller footprint without needing any government help.
Kenedy County Commissioner Anne Armstrong, herself a prominent area rancher, said the abatement issue is closed for now.
“As I understand it, and I’m not on the inner loop, (turbine construction) probably will go ahead anyway,” she said, explaining the projects don’t seem to need county help.
It wasn’t always like this. Florida steamboat pilots Mifflin Kenedy and Richard King migrated to Texas to work the Rio Grande and built a fortune spiriting Confederate cotton through Union blockades in the Civil War.
The empty swath of coastal land they co-owned was amicably split and fenced off in 1868, allowing both men to build their own livestock empires while bringing the world to them via roads and rails.
“They were always friends, (Kenedy) and King,” said Homero S. Vera, coordinator of the Kenedy Ranch Museum at the Kenedy Ranch headquarters in Sarita. “As a matter of fact, when King died, Mifflin was there with him at the Menger Hotel (in San Antonio).”
Ranching and more
The King Ranch remains a vital 825,000-acre cattle and horse operation on the fabled Wild Horse Desert that’s co-owned by an array of descendants with varying surnames, Hunt said.
It has diversified broadly into oil and gas, farming in Texas and Florida, hunting, ecotourism and other interests.
The Kenedy legacy holdings are more modest – if you can call 400,000 or so acres modest – but the foundation and trust distribute millions of dollars to charities across Texas each year.
But Johnny Vela didn’t have time to weigh all the talk of turbines, green energy, bird habitats and tax abatements.
He was more preoccupied with a newly headless chicken hanging by its feet from a nearby tree as it bled out prior to plucking.
The night’s supper was Vela’s main concern, not the people trying to build turbines on the range where generations of KenedeÃ±os once rode.
“They’ve got the money. So if it’s going to get done, it’s going to get done,” he said.
By Mark Babineck
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
26 February 2007
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