COMSTOCK – Exactly how the Devils River got its forbidding name is lost to history, but there is little doubt the harsh terrain and fierce natives who once reigned here played a role.
“It is far from any habitation, in a barren waste surrounded by hostile Comanches, but it is a beautiful place,” noted one early visitor.
A century and a half later, the natural beauty remains and the rushing, spring-fed Devils owns the reputation as the last unspoiled river in Texas.
It’s milky-green currents slide through a wilderness unmarred by settlements or commerce. The only disturbance is the occasional blast of a low-flying Air Force training jet.
But all is not well here. A plan by a billionaire Chinese industrialist named Sun Guangxim to build a huge wind farm is causing seismic upset among longtime landowners.
“It’s a total crisis. We depend on ecotourism. The turbines will affect the deer. They kill birds. And we’re on the flyway for the monarch butterflies,” said Alice Ball Strunk, 63, whose great-grandfather Claude Hudspeth began acquiring the ranch in 1905.
The project by Sun’s GH America Energy also threatens to disrupt critical pilot training missions at Laughlin AFB in nearby Del Rio.
Last week, the obscure West Texas energy project was thrust into the national spotlight when a right-wing news commentator denounced it as a threat to national security.
Since 2015, Sun, who made much of his wealth in Chinese real estate and energy, has purchased about 140,000 acres of back country northwest of Del Rio.
It is unclear how many turbines Sun could potentially build there. He is already moving forward with the first phase, called the Blue Hills Wind Farm, a 51-turbine project on one northern holding.
His company is also exploring using some of the land for solar power projects.
Sun declined to respond to a list of questions sent to his representative in Texas.
This is a timeless place of prowling mountain lions, dark night skies and Indian pictographs in hidden caves.
Once sprinkled with sheep and goats, many of the large family ranches now are used only for hunting or have been acquired by real estate speculators.
Vast protected areas also belong to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Nature Conservancy, the Texas Agricultural Land Trust and private owners with conservation easements.
“In Texas, the Nature Conservancy is invested heavily in a lot of places, but nowhere more so than the Devils River,” said Jeff Francell, the conservancy’s director of land protection.
The main source of the pristine river surfaces in a lush grove of pecan and sycamore trees on Strunk’s ranch.
“What worries me is that the springs are on my place, and they own the next land over, about a half-mile away. The danger is that they will degrade the water,” Strunk said. “I just hate that they are going to industrialize right next door. The eye pollution, the lights, the noise …. .”
The prospect of 700-foot tall wind turbines sprouting on hilltops also worries officials at Laughlin, which trains 300 new pilots a year as one of three Air Force pilot training bases.
Col. Lee Gentile Jr., the base commander at Laughlin declined to be interviewed.
A critical hurdle for the wind farm is for its backers to reach an agreement with military authorities on a plan to mitigate interference with flights from the air base.
Former air base commander Dave Belote, now a mitigation specialist hired by GH America Energy, said agreements for foreign-owned projects typically include many security safeguards.
“You have to give the DoD (Department of Defense) access to the site and to the data stream anytime they ask for it. You also have to give the DoD prior notice of any foreign national who will be on the site,” he said.
Since the air base pumps an estimated $2 billion a year into Val Verde County’s economy, elected officials are eyeing the proposed wind farm project with trepidation.
“My position, and probably the county’s, is that if it affects Laughlin Air Force Base, and hampers their ability to perform their mission, we are going to oppose it,” said County Commissioner Beau Nettleton.
“I’m all for private property rights, but we have to protect the one thing that is the economic engine for Del Rio,” he added.
But because there are few legal or regulatory obstacles to such wind projects, even those built near a military base, there is little anyone can do if Sun decides to go forward.
“Unfortunately, counties don‘t have the authority to regulate wind farms,” Nettleton said. “So we’re looking at legislation in the next session that would grant a county that authority on these type of projects that would have a direct effect on a military base’s ability to perform its mission.”
THE APEX OF TEXAS RIVERS
Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, has spoken out against development in the area, about 200 miles west of San Antonio.
“The Lower Pecos and Devils River country represent one of the last true bastions of wilderness in our state,” he said, citing the department’s long-term efforts to preserve the area.
“Proposals to further intensively develop the area surrounding the Devils River run counter to many of the values that ranchers, conservationists, biologists and outdoor enthusiasts alike have labored long and hard to protect,” he added.
In 1988, the state bought 20,000 acres on the Devils River to create the Del Norte State Natural Area. In 2011, it added 18,000 acres to the south, which became the Dan A. Hughes State Natural Area.
The Devils River ends at the 57,000-acre Amistad National Recreation Area a few miles west of Del Rio.
TPWD aquatic biologist Chad Norris, whose specialty is springs, said the Devils represents “the apex of rivers in Texas.”
“Certainly the Comal and San Marcos are wonderful rivers, but they are pretty developed,” he said. “If there is any place in Texas that deserves preservation, it’s the undeveloped watershed of the Devils River.”
One of the large ranches acquired by Sun in Val Verde County, formerly called the Morning Star Ranch, is apparently being kept for his personal use. It has a high fence, a large hunting lodge and jet runway, and he reportedly visits periodically.
Members of the Devils River Conservancy, a group created 10 years ago to protect the area, are in regular communication with Sun’s representatives.
“We have talked to them about all kinds of alternatives. We’ve offered exit strategies. The one thing they have told us is that if the economics are not there, they won’t proceed,” Conservancy President Randy Nunns said.
“But in that case, they might just sell it to another developer, and it might end up as ranchettes. We would still oppose the country being carved up,” he said.
West Texas is a windy place, and Texas ranks first in the country for both operating wind energy projects and those under construction, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
The state has about 15,000 wind turbines spread among some 160 projects. Together they generate around 30,000 megawatts of power, enough to power 7.7 million homes, according to the trade association.
The current low price of natural gas, also used in power production, has cut into the profit margins of wind farms.
Among the questions that appear unresolved about Sun’s mega-project is if it is economically feasible to build a wind farm in such a rugged and inaccessible area, one with few roads or transmission lines.
It’s also unclear if the available transmission lines operated by ERCOT (Energy Reliability Council of Texas) have the capacity to the absorb any additional load.
A former wind energy executive, Wayne Walker, 52, who with his brothers Philip and Caton, owns a ranch adjacent to the Blue Hills property, said time is running short for Sun’s wind project to prove itself.
“If they don’t get Department of Defense approval or if ERCOT says there is not enough capacity, they go home. They won’t build it. And both should be known by the end of the year,” he added.
Walker, who developed wind projects for Horizon Wind Energy in Houston, said there is another wild card in the deck.
“The worm in the tequila jar is the political part. You don’t have to watch the news for more than 30 seconds to see that,” he added.
After a March visit to Del Rio, where he met with local officials and Air Force personnel, Sen. Ted Cruz told the Del Rio Herald that the air base is “dealing with the distinct problem of a Chinese-owned company threatening to imperil training routes.”
Noting that China is “America’s most significant long-term geopolitical rival,” Cruz said, “China has demonstrated a willingness to invest billions of dollars expanding it’s surveillance state.”
“These Chinese towers, if constructed, pose a threat not only to air training, but also of potential security vulnerabilities,” he added.
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, (R-23) who has been monitoring the proposed wind farm, said the issue is much broader than compromised air training routes.
“This is a question of foreign ownership of energy supply and, if you are a wind farmer, of trying to put it on the grid,” he said.
“A U.S. company could not go to China and buy land anywhere near a Chinese military installation. So why are we allowing a well-known Chinese company whose leader is well entrenched in the Chinese Communist Party, to do that in the United States?” he asked.
50,000 Hungry Coyotes
For the scattered residents of the Devils River area, the threats posed by a large wind farm are hardly abstractions.
Three years ago, a project with 69 turbines, each 500 feet tall, began operating on the eastern border of Val Verde County.
Owned by French and Middle Eastern entities, the so-called Rocksprings Val Verde Wind Farm covers 15,000 acres along U.S. 277 and is within about 15 miles of the Devils River. Some of the land belongs to Sun.
Dell Dickinson, 76, who lives in his grandparents’ house on a ridge about 18 miles to the west, vividly recalls its launch.
“The first night they turned on these high-intensity, blood red synchronized lights, I literally thought the Martians had landed,” he recalled with a grimace.
Since then, he has kept the blinds on the east side of his house permanently shut, to avoid the turbine lights.
“Having lived out here, I’m one of those guys who loves to see forever,” he said.
“If we’re not careful, we’ll see Val Verde County turned into a huge pin cushion, with the wind towers being the pins,” he added.
Dickinson’s 7,000-acre spread includes 4½ miles of river frontage. Along the banks, he said, are caves and shelters that were inhabited by native people thousands of years ago.
In his living room, he has a collection of various points and arrow heads gathered on his ranch, including several unique to the Devils River area.
What his ranch doesn’t have these days is livestock. Instead it has coyotes, bobcats and foxes in abundance.
“We have a terrible problem with predators,” he said, adding that last year, after not a single lamb survived, he moved his last 600 head of wool sheep to another property.
“The problem is that this used to be a ranching community where the ranchers supported each other to keep the predators in check. Now, we’re the only working ranch left in the area,” he said.
Things are only slightly better 15 miles to the north, at the Hudspeth River Ranch, where Strunk still runs sheep and goats on 16,000 acres.
“We have about 2,000 sheep. We don’t know how many goats we have because they are such escape artists,” she said.
Both are meat animals and some of the lamb is served at restaurants in San Antonio. But predators also get their share.
“Eat More Lamb, 50,000 Coyotes Can’t Be Wrong,” reads a bumper sticker on her truck.
The herds are guarded in the rocky pastures by sheep dogs. She also has trappers at work, setting snares.
Coyotes and bobcats, however, are a minor worry compared to huge wind turbines.
”It drives me crazy, because it doesn’t make any economic sense. They just want to prove they can be successful wind farmers in America,” she said of the Chinese.
A few miles south of her ranch, on a recent weekday morning, a group of five urban kayakers were about to launch a four-day fishing trip. Their start was at Bakers Crossing, a site on Texas 163 named for a pioneering cattleman.
“It’s just crystal clear and there’s a lot of bass in here, all catch and release,” said Derrick Shroyer, 34, of Austin. Two years ago, he caught a 4½-pound large mouth bass when he made the same float.
“It’s one of the few rivers that everyone actually cares about. People take out whatever trash they bring in,” he added.
The prospect of large wind turbines twirling from nearby hilltops came as an unpleasant surprise.
“I don’t want to see that. That’s the whole reason we come out here, to get away from all that,” said Matt Hillis, 34, also of Austin. “They will take down a lot of trees, build roads all over the place, and bring in power lines.”