Parts of the burn area from the "Powerline Fire" in Big Bend National Park, which was fully contained on Friday, February 5, 2016. (Big Bend National Park)

Parts of the burn area from the "Powerline Fire" in Big Bend National Park, which was fully contained on Friday, February 5, 2016. (Big Bend National Park)

Wildfire in Big Bend National Park Fully Contained

The “Powerline Fire” that burned almost 1,800 acres in Big Bend National Park last week was fully contained on Friday (February 5).

That fire was sparked from a downed powerline last Monday with heavy winds and dry conditions across the region.

The park said in a Facebook post that smoke from the fire was barely visible late Friday, that it wanted to “enthusiastically” thank all the people involved in bringing the fire under control.

That included crews from the Terlingua Volunteer Fire Department, from BLM and National Park Service offices in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness region, from Carlsbad and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks and more.

The park said a total of 91 people helped fight the fire, including 14 people from “Los Diablos”, the elite firefighting crew from just across the border in Mexico. A helicopter was on hand dumping water on the flames Thursday, and by Friday morning, firefighters had developed a strong perimeter around the fire and stopped it from spreading.

No structures or people were threatened throughout the time the fire was burning. All park roads and the two backcountry campsites that were closed late last week are now back open.

The first shipments of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline into the Big Bend arrive to a staging area north of Alpine. (Travis Bubenik/KRTS)

The first shipments of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline into the Big Bend arrive to a staging area north of Alpine. (Travis Bubenik/KRTS)

As Opposition Broadens Its Approach, Pipeline Shipments Arrive in Big Bend Region

For more than a year now, there’s been a lot of talk about the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in the Big Bend area.

We’ve heard from those who are strongly opposed to it and from those who say it would be a good thing for the region, namely, for the border city of Presidio.

This week, just as opponents were announcing their latest efforts to try to stop the planned natural gas pipeline from the Permian Basin to Mexico, the prospects for it being built became a little more real for people in the Big Bend, when the first shipments of pipe arrived by train near Alpine.

A train engine idled on the tracks just outside of the town Wednesday afternoon. More than 30 flatbed rail cars carrying green 42″ pipe were being unloaded onto the ground – apparently a new staging site for the pipeline.

Rancher Joel Nelson owns land near where the pipe’s being unloaded. He’s been an outspoken opponent of the pipeline, part of which will cut through his land.

Driving up a dusty road in his white pickup, rifle in the passenger seat, Nelson says he’s “highly dismayed” at the sight of the train and all that pipe. 

“It seems now like it’s definitely gonna happen, and I’ve had that feeling all along that it probably would,” he says.

“There are still, I suppose, a couple of possibilities, but it’s kinda beginning to look like it’s something we’re gonna have to accept.”


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Billy Faier gave Marfa Public Radio his record album, but never granted an interview.

Billy Faier gave Marfa Public Radio his record album, but never granted an interview.

West Texas Remembers “Banjo” Billy Faier

Legendary Folk Musician Billy Faier died early Saturday morning. He lived in Marathon in West Texas and played the five-string banjo. He played with some of the giants of the post-war folk music scene and made many recordings.

The life of “Banjo Billy” – Billy Faier of Marathon – reads like the history of the folk music revival. In the 1940s he lived in Woodstock, New York, and then in the city near Washington Square Park. He traveled with Woody Guthrie and Rambling Jack Elliot, hung out with Pete Seeger, Odetta, John Fahey, and a young Bob Dylan. He lived in Greenwich Village and hitch-hiked to San Francisco, where he hosted a folk music show on one of the first public radio stations. He was living in New Orleans, when Rambling Jack wrote this about him in the song “912 Greens”:

While we were down there, we had the name of a fellow to look up, Billy Faier, a 5-string banjo picker.

He liked the open spaces of West Texas and worried about over-population, as Rambling Jack said on a visit here: “It seemed like every place is getting swarmed-over by humans and that may not be a good thing for the planet.”

Faier found a tribe of local musicians, who would just sit around a fire and play songs. He played with Wendy Lynn Wright of Casa Piedra, Paul Graybeal of Marfa, and appeared in the Dry Creek Diggers with Drew Stuart, who said, “Singing with other people was really a social experience for him and something that made him feel connected.”

 
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U.S. Sen. and presidential candidate Marco Rubio of Florida speaks at a rally in Dallas on Jan. 6, 2016. (Cooper Neill)

U.S. Sen. and presidential candidate Marco Rubio of Florida speaks at a rally in Dallas on Jan. 6, 2016. (Cooper Neill)

Marco Rubio Announces Texas Leadership Team

WASHINGTON — On the heels of his strong third-place finish in Iowa, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida announced his Texas leadership team Tuesday morning.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz placed first in Iowa’s Monday evening contest, and is expected to also best Rubio in Texas’ March 1 primary. That said, Texas delegates will be awarded proportionally. That could give Rubio an opportunity to pick up some delegates, if not an all-out statewide win.

Outside of fundraising, Rubio has not invested much infrastructure in the state. But in recent weeks, Texas GOP operatives say they’ve seen an uptick in volunteers, turnout and organization for Rubio at local Republican events.

And the Rubio Texas team now includes current and former state representatives.


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Prosecutors Kelly Bazie & Bill Parham, Brewster County Courthouse, Alpine TX, February 1, 2016 (Steve Anderson/KRTS).

Prosecutors Kelly Bazie & Bill Parham, Brewster County Courthouse, Alpine TX, February 1, 2016 (Steve Anderson/KRTS).

McWilliams Convicted of Murder in Alpine Trial

UPDATED February 2, 2015, 12:15 PM: McWilliams is sentenced to life in prison.

A guilty verdict has been reached in the murder trial in Alpine. Keith Alan McWilliams has been convicted of murdering Walter “Trey” Sands on October 30, 2014.

On Monday afternoon, it took the jury a little more than an hour to find McWilliams guilty of murder.

In his closing statement, the defendant’s lawyer, Bart Medley, asked the jury to acquit on all charges. He spent most his time arguing the state had failed to prove his client had acted intentionally or knowingly. Medley claimed that if McWilliams was guilty of anything, it was only of manslaughter, which requires a finding of reckless conduct.

Medley told the jury that while Trey’s death was a “tragedy,” it was the result of a “stupid, drunken fight that got way, way, way out of hand.” The jury clearly rejected that characterization.


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Terrell County Sheriff Clint McDonald in his office in rural Sanderson, TX. (Travis Bubenik/KRTS)

Terrell County Sheriff Clint McDonald in his office in rural Sanderson, TX. (Travis Bubenik/KRTS)

Sheriffs Want a Bigger Share of Texas Border Security Funding

There’s been a recent uptick in the number of unaccompanied minors and families crossing the Texas border illegally. In December, Governor Greg Abbott said he was responding by sending more state troopers to the border and keeping the state national guard in place there.

Abbott’s move is just the latest in a string of similar efforts stemming back to Rick Perry’s time as governor.

But some border sheriffs continue to question the way the state’s spending money on border security.

First, let’s be clear about something: border authorities like Terrell County Sheriff Clint McDonald do not think the border should be less secure.

McDonald made that clear at a state hearing on immigration law in December, where he also echoed the governor’s well known frustration with the federal government.

“We see right now that our border is wide open,” McDonald told lawmakers. “We have the laws in Washington, D.C. to secure our border, but the policies in which our nation is enforcing our laws are not allowing the immigration laws to be effective on our southern border.”

Sheriff McDonald’s the current head of a group of 21 Texas border sheriffs who agree in principal with Abbott and other Republicans that the border needs to be tightened up, but they disagree about how to do it.

At the center of that disagreement is money.


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Artifacts at the site of Porvenir Massacre, collected by Glenn Justice (Jessica Lutz).

Artifacts at the site of Porvenir Massacre, collected by Glenn Justice (Jessica Lutz).

A New Look at the Porvenir Massacre of 1918

January 28 marks a dark period in regional history. In 1918 more than a dozen West Texas residents – of Mexican descent – were executed near the border. The Texas Rangers were implicated in the killings, but said they were defending themselves against Mexican bandits. Now, modern investigations have thrown this version of history into question.

Historian Lonn Taylor is at a topographical map of Far West Texas, pointing to one of the most remote sections. “I’m running my finger along US 90 here on this map.” A few months ago, he was here, at the site of what’s called the Porvenir Massacre. “It’s extremely rugged, mountainous, especially on the Mexican side, lots of arroyos, extremely arid.”

Border life was chaotic back in the second decade of the 20th century. The Mexican Revolution was raging and there were skirmishes on both sides of the Rio Grande. “In the Big Bend you just had a river between you and a Civil War, ” said Glenn Justice, an historian who writes about the Big Bend region. A century ago, Pancho Villa and his supporters were leading raids on American ranches and the U.S. military was in turn pursuing bandits into Mexico. “And it caused President Woodrow Wilson to order some 200,000 national guardsmen to the border.”

Most soldiers were off fighting in World War I, but cavalry units and national guardsmen were sent in for protection. Tensions were high in December 1917, when the Brite Ranch, owned by a Marfa family, was looted. According to Taylor, the lawmen thought: “That the people at a little village on this side of the Rio Grande had participated in the Brite Ranch raid and that they had some of the loot from the store.”


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The growing number of oil rigs pulled in from the oilfield and stored in this lot in Odessa, Texas is a testament to the steep decline in the price of crude oil in the last year. (Lorne Matalon/KRTS)

The growing number of oil rigs pulled in from the oilfield and stored in this lot in Odessa, Texas is a testament to the steep decline in the price of crude oil in the last year. (Lorne Matalon/KRTS)

As Oil Labor Force Shrinks, West Texas Food Bank Expands

Oil has been trading below $30 a barrel this week and that’s bad news for the labor force in the Permian Basin. Some workers aren’t just out of a job, they’re barely staying afloat. But there’s one safety net that’s gotten bigger.

This summer in a cramped Odessa office of the West Texas Food Bank, Director Libby Campbell was looking to stretch her wings: “You know we’re in the process of finishing our first building, which is a 61,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility that has triple the size of cooler and freezer than we have now, so we’ll be able to store more fresh foods.”

But she’s there now, with an official opening of the new facility in Odessa. And the new cooler-freezer space is making a difference – for example, when the dairy guys came knocking. “So within the second hour that we were moving in, we were able to take an extra donation of milk that we have never been able to accept before.”


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Eagles One Of These nights

From West Texas, an Eagles Image-Maker Remembers Glenn Frey

Musician Glenn Frey died this week at age 67. With his band, the Eagles, he helped craft a country-rock sound that defined 1970s pop music in California. But there was a West Texas connection to this iconic West Coast band.

Artist Boyd Elder is from the town of Valentine, Texas, where he still lives. But he was in Hawaii when he learned of Glenn Frey’s death. “Glenn and I go back like 40 years.”

One of the Eagles’ first live shows was at Elder’s art opening in Venice, California, “And they only knew like seven songs. They played seven songs, take a break, and then play seven songs again.”

The Eagles had some of the best-selling albums of their time. And it was Elder who painted their album covers. “Without Glenn and his appreciation of my art and my appreciation of his, there wouldn’t be those millions and millions of album covers.”


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A hiker in Big Bend National Park, January 2, 2016 (Tom Michael / Marfa Public Radio)

A hiker in Big Bend National Park, January 2, 2016 (Tom Michael / Marfa Public Radio)

It’s the Centennial Year for the National Parks

This year, 2016, is the centennial for the National Park Service. And Big Bend National Park is expecting a rise in visitors.

It’s January 2nd and a rare desert rain is pouring off the roof at the Panther Junction Visitors Center. Just returning from a hike, Joselyn Fenstermacher of Alpine is not bothered. “Love it,” she said, “so special. This is totally setting the stage for amazing spring wildflowers. It’s the smell of creosote. It’s the beautiful clouds wafting through the canyons.”

After a 10-hour drive from Galveston, Kimberly Beatty wasn’t disappointed either to see those rain clouds: “It makes the mountains ominous with all the clouds and the fog.” She got married in the park 9 years ago, but for Mike Hoff of Austin, it’s his first visit. “We just decided to take a road trip and west looked the clearest on the weather, so we decided to head west.”

Most people don’t just drop by Big Bend National Park. It’s remote and hours from any city. That’s why it’s important, Fenstermacher says – even for those who never go. “Maybe people that never visit, but yet they support the idea of having a wilderness, so it’s ok for my tax dollars to support that system for the advantage of lots of people. Whether it’s underserved kids getting into the wilderness for the first time or if it’s stressed-out office workers, needing to take a chill pill so they can recover themselves, so they can continue to make the economy work.”


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A sign opposing the Trans-Pecos pipeline hangs in a neighborhood near where the pipeline could run near Alpine. (Cooper Neill)

A sign opposing the Trans-Pecos pipeline hangs in a neighborhood near where the pipeline could run near Alpine. (Cooper Neill)

Protested Big Bend Pipeline Now Closer to Approval

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with a statement from an Energy Transfer Partners spokeswoman.

A coalition of ranchers, environmentalists and disgruntled landowners has suffered a major setback in its battle to block a proposed pipeline that would carry natural gas beneath 143 miles of largely untouched Big Bend-area land.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff offered a key endorsement of a stretch of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, writing that it “would not constitute a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,” in a draft environmental assessment issued Monday.

The agency, which would regulate a part of the project that crosses into Mexico, also declined to expand its environmental review to the entire project as opponents had sought.

“Unfortunately, the most negative, worst-case outcome is what we’ve received,” the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, the group leading the protest, said in a statement that accused the agency of “burying its head in the sand.”

The 42-inch-wide pipeline would start at the Waha storage hub near Fort Stockton and cut through Pecos, Brewster and Presidio counties before crossing beneath the Rio Grande near the town of Presidio. It could bring up to 1.4 billion cubic feet of gas each day into Mexico, where officials have recently opened up the energy sector to private companies.

Its planners include Energy Transfer Partners and Mexico’s Carso Energy — a partnership that links Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren with Carso’s Carlos Slim, one of the world’s richest men.

Vicki Granado, an Energy Transfer spokeswoman, said Monday that the company was “pleased” with the federal agency’s latest assessment. Energy Transfer plans to start construction in the coming months.


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Pipe for the Trans-Pecos Pipeline being staged near Fort Stockton in the spring of 2015 (John Jennings)

Pipe for the Trans-Pecos Pipeline being staged near Fort Stockton in the spring of 2015 (John Jennings)

Feds Release Environmental Assessment of Pipeline Border Crossing

This story has been updated to include a comment from Energy Transfer, the pipeline company.

Federal regulators have released an environmental assessment of the planned Trans-Pecos Pipeline’s border crossing section, a 1,093-feet stretch of the 143-mile pipeline that would carry natural gas into Mexico from the Permian Basin.

In the assessment, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) writes that if the border segment is built according to plans already laid out in federal filings by Energy Transfer (the pipeline company), any impacts would be “short-term” and “would not contribute meaningfully to cumulative impacts in the area.”

The border crossing segment is the only part of the pipeline under federal jurisdiction. The rest of it is regulated by the Texas Railroad Commission, though opponents with the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA) take issue with that and would like to see the entire line regulated by the federal government.

The no-impact finding comes despite hundreds of public comments filed by people who fear the pipeline will harm the region.


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A helicopter helps stop the spread of the "Powerline Fire" in Big Bend National Park on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016. (Big Bend National Park)

Big Bend Wildfire Expected to be Contained This Weekend

Firefighters are getting a handle on the “Powerline Fire” that’s burned more than 1,700 acres in Big Bend National Park this week.

The park said Friday morning the fire was 75% contained and had stopped actively spreading. Park spokesperson David Elkowitz said it’s expected the fire will be fully contained sometime this weekend.

“Crews were able to make it around the entire fire permitter, we are not expecting it to spread today,” Elkowitz said. “They’re likely going to go around the fire perimeter one more time, work the hot spots, pull in the edges.”

Elkowitz said the park is hoping to reach 100% containment this weekend, possibly as soon as Saturday.

As of Thursday evening, the fire had burned and estimated 1,790 acres after beginning near Panther Junction, park headquarters.

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A wildfire continues to burn east of Panther Junction in Big Bend National Park. The fire has burned nearly 2,000 acres so far. (Big Bend National Park)

1,500 Acres Burned as Big Bend Wildfire Continues

A grassland wildfire that began in Big Bend National Park Monday afternoon has burned 1,500 acres this week, the park said Thursday morning.

Earlier this week the park had estimated the fire at nearly 2,000 acres, but that number was dropped after “more accurate mapping,” the park said.

“Areas to the south/southeast are actively burning, but roadways and trails remain open,” the park said. “The road to Rio Grande Village may intermittently close if smoke or fire approach the roadway.”

The park plans to use a helicopter to drop water over the fire Thursday, and additional resources are expected.

The fire was sparked from a downed power line on Monday around 5 P.M. near Panther Junction, the park’s headquarters.

Heavy winds howled across West Texas earlier this week, helping the fire spread quickly. It had initially stopped spreading by Tuesday morning, but the winds picked up again that afternoon and started moving the fire into more rugged, hard-to-reach terrain.

The park said the fire hasn’t yet posed a threat to people or structures, or led to any injuries. It’s continued burning grass and desert shrubs in remote terrain east of Panther Junction, smoldering in some areas and burning with open flames in others.

The fire was flaring up on its southern and eastern flanks this week. On Wednesday, the fire grew closer to the road between Panther Junction and the Rio Grande Village campground, forcing a brief closure of that road. Still, the park said the fire remained south of that road and hasn’t jumped it to the north since Monday.

The park as a whole remain opens, except for two backcountry campsites near the fire – Nugent Mountain and Chilicotal. Visitors are being asked to not stop in the burn areas or approach the fire.

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Cassin's Sparrow, photograph by Bill Bouton

Spring’s Sweet Song: Cassin’s Sparrows in West Texas

The land lies parched. The prairie grasses are brittle. After months of dry winter weather, wind is blowing away the dusty soil of West Texas.   Then, on a warm February day – a song, piercing and sweet. Long before … Continue reading

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Wildfire Burns Almost 2,000 Acres in Big Bend National Park

This post is being updated continually with information as we receive it.

A grassland wildfire that began in Big Bend National Park Monday afternoon has grown to almost 2,000 acres, the park said Wednesday afternoon.

The fire began from a downed power line around 5 P.M. Monday evening near Panther Junction, the park’s headquarters. (We spoke with park spokesperson David Elkowitz on Morning Edition at 8:45 AM on Wednesday – listen to the audio above for that conversation.)

Here’s what we know about the fire so far (as of Wednesday evening, 2/3/16):

– Big Bend National Park said Wednesday the fire had so far burned almost 2,000 acres. The fire was not actively spreading Tuesday morning, but by Tuesday afternoon had begun spreading to the southeast, the park said, and it continued to spread on Wednesday.

– The fire still was not posing any danger to people or structures on Wednesday, but the park was calling in additional resources as it moved into more rugged and inaccessible terrain.

“As the initial threat to the housing area, powerlines, and other structures has diminished, firefighters work to maintain a good fire break towards these areas. Other firefighters work to continue suppression efforts on this human-caused wildland fire,” the park said.

– All areas of the park now have power restored.

– Parts of the road from Panther Junction to Rio Grande Village campground have been closed against Wednesday afternoon, according to CBS 7.

– Two backcountry campsites in the eastern half of the park are currently closed: the Nugent Mountain and Chilicotal campsites.

– The park said the fire originally began near Panther Junction – park headquarters – but “quickly spread” to the north and east, past the K-bar backcountry campsites.

– Structural and wildland fire resources were working the fire Monday through Wednesday.

– It’s not yet clear what kind of impact the fire will have on the burn area.

“How this area recovers to this fire is yet to be determined,” Big Bend National Park said in a comment on its Facebook page.

“While it is true that wildfires can be beneficial to grassland ecosystem health, this area is also home to non-native invasive grasses that can spread uncontrolled very quickly during fires. Resource managers will continue to monitor this area after fire recovery, when we can better understand how natives compete with non-natives after such an event.”

– After gusty winds and high fire danger across West Texas on Monday, fire weather conditions will continue to be elevated for most of Tuesday, but cooler temperatures and increased humidity have helped firefighters control the flames.

– Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson said the fire was initially was reported to him by dispatchers to be a “pretty big fire.”

– Three fire engines with the Terlingua Volunteer Fire Department have were dispatched to the fire Monday night, joining park resources.

– Elkowitz said neither Rio Grande Village campground or Panther Junction – park headquarters – was threatened by the fire.

Travis Bubenik contributed reporting.

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(Brewster County Sheriff's Office)

Murder Trial of Alpine Resident after First Week

Murders are rare in Brewster County, and a murder trial in Alpine has just wrapped up its first week. Keith Alan McWilliams is on trial for allegedly killing Walter “Trey” Sands III  in late October 2014.

The last murder trial of a Brewster County resident was held in Sierra Blanca, when Tony Flint was acquitted in the death of Glenn Felts – both residents of Terlingua. The case gained a lot of outside exposure, including a television documentary series on the National Geographic Channel called “Badlands.”

The McWilliams case also features South County, this time Terlingua Ranch. It was where Trey Sands body was found buried in a shallow arroyo. He had been shot, beaten, and probably stabbed. Sands had left his Alpine home more than a month before, supposedly to go on a hunting trip with 49-year-old McWilliams, the defendant. Sands was 28 years old and had recently moved to Alpine from his home town of Kilgore.

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