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The New York Times

The New York Times


An Endowment Turns a Big Land
Gift to Texas Into a Bonanza

Published: February 18, 1996

Forty-thousand acres of rugged West Texas ranch land have been donated to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in what officials say is by far the largest land gift to the state.

But the property, 62 square miles of canyons, bluffs and woodland plateaus, has another feature that caught the attention of state and local officials: a private endowment to maintain the property and offset the loss of local taxes.

Known as the Mesquite Ranch, the tract was donated last month by the Richard King Mellon Foundation, which operates a land conservation program and has made similar bequests of Civil War battlefields, wildlife habitats, and community open spaces in 25 states since 1988.

The ranch, located in Presidio County just north of the United States-Mexico border in the Chinati Mountains, is almost 50 times the size of Central Park and will become the second-largest component in the state's park system.

But it was the endowment, established by the previous owners, Heiner and Philippa Friedrich of Houston, that made the gift even more attractive.

The money will be used to maintain the property and to offset the loss of approximately $7,600 in property tax revenue to the county and local school districts.

For a major acquisition like the Mesquite Ranch to come with an endowment is "a new phenomenon nationwide," said Barry Tindall, director of public policy at the National Recreation and Park Association in Arlington, Va.

Usually only established parks receive financing from non-government sources, Mr. Tindall said, citing Central Park as an example. The Central Park Conservancy has raised more than $100 million since 1980 and is credited with doubling the number of park employees, supporting several education programs, and financing numerous restorations and improvements.

Some land gifts have been turned down because governments do not want to be saddled with the operating costs.

In Peoria, Ill., a conservationist's proposed gift of a 2,000-acre wildlife preserve was rejected by state officials who said they could not afford to make up an annual operating deficit of $300,000.

Andrew Sansom, the executive director of Texas Parks and Wildlife, said that the endowment accompanying the tract "signals a threshold change in how we go about land acquisition."

"At a time when states are giving local governments more and more responsibilities, we shouldn't be damaging their ability to pay for services," Mr. Sansom said.

"Our department has become increasingly business-like in terms of its operations," Mr. Sansom said. "Even though a gift like the Mellon Foundation's is one of the most spectacular things we can do for the state and for the future, it's a liability. To consider its operating impact prior to the time it's acquired is fundamental."

"Though this might be a new concept for us right now, in the future a pre-existing endowment could be a condition of acquisition," Mr. Sansom said.

Judge Jake Brisbin of Presidio County said that those involved in the gift "took the time to understand the tax implications on Presidio County."

"Border counties are the state's poorest," he said. "Add issues like high unemployment and illegal immigration, and our ability to provide even basic services is jeopardized." Though a higher tourism profile for Presidio County will be welcome, he added, "the last thing we need is a smaller tax base."