The Man In the White Hat

John Poindexter insists that he can restore 46,000 acres of Big Bend Ranch State Park to its original splendor. If only he could persuade the state to sell— and the angry conservationists to trust him.

February 2006By Comments

THERE IS SIMPLY NO OTHER PLACE TO BEGIN. John Poindexter, Houston-born multimillionaire owner of exclusive Big Bend resort Cibolo Creek Ranch, is one stiff dude.

For proof, consider his assessment of himself. After being interviewed for this story in December, Poindexter sent me a series of clarifying e-mails. The first one began as follows: “I have been giving some thought to the complexity of the task that you have set for yourself and in an attempt to be helpful I have provided some random thoughts below. … Personal outlook. I regard myself as an inwardly focused person, one who has devoted most of his personal time to writing, research and the avocation of studying the Spanish language. That, together with a monolithic dedication to my two businesses—J.B. Poindexter & Co. and Cibolo Creek Ranch—has virtually eliminated the usual social give-and-take from my existence. Consequently, I do just fine in formal situations and public presentations (like speeches to our executives) but I do not shine in day-to-day chit-chat.”

Or, to put it in the context of the region he calls home when he’s not working in Houston, hear Brewster County judge Val Beard: “John’s manner is not that of a West Texan.”

That assessment by Judge Beard, who, by the way, counts herself among Poindexter’s admirers, is dead-on. Poindexter’s way—the solemn, split-hair precision of his thoughts and his habit of walking the listener through each step of that thought process—is not of the desert, though it has served him beautifully in business. His company, which originally specialized in leveraged buyouts of manufacturing businesses, now counts the world’s largest maker of hard-bodied delivery vans among its holdings. It saw almost $700 million in revenues last year. But as the company’s sole owner, Poindexter sits alone at the top and freely admits to having a tin ear when it comes to how his statements play to others. He has historically avoided the press, claiming to have neither the capacity, desire, nor need for anything resembling publicity.

But at the end of August, Poindexter found himself in an uncomfortable place: the headlines. He’d been in quiet negotiations throughout the summer with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to purchase 46,000 acres of Big Bend Ranch State Park for around $2 million. But the day before the TPWD commissioners were to receive their staff’s recommendation for approval—in a closed executive session that would be followed the next day by the deal’s only public hearing—the Austin American-Statesman announced in a front-page story that the state was considering selling off “one-sixth of its flagship park.” (The figure was off, but negligibly so.) The opposition from conservationists was Bork-like in its intensity and organization. In an editorial the day of the hearing, the Statesman decried the deal’s secrecy and “fire sale price.” That afternoon, Poindexter was vilified in public testimony for being a poor neighbor and an insensitive steward of the land he already owns and for wanting to close the park to all but the rich guests who stay at his resort. The commissioners rejected the deal. In the end, Poindexter felt as bushwhacked by the outcry as park lovers had been by the suddenness of the hearing. Pinched for time, he was unable to convince his detractors that the deal was as good for the state as it was for him.

Which is precisely why he approached Texas Monthly. Poindexter told me that he plans to resubmit the same deal next month and hopes that if he can just sell his position to the public, he’ll get the TPWD to sign off on it too. But stiff dudes often make stiffer salesmen, as that first e-mail hinted. “While I was not greatly upset,” he wrote about the decision, “I am certainly surprised at the vehemence and the (occasional) incompetence of the reaction that my thoughtful suggestions have evoked. I now have the twin objectives of setting the record straight and of making a further positive effort to help resolve a state-wide problem of some magnitude.”

Translation: Here we go again.

IF YOU DRIVE SOUTH FROM MARFA to Cibolo Creek Ranch, about half a mile before you get to the Cibolo gate, the splotchy green scrub that signifies West Texas desert gives way to a field of golden prairie grass. This brush-free zone is your first clue to John Poindexter’s dream for much of his 30,000-acre resort, specifically his plan to rectify the damage wrought by a century and a half of open-range overgrazing and periodic drought. The rehabbed area was created with herbicide and bulldozers, at a cost of $75 an acre—more than what he paid for the land itself. “This is the same view the settlers had when they first got here,” he said when I met him there in December. He calls this stretch along the highway, just a fraction of the 7,200 acres he’s rehabilitated so far, “my gift to the community.”

When he started buying the land and its three ruined forts, in 1990, he immediately set upon a very specific plan for fixing it all up. The walls of the restored forts, where the guests now stay, were rebuilt using adobe bricks made with area mud. New roofs went up on vigas made with cottonwoods from the Red River Valley. He painted the forts’ interiors with a selection of traditional Mexican colors provided by his architects. He said he picked out “every stick of furniture in the place,” most proudly the 36 chairs in the main dining hall that he designed after finding ones like them in a book on New Mexico furniture. “Restoration was on my mind as soon as I saw this place. I said, ‘What can be done with this raw palette, this brush-choked, eroded dump,’ which is what it was. ‘Let’s make it something that fits the area.’”

He speaks like that, like Samuel Beckett fiction, with seemingly every thought given a chance to breathe. He looks a little like Beckett, the long face, thin lips, readily locatable ears, but minus the crazed wildfire burning behind the eyes. He’s 61 years old, tall and fit, and if he gives you a tour of his place, he’ll even start to resemble one of Beckett’s obsessives.

He cannot enter a room without straightening nearly every picture on the wall, nor walk by a table without smoothing the linen, nor pass a rug without tugging a corner to flatten a wrinkle. He’ll open glass cabinets displaying thousands of arrowheads to reposition three. At one point, he got on his knees to redirect lights on the cabinets’ bottom shelves.

He apologized while he did this, insisting that he’d stayed at Cibolo so rarely of late that his dedication to the place had been missed. To help his staff in that regard, he constantly jots thoughts onto two to-do lists he keeps in his left breast pocket, one for immediate needs and one for longer-term projects. He begins the pressing-needs list each morning when he wakes, no later than six o’clock, writing observations such as “The dog is being fed too much,” “The leaves are being raked too often,” “The exterior lights on the fort were turned off too early last night,” and so on. He swears he’s not a micromanager but a delegator. His employees, many of whom walk by a large watercolor portrait of the boss in Cibolo’s main office, should be sufficiently inspired to toe the line after a single pass by the Poindexter to-do-list buzz saw.

But he requires no less of himself. He graduated with honors from the University of Arkansas in two years and eight months. He ran through New York University’s MBA program in a whirlwind nine months, then earned a Ph.D. in economics and finance from NYU while working as an investment banker on Wall Street. In between degrees, he volunteered for the Army, partly to fulfill family military tradition but largely to “test his mettle.” He was president of his class at officer candidate school, an airborne ranger, and a captain and a troop commander during a highly decorated tour in Vietnam.

Banking bored him because he didn’t like making other people’s deals, and though he enjoyed leveraged buyouts, he wanted to be doing them alone, calling the shots himself, so in 1985 he started his own company. “I never married,” he said, “because when I was younger, I took enormous risks, personal risks in the military and financial risks later, that wouldn’t have worked for a family. I worried as well, at least in my younger years, that I would have had difficulty honoring my marriage vows. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the ladies enough; it’s that I liked them too much.”

But he’s had no difficulty staying true to Cibolo. He estimates he has spent more than $15 million in his pursuit of its original splendor, from the dirt-colored stain of the concrete floors to his ongoing battle with the creosote and greasewood. “I don’t want to use the term ‘building a legacy,’” he told me. “That is such a tiresome phrase, and it implies personal ego as well, an element I’m trying to exclude. What I am trying to leave behind—and to enjoy for the next thirty years, because I figure I will live into my nineties—is a property that is genuinely noteworthy. This one already is. But we can expand what we are doing here to a much larger terrain.”

POINDEXTER FIRST APPROACHED Parks and Wildlife about working a deal in 2001. His initial hope was to straighten the property line where the southeastern end of Cibolo met the northern panhandle of the 340,000-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park. The boundary looked crazy, zigzagging along, with one diamond-shaped section of park almost entirely landlocked in Cibolo. It turned a common land-management measure like fencing into an expensive, logistical nightmare. Squaring boundaries is standard TPWD practice, but not on that scale, and the TPWD declined. Early last summer, Poindexter pitched a similar deal.

When the TPWD considers an offer like this, or any other move, two goals inform its deliberations: conservation and access. Among the agency’s charges are maintaining the natural beauty of public lands and making them available for the public to visit and appreciate. But there’s an overriding third factor in the decisions these days, not a goal but a fact of life: limited money. After five years of up-and-down funding from the Legislature, the TPWD’s new budget reflects a 5 percent cut. On the access side, that’s meant cuts in operating hours in 50 of the state’s 120 parks and the layoff of 39 employees just before Christmas. Conservation now means more or less letting land sit. Any new land is acquired by donation.

Viewed against a budget just short of a shoestring, Poindexter’s offer looked better the second time. When he made known his desire to make a larger deal than he’d originally proposed, staff members started looking at other problems Poindexter’s money might solve. The biggest involved almost 25,000 acres of inholdings, land owned by private individuals that sits inside the park. The inholdings include some of the most beautiful spots in the area, but more importantly, they block the most sensible routes through the park. The TPWD staff have wanted to pick up some of those inholdings for years. But as deputy executive director Scott Boruff points out, “Those people aren’t going to talk to me, because we don’t have any money.” Poindexter, of course, does.

The plan they reached seemed sensible to both sides. Poindexter would receive 46,000 acres, and in return, he would pay some $2 million to the agency, with the idea that the money be used to buy the inholdings. He would agree to a strict conservation easement and make the land open to the public (it’s currently not accessible). He would also try to persuade his neighbors to sell their inholdings to the state. But the budget crunch had one more effect. If Poindexter’s payment was not received before the end of the 2005 fiscal year, on August 31, it could not be spent without legislative approval. Since the finer points of the deal were still being worked out late that summer, the deadline effectively prevented the TPWD staff from going public with the plan until the eleventh hour.

That may be what ultimately doomed the proposal. The late notice gave the appearance of a backroom deal, never a good impression, least of all in wary West Texas. “If we’re going to dispose of public lands,” said Judge Beard, “it has to be done by public process. We’re passionate about private land ownership out here but skeptical about state action. When the process looks closed, we suspicious yahoos start wondering who’s trying to get us.”

But even the yahoos were outshouted by enraged environmentalists. Their volume, plus the tiny window of time, kept Poindexter from effectively presenting his case. Nobody noticed when he pointed out that he had won Parks and Wildlife’s Land Stewardship Award for the Trans-Pecos Region in 2004. Nor did they listen when he corrected their assertion that he wanted the land in order to exploit Cienega Creek, the primary water source in that part of the park. (Cienega’s headwaters are actually upstream, inside Cibolo property, meaning Poindexter could probably legally dry that creek now; the proposed sale required that Cibolo water remain available to keep Cienega flowing.) He didn’t bring in witnesses to testify on his behalf, like Charles Hart, a range specialist who has guided Poindexter’s grassland restoration efforts—as an employee of the Texas Cooperative Extension and not, Hart points out, as an employee of Poindexter’s. “He is absolutely a good steward of the land, in my mind,” says Hart.

There were, of course, arguments he might not have won. The widow of a former director of the Texas Historical Commission testified that her husband and a team of archaeologists had seen numerous significant archaeological sites at Cibolo that had been damaged by Poindexter bulldozers. Bob Mallouf, the director of the Center for Big Bend Studies, confirmed to me that he’d recorded at least four such reports but added that Poindexter has promised to be more careful.

And there were those people who were simply constitutionally opposed to the selling of public lands. For them, it’s shameful enough that public land accounts for just 7 percent of the state. Selling any significant portion will never be acceptable.

In the end, the commissioners said they rejected the deal for only one reason. “It boiled down to this for me,” said commission chairman Joseph Fitzsimons. “Though I believe John would have made a great effort to help us achieve our goals of access, he wasn’t able to guarantee he could deliver on the proposal.” There was no concrete plan for how Poindexter would secure the inholdings and no way to ensure that the owners would sell. And even though Poindexter’s promise had never been certain, in the face of such passionate public opposition, it probably did start to look more like an albatross than an opportunity in the commissioners’ eyes.

Poindexter’s not giving up. “We put so much work and effort into the deal, by a lot of lawyers and by the principals,” he said, “that I’d like to see that deal get done.” But every person I talked to at the TPWD said that simply resubmitting the old deal won’t do the trick. “I respect the fact that the commissioners rejected it,” said executive director Bob Cook. “Would I take them the same deal again? No. I’m old and slow, but I do learn.”

I WAS WITH POINDEXTER for two days in December, the first largely devoted to the walking-straightening tour of the main fort and the second to a drive through the parkland Poindexter still wants to buy.

I met him the second morning at eight o’clock at the Cibolo entrance. While I got out of my Jeep and walked to his Humvee, he got out of the Humvee to pick up an empty convenience store coffee cup on the ground by the gate. “How do you think eight employees could have driven past that on their way in this morning?” he asked. “But you can’t let that get you down. It’s just life.”

We climbed into the Humvee and crossed the highway, which runs through the middle of Cibolo, and traveled about twenty minutes on smooth dirt roads over Poindexter land, then for about an hour and a half over rocky, untended trails in the state park. In the rolling, scrub-pocked hills, Poindexter soon lost reception on the radio that keeps him in contact with his staff, so he concentrated on discussing his plans for his ranch, which he still hopes will include this land.

When he dies, the ranch will go to the Poindexter Foundation, to be used for the cultural, recreational, and educational purposes of the public, its maintenance to be funded by the money in his company. He said that even if he marries and has kids, none of them will ever own any substantial portion of this land. “Large inheritances,” he said, sounding exactly like himself, “are not productivity enhancers for the recipients.”

His big dream, he said, is to create a Big Bend equivalent of the Appalachian Trail. “My hopes for that project,” he told me, “do not depend on my buying this parkland.” He seemed nothing short of sincere in his intention to do right by this land. But it’s no longer clear that that is enough.

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