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.

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

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