Showdown at Maverick Ranch
Henry Cisneros and the state’s highway boosters were determined to bull-doze a loop through the pristine Hill Country near san Antonio. Now, all that stands in the way is three sisters and five generations of Texas history.
Login / Register
ORNo Account? Register here.
ON THE ROAD TO BEBE FENSTERMAKER’S HOUSE, wild turkeys run unperturbed before a visitor’s car. The dirt trail dips through a clear, shallow creek with no name, though downstream, a spring rising from a cave commemorates a small tragedy. In Bebe’s mother’s time, a woman visited the place and brought her dog along. A rabbit dashed into the cave’s catacombs, and the pooch unwisely followed, never to emerge. The women could hear its cries of doom through the stony ground under their feet: Lost Dog Spring.
Bebe occupies a metal-roofed limestone house on the Maverick Ranch, the historic Bexar County spread named for her famous family, which has owned it for four generations. When she isn’t teaching art at San Antonio College, Bebe tears around the nine-hundred-acre property in her gray pickup. She has been on the ranch since 1970, when she decided she no longer wanted to live in the city. Around the same time, her sister Mary, who is now a travel agent, reached a similar conclusion. She makes her home in a cottage across the creek. Another sister, Martha, a painter and an art professor at Laredo Junior College, occasionally lives here during the summer. Each of the three is in her forties and unmarried. It’s quiet on the Maverick Ranch. It used to be peaceful.
For the past three years, the approach of survey crews, bulldozers, earthmovers, and asphalt trucks has shattered the Fenstermakers’ equanimity. The Texas highway department—officially known as the Texas Department of Transportation—is building a partial loop around west San Antonio. To finish that project, highway workers can scarcely avoid destroying the family’s retreat.
From the air, the piecemeal construction of Texas Highway 211 looks bizarre. Due west of downtown, past Sea World and Kelly Air Force Base, a two-lane road with a disproportionate swath of cleared right-of-way starts at U.S. 90 and curls 3.5 miles north through ranchland before dead-ending in front of what appears to be a landscaped college campus or office park. Amid small farms and scattered homesites, the route vanishes northward for more than 7 miles. Then, in a raw white caliche scrape, it reappears, for nearly 7.5 miles, with long bridges, elaborate runoff culverts, and curves blasted deep through wooded hills. Beyond the burg of Helotes, it dead-ends again at Texas Highway 16. A proposed fourth segment of 211, once more unseen, arcs northeast for 14 miles through ranches and small subdivisions to Interstate 10 and an intersecting farm-to-market road. As outer loops go, this one is way out. Its terminus could be 25 miles from downtown San Antonio. The Maverick Ranch lies almost at its northern end.
Highway 211 has the sanction of San Antonio’s most dominant forces—corporate, government, military, and academic. While he was mayor, the city’s political giant, Henry Cisneros, made an ardent plea for the roadway to the Texas Highway and Public Transportation Commission, which has since authorized all but the last segment. (On the subject of Maverick Ranch and 211, Cisneros refused to be interviewed.) The campuslike tract west of downtown is the site of the Texas Research Park—San Antonio’s dream of a high-tech future. The park, it is hoped, will cure diseases, spawn new corporations, and employ thousands of doctors, scientists, and technicians—many of whom live northwest of the city and would benefit greatly from a direct route connecting home and work.
In most cases, the outcome of such a story would be preordained. The highway department is one of Texas’ most esteemed institutions. Once the department has approved a state roadway, it is almost impossible to move or stop it. Anyway, if individual rights were not made to yield, roads would never get built. Many landowners surrender without much struggle, quickly understanding the government’s ability to absorb legal costs and to enforce its wishes through the power of eminent domain. In fact, many see a new highway route through their property as a godsend. This real estate alchemy turns raw land into shopping centers and residential cul-de-sacs. Everybody gets a bright, shining office tower.
But this battle of ranch and road, of history and modernity, isn’t over—not just yet. A number of factors make it different from most. The Fenstermakers are not part of just any Texas clan. The Maverick Ranch is no ordinary Hill Country retreat. And 211 is not just another freeway of the future. Its pending completion casts light on the policy that governs how roads get built in Texas. Depending on your perspective, the conflict over 211 is one in which a privileged few are pushing their interests over those of a needy many—or it’s an outrageous taxpayer-funded scam that will benefit only a few real estate speculators.
Either way, the power struggle being played out in San Antonio has crucial implications. It pits old wealth and influence against new and ascendant forces entranced by the word “visionary.” It pits rural serenity against urban hustle, environmental protection against economic stimulation, aging firebrand liberals against neoconservative technocrats. It’s a classic confrontation: An immovable object meets an irresistible force.
HELICOPTERS FORESHADOWED THE FENSTERMAKERS’ trouble with the state. In December 1988, Bebe noticed a chopper hovering so close to the ranch that treetops swirled under its blades. “That’s my airspace,” she fumed, but she quickly forgot the incident. Then, in April 1989, a neighbor called. He had just heard in Boerne that the highway department aimed to put a road through his back pasture, heading north for hers.
The following Monday, Bebe drove into San Antonio to the department’s district headquarters. A courtly engineer named Jay Mills showed her an aerial photo map with a route of the proposed extension of 211. The initial construction would be confined to two lanes, but several football fields of cleared land signaled the long-range intent: a full-blown expressway. Bebe pointed to a wooded section within the wedge of 16 and I-10 that contained her property. “He said, ‘That’s just empty land there. There’s just a bunch of old houses with rusty roofs.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s my home.’ ”
Martha, who would become the angriest sister, was initially ambivalent about the state’s plans. “I’d been living in Laredo for several years,” she says, “and I couldn’t use the ranch all that much. The choice seemed to be, at the end of my life, which would I rather have—a lot of money and no ranch or the ranch and no money?”
After some deliberation, though, the sisters decided to put up all the fight they could. They hired Dallas attorney Eddie Vasallo, a specialist in eminent domain, and Grand Prairie consultant Len Lenard, a former Environmental Protection Agency official who says he became an environmentalist after getting doused with Agent Orange in Vietnam. They also secured the help of a state legislator, Jeff Wentworth, who found out exactly where 211 would cross the ranch: between two gates and a small cemetery on its southeast side. Armed with this information, Lenard and Martha met with highway department officials in December 1989.
The environment—the preeminent foil for developers—would be their principal line of defense. Limestone holes such as Lost Dog Spring reach the Glen Rose Aquifer, and the creek and gullies wash runoff into similar recharge features of the Edwards Aquifer—San Antonio’s sole source of drinking water. The water level of a well in nearby Bandera, meanwhile, had dropped from 54 feet in 1953 to 355 feet in 1989. To the sisters, this meant that the Hill Country did not have enough water to accommodate urban sprawl. They would talk about the air, which would be polluted by vehicular emissions. They would cite a Nature Conservancy study ranking the Balcones Canyonlands among the top twelve natural oases on earth and evidence that black-capped vireos and golden-cheeked warblers—federally protected endangered species—nested on the ranch.
They would also make a cultural case. Arrowheads and other artifacts have been unearthed on the Maverick Ranch that go back four thousand years. The ranch contains two Hill Country German homesteads and the remains of rock holding pens used in early cattle drives. From fence line to fence line, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Lenard and Martha arrived at the district office on Loop 410 expecting to raise those points in a private chat with Richard Lockhart, the district engineer. Instead, they walked into a room filled with several engineers, as well as archaeological and environmental officials from highway department headquarters. The officials said they were merely trying to serve a concerned taxpayer. But to this particular taxpayer, it was an ambush—an intimidating show of force.
Lockhart opened the meeting by saying that the department was not insensitive to matters of preservation; his ancestor Byrd Lockhart, for whom the town of Lockhart was named, was a surveyor in the time of Stephen F. Austin. Lockhart then turned over the floor to design engineer John Kight. What happened next shocked Martha. While the first route her family had seen would have devoured only a pasture, Kight invited her comment on a second one clearly drawn within ten feet of Bebe’s back door.
“They were taunting us,” Martha says. “There was a woman, one of the department’s top environmental officials. I kept pressing her about aquifers and endangered species. She finally said, ‘Look, you have to understand, my job is to build roads.’ ”
In September 1990, the Fenstermakers carried the fight to Austin. Bebe testified before the Sunset Advisory Commission, which was reviewing the highway department’s performance. She directed her thrust at tax dollars. “Some of the road is already built,” she said, “although the highway department to this day has not held a general public hearing on the whole road, nor engineered the road, nor acquired the right-of-way, nor even chosen a route! No business could hope to get a construction loan without demonstrating that all major contingencies had been resolved.” A commission staffer offered to arrange a third conference later that month between the sisters and their lawyer and San Antonio officials. At the conclusion of that meeting, the staffer asked what had been accomplished. “Nothing,” said Vassallo. The engineers stared back across the table and agreed.
Around this time, the sisters uncovered other possible paths through their property. On the tallest hill of the Maverick Ranch sits a bizarre concrete house with the interior design of a yacht. Relatives had built it in 1913; a third highway route would bulldoze it. Then there was the Nineteenth Amendment Oak, under which the Texas suffragettes, led by the Fenstermakers’ grandmother, plotted in 1919. Another route would uproot even that historic tree.
Fighting the highway department, the Fenstermakers found, is maddening—like throwing punches at wisps of smoke. Although the department maintains that it is cooperating with the sisters, its engineers, as Vassallo had told them, are not required to disclose construction plans until their crews are at the fence line. In the 1991 legislative session, Mary testified before a Senate committee: “We have seen perhaps ten routes, seven or eight of which would go through our home. …We have had tremendous difficulty obtaining even that information from them. At great expense we have had to retain an environmental consultant and an attorney to help us. Often the only information we got came from our state legislators, who asked the questions for us when we could not get the highway department to respond.”
So the battle lines were drawn. Three middle-aged sisters couldn’t begin to match the resources of the Texas highway department. Or at least that’s how it seemed.
MARTHA, BEBE, AND MARY FENSTERMAKER are heirs to a family tradition of sufficient independence that the binding surname, Maverick, has become an English noun with connotations of contrariness. The patriarch, Samuel Augustus Maverick, who arrived in San Antonio in 1835, guided Ben Milam’s insurgents through the town when the rebel Texans captured the Alamo. The day the Alamo fell to Santa Anna, Samuel was representing its men at the people’s convention in Washington-on-the-Brazos, where he signed the Texas Declaration of Independence. After the war, he married Mary Adams of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who composed a spare ink sketch and watercolor of the Alamo with its bombed walls still in ruin—the first icon of its enshrinement. In 1840, Mary ran through the streets crying, “Here are Indians! Here are Indians!” when a courtroom summit with Comanche chiefs turned into the raging Council House Fight. During one of the Mexican invasions in 1842, Samuel traded rooftop gunshots with Santa Anna’s soldiers. Consequently, he was imprisoned for a short time in Mexico, where he was forced to work on a road-building project.
But it was unbranded cattle that put the family name into the English language. Around 1845, Samuel failed to brand a herd of cattle he had received as payment for a debt. Since cattle roamed free on unfenced open range, nearby ranchers began identifying any unbranded cattle as Maverick’s. By the end of the Civil War, the term “maverick” meant any unbranded calf that had strayed from a herd, and the word eventually became synonymous with “rebel.”
In San Antonio society, the Mavericks carved their niche among clothiers and bankers, Joskes and Frosts. Charles Goodnights and Burk Burnetts these folks were not. Samuel’s son George—the Fenstermakers’ great-grandfather—was a lawyer and developer. In 1907, he bought a nine-hundred-acre ranch 25 miles up in the Balcones Canyonlands and made it the family’s summer residence. His daughter Rena Maverick Green—the Fenstermakers’ grandmother—led Texas’ suffragettes; she also helped found the San Antonio Conservation Society. In the twenties, Rena fought city plans to pave over the San Antonio River and make its bed a sewer. Her first cousin Maury Maverick, Sr., a San Antonio congressman and mayor in the thirties, was a populist radical who talked Franklin Roosevelt into approving a beautification grant for the San Antonio River. Maury Junior carried on his father’s civil libertarian tradition in the Legislature and in his legal practice. In a recent column in the San Antonio Express-News, Maury Junior quoted a fictitious bartender: “You Mavericks brought the first black slaves to San Antonio after the fall of the Alamo. Is that why you are such a guilt-ridden lefty?”
Rena’s daughter Rowena helped save old Fort Davis. In 1941 Rowena married Leslie Fenstermaker, who would become one of the clan’s few genuine ranchers. They and their daughters—Martha, Bebe, and Mary—lived in far west Texas until 1958, when they returned to bustling San Antonio. There, the family’s connections swung up like loose boards. In 1961, Billie Lee Brammer published The Gay Place, which featured an LBJ-like governor called Arthur “Goddam” Fenstemaker. The sisters had an uncle named Arthur Fenstermaker. Brammer may have dropped a consonant, but sheer coincidence seemed unlikely.
As young women, Martha, Bebe, and Mary cut their political teeth on the long, bitter, fruitless attempt to stop construction of the McAllister Freeway through Olmos Park. Because the Maverick heritage had not bestowed on them a great deal of money, they needed to work. But the legacy had left them control of that lovely nine-hundred-acre place up in the hills. They stocked it with Longhorns and sought help from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials in stabilizing the deer population. In 1979 they won a listing for the place, as an intact frontier community, on the National Register of Historic Places.
Samuel Maverick had been an attorney, merchant, legislator, and mayor—and, with land going for a nickel or a dime an acre, an avid speculator in real estate. What goes around comes around. One hundred and twenty years after his death, the early eighties craze in Texas land speculation would aim the bulldozers of the highway department straight at his descendants’ door.
BY 1980, THE MAVERICKS WERE SYMBOLS of a languid old San Antonio that believers in a new era of progress meant to leave in history’s dust. No more should the families of a few old patróns approve the loans, dole out the opportunity, chart the city’s course. The lead disciple of this new faith was General Robert McDermott, the retired founding academic dean of the United States Air Force Academy who had built his insurance company, USAA, into a powerhouse. The political champion was Henry Cisneros, the charismatic Harvard graduate who would soon be mayor.
Through their initiative, San Antonio reached the final five in the 1982 wooing of MCC, a computer technology consortium headed by Bobby Ray Inman, a retired admiral and former Central Intelligence Agency director. Inman later told McDermott that San Antonio really hadn’t come close. Unlike Austin, the winning suitor, the city didn’t have a big university with the engineers and Ph.D.’s to feed the new payrolls. Look to your natural assets, Inman said; then proceed.
San Antonio’s assets were distinctly medical. There was the University of Texas Health Science Center, the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, the Air Force’s largest hospital at Lackland, a medical research facility at Brooks Air Force Base, and the respected Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, known by most San Antonians for its controversial medical experiments involving a large colony of captive primates.
Cisneros was an ideal pitchman. While his speeches could resonate with feeling for apachería and comanchería, eras in Texas when the most common surgery involved scalps, he cared about modern medicine too. In a publication known as his Orange Book, Cisneros effused about gene splicing, pancreas-substituting pumps, and a computer-controlled prosthesis called the MIT Knee. A “Tiger Team” was sent to study biomedical research parks in Pennsylvania, California, and North Carolina. The idea for the Texas Research Park was the result, and it was a captivating dream: In the course of finding new ways to treat and cure disease, physicians and scientists would spin off companies that would employ tens of thousands of people.
Land was no problem. In 1983, during the height of the real estate boom, Concord Oil CEO Tom Pawel donated 1,500 of the company’s 8,000 acres to the research park project, anticipating 6,500 acres of related development that would profit Concord greatly. Money wasn’t a problem either. In response to a delegation led by Cisneros and McDermott, Ross Perot had ponied up $15 million—three times the delegation’s request.
Transportation, however, was a problem. The only access to Concord’s acreage was a narrow county road; even an infant research park would require a full-blown highway. How could the park’s boosters convince the state to build them one?
For nearly two years, the boosters pondered the question. Then, unexpectedly, a solution appeared in the form of another roadway whose planning would serve as the model for their own. A few miles closer to the city sat the tract of land where Texas Highway 151 would be built. Originally conceived to relieve west side traffic congestion, 151 attracted the Sea World entertainment park—a gold mine for landowners on either side of the road. The highway won the state’s approval because one such landowner, a flamboyant developer named Marty Wender, and his urban planner friend, the equally flamboyant Ralph C. Bender, had hatched a novel scheme: To make sure the highway department couldn’t pass up construction, they donated the right-of-way on Wender’s acres, kicked in a few million dollars for frontage roads, and persuaded the city and other landowners to do the same.
The developers could afford such largess. At the height of San Antonio’s boom, the value of raw land suddenly blessed with a freeway shot from $2,000 an acre to $15,000 an acre. Cisneros’ pitch of Highway 151 had dazzled the highway commission and its chairman, Houston developer Bob Lanier, who is now that city’s mayor. The project was ballyhooed as a national model of public- and private-sector partnership. In it, the department had found the tacit formula that now dominates Texas road-building policy: If you want to propel a highway far up on the list of priorities, come see the commissioners with donated right-of-way.
“At the ground-breaking ceremonies for 151,” Wender recalls, “everybody was there. Henry. Bob Lanier. General McDermott. We’re standing around talking about economic development. So we said, ‘Look, we’re trying to build a fifteen-thousand-acre biomedical research park a little farther out. If we’re creating jobs, will the highway department help us build a road to it?’ Bob Lanier said, ‘Yes. We’ll look at it.’ He said, ‘This is a great day. Not only are we celebrating saving money, we got a freeway that promotes economic growth. We got cash from the developers. We got the right-of-way free of charge. Everybody wins.’ ”
THE HIGHWAY COMMISSION APPROVED construction of the second highway, 211, in March 1986. At a cost of $18.5 million, 211 would cut north eighteen and a half miles from U.S. 90 to Highway 16. The northward route carried the highway department into sensitive territory—especially a recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer. But its four-page environmental assessment sounded an all-clear on water and air quality, soil erosion, endangered species, archaeological and historical sites. And it praised the potential benefits the road could bring. “Long-term economic effects,” the document held, “are almost of a magnitude that is hard to imagine.”
Initial construction of 211 was limited to its first four miles: a two-lane highway adjoined by strips of land cleared and blasted through mesquite savannah. With quick access to U.S. 90, it seemed to be all the road the research park’s bioscientists would need for a decade or two. But developers were anxious to get the next fifteen miles of 211 built as well. By 1986, the real estate boom was going bust. Without a freeway, investors in rural Bexar County would surely be stuck with all that overvalued land. With a freeway, however, they could ip those boondocks at a healthy price—one calculated in square feet, not acres.
To expedite the construction of this second segment, the four developers with land along that stretch of 211 retained Ralph Bender, the urban planner involved in the 151 project. For his clients, Bender drew maps for the highway department that would get them every possible foot of frontage. The developers donated the right-of-way for their land, which amounted to about 80 percent of the total, and promised to bear the cost of buying or condemning the rest.
It was a sweet deal for the highway department. Even if it collapsed, Bexar and Medina counties—not the state—would have to pick up the easement tab. Evidently, it never dawned on the department’s engineers that there might be an ethical problem. The engineers justified their case with population growth projections and a long-range transportation plan that had called for such a road as far back as 1968. Yet they essentially gave over control of the department to real estate speculators, who led them by their noses: The speculators drew the maps, arranged for rights-of-way to be donated, and greased the way with multimillion-dollar incentives. By making it too tantalizing a deal for the highway department to turn down, shareholders in four private development companies got the state to build them a freeway that they believed would make them rich.
But the push for 211 didn’t stop there. Egged on by the same developers, who saw dollar signs in the prospect of an even longer road, the highway commission, in November 1988, authorized pursuit of a fourteen-mile extension that would arc from 16 to I-10 and FM 3351. The mere possibility of an Austin—San Antonio corridor of development was enough reason for the highway department to get the ball rolling—despite the fact that north of 16, no funds were set aside for actual construction, and the state, not the counties, would have to bear 90 percent of land acquisition costs.
Luckily, the engineers had a hole card. Just beyond 16 was the 3,500-acre spread of a trusted ally: John White, who had made his living in Uvalde, mining rock that is greatly esteemed in Texas highway construction. White had sold his company and wanted to make it easier and more profitable for his heirs to divide the family’s rural retreat. He explored the terrain with his longtime friends district engineers Raymond Stotzer and Richard Lockhart and eventually decided to donate his right-of-way to the new highway.
Unfortunately, that route through the White Ranch sends 211 straight at the Fenstermakers. It’s nothing personal. The Maverick Ranch lies between the highway department and its legal objectives, I-10 and FM 3351. In order to skirt small subdivisions—with their utility connections, mortgage balances, and tricycles in the driveway—the department can scarcely avoid taking on the sisters.
AS IT HAPPENS, THE FENSTERMAKERS are not the only ones who oppose the construction of 211—just the loudest. A few miles north of the research park, for example, there’s Milton Stolte, who raises grain on an irrigated 329-acre farm. Stolte doesn’t want to lose 22 acres and have his land cut in half by a winding highway route. “I went to Austin for that big commission meeting in March of ’86,” Stolte recalls. “When I signed in, they asked me, ‘Are you pro or con?’ I said, ‘Con. I’m against it.’ They said, ‘You can’t testify.’ I did get to see a highway department guy who told me, ‘Don’t worry, this is all preliminary.’ But after lunch, after Henry Cisneros made his speech, Bob Lanier looked left, looked right, and they all said, ‘Aye.’ The state could condemn my land.”
North of 16, other landowners are also up in arms. A retiree named James Bowman has been to see design engineer John Kight. Upon discovering a route drawn within a baseball throw of his front porch, Bowman traveled to the district office, where he yelled and poked a finger in Kight’s chest. More important, however, is Myfe Moore, one of John White’s three children. Before inking the deal giving the state a fifth large donation of right-of-way, John White had a fatal heart attack. After her father died, Myfe told the engineers that she had no intention of honoring his wish to grant the right-of-way; she would fight 211 tooth and nail. “Mr. Kight came to our office one day,” she says, “and implied that we had better get along and work together with them on a route that was acceptable to everybody, or else they’d come in where they wanted to. He said, ‘You really wouldn’t want us coming right by your house, would you?’ Last time I saw him, though, he was extremely polite. He said, ‘Do you ever consider that you’ve got all that beautiful land, 3,500 acres, to use whenever you want, while all those poor families in San Antonio can’t come on it? You know, it’s almost a kind of financial discrimination.’ ”
Highway 211 will have to make a neck-wrenching detour if it cannot cross the White Ranch. That’s fine with Myfe Moore. In late June last year, she gathered neighbors opposed to 211 at her ranch house to discuss just such a prospect. Present were ranchers, a lawyer, an agriculture teacher, a retired air-traffic controller, and Bebe Fenstermaker. As a group, they control virtually every foot of possible frontage between 16 and the northernmost border of Maverick Ranch. Their objective has become not just sparing individual properties, but stopping the highway altogether.
Sandy Logan, a dark-haired cabinetmaker who lives on forty acres of a divided family estate, sums up their sentiments best. “The main issue here,” he told the group at Myfe Moore’s, “is not so much the bird habitat or the springs and the wells. My grandfather came over from Scotland and bought this piece of property. Three generations now have been raised on it. It’s our way of life. It’s the way we chose to live.”
IN THE FACE OF SUCH OPPOSITION, the highway department is softening up—at least externally. Responding to growing dismay over 211, district engineer Richard Lockhart says that even though the department will not necessarily seek federal matching funds for its work on 211—a process that would require it to meet very specific environmental guidelines—it will compile all the qualifying impact statements and honor the federal statutes on the stretch affecting the Maverick Ranch.
Internally, however, the department has the same old attitude about the Fenstermakers. About one week after the meeting at Myfe Moore’s, I spent a day with David Otwell, the San Antonio district’s public affairs officer. Together, we drove all over the back roads of northwest Bexar County. As we stopped in front of the Maverick Ranch gate, he chuckled at the marker of an organization called Defenders of Wildlife. “Is that all you have to do to be a wildlife refuge?” he asked. “Put up a sign?”
Nor was he terribly impressed, as we pulled away, with the ranch’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places. “I mean, who grants it? Do they actually come out and inspect the place and see what you’ve got? Or do you just send in an application and get a coupon back in the mail?”
“They” are the federally funded National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the certification procedure is rigorous. In any case, because the department has not sought federal highway funds for 211, no law prevents the state from condemning such a place. Neither does pressure from other state agencies. San Antonian T. R. Fehrenbach, the chair of the Texas Historical Commission, signed a resolution in January 1990 imploring the department to find a route around the Maverick Ranch. But the document has no binding authority.
As we drove, Otwell mentioned Ray Smith, whom he called “a self-styled preservationist.” I didn’t let on that I’d already interviewed him. A building contractor, Smith belongs to the avocational Southern Texas Archaeological Association; he monitors construction projects as a steward for the state archaeologist. On the seven-mile segment of 211 ending at 16, Smith told me he had found five archaeological features that the department’s contractors had illegally blasted or bulldozed through. They were burned-rock middens—strategic watering sites where successive bands and tribes had camped and cooked for centuries. One site, Smith said, was strewn across two acres.
“Burnt rock!” Otwell said. He dug his elbow into my arm. “Do we really need to save every place where some Indian took a shit?”
A WEEK LATER, I RETURNED to San Antonio to see Richard Lockhart. Otwell sat in on our meeting. The mood was relaxed until the end, when I raised two still-sensitive questions about the department’s conduct.
The first, I said, dealt with strategy. A source with detailed knowledge of the San Antonio district office had told me that it is a common negotiating ploy to draw a route straight toward the home of a landowner. “Don’t like that route?” my source had said, explaining the procedure. “Then how about this one a little farther down?” Along the proposed extension of 211, the Fenstermakers, James Bowman, and Myfe Moore had complained of variations on that theme.
“No, sir,” said Lockhart strongly. “That is not a tactic. I deny that.”
It was clear that he wasn’t going to give ground, so I moved on to the second question: environmental neglect. I handed Lockhart a copy of an interoffice memorandum supplied by my source. Dated November 20, 1989, the memo from design engineer John Kight to Richard Lockhart described Kight’s reaction to the barren scrape of land at the juncture of 211 and 16. Otwell hadn’t seen the memo, but citing internal policy, he had denied my request for an interview with Kight, which turned out to be a smart move. If neither Otwell nor Lockhart was having second thoughts about 211, it seemed that Kight was.
Kight’s memo read in part: “In defiance to the plans and specifications and with total contempt to our natural environmental heritage; we have raped, pillaged, and utterly destroyed a God given treasure of natural beauty in our trees and landscape. It is both disgusting and distressing to witness this type of contemptuous attitudes that we, as caretakers of the land, display towards our natural resources, our neighbors, the public trust and the irreplaceable beauty of age old trees.”
Lockhart was silent as he read.
“Granted,” I said, “he’s talking just about trees. But if the crews are doing that to trees, what are they doing to water? What are they doing to archaeological sites?”
“I feel,” Lockhart said, “that this is an emotional reaction to one incident. It’s not a wholesale condemnation of our procedures. The point of land he’s talking about is very rugged terrain. If you know anything about live oak trees and rock, you know the root system is very shallow and fragile. Our plan called for selected undergrowth clearing. But because of the terrain, a hell of a lot of trees got knocked down that shouldn’t have. A bulldozer hits a rock, catches a root, and accidentally knocks things down. I discussed it with my construction engineer and resident engineer and said, ‘Let’s be damn careful this doesn’t happen again.’
“I don’t disagree, in general, that the department has been portrayed as having a black eye in terms of heavy-handedness and, in some areas, disregard for the environment. Some of those accusations have been unfounded. Some have been genuine attempts by those concerned with the environment to make the department more responsive. And there’s a concerted effort to be more responsive. Not that we weren’t before.”
SO WHERE DO THINGS STAND? at the south end of 211, the Texas Research Park is showing signs of real life. It has curbs, fire hydrants, wildflower landscaping, street signs for Lambda and Omicron drives, and a single building: The UT Institute for Biotechnology. In 1991 the institute lured a world-renowned Taiwanese scientist, Wen-Hwa Lee, away from the University of California at San Diego. In laboratory experiments, Lee isolated a protein that suppresses the growth of human cancer cells. Unfortunately, humans suffer severe allergic reactions to the protein. Lee was excited about coming to San Antonio because he’ll work closely with the esteemed Daniel D. Von Hoff, of the Cancer Therapy and Research Center, which is associated with the UT Health Science Center. Von Hoff’s field is cancer drugs. His team could help Lee’s team find a way to make the protein safe for application.
The Cancer Therapy and Research Center will occupy the next building on the park site. The Institute for Drug Development will follow. McDermott’s insurance company, USAA, has promised a $6.6 million research grant to IDD. The only strings, Von Hoff says, are that the institute must try to cut the average discovery-to-approval time of cancer drugs from fourteen to seven years—and also create local jobs. Somehow, finding cures for horrid diseases ought to be motivation enough, yet it’s not. The driving force of the research park is economic development. The mantra of today’s politicians is job creation.
But as long as cancer is the focus of the bioresearch, there won’t be many jobs anytime soon. “There’s not enough money in it,” Von Hoff says. “The big pharmaceutical companies put their chips on drugs that treat chronic conditions like ulcers or hypertension or depression. Cancer drugs make people well, or pretty soon they die. Either way, it’s a short-term payback.”
AS FOR THE FENSTERMAKERS—Well, they press on. The engineers could finish the first eighteen and a half miles of 211 by 1995. Then, perhaps, they’ll build the next fourteen. The process creeps along with no indication that the highway department has decided to spare the Maverick Ranch or any other property. Still, the engineers say they’re looking at several possible routes. The segment north of 16 might fall victim to the endangered species controversy that snags development throughout much of the Hill Country. Or it might keep right on coming.
Back on the ranch, Bebe seems to have kept up her level of energy. She continues to drive her pickup as aggressively as she organizes neighbors. Riding in the bed one afternoon last summer, Mary Fenstermaker and I bounced, hung on the sides, and ducked the slap and claw of limbs and foliage. Our jeans and the black-and-white face of Sue, their mongrel Border collie, were splotched yellow with pollen from a bumper crop of the wildflowers called Mexican hats. The dog entertained herself by leaping and snapping at the low-hanging branches. “Sue, quit,” Mary said with a smile. “Sometimes she gets too firm a bite and tips herself right out of the truck.”
Bebe’s tour that day included a plunge through brush to the stony mouth of Lost Dog Spring. “Last time I went down in there,” Bebe said, squinting into the fissure, “some rattlesnakes sent me right back out.” We walked through the stone ruins of holding pens and stood beside a deep, clear pool where the sisters used to swim and wade their horses.
Mary’s limestone cottage sits on a nearby rise, near a stone barn with nooks for nesting chickens, a stone root cellar, a stone smokehouse, and a contoured fortress wall around the compound that today would stop a tank. This is her haven—where she makes her peace with the passing years. Among the songbirds, with the dog cooling her belly in the creek, the thought of dynamited hillsides and advancing earthmovers as big as houses seems more absurd than obscene.
“They’re not going to do it,” Mary says. “They just can’t.”