Tarrant water district’s use of private camp on public land draws questions

Posted Friday, Aug. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Four miles from the nearest paved road on the north shore of Lake Bridgeport lies a 560-acre camp that provides everything a hunter needs for a weekend in the woods.

About two cords of chopped firewood is stacked outside a roughly 1,000-square-foot cabin. Behind the cabin stands a metal hoist with a pair of gambrels — hooks for hanging and field-dressing two carcasses of deer, hogs or other large game.

The cabin, which was built around an old trailer home parked there sometime in the 1970s, includes a wood-paneled addition that can sleep up to 10. It has central air, a well-stocked kitchen, two toilets and a shower.

Hunters typically pay thousands of dollars a year for such a setup. This camp, however, has an unusual owner.

The Tarrant Regional Water District, the public agency that supplies most of the water in North Central Texas, owns and operates the land. For decades, its employees have been allowed to use the camp, which includes deer stands and a shooting range, for free.

The camp became a political issue during the recent water district board elections, when a trio of challengers alleged that the incumbent board members essentially operated a private hunting site, valued by others at up to $20,000 a year.

Few people knew about the camp before the election.

In slick campaign flyers, the challengers cited the property when accusing the incumbents, many of whom have been in their positions for decades, of benefiting from perks and operating with a lack of transparency.

One challenger, John Basham, alleged that the board was violating state laws prohibiting the use of public lands by employees for personal use.

Board members defend the district’s use of the property, saying that they can’t sell it because its in a flood plain and that allowing employees to use it protects the land from abuse by vandals and poachers. The current members all said they have not been hunting or fishing there.

“It’s not a lease. It’s land we’ve owned for years,” said Vic Henderson, president of the water board. “We can’t sell it. It’s in a floodplain. It’s land we have to maintain, and no money from the district is being used to maintain it. They (workers) go up there on their own time. They have to pool their money to maintain it.”

Mary Kelleher, the only one of the three challengers to win a seat on the Tarrant water board, said last week that, if the camp is a legitimate perk for rank-and-file workers, she wouldn’t want to take it away from them.

“I certainly wouldn’t want them to lose that,” she said.

But, by at least one measure, the Tarrant setup is out of the ordinary.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which manages millions of acres of public land, has an ethics policy that prohibits employees from accepting free hunts, a spokesman said.

“The Parks and Wildlife doesn’t have any private hunting resorts for its employees,” spokesman Mike Cox said. “We’re prohibited by our ethics policy from accepting any free hunts from anybody.

“A Parks and Wildlife employee can hunt on our wildlife management areas if, just like any other citizen of Texas they draw a hunt, but there is no preference for Parks and Wildlife employees. We would have to be in (a drawing) with millions of other Texans.”

Gate locked to the public

Getting to the hunting camp takes some effort.

The best way to get there is by driving Farm Road 1810, about eight miles west of Chico, then turning south on the gravel County Line Road near the Wise-Jack County line, and finally taking another gravel path, Long Road, to its dead end.

The only indication that a visitor has arrived is a locked gate that keeps the public off its small web of dirt roads.

The cabin can’t be seen from the gate. It becomes visible after driving a few hundred feet down one of the winding dirt paths.

The Star-Telegram spotted at least three does and two fawns walking through the trees during a three-hour visit last week.

At least three deer stands and two feeders have been installed on the property, as well as a 100-yard shooting range that features a 10-foot-tall safety wall of dirt and railroad ties.

The cabin is stocked with items contributed by district employees over the years, including a Monopoly game, a flat-screen television and a recliner. A dining table is surrounded by four office chairs that were salvaged from the district’s administrative offices in Fort Worth.

The 1980s Kenwood stereo atop the stone fireplace was donated by Darrell Beason, the water district’s director of operations.

“I worked all summer in 1985 to get that,” Beason said. “And now, I have donated it to the cause.”

The property is a perk for operations employees, including heavy-machinery operators who aren’t paid high wages, Beason said. But it’s also a base camp for environmental workers who often spend long hours on the remote west side of the lake.

Law officers also use the camp as a temporary post while patrolling, he said.

Further, he said, district employees occasionally invite youth groups to learn about gun safety, archery, fishing and other outdoors skills.

Fewer than 30 employees have regular camp access, Beason said.

Employees who want to hunt deer, feral hogs or turkey, or sleep at the cabin for quick access to fishing and duck hunting on the lake, must take part in two weekend property clean-ups each year.

One session is typically in the spring, the other in the fall. The volunteers chop wood, eradicate wasps and perform other tasks that keep the property clean and liveable, Beason said.

A minimum of six hours of volunteer work is required.

Perk of the job

Still, the employees are receiving a perk that could be worth thousands if they had to pay full price for a deer lease on private property, a quick check of other hunting sources shows.

Typically, hunters get together in groups of four or five and share the costs of such a lease, which gives them year-round access to the land but also requires them to maintain their feeders and other equipment.

Mike Hopkins of Lipan operates a website, dfwhunt.com, that helps hunters find leases within driving distance of Dallas-Fort Worth. He estimated that the property, which is an hour’s drive west of Fort Worth, could lease for $15,000 to $20,000 a year.

“If it’s funded by taxpayer funds, we’re providing them a $15,000 to $20,000 retreat,” he said.

District officials counter that the land is simply a byproduct of their predecessors’ efforts to buy up enough land for flood control back in the 1930s, when Lake Bridgeport was built.

Back then, many ranchers needed the money and asked the district to buy up all their properties, not just what was immediately needed for the reservoir, Beason said.

District leaders have no intention of ending the practice of allowing employees to use the land, and they do not plan to try to sell the property, Henderson said.

Henderson and fellow board member Jack Stevens were re-elected in May. A third incumbent, Hal Sparks, was defeated.

Kelleher, the challenger who received more votes than anyone on the ballot, said she will continue to press for the board to be more transparent about its money and its property.

Giving the public a closeup view of the hunting camp, she said, is a start.

“I just want it to be acknowledged that a deer hunting camp does exist,” said Kelleher, who proposed that the land use be reviewed periodically.

For example, Kelleher said she was glad to know that visitors are required to sign in and out of the cabin on a log book, which was placed on the dining table during the Star-Telegram’s visit last week.

On that day, however, the book contained only blank sheets.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson

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Outside the gate at the water district land

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