Standoff at the Lajitas Resort

Charlie Pierce

Anti-pipeline action targets Kelcy Warren’s borderland hideout

LAJITAS, Texas—There may have been a snarling dog in the patrol truck in the play-Western “town” of the Lajitas Golf Resort, but it was an Indian dog, the deputy said. As for the man waving an American Indian Movement flag near the main offices of the multi-million-dollar resort shouting that its billionaire owner, Kelcy Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, was a “criminal” and an “evil man”?

“He’s alright,” the deputy wagered.

“In fact,” he added, leaning in our window as another protest wound down, “I’m on your side. But…”

We’d come here to this furthest corner of Texas, to the neck of the Rio Grande just downriver from La Junta de los Rios, where the Rio Grande and Rio Conchos join up at Presidio-Ojinaga, the site where Warren hopes to run a 148-mile high-pressure natural-gas pipeline, to make just this claim:

“Water is sacred! Water is life!”

It was a claim the line of roughly 20 made repeatedly crossing through this playground in the desert. They marched in solidarity with Standing Rock, where members of hundreds of tribes and their allies have been involved in a standoff with Warren’s Dakota Access pipeline for months. They marched against Warren’s Trans-Pecos pipeline much closer to home.

“I’m here for you and your grand kids and to protect the water,” Austin resident Charlie Pierce said, planting himself at the resort sign to greet the drips of traffic entering and exiting the resort.

“Yes,” the deputy replied. “But you’ve got to know the whole story.”

The march was an echo of the Friday event (See: “Controlled Burn“) that took place just over an hour north at the site of the pipeline’s construction in the Sunny Glen subdivision of Alpine, Texas. Residents there have expressed concerns over the possibility of explosion, the fact there is only one way into or out of their subdivision.

The concerns of the 190 or so making the long walk to the pipeline include damages being done to archeological and potentially sacred sites. They speak of the likelihood of a 42” pipeline to trigger even more fracking and drilling in this remarkably still un-drilled corner of the country. And they question the wisdom and/or morality of plowing open new fields of of methane and carbon-dense petroleum when “natural” disasters are already accelerating across the world due to fossil-fuel-driven global warming.

So they marched in the North County. Long-time Big Benders and their new allies, a few vanloads of native folks from the American Indian Movement, Central Texas chapter, and representatives of other tribal groups, drummed, sang, chanted, prayed.

When the main foray onto the pipeline’s fence began to slow, a slipstream was formed, with determined pipeline opponents—water protectors—moving quickly up a railroad easement to get closer to the construction.

Pete Hefflin*, a member of AIM-CST, urged the workers to walk off the job. And to the pipeline owners he promised that he’d return. “Again and again,” he said.

“We will shut you down.”

Hours after that march broke up, with many sore-footed getting a lift back to town, I was told to expect something more. Something on Saturday or Sunday. Warren was supposedly holed up at his golf club down south entertaining oil executives. A text finally came late Saturday afternoon. No details other than the time: 11 a.m.

Anywhere else, chasing mystery events can get complicated.

In South Brewster County, the only reasonable response is to go to the porch in the one-time mercury mining camp of Terlingua and wait. In the shade of the Starlight Theater and its great dirt turnaround of a parking lot, all knowledge must pass. I arrive after dark, later than I’d wanted, considering this means I’ll be weaving around in the black across unnamed roads looking for shelter. The blue-lit Pegasus on top of the hill above, turned spat o’ spackle with a little distance, would be of no navigational help.

Of course, they’ll all here. Waiting.

Part of the crew leading the next morning’s march (or float, or illegal border-crossing, it’s still under negotiation) is on the porch. The others are inside.

This is also where I find Paul, one of the original re-inhabitants of the Ghost Town, unspooling the evidence of his many curiosities. These days that wondering is about war. That may explain how we arrive within the span of a few casual introductions beached on the shoal of Armageddon (or the Trump-Clinton election, same difference), 20th century German philosophers, and the only reasonable response to the whole cursed mess: Retreat.

Civilization may be a failed concept, he says. A return to the metaphorical forest the only sane response. And, yes, that’s been the conclusion of many of those who have slowly occupied this rock camp over the last several decades. It’s a message one should expect to hear hereabouts.

“Then again,” he interrupts himself. “I always have to ask, What would be the most unexpected thing that could happen?”

March on Lajitas
March on Lajitas. Image: Greg Harman

After scouting out the best approach on Sunday morning, a half dozen cars push through Lajtias, the well-irrigated green on the left by the river, the graveyard-cum-tourist attraction on the right. Parking along a scenic overlook, we disembark. With drum. And signs. And song.

Juan Mancias, tribal chair of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation, now circulating a petition to have their land rights respected in the South Texas region, opened with a song to the South Direction Protector, the Bear, in a call for healing.

Here I find Jim Burr, a local justice of the peace and 32-year Brewster resident, beside me. “I thought it was important to come down and show some solidarity with the Native Americans and people angry about ETP putting their pipeline through a pristine environment,” he said.

Next to him is Presidio County resident Jim Bigfoot. “I came out to support the tribe against this pipeline that has contaminated Mother Earth,” he said. “The fossil fuel industry, it’s time for that to end and get clean energy. That’s a thing of the past. It’s nothing but poison.”

A dreaded man with dark shades added: “As a river guide, I’m able to show people this country that is so fragile and beautiful in so many ways. You can’t mess with a fragile ecosystem. It’s not going to work.”

Not all area residents are on board, of course.

At morning coffee, one Ghost Town resident said that everyone on the other side of the river wants the pipeline. It’s jobs, after all. Hell, a lot of them want a border wall, he continued, because it’s jobs–jobs for a doomed-to-fail project anyway.

Another unpacked a slurry of the too-familiar rejoinders in favor of apathy.

Since the pipeline is already X% built, people should be focusing on lobbying for a safer pipeline.

Do these protestors want energy to get too expensive to afford?

Don’t they all drive cars and use gas?

What’s the alternative?

They’re not going to win anyway.

Of course everyone expects power and money to win. It’s drilled into us. It’s the voice of authority you contend with first of all, the one installed within.

Some opposing it may even secretly fear what would happen if it didn’t. (What would a gallon of gasoline cost?)

Yet, judging by the blockbuster movies we line up to see, the rise of prepper-ism, we also expect it all to end very badly anyway. It is the wall that won’t work. The system is collapsing, because, well, it has to.

Sifting through all of this I’m reminded of the great tapestry of stars I met this Saturday night. The one denied us back home in San Antonio, where we are allowed Mars, maybe Saturn, the moon, all transected by the red flashing of airliners across an otherwise big gray dome.

Here in the Ghost Town, where the land is hard and stingy with its water, a fact urging resilience and careful use, there is an actual firmament, an ocean above.

In this right-side-up world, Paul is asking himself a simple question, “What would be the most unexpected thing that could happen?”


* Pete Hefflin’s actual name is Pedro Rabago Gutierrez, as his March 2017 arrest revealed.