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Explosive situation; A proposed military live-fire range would change Kenedy County’s historic way of life

by John Tedesco
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All content (c) San Antonio Express-News

RANCHO LA PARRA – Deep in this South Texas scrubland of buffalo grass and mesquite trees lies a quiet oasis.

Wild deer roam manicured grounds that once were home to a ranching dynasty, but now are overseen by an order of Catholic priests whose members come here seeking God through prayer and contemplation. They talk in hushed tones – speech during mealtime is frowned upon.

“Our specialty, really, is silence and solitude,” said Father Francis Kelly Nemeck, an Oblate priest who has run the Lebh Shomea House of Prayer since it opened nearly 30 years ago.

But the peace of this religious retreat could someday be broken, if politicians and business leaders have their way, by the thunder of fighter jets and the distant rumble of bombs.

Located in Kenedy County, the house of prayer is one of the closest settlements to a proposed live-fire training and bombing range being considered by the Navy to replace operations in Vieques, Puerto Rico.

The proposed military site, which the government could condemn and buy through its power of eminent domain, measures nearly 345 square miles – an area larger than the island of Guam.

It takes up one-fourth of Kenedy County south of Baffin Bay, and its most vocal supporters live miles away in Kingsville and Corpus Christi, two cities that have much to gain from an influx of military personnel.

Both communities are supported by naval installations that could be on the chopping block in future base-closure rounds.

A key training range in the region would make the facilities more valuable and boost the local economy, said Dick Messbarger, executive director of the Greater Kingsville Economic Development Council.

But rustic Kenedy County, population 414, would be dramatically altered if a heritage of cattle and rancheros were forced to give way to a militarized zone.

The county’s biggest town, the ranching outpost of Sarita, doesn’t have a gas station, grocery store or single retail business – and people seem to prefer it that way. Generations of cowboys have lived, worked and died in this tiny community over the past century.

Ground zero of the proposed bombing range is an animal preserve where hunting is banned and guns haven’t been fired in years.

“We are just outraged that they’re trying to pull this,” said Nemeck, whose San Antonio-based order of Oblates operates the retreat house. “Nobody from the government or the Legislature has taken the time to come here and talk to us about this.”

Cattle and oil

Kenedy County’s history was shaped by cattle barons, and it was named after one of the richest.

Mifflin Kenedy, a Texas patriarch who made a fortune in shipping and ranching, helped establish the King Ranch during the Civil War era with his business partner and friend, Richard King, a former steamboat captain.

Across this desolate expanse of brush, their will was law – Texas Rangers enforced their edicts – and the King Ranch quickly enveloped other properties, becoming one of the largest cattle operations in the world.

Kenedy bowed out of the partnership but later acquired roughly 500,000 acres of grazing land along the Texas coast before his death in 1895.

The Navy now is eyeing nearly half that property.

Today, the Kenedy Ranch is owned by two Catholic charities. One was founded by Mifflin Kenedy’s granddaughter and last surviving descendent, Sarita Kenedy East, who bequeathed a foundation to help the poor when she died in 1961.

The second organization is a trust founded by East’s sister-in-law, Elena Kenedy, who sought control of East’s foundation in the 1960s with the help of disgruntled heirs, clergy, lawyers and bankers.

Both women were devout Catholics, and millions of dollars have flowed from their oil-rich estates to charitable causes.

Bombs away

Officials in Kleberg and Nueces counties envision a future for the Kenedy Ranch that has nothing to do with cattle grazing. They see a joint warfare-training center for the Navy and Marines.

A 72,000-acre site on Kenedy Trust land would be targeted for live-fire exercises, which include ship-to-shore shelling and aerial bombing.

The remaining 148,000 acres leaves room for buffer zones, indirect fire and administrative areas.

A few Kenedy County officials were made aware of the plans, but little warning of the drastic changes trickled down to residents, who only learned of it by chance when word was spread by the media a week ago.

“We feel like the bastard stepchild at a family reunion,” said Lynwood G. Weiss, ranch office manager for the San Pedro Kenedy Ranch Co., which is owned by the son of Elena Kenedy’s nephew and is given exclusive access to the trust’s land.

“They’re up there shooting their mouths off, and this thing isn’t going in their back yard,” Weiss said.

The San Pedro ranching company owns about 80 percent of the housing in Sarita, a small town of 250 souls that was established to support the sprawling ranches.

San Pedro could be forced to downsize its operation if the military training site goes through, causing the company to lose nearly all its land, employees said. The company now manages 10,000 head of cattle across 200,000 acres, all within the Kenedy trust property.

“It’s going to destroy this community,” said Ernesto Lerma, 66, a ranch hand who works for the company on Kenedy Trust land.

A stocky man with callused hands and sun-scorched skin, Lerma has been a rancher most of his life, just like his father before him. He lives on a quiet street in Sarita with Delia, his wife of 46 years.

“It’s peaceful here,” Lerma said. “Nobody bothers you.”

‘Undue hardship’

Environmentally, the effects of the bombing range could be far-reaching for Kenedy County.

In an April report issued by the Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, the agency found millions of acres from military training sites in the United States are contaminated with unexploded ordnance that could cost taxpayers more than $100 billion to clean up.

Hazards from old bombing ranges include accidental explosions and pollution from toxic chemicals, the report stated.

Mike Norrell, a fishing guide from Sarita whose territory includes Baffin Bay and the Laguna Madre, worries the coast’s pristine environment would be permanently ruined by military drills.

“I don’t want a bunch of amphibious craft out here, running all over the bay,” said Norrell, who moved to Sarita because he enjoyed the isolation. “This is one of the last places in Texas that’s not polluted, and that’s why everybody’s fighting over it.”

Wheeled vehicles and amphibious craft crossing the island would cause harm to potential nesting sites for five endangered species of turtles, and six endangered species of birds, said Ken McMullen, the chief of science and resource management at the Padre Island National Seashore.

Those endangered species include the Kemp’s ridley turtle, the Piping Plover and the Eastern Brown Pelican.

Messbarger downplayed the environmental impact, saying the military uses modern ordnance that’s friendlier to ecosystems.

And supporters say a bombing range actually would be a boon for the environment. Once the land falls under military control, the property is unlikely to be developed into farmland, which would create pesticide and herbicide runoff that pollutes waterways, they say.

But that scenario appears unlikely – only 1 percent of Kenedy County is considered good farmland.

In addition, Elena Kenedy stipulated in her will that the land be used for grazing.

The crack of gunfire never is heard on her property – hunting is forbidden.

The ranch is a game preserve that someday could be in the target sites of high-tech weapon systems.

Records suggest the military’s intrusion also could be a blow to Kenedy County’s tax coffers.

The Kenedy Trust is a tax-exempt entity, but it voluntarily pays county taxes on oil royalties and property. Elena Kenedy decreed the trust would pay these taxes “to avoid undue hardship upon other taxpayers of Kenedy County.”

Last year, county officials collected $70,100 in taxes from the trust – a significant slice of the roughly $2.5 million in tax funds the county receives annually.

If the Navy boots out the San Pedro ranchers, the Missionary Society of the Oblate Fathers of Texas, based in San Antonio, could pay the price.

Profits from grazing leases raised by the Kenedy Trust are donated to the Catholic order, which has received $1.6 million during the past three years.

Royalties from oil and gas operations, which likely would be disrupted by the Navy’s arrival, support five other charities, including Our Lady of the Lake University.

Elena Kenedy forbade trustees from selling the ranch, even if it means making a profit.

Supporters of the military project say that if the government condemns the land and buys it through eminent domain, it could generate a pool of millions of dollars to support the charities on interest alone.

And military personnel assigned to the training facility would spark business growth in Kenedy County, said Patrick Veteto, a retired Marine artillery officer who drew up the bombing range plan.

But does anyone in this frontier land want the accouterments of city life?

“Kenedy County doesn’t have a single retail establishment,” County Attorney Jaime Tijerina said. “We don’t sell gas, we don’t sell groceries, we don’t have subdivisions that are selling houses. That’s not what we do here.”

‘God’s country’

About 5 miles from where the bombs would fall is the “big house,” a large stucco structure that had been home to the Kenedy clan.

Sarita Kenedy East donated this property to the Oblates, who turned it into a retreat center in 1973. Its name, Lebh Shomea, means “listening heart” in Hebrew.

Nemeck, a tall priest who cruises around the grounds in a golf cart and cowboy hat, said he would fight to protect the peace at the house of prayer.

He doubted that the women who bestowed this land to charity would want it turned into a war zone.

“I look upon this as God’s country out here,” Nemeck said. “It’s just really wrong to adulterate it. They’re talking about raping the land.”

jtedesco @ express-news.net

Staff Writer Gary Martin contributed to this report.