BBNP eyes expansions, and Brewster County hits zero active cases: This week at the Brewster County Commissioners Court

BREWSTER COUNTY — The Brewster County Commissioners Court hit on a number of topics at their meeting this Wednesday, from staff and officials’ departures and possible expansions at Big Bend National Park to, of course, coronavirus.

With County Judge Eleazar Cano not present, Ruben Ortega, the Precinct 3 commissioner, ran the meeting. Here were some of the highlights:

Coronavirus

As has become tradition during the pandemic, Dr. Ekta Escovar, the local health authority for Brewster County, gave a presentation updating officials on the status of coronavirus. But unlike many of Escovar’s presentations, this one brought overwhelmingly good news.

Escovar noted that the number of cases in Texas were continuing to drop, as were deaths. And with Brewster County hitting zero active coronavirus cases this past weekend, she said both the state and the county “continue to head in the right direction.”

She stressed that Texas is “nowhere near” its case counts of May and June, before they started to seriously climb across the state, and that Texas still has a long way to go. But she said Brewster County’s active count of zero cases is nonetheless a “pretty important milestone,” not least because Brewster County had a “bad outbreak” of coronavirus just a couple months ago.

“We made our way down to where we need to be,” Escovar said, “and I really think that speaks for the individual efforts that a lot of folks have put in across the county.”

Other metrics brought similarly good news. The tri-county is exceeding testing rates not only for Texas, but also the United States — a fact that means “we can say with confidence that we’re finding the cases of COVID that are here.” And Brewster County is doing well by other measurements too, including the number of local ICU hospitalizations for coronavirus, which currently sits at zero.

Still, Escovar said she was “a little nervous” about the return of school and that residents will need to “remain vigilant.” By the time of the next commissioners court meeting in a couple weeks, she estimated that “we’ll have the data we need.”

Brewster County has largely contained coronavirus — and as officials look to keep it that way, Escovar urged residents (and especially people in frontline industries like education and tourism) to continue getting tested. Doing so is not only good for public health but could “also help financially,” she said, because the sooner a coronavirus case is identified, the less likely that patient is to infect coworkers and trigger a shutdown of a business.

A bigger Big Bend

Bob Krumenaker, the National Park Service superintendent for Big Bend National Park and the Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River, offered commissioners some big news: Big Bend park, he said, is looking at expanding, possibly acquiring the Fulcher Ranch in the Terlingua area.

Though the deal isn’t final yet, the owners of the ranch, he said, are interested in selling their lands to the park. And Congressman Will Hurd, who represents the region, has been writing a bill to seal the deal.

Krumenaker said a public version of the bill would likely be available for public review in the next week. And while he said the park may look into additional land purchases or donations, he said the park has “no intent” of taking land from people through eminent domain and stressed that those decisions would always “be up to the willing landowner.”

Raymond Skiles with the Big Bend Conservancy offered more context on the importance of the possible acquisition. He said the west edge of the park is full of natural and cultural milestones, from the habitat around Terlingua Creek to historic Latino farms. And with increasing development in Terlingua, he said new park lands on the west end would also hopefully “increase the buffer area” between Terlingua and nature-lovers trying to enjoy the land.

Though the plan has the enthusiastic support of everyone involved, Skiles said there nonetheless “could be a perception” that it might affect other nearby landowners. To that end, he said, he’d reached out to 30 other owners near the new proposed park boundary.

But far from expressing any distaste for the project, Skiles said of those owners also seemed interested in getting involved. “Most love the park,” he said. “That’s why they have their property.”

Staffing changes

Some big news came from a Brewster County news release on Monday: After more than three years on the job, Betse Esparza, the Precinct 1 commissioner, planned to resign “effective immediately.” The news release thanked her for the “excellent job” she did, “even through these difficult past few months during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

At the meeting, Commissioner Ortega said Esparza had sent a resignation letter to the county on August 19 but otherwise offered few details. Esparza, who was present at the virtual meeting, did not offer any remarks explaining her decision.

Esparza’s resignation wasn’t the only staffing news, though. Separately, officials announced that Berta Rios-Martinez, the county clerk for Brewster County, had won the title of County Clerk of the Year for the State of Texas from the County & District Clerks Association. The commissioners thanked her for her service.

Officials then announced that after more than 23 years of service, Esther U. Alvarado, an employee at the county clerk’s office, was retiring. Commissioner Ortega said she’d been a “great asset for the county” and asked that she be sent a congratulatory card “signed by everybody.”

Commissioner Mike Pallanez said Alvarado “took a lot of pride” in her work and added: “We’re going to miss you.” Commissioner Sara Allen Colando gave congratulations to both Rios-Martinez and Alvardo, saying the county was “so lucky” to have both employees and adding she hoped Esther had “a wonderful, relaxing retirement.”


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