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Local Fight To Protect Devils River Natural Area Leaps Onto National Election Stage

Kelly Nowicki | Texas Public Radio

The Devils River State Natural Area in southwestern Texas has been an election-year battleground in the national fights over conservation, energy efficiency, and water use. It also recently saw a firestorm over an issue that echoes presidential election-year rhetoric: potential Chinese threats to national security.

The park is in a remote part of Val Verde County, about 60 miles from Del Rio. The area is an ecotourism hotspot because of its clear night skies, rare and endangered bird species and what is often referred to as “the most pristine river in Texas.”

“The Devils River State Natural Area is located in a relatively unique piece of Texas,” explained Beau Hester, the superintendent of the Devils River State Natural Area-Del Norte Unit. “There’s three different ecoregions coming here that kind of collide to create a biodiverse array of plants and animals.”

The State Natural Area faced several threats in recent years, including aquifer depletion and industrial encroachment. Supporters have also seen wind farms as a threat.

The Devils River Conservancy (DRC), a nonprofit organization made up of local landowners, conservationists and concerned citizens, has successfully lobbied against proposed wind farm projects in the area.

In March 2018 it launched its ‘Don’t Blow It’ campaign to educate the community and save what activists say is the last wild area of Texas.

Randy Nunns, the DRC's board president, explained that the DRC's campaign aligned with concerns from other ranchers who disapproved of the government supporting one business or another with tax subsidies. Other ranchers worried about the effect of a wind farm on nearby property values.

Environmentalists worried about the carbon cost of manufacturing the steel towers and building the facilities, or the effect the construction could have on the watershed, or the wind blades' potentially deadly threat to migrating birds, bats and Monarch butterflies. Their concerns echoed the campaign's assertions that the wind farms would encroach on the pristine rivers, pollute the night skies with the red blinking lights, and disturb the natural habitats of endangered species.

The campaign also claimed that the wind farms could affect border security operations and jeopardize Laughlin Air Force Base, the largest Air Force training base in the United States.

Blue Hills

That latest argument gained fresh attention when plans to build the Blue Hills Wind Farm in Val Verde County were unveiled. Critics claimed this new development could pose a threat to national security because Chinese businessman Guangxin Sun owns the land. They alleged that he had ties to the Chinese Communist Party and his company could use the wind farm to monitor U.S. military operations or interfere with the U.S. electrical grid.

Sun owns about 130,000 acres in Val Verde County, on which he could develop more wind farms. These properties, initially owned by heritage landowners and ranchers, are now owned by Brazos Highlands Properties, LP, a subsidiary of GH America Investments Group Inc., which is a subsidiary of Guanghui Energy Company, which Sun owns.

The DRC portrayed Sun as someone enriching himself using Val Verde County’s resources with no interest or local stake in the region’s well being. The criticism escalated to the national stage in the summer when prominent political leaders weighed in on the potential threats to national security if GH America continued to expand its presence in Texas.

In a July 10 press release, U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep. Hurd – all Texas Republicans – sent a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin expressing “their concern about reports that the primary investor in a wind farm near Laughlin Air Force Base in Val Verde County has connections to the Chinese Communist Party, potentially undermining American National Security.”

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, announced Thursday he won't run for reelection in 2020 after only narrowly surviving last fall in a district that voted for Hillary Clinton.
Eric Gay
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, announced he won't run for reelection in 2020.

The natural area is part of U.S. District 23, a massive region between San Antonio and El Paso which Hurd represents in Congress.

In a July 30 opinion piece for the Houston Chronicle, he warned that a “company owned by a member of the Chinese Communist Party – Guanghui Energy Company – may gain access to our power grid through a large wind farm in the Devil’s River Areas of West Texas, and the federal government is not moving fast enough to prevent it, and the state government lacks the power to stop it.”

Hurd added that “once the owners of the West Texas project named Blue Hills Wind becomes part of the power community, they will gain access to security industry alerts, private industry insights and national security threat assessments.”

Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA station chief and a Fox News contributor, claimed in an article that the Chinese government could use Sun’s wind farms to gather intelligence on U.S. border security operations and Laughlin Air Force Base.

He speculated that although Sun was an independent businessman, he served in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and had “long maintained a close relationship with China’s Communist Party Leadership” so he was now “on the hook to serve as a surrogate against China’s adversaries, especially the U.S.”

Election year resonance

Hurd plans to step down at the end of his current term, and Democrats have targeted that seat in the 2020 election. Gina Ortiz Jones, the Democratic candidate who Hurd defeated in 2018, faces Republican Tony Gonzales, and they've sparred over health care, the Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and national security threats. The controversy over the Blue Hills Wind Farm and over Sun has also emerged throughout the weeks and months before November election.

The Ortiz Jones campaign directed TPR's inquiries to a statement she released in July 2020.

“As an Air Force and Iraq War veteran who spent nearly 15 years working to protect our national and economic security," it read, "I support efforts to understand what potential national security threats may arise from this planned wind farm project in Val Verde County.

She added: “South and West Texans are facing unprecedented economic challenges, and our national security is too important to be tied up in partisan politics. Rep. Hurd, Sen. Cruz, and Sen. Cornyn recently asked the Trump administration for more information on this proposal's impact. I support this inquiry and believe this is a necessary and important step to keeping Texans safe from foreign interference in our economic and national security.”

In October 2020, Ortiz Jones and Gonzales appeared on TPR's "The Source." Ortiz Jones did not discuss the wind farm.

Gonzales called China the biggest external threat to U.S. national security, and he pointed to Chinese-owned "windmills" in Val Verde County as an example, specifically referring to Sun.

"So this gentleman is a former Chinese general from the Communist Party of China," he said. "So guess what? You don't rise to that rank without being associated very closely with the Chinese government. Those are the dangers that are at hand."

'Not a chance'

However, Adm. Bobby R. Inman, a tenured professor at the University of Texas at Austin who holds the Lyndon B. Johnson Centennial Chair in National Policy, believed that the more likely scenario was that Sun was simply a businessman who found a profitable market in West Texas.

“The investment is clearly from somebody who’s got a fair amount of wealth and is capitalizing where there is a market,” Inman said. “But where is the national security threat? Would he shut down his wind farm suddenly as a pressure tactic and lose the money he is making? Not a chance. If it was a state-owned enterprise that was doing the investment, then I’d be concerned.”

Inman explained that over the past 20 years, many Chinese entrepreneurs started investing their money outside of China in places with less risk like Hong Kong and Singapore, and more recently in Europe and the U.S., where safer and longer term investments were possible.

The Danish Wind Industry Association (Flickr user: danishwindindustryassociation)

Inman believed the recent conversation about Sun’s wind farm developments was an orchestrated effort to support President Trump’s reelection. “[Trump’s] got two basic issues: ‘law and order’ and ‘Tough on China,’” he said. “Being anti-China looks like it’s one of the paths that might get Trump reelected.”

As for the argument that the proximity of the wind farms poses a threat to operations at Laughlin Air Force Base, Inman believed that was “not a valid concern.” The Rocksprings Val Verde wind farm is 40 miles from Laughlin Air Force Base, and the proposed Blue Hills Wind Farm would be 80 miles from the base, so Inman believed it would not impact air travel or training.

The only scenario in which he could see a potential threat was if Laughlin Air Force Base became energy-dependent on these wind farms. “If Laughlin Air Force Base shifted to wind power as its only source of electric power, and there was no back up, then could disruption of it impact training? The answer is yes. Is that likely to occur? No.”

'Beneficial to their owners'

The Air Force's statement to TPR highlighted wind farms in general as a potential threat to operations. It did not specifically refer to Sun or the Blue Hills project.

“Wind energy is a valuable renewable resource, however, wind energy development is threatening an essential, non-renewable national resource: military training airspace," the statement read. "The Air Force utilizes military training routes that are well established and wind turbines could pose a direct physical threat to flying operations."

It continued: "Every military installation mission, community and wind farm development is unique, which is why communication and coordination between them early on is imperative. By early collaboration with developers, impacts to Department of Defense operations can be properly addressed, mitigated and if possible, avoided."

"The DoD, AETC and Laughlin AFB support sustainable energy and energy independence," the statement concluded, "but we must also protect our pilots and their abilities to conduct flying training operations.”

Robert Beau Nettleton, a Val Verde county commissioner and landowner who lives near Devils River, viewed the wind farm project pragmatically.

He believed in the effectiveness of the wind farm technology and in its potential contribution to local tax revenues. But he worried how the spectacle of a wind farm could impact property values on nearby lots, especially if they were marketed to urban residents who see the region as a natural getaway from city life.

Nettleton also worried about the farm operation's potential threat to Laughlin Air Force Base, specifically to their low-flight operations, echoing the Air Force's own concerns. The turbines could potentially prohibit those training activities, he said, and possibly inspire the Air Force to downsize or even close the base, which would be a financial calamity for Del Rio's economy.

He said he understood how a businessman would approach local concerns, but only to a point. "I own several businesses so I have to look out for what’s the best interest for my business," he explained, "but the difference is my business is affected by what happens in Val Verde County and the people of Val Verde County. So, I have to be part of that community, and I have to deal with those issues. They don’t."

Nettleton also worried that the wind farm owners would not feel a personal stake in the future of Val Verde communities. "[T]hey intend to develop a project that is beneficial to their owners. ... They didn’t live in Val Verde County their whole lives, they didn’t grow in Del Rio like we did and go to school here and all of those kind of things. So, ... at the end of the day, their interest is not what happens in Val Verde County."

Sun and GH America did not directly respond to TPR's repeated requests for comment.

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