Forced off their land; Joe Hawes and his family lost their ranch on Matagorda Island to the U.S. government many long years ago. They still want it back.

by John Tedesco
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MATAGORDA ISLAND — Ten years ago, Joe Hawes and his family rounded up 500 head of cattle and said goodbye to this lush barrier island.

The ranchers — four generations of them — buzzed across the prairie on three-wheel motorcycles, whooping at the cows and herding them into trailers to be shipped away.

It was the end of a family tradition. The Haweses had raised cattle on the island’s saw grass and freshwater ponds since 1839. A few family members are even buried there.

But at the outset of World War II, the U.S. government seized the property to build a bombing and gunnery range. After the Air Force closed the facility in 1975, the island became a wildlife refuge.

In a battle pitting the rights of private citizens against the wishes of the government, the ranchers fought for years to retrieve their land, complaining that part of Matagorda Island rightfully belonged to them.

The Hawes family ranched on the island under grazing leases, but federal officials finally decided that cattle were incompatible with the aims of preserving a delicate ecosystem. The family rounded up its livestock on the island for the last time in June 1991.

Nearly a decade later, at 80, Joe Hawes is still trying to get back his share of Matagorda Island. Or at least a part of it.

Last month, Hawes filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that a small parcel of land on the island still belongs to the family estate. In court papers, Hawes argues that the family owns the site of an old Coast Guard station, and the government has no legal basis for keeping the property.

“He’s a tough old buzzard,” said J. Brent Giezentanner, the former refuge director who decided to ban cattle from the island. “I have a lot of respect for him and the fact that he pursued this crusade as long as he has.”

The years haven’t stooped Hawes, an affable rancher who stands more than 6 feet tall and still manages a 435-acre property in Tivoli. He has big hands, callused from working the land, and his weathered face breaks into a smile without much prompting.

Hawes and his wife, Marjorie, have preached against the wrongs of big government for as long as they’ve been married, which is coming up on 61 years.

“We don’t have to talk anymore,” Hawes says as his wife fixes lunch in the kitchen. “You know what the other one’s saying.”

“I can’t hear him anyway,” chirps Marjorie, who wears a hearing aid.

As prominent figures in the local history of the island and Port O’Connor, where Hawes was born, the family’s feud with the government has become a topic that everyone seems to remember.

One reason is that Hawes won’t allow anyone to forget. He wrote hundreds of letters to presidents, senators, representatives and government officials, decrying the seizure of his property. Hawes said grazing can safely control vegetation without threatening the tenuous sand dunes or the endangered whooping cranes that winter on the island.

Some officials with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which manages the 44,000-acre state park, agree with him.

Before Hawes lost his grazing lease, a handful of state employees disputed environmentalists’ assertions that grazing was a detriment to Matagorda Island. And in recent months, officials have toyed with the idea of allowing cattle to return, although no serious proposals have been drawn up or studied.

“Cattle really have no impact on the whooping cranes,” park manager John Stuart said. “They don’t interfere with each other.”

An island of dreams

Geologically speaking, Matagorda Island is still young. It developed some 5,000 years ago, creating a natural barrier between the Gulf of Mexico and San Antonio and Espiritu Santo bays, northeast of Corpus Christi.

Its first known inhabitants were Karankawa Indians, who hunted with longbows and warded off mosquitoes by covering their bodies with mud and alligator grease.

Europeans are believed to have first seen the island in 1519, when Alonso Alvarez de Pieda mapped the Texas coast. Ren, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who led a failed expedition into Texas more than a century later, built a temporary fort on the island.

Joe Hawes’ great-grandfather arrived on the scene in 1839. A lawyer of some means, H.W. Hawes established a ranching operation and, on the northern tip of the island, built a wharf where deep-draft ships unloaded their cargo. The shipping business fostered the growth of the town of Saluria.

But ships were vulnerable to strong ocean currents, and Saluria was damaged by coastal storms. When the Civil War began, the site became strategic to both Confederate and Union forces, and the town was burned.

Saluria never recovered, but the Haweses remained. They endured hurricanes, droughts and blizzards. The island was bountiful, however, and ranchers rebuilt after every disaster.

Another conflict, World War II, proved to be a greater setback to the family’s fortunes.

War of wills

On Nov. 8, 1940, a U.S. marshal arrived at the Hawes ranch on Matagorda Island, proclaiming the area property of the United States. He gave the family 10 days to remove their livestock and belongings.

The threat of war had sparked an urgent need for land and military installations. The War Department seized 19,000 acres from the Haweses, the state of Texas, and two other families that had long histories on the island. An airfield was built, and Matagorda Island became a bombing range.

Hawes said his family felt no shortage of patriotism in those days — he and some of his kin enlisted, and one relative died in combat. But the family’s offer to lease the land to the military until the war was over was rejected.

After years of court hearings — including one in which Hawes claimed an Army general promised to return the island — the families lost their bid to retain control of the property. They were paid $7 an acre, and the Haweses gave up ownership of nearly 8,000 acres.

The government said the price was above fair market value, while the Hawes family argued that the true worth of the land hadn’t been determined and the property was being taken against their wishes.

The family signed off on the deal — refusing to do so would have meant forfeiting their mineral rights. Still, they weren’t allowed access to the oil and gas preserves for years.

The government didn’t stake a claim to a ranch on the southern end of the island owned by Dallas oilman Toddie L. Wynne, whose cattle were allowed to graze on the Hawes property during World War II. President Roosevelt had visited the Wynne ranch as a guest in 1939, Hawes points out.

In 1986, the Wynne ranch was sold to the San Antonio Nature Conservancy, which in turn sold it to the federal government for $13 million, or more than $1,000 an acre.

In hindsight, Hawes believes the government’s interest in Matagorda Island was piqued as early as 1929, when a Coast Guard station on the island became an officers’ club.

While hardly plush, the facility was a draw for top military personnel attracted to Matagorda Island’s abundant hunting and fishing.

In the 1970s, U.S. Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., accused the military of keeping the base as a “private hideaway” for recreation.

The Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that between 1971 and 1973 nearly 1,000 military personnel and civilians hunted on the island. They included 48 generals, 508 other officers, 349 enlisted men, and 30 dependents, according to a past article in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

“They’d been on the island for a long, long time,” Hawes said. “They wanted that island bad.”

Foul or fowl?

Today, the island is still an isolated, wild place. Part of it is open as a state park, but the only way to reach it is by boat or aircraft.

All that remains of the air base are a few buildings and weed-strewn landing strips.

Whooping cranes fly every winter from Canada to Texas, living in the shores of Matagorda Island and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge across San Antonio Bay. Fewer than 300 of the majestic birds are left in the wild.

Environmentalists said Hawes’ cattle threatened the habitat of the whooping crane and praised the government’s decision to remove the livestock in 1991.

One newsletter from the National Audubon Society said it was only a matter of time before a whooping crane got caught in one of the ranch’s barbed wire fences.

But today the fences still stand. Current and former officials at the wildlife refuge said barbed wire and cattle pose little threat to the endangered birds, which inhabit a different area of the island.

“A lot of people were trying to blame it on the whooping crane,” said Giezentanner, the federal official who declined renewing Hawes’ grazing lease 10 years ago. “That was not the major issue at all.”

Giezentanner said his unease about Hawes’ cattle was caused more by what he saw as damage to trampled sand dunes and the environmental effects of overgrazing.

Now retired in Colorado Springs, Giezentanner said he took no pleasure banning cattle from the island and cutting off the Hawes family from the foundation of their heritage.

But they never offered proof that the military had promised them the island back, Giezentanner added. The legal system had run its course, the Hawses were compensated and the island had new caretakers. Reversing that resolution would open a “Pandora’s box.”

“I had a lot of sympathy and heartfelt feelings for the family,” Giezentanner said. “But it was something I felt needed to be done, and I was sworn to uphold a particular duty, and that was to protect the wildlife refuge.”

Hawes harbors little bitterness for Giezentanner, who he says was just doing his job. But the rancher has a different description for politicians who have promised to help the family over the years and done nothing.

“Pitiful,” Hawes said. “Any politician you shake hands with, man, he’s your buddy. But when he gets back to his office, he’s forgotten all about you.”

Hawes holds some legislators in high esteem. Then-U.S. Rep. Greg Laughlin drafted a bill in 1990 to let cattle graze the island while environmental impacts were studied, while Rep. Ron Paul wrote a bill in 1998 that would have transferred the property back to the family. Both measures died in committee.

The battle goes on

Joe and Marjorie Hawes spend much of their time these days in Tivoli. They live at the end of a winding road in a wooden house they built themselves and filled with island mementos.

Part of the staircase came from lumber that washed up on Matagorda Island after an oil rig sank in the gulf. The bar and tables are made of mahogany driftwood that Hawes found during his years there. A brass Coast Guard beacon found on the beach still works — its soft blue beam makes a good nightlight.

“There’s so many good things that washed up on that beach,” Hawes said.

The battle for Matagorda Island hasn’t ended, Hawes says, but he has no illusions about his chances for success.

“I’m going to die,” Hawes said. “That’s what they’re waiting for.”

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