Official links Boca Chica ATV ban, SpaceX launches

HARLINGEN — Federal officials say now is the right time to ban ATVs and off-road vehicles from the delicate dune-scape along Boca Chica Beach.

Bryan Winton, refuge manager for the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge, said yesterday the confluence of the arrival of SpaceX and rocket launches beginning as early as May 2019 from its Boca Chica site made it a good time to issue the ban.

“You can fish, you can play on the beach, you can kayak and there’s still going to be access to South Bay,” Winton said. “You just can’t get there anywhere and everywhere. It’s going to be designated areas only.”

Winton said vehicles will still be allowed to drive along the beach to reach fishing spots or South Bay and the jetty. But the new regulations also mean it will be easier to clear the beach during space launches for safety reasons.

ATV and off-road traffic running through wash-overs cut through the dunes by storms to the other side of the barrier island is ended immediately, he said. All ATVs and off-road vehicles are banned from the dunes, the beach and the tidal flats, and users now face fines and confiscation of their machines if caught.

“There’s the Dune Protection Act that’s in place, and they’re not supposed to have any kind of vehicle in those areas because they’re vegetated and that helps stabilize the bank and if there’s a hurricane that’s your first line of defense for flood control,” he said.

“If you’ve been out at Boca Chica where Highway 4 ends at the beach, you can see the damage from a mile away as you’re driving up there where there are trails all in the dunes.”

Winton said ATV and off-road use over the dunes has always been illegal on public lands but enforcement in the past has been difficult because of the patchwork ownership and control of Boca Chica Beach.

“We’ve been told for years this is going on, but there are intermittent private lands out there and to keep the signage in place so people are clear that this is the refuge and this isn’t, well it’s difficult because of the substrate,” he said. “You can put a sign in the ground three feet but it’s so soft you can pull it right out of the ground and some folks have done that over the years.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where Winton works took over management of the beach as part of the refuge system in 1990, but he said some sections of it remain under the control of the Texas General Land Office and some of it has been in private hands.

SpaceX has purchased much of that available private land, which will make enforcement easier, he said.

“Now that they’ve chosen this location, they’ve bought up a considerable amount of the private property surrounding it,” Winton said. “It’s either under our control, the General Land Office’s control or SpaceX’s control. We’ve narrowed down the number of landowners out there so we think we’re going to be able to be more effective in enforcing this.”

Winton also noted the dunes are important nesting sites for threatened birds, such as red knots and piping plovers, and also that critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are re-establishing Boca Chica as a nesting site. Twenty-three Kemp’s ridley nests — a record — were found along the beach last year.

“Between April and August we do have nesting birds in those flats behind the dunes,” he said. “You look out there and think it’s a wasteland but it’s really important for a few nesting bird species and so when the folks are driving around on the ATVs and just doing donuts and having a big time, often times they’re running over the chicks and the nests.”

Winton said Sea Turtle Inc. and U.S. Border Patrol will be exempt from the ATV and off-road ban as they perform their patrol duties.