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The Cross Bar is on the cusp of becoming Amarillo’s next playground

Big news: A rich uncle has left everybody in Amarillo a 12,000-acre ranch, just minutes away from the heart of the city. It’s got canyons, creeks and trails for taking in a landscape straight out of a Hollywood Western. The land is ours—if someone can figure out a way to get us there.

Many people in Amarillo have never heard of the Cross Bar Special Recreation Management Area, a hunk of prime Texas Panhandle real estate where the shortgrass prairie meets the rugged breaks of the Canadian River Valley. Maybe it’s because Cross Bar has essentially been sealed off to the world, part of a complex Uncle Sam built nearly a century ago to safeguard a certain colorless, odorless treasure—vast, underground helium deposits—that floated military blimps in World War II and eventually helped send astronauts into space. The story is complicated.

For decades, Cross Bar Ranch was a component of an Amarillo-based helium processing and storage operation run by the U.S. government, which established the Federal Helium Reserve in the 1920s. Natural gas extracted from the newly discovered Hugoton Panhandle gas field was rich in helium, which put the Cross Bar—located just south of the Canadian River and west of what is now U.S. 287—at the epicenter of a gas-drilling bonanza that transformed Amarillo into a boomtown. In 1931, the U.S. Department of the Interior acquired the Cross Bar from Humble Oil and Refining Co. to push helium through a pipeline to the government’s processing and storage facilities.

By the 1990s, Amarillo’s government-owned helium operation was losing money, compelling the feds to start selling these assets to private firms. Thankfully, most of the property wound up in the care of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 1997. The BLM retained it for conservation purposes, with an eye toward making it accessible for public use. In 2017, it was proposed that Cross Bar be officially decoupled from its helium mission and, in 2020, the property was designated a special recreation management area under the BLM. 

That’s noteworthy. Texas has very little in the way of public lands. In fact, out of 245 million acres of BLM land nationwide, only 12,000 are in Texas—all within the bounds of the Cross Bar SRMA. Unfortunately, the Cross Bar is an island in a grassy sea of private land, so there’s no easy way to get to it. The only access is through private ranch roads involving multiple gates. This works well enough for small groups of equestrians or bow hunters who can be escorted to the ranch, but unobstructed public access requires a paved road.

That road doesn’t yet exist.

Roads and the Right People

There’s not much road construction on the resume of Adrian Escobar, outdoor recreation planner for the BLM’s Cross Bar Special Recreation Management Area. He holds a master’s in wildlife biology—not public relations or fundraising. But Escobar serves as the work boots on the ground for the BLM, and has been thrust into the role of caretaking the Cross Bar and supporting the community’s efforts to gain access to it. 

“I started working on the outdoor recreation portion in either 2013 or 2014,” Escobar says, pointing out that he was initially hired to reintroduce endangered species to the property. “But we didn’t get any traction until about four years ago, when I met the right people in town and got the easements locked down for the public access road.”

But easements are nothing more than lines on a map. The deciding factor in Cross Bar’s success as a public attraction is securing funding for a road to allow travelers on U.S. 287 to access the front gate of the Cross Bar Ranch—just like they would travel to Palo Duro Canyon State Park or any other recreational site. And while BLM has committed to operate and maintain Cross Bar Ranch, it’s up to the community to find money for the road.

“So now I get to see what grant writers and nonprofits feel like—scraping the bottom of the barrel to stay afloat. Everybody thinks that the government has unlimited money for anything it can think of, but that’s not the case for recreation,” Escobar says.

Estimates for a paved road have run as high as $9 million. Federal grants are available, but most come with match requirements, either from another public source or from private dollars raised in the community. That’s where “the right people in town” come in. One in particular, Lorie Van Ongevalle, has gotten in deep. 

Pathways and Paving

Lorie is a trailblazer, and not just in the figurative sense. She actually blazes and maintains trails for horseback riding and other activities, such as hiking and mountain biking. So it’s fitting that she’s playing the role of trail boss, wrangling a coalition of the right people Escobar credits for elevating Cross Bar in the public consciousness. She met Escobar almost a decade ago when Mary Herring, an avid local equestrian and Cross Bar volunteer, suggested she enroll in a trail workshop put on by the American Endurance Ride Conference. Lorie was paired with Escobar in the training, and it was Escobar who got her fired up about building trails at Cross Bar.

“Once we got back, Mary kept encouraging me to get out there and work, and once I did, I was pretty well hooked,” Lorie says.

She and other volunteers have built close to 16 miles of trails at Cross Bar, out of the 40 miles they hope eventually to blaze over the 9,900 acres of the property planned for public recreation. But building pathways for equestrians, cyclists and hikers is one thing. A paved road is another. The effort to secure public access to Cross Bar involves an intricately spun web of public and private interests aimed at raising money and awareness to create a recreational asset for generations to come.

After Lorie gained the trust of the BLM through her volunteer efforts, she was asked to create a nonprofit to help in this fundraising effort. Friends of Cross Bar SRMA obtained nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service this spring, bringing to the table a committed board of community leaders and outdoor types including Mary Herring, with Lorie as their president.

Travel and a Trestle

Another vital thread running through this combined effort is the Amarillo Convention & Visitors Bureau and the leadership of Kashion Smith, executive director. Smith has committed CVB funding, organized community meetings and oversees a Cross Bar steering committee to assist the Friends group with fundraising and public relations efforts. She also serves on the board of the Friends of Cross Bar.

“They [the CVB] are a great support and we’re super thankful they can help us with connections and everything else we need,” Lorie says.

These combined efforts are bearing fruit. Potter County has come on board and requested funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Lands Access Program, known as FLAP—with the understanding that the community will raise the matching funds if the application is successful. In late 2022, Potter County was shortlisted for the program, meaning it has made the final round and funding looks promising, even if it only amounts to about $5 million of the total $9 million needed. The difference could come from other government grants the Friends group is pursuing. Either way, private funding will still be necessary. 

Beyond the public access road is the thorny issue of a century-old railroad trestle the new road must pass beneath. The bracing of the timber structure provides a narrow passage that isn’t wide enough for two vehicles to pass. So a new trestle will be needed, and the FLAP grant won’t cover the replacement cost. But Lorie, Escobar and others involved in making the Cross Bar accessible are determined to take it one step at a time. 

“We’re hoping things fall into place a lot easier and it goes quicker once we get the FLAP grant,” Lorie says.

How quick is another unanswered question. If FLAP funding comes through, construction may not start until 2027. But that will give the Friends group time to secure the community match and start banking money for other improvements, including campsites and a visitors’ center. The Friends group has established a website, friendsofcrossbarsrma.org, to keep the public informed and receive tax-deductible donations, and eventually hopes to involve the general public in the fundraising effort.

The many hurdles ahead and the time it will take to move past them don’t deter Lorie or Escobar. Both say they are enjoying the process—meeting new people and getting the community excited about what lies ahead. And for Escobar, playing the role of cheerleader on top of his regular job is starting to grow on him.

“I love it. More and more,” he says. “We’re doing something really positive for the community. Once we get it developed, it will be here forever.” 

Author

  • Wes Reeves

    Wes was raised in the Texas Panhandle and has been a resident of Amarillo for almost 30 years. He has been active in the Amarillo Historical Preservation Foundation for the past 15 years, and works in his spare time to bring history alive through historical preservation and engaging new generations in the appreciation of the region’s colorful history.

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