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Land Charmer

Bob Armstrong helped lead Texas to a ‘golden age’ of state park acquisition.

By John Jefferson

“Fish and animals cannot be Democrats or Republicans.”

It’s hard to argue with the mantra of the late Robert Landis “Bob” Armstrong, Texas land commissioner throughout the 1970s.

That philosophy, coupled with a sunny smile and an easygoing attitude, was the key to his success on a Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission made up of appointees from both political parties. No Washington, D.C., gridlock for Armstrong — he kept the wheels turning for conservation.

Armstrong displayed sincere respect to everyone he encountered, regardless of race, creed, religion or political affiliation, and cared not whether they preferred a fly rod, bait-casting equipment or spinning tackle. (He was adept at all three.)

Armstrong’s work wasn’t limited to fish and wildlife. He was the guidon bearer — out in front, bearing the colors, leading the charge — for the acquisition and protection of some of the most precious parcels of land now in Texas’ park system. He was Texas land commissioner for 12 years. He was also a close friend of Texas Parks and Wildlife Commissioner Bob Burleson (featured in our April 2015 issue), and both were unabashed canoeing enthusiasts, having seen some of the wildest parts of Texas from the water. They paddled an 80-mile, multi-canoe trip through the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande near Big Bend with press and dignitaries to show the ecological importance of the river, leading to its national designation as a Wild and Scenic River in 1978.

Burleson suggested that an inventory of Texas’ unique landscapes was needed, and Armstrong initiated a natural area survey through the General Land Office. The survey, and the action following it, was a significant turning point for Texas state parks. Thousands of acres of wild country identified as exceptional resources became state parks or natural areas, including Big Bend Ranch, Devils River, Matagorda Island, Enchanted Rock, Lost Maples, Devil’s Sinkhole and others.

Of course, none of this happened overnight. Each acquisition took its own course. For example, after driving all night to a hunting trip in West Texas, Armstrong arrived at the Anderson Ranch and watched a new dawn break over a breathtaking, snow-covered landscape. He mentioned to the owner that it would make a wonderful state park, and told the owner to call him if he ever decided to sell. Joined by others (including former TPWD Executive Director Andrew Sansom), Armstrong worked diligently for nearly two decades to obtain the Anderson Ranch for the state. Seventeen years after that hunting trip, Armstrong, as a member of the TPW Commission, made the motion to approve the purchase of the Anderson Ranch, now known as Big Bend Ranch State Park. Acquisition of the 212,000-acre ranch more than doubled the amount of land in the state park system. A visitors center there is named for Armstrong.

Bob Armstrong

Bob Armstrong was instrumental in the acquisition of Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Armstrong’s adventures weren’t confined to Texas. He and Austinite Walter Yates, both licensed pilots, partnered in an Alaskan gold mine exploit. It’s unclear, though, whether they panned enough gold to cover their fuel. (Coincidentally, the two friends each died of natural causes the first week of March 2015 with their boots under their beds.)

A practicing attorney, Armstrong was a Travis County state representative for seven years before being elected Texas land commissioner, serving for 12 years. In Washington, he worked five years as assistant secretary of the interior for land and minerals management. As he had done as Texas land commissioner, Armstrong raised royalties for mineral rights on public land.
With the most affable personality in state government, that ever-present smile and a broad résumé, Armstrong was a likely candidate for governor. However, Armstrong’s bid for governor in 1982 was against two popular and well-funded candidates. Mark White won the race, and showed his respect for his opponent by appointing Armstrong to the TPW Commission.

At Armstrong’s memorial service, former Texas Observer editor Ronnie Dugger proclaimed: “He should have been the senator from Texas. He might have become president.”

Despite all these accomplishments, he was particularly proud of a suggestion made to Matt Martinez Jr. (an owner of Matt’s El Rancho Mexican restaurant in Austin) to spice up his chile con queso appetizer by adding guacamole and taco meat. The dish has lived on as a popular favorite bearing his name — Bob Armstrong Dip — and is often simply called a “Bob” by servers and patrons alike. Other Mexican eateries copied the dish, but not the name.

For years, Armstrong held infamous annual campouts on his ranch on one of the highest points in Travis County for his eclectic group of political, environmental and media friends. Attendees still talk about the campfire cooking and the music; no telling how many deals were cooked up in the firelight of those parties.

The handwritten invitation to the first campout was vintage Armstrong, composed on a yellow legal pad with hand-drawn illustrations of campout activities: campfires, guitar pickers and singers, deer, rabbits, tents, bonfires. Recall your third-grade attempts at art and you’ll get the picture. When duplicated, the lines of the legal pad were still visible. In a subsequent invitation penned on letter-size paper instead of the customary legal pad, Armstrong explained its brevity by referring to his former boss at the U.S. Interior Department who made a short-lived run for the presidency: “Bruce Babbitt urged me to keep the invitation like his campaign, brief.”

The campouts were Armstrong’s way of sharing with his friends, business associates and political cronies the things he valued most in life: the outdoors, good friends, good humor, good music, campfire philosophy, fresh air and freedom. The music usually lasted long into the night until the campfires lost their glow.

The only campout he ever missed was the weekend his father died, and that was the only time it snowed on the event.

Armstrong never seemed to be in a hurry, although his accomplishments speak of a man mostly on the move.

“Often he was a little tardy, sauntering through his world unhurried and engaged in casual conversation with any convenience store clerk, postman or passer-by,” wife Linda Aaker writes in one of her two books.

George Bristol, a longtime friend of Armstrong’s and chairman of the State Parks Advisory Committee, recalls something Sansom had told him about their mutual friend, that Armstrong’s travel behavior had spawned a new verb: armadilloing.

“He never moved in a straight line,” Bristol explains, “veering off course to examine this and that, constantly nosing into nooks and crannies like an armadillo.”

Armstrong’s life brought joy to everyone who knew him. His colorful charm knocked down walls and lifted spirits. Sadness over the loss of this ever-positive and highly productive life has been replaced by appreciation for Armstrong’s conservation legacy in Texas and the U.S.

At a reception following Armstrong’s memorial service, a crew from Matt’s El Rancho served … you guessed it … Bob Armstrong Dip.

Armstrong is survived not only by his loving family, but also by thousands of acres of wild country and millions of Texans who enjoy the lands he helped protect.


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