There are encouraging developments in the controversy over the fate of the pristine Christmas Mountains property in far West Texas: It looks as if the state might keep a 16-year-old promise after all.

The Conservation Fund and the Richard King Mellon Foundation donated the property in 1991 to Texas' Permanent School Fund, overseen by the General Land Office (GLO), which was then headed by Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro. The donation was made based on a written agreement that the only allowable transfer of ownership would be ”to either the National Park Service or the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department,” as noted in a 1991 letter from Mauro to the donors.

The GLO, now headed by Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, put the 9,269-acre property up for sale to private bidders, with Patterson claiming that the 1991 promise isn't legally binding. But after widespread public outcry, the three-member School Land Board that Patterson heads agreed Tuesday to delay action on two private bids and give the National Park Service 90 days to evaluate the property and make an offer for it.

That's great news. Texas should stand by its promises, lest it sully its reputation as a straight shooter and discourage other conservation groups and individual land donors from working with it in the future to preserve natural space.

There also was an additional bit of good news from Tuesday's land board meeting. Board members Todd Barth and David Hermann gave no indications that they support Patterson's previously expressed position that the park service could take over the property only if allows public hunting.

If the park service buys the property, it should have the right to decide whether hunting is allowed. It is considered unlikely to permit hunting on the site, which borders the much larger Big Bend National Park.

Patterson and the land board deserve praise for taking into account the public response and giving the park service a crack at purchasing it. It looks as if Texas' reputation for keeping its promises could be preserved after all.

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— Fort Worth Star-Telegram