February 22, 2024

In April 2023, SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket lifted off for the first time, sending chunks of debris thousands of feet across the South Texas landscape and sparking a fire in a nearby state park. It was an environmental nightmare; the launchpad is surrounded by a wildlife habitat that’s home to endangered species. Now, SpaceX is looking to expand its launchpad through a controversial land swap deal, despite concerns from local organizations.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission is considering trading land with SpaceX; it would acquire approximately 477 acres near the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge Bahia Grande Unit, and in exchange it would give SpaceX approximately 43 acres from Boca Chica State Park, Texas Public Radio first reported. SpaceX requested the land in order to increase the size of its launchpad, and the decision is up for a vote next week.

“While still under consideration, the potential land exchange could provide mutual benefits by allowing [TPWD] to expand its management and protection of Texas’ natural resources and enhance recreational opportunity while allowing necessary expansion of SpaceX’s facilities and operations in Texas,” TPWD told Gizmodo in an email. “These conversations continue more than a decade of cooperative work with SpaceX to carry out our respective missions as neighbors.”

According to TPWD’s agenda, “This acquisition would create opportunities to expand public access and recreation in the region and allow TPWD to protect and manage the property’s diverse habitats, which include lomas, coastal grasslands, and wetlands.” SpaceX did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.

Local environmentalists are concerned that the land swap could pose a threat to conservation efforts in the area, with species listed under the Endangered Species Act occupying the surrounding wildlife habitat, including birds such as the piping plover, red knot, and northern aplomado falcon.

“American Bird Conservancy (ABC) continues to be deeply concerned about the facility’s impacts on wildlife habitat and the species that rely on it,” the conservancy told Gizmodo in an email. “Federal and state public lands surrounding the SpaceX facility in Boca Chica are used by hundreds of thousands of individual birds of many different species throughout the year.”

Migratory birds like yellow-billed cuckoos and golden-winged warblers pass through during the spring and fall to rest and refuel, while species including the reddish egret and Wilson’s plover breed in the area and nest in adjacent conservation areas, ABC added.

ABC, along with the Center for Biological Diversity and three local non-profit groups in Texas joined forces to sue the Federal Aviation Administration after Starship’s explosive launch last year, claiming that the FAA rushed its approval of SpaceX’s expanded launch operations in Boca Chica without a proper environmental review.

Earlier in 2022, an investigation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that populations of snowy and piping plovers—two shorebird species—dropped drastically near the SpaceX site. The FWS also pointed to possible negative environmental impacts on multiple sea turtle species, as well as other shorebirds, like red knots, should SpaceX expand its launch site.

SpaceX recently announced plans to build a restaurant and a shopping center near the company’s spaceport facility in South Texas. “[CEO Elon] Musk and his pet vanity project continue to pollute and destroy our beautiful beach, coastline, and wildlife,” Christopher Basaldú, from the South Texas Environmental Justice Network, said in a statement in November 2023. “SpaceX, an unnecessary, private money grab that only serves the wealthy, refuses to follow safety regulations, environmental regulations, and the wishes of local communities and the original people of the land.”

The company’s Starship launched for its second test flight in November 2023 after the FAA cleared it following an environmental review that required SpaceX to make some adjustments to the launchpad to mitigate the rocket’s environmental impact.

TPWD is seeking public comment on the land exchange deal before and on January 25.

Want to know more about Elon Musk’s space venture? Check out our full coverage of SpaceX’s Starship megarocket and the SpaceX Starlink internet satellite megaconstellation. And for more spaceflight in your life, follow us on X (formerly Twitter) and bookmark Gizmodo’s dedicated Spaceflight page.