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Andy Sansom

DATE: April 13, 2002
LOCATION: Stonewall, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
REEL: 2186 and 2187

Please note that the video includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers correlate with the time codes on the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversations or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas and we’re outside of Stonewall, Texas, and it’s April 13, year 2002. And we have the good fortune to be visiting with Andy Sansom, who has had a illustrious career here in Texas and—and in Washington, DC as well, working for the Department of Interior and for the Nature Conservancy Texas office and for Parks and Wildlife, and most recently, for the Southwest Texas State University of Sustainable Water Institute. I may have just garbled the title, but that’s the gist of it, I think. And has made many contributions to understanding and protecting land and water resources in the state. Thanks very much.
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AS: Well, good morning, David.
DT: I wanted to start with where you started and if you could tell us about, maybe, any early experiences among your family and circle of friends and relatives that might have gotten you first exposed and interested in the outdoors and in conservation?
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AS: Well, I—I grew up in Lake Jackson, which is on the Texas Coast, near the mouth of the Brazos River. And, my parents—although neither of my parents were outdoors people, they were both very, very intelligent and they were very, very aware of everything around them, particularly my father. My father would take us almost every weekend to some interesting place, whether it be a—a natural place or—or—or some historic site around Texas. And so from the earliest age that I can remember, my parents were constantly making us aware of the things that were around us that were interesting, and sort of part of the Texas heritage, if you will. I grew up on—on Oyster Creek, which
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flows on the east side of the Brazos, and—and my father and I built a boat for me to use in the creek when I was probably in the ninth grade or something like that. And I spent every day after that on the creek. I had a grandmother who lived on a farm in Alabama, who in her later years, fished every day. My grandmother would go—would take a cane pole and a can of worms that she dug up in the chicken yard and she would go down to this farm pond on the place and fish every single day. And she taught me to fish, and I spent many, many hours both there and on that creek fishing, and so, that’s really, probably where I first began to—to be really aware of the out-of-doors. And growing up on that creek, I learned firsthand what outdoor recreation and—and experience in the environment means to a—to a young person growing up.
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I—I worked around, always worked in parks as a—as a young person. Probably the first job I had was as a swimming instructor. And, so I—and I—I’m talking when I was fourteen or fifteen years old, and so I taught swimming. I was a lifeguard, and through that experience in a community park system, Parks and Recreation System, I became interested in—in Parks and Recreation. And it never occurred to me in all those many summer afternoons that I sat in a lifeguard chair or spent in the pool with those children, that you could make a living at—at—at this, but at some point in time, I discovered a—a program at Texas Tech—Texas Technological College at the time, now Texas Tech University, in Parks and Recreation. And so I went there, in—after my junior year in
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college, I had started out at a place called Austin College in Sherman. And I graduated from Tech with a degree in Parks and Recreation. And I, while I was at Tech, I—I had the opportunity to—to interact with professionals from conservation organizations like the Sierra Club, the Defenders of Wildlife and others and—and became conscious that there was a—an avenue, you know, to professionally pursue what had become for me a—a way of life. And that was a –a—a—an interest and—and—and concern for the out-of-doors. And so in 1969, I became the first intern at the National Recreation and Park Association in Washington, DC. NRPA was an organization that would—that had been
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formed from a number of different kindred r—recreation and park organizations, it was like a federation. And it had been formed just within a few years of when I joined them. And so I moved, with my wife, to Washington in 1969 to become an intern with NRPA and that’s sort of how—how I really got started. And—and in that time, which was, of course, right in the middle of the Vietnam War and a tremendous uh—uh—emerging interest among young people in the environment which was occurring at the same time, NRPA allowed me to become sort of the liaison, if you will, with young people. And so,
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I organized the first National Society of Students in Parks and Recreation and—and set it up in the late sixties and was the first Executive Secretary. And so I had a—a real interesting experience in dealing with—with young people as a—as a—as a—as a—at a time when there was this tremendous consciousness emerging. I played a small part in the organization and conduct of the first Earth Day. And so…
DT: Can you talk a little bit about what the first Earth Day was from your point of view?
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AS: Well, it was—it—it—it—I—I still refer to—to the context in which I have spent my life as a movement. I think of—I think of myself as a part of a conservation movement, and I never felt it stronger than in those days. It was a—it was an emerging consciousness that was—was overwhelming. I mean, we all felt that we were part of something that was extremely important, that was—um, um—um—um—what’s the word I’m looking for? Insurgent? And it was exciting and—and we felt that we were going to make a difference. And I spent—I spent the first Earth Day traveling around the country, made something like six speeches during that day in different parts of the United States on college campuses. And—and that’s really kind of where I got started.
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DT: Since Earth Day was such a major starting point for a lot of the conservation movement, can you tell us more about what—that occasion?
AS: Well, my—my role in it was very small, but I did get a chance to meet Gaylord Nelson and Dan Lufkin, who was a kind of business father of Earth Day. But I worked fairly closely for a while with Dennis Hayes, who was sort of the regional administrator, or director, coordinator of Earth Day, and—and his staff. In fact, stayed in touch with a couple of them for—after I came back to Texas. It was—it was, you know my memories of it were of a—you know, it was counter cultural. I mean, the offices and the places that we worked in were, you know, were very counter cultural. I spent a lot of time on college campuses. I think the biggest event that I attended that day was at the University
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of Illinois. And there were thousands and thousands of students, you know, out on the campus in what would have otherwise, you know, what was sort of a cross between a—a demonstration and a festival. And that’s, it was—it was—it was both a demonstration and a festival nationwide. I—I made some good contacts during that time. One of whom was the person who introduced me to our host today, Terry Hershey, who we are with here at the Hershey Ranch. His name was Bob Cahn. Bob Cahn was a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor. And he had written a series of articles for the Monitor called Will Success Spoil the National Parks? This was in the late sixties. And interestingly enough, those articles would probably be relevant today because their point was that there
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was—that the National Parks were becoming so popular that they were literally endangered in terms of just the amount of impact from so many people and cars and infrastructure and what not. And Bob Cahn, somehow or another, I became acquainted with him during that period and he arranged for me to become coordinator of what was called a White House Conference on Youth Environmental Task Force. And, the—the —in—in Federal Law, every ten years, the government must hold a conference on children and youth, it happens every decade. And so, the way they decided to do it back in those days was to have a—have a—a series of conferences or—or topics that were of interest to kids—the draft, drugs, poverty, and the environment was a big one. And so I
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was responsible for producing a report for the White House in 1971 on—on—on the environment. And, I had a Board which was, consisted of some of—of the most senior environmental people in the United States as well as—as a group of kids. And we traveled all over the country and held hearings from Puerto Rico to Alabama to California to—to Oregon on young peoples’ attitudes and concerns with respect to the environment and ultimately held a conference in Estes Park, Colorado in—in the spring of 1971 on the—in fact, it was on the second Earth Day. One of the speakers at that conference was Rogers Morton. And Rogers Morton had been appointed by President Nixon to be the
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Secretary of Interior. And he was from Maryland, he was an extraordinary man. He was about six-eight in height. He was very—very accomplished politician. He was a very good-hearted man, and he needed a speechwriter. And during the process of putting this White House Conference on Youth together, I had done a considerable amount of writing on the environment. And somebody on Morton’s staff noticed my writing and so I was asked to—to become involved with him as his speechwriter. And so in 1971, I became—I became the speechwriter to the Secretary of Interior and did that for—worked in Interior for several years. I did that for a while; I traveled with him throughout the country for
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about a year as a sort of—as a part of his sort of traveling entourage and got to see virtually all of the National Parks. I spent a lot of time in Alaska and other places. And then I worked in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife in Parks. And—and there worked on the Big Thicket and Matagorda Island, two of—two of—my two biggest projects in the Interior.
DT: Could you tell about that effort?
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AS: Well, the—the—I was very fortunate to be there at a time when—because the Big Thicket had been an issue in—in several political campaigns here. President Nixon actually had made a commitment that the National Park would be, you know, that—that he would support it. And so, I think it was because actually of George—George H.W. Bush, his Senate campaign, that when he ran for the Senate for the first time against Lloyd Bentsen, Big Thicket was an issue. And so, Bush was a backer of the Big Thicket and—and—and got the President’s support for it. And so, that placed the Interior Department in a position of being able to support the park. And so I, because I was a
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Texan and because I was interested in the Big Thicket—I had—had, you know, learned a lot about it from Senator Yarborough, who was still there when I first went to—to Washington. I was fortunate enough to be kind of the ad—the administration’s point person on the—on the Big Thicket legislation. And that’s how I met Ned Fritz, and Arthur Temple and a lot of the people that I still work with today. Came down and spent a lot of time in the Big Thicket with people like Geraldine [Watson] and Maxine Johnson and all those folks, back in the very early seventies.
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DT: What was your impression of visiting the Big Thicket? What took your notice? Can you tell me about (inaudible). You were involved in getting political support and for creating the Big Thicket National Preserve and I was curious what you could tell me, what your impressions are from visiting the Thicket.
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AS: Well, it was a wo—it was a terrific experience for me, number one because it was—was—was—occurred in a place that, you know, I hadn’t known well even though I had grown up in Texas, closest I’d got—I’d gotten to the Thicket was—was Huntsville because my grandparents lived in Huntsville for many years. And so I was—but I—but—but it—but it was a new area for me, but it was still home, meaning Texas. What I feel like I learned out of that experience was I—my—my understanding of public land preservation evolved considerably from the perception that—that public space is preserved by, particularly by, governments and public institutions for—not only for recreation, but were also for science. And the Big Thicket was the first major federal
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area that was preserved principally for science as opposed to outdoor recreation. I—I’ll never forget the first time I went to a—an area which today is—is a preserve of the Nature Conservancy in the Big Thicket, but at that time was part of the—part of the legislative program, which is called Sandy Lands. Sandy Lands, of course, has a wonderful series of eutropic lakes, in which if you—if you visit each one of them, you’ll be able to see the process of eutrophication at a completely different point in time. And so you can observe, you know, the whole eutrophication process by just visiting these ox bow lakes around Village Creek. And, that sort of experience in the Big Thicket, which was revealed to me by Geraldine Watson, you know, gave me a completely different appreciation of why the government, you know, should—should—should expend resources to preserve—to preserve lands and—and broaden my perspective well beyond
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the traditional perception of parks and outdoor recreation areas to one of nature areas and—and—and areas that are preserved for their wildlife and—and—and biotic diversity. I also, you know, had the opportunity during that time to work on Matagorda Island, which has been a part of my life for thirty years. Back in—one of the happiest things that I think happened to me while I was in Washington was that Bob Armstrong got elected Land Commissioner in Texas, and so for the first time, you know, there was a statewide leader in Texas that had conservation as a—as a—as a—as a—as a principal priority. And so, for me, having left Texas with a feeling that no one here really cared much about the environment, to have a person become elected statewide who was—who was
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committed to the environment was extremely exciting. And so although I was a Republican and—and—and Bob was a Democrat, we became friends immediately as soon as he was elected and worked together. And, one of the things that the [General] Land Office does, as you know, is lease lands offshore for oil and gas development and so, during Armstrong’s tenure, there were some state tracts offered for lease off Matagorda Island, and it caused an uproar because, two things. Number one, the U.S. military objected to it contending that the oil and gas leases would interrupt military training exercises that were going on at—at Matagorda Island, and secondly, the national environmental organizations, knowing that Matagorda Island was part of the wintering habitat for the whooping crane, objected to the oil and gas activity on the—on the principle that—the—
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that—that it would interrupt the habitat of the whoopers as well. So, the secretary—M—Mr. Morton called me in and said, “Do you know anything about this place, Matagorda Island?” And, in fact, I had done some research. It was kind of mysterious to all of us in those days because it was a military reservation and you couldn’t get there. In fact, if you read some of [Texas State Senator] Don Kennard’s early work, he tells about having attempted to go out there to fish or, you know, or to visit and being run off by military helicopters. So you couldn’t—you couldn’t get anywhere close to it. And so it was a—it was off limits. So, what—what I knew was only by second-hand information and occasional—occasional stuff. The LBJ School, as a part of its Natural Area Surveys, had done a piece on Matagorda Island, and that was about all there was. But, anyway, I came down. I found a—a fella, who was the, at that time, the most well-known expert on whooping
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cranes in the federal government and he and I came down and spent several days on Matagorda Island in 1972, looked at the situation, and basically, our conclusion was that although the—any activity there was obviously, needed to be managed very carefully, that the principal use of the island was for military recreation and not for—although there was some continued weapons training, that it’s principal purpose was for recreation. And so I wrote a report to that effect, which was given to the Secretary of Defense in Thanksgiving of 1972 and it—and it—it ultimately re—resulted in two things. Number one, I left the Department of Interior and—and within a year, the base was closed. And so, it was a big—it was a big thing in my life. And I was—it—it just—it was—it became very controversial. You all probably remember, or read about, a wonderful senator from
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Wisconsin, his name was William Proxmire. Proxmire picked up my report, which the Defense Department had rejected, and instructed the General Accounting Office to go down there and do a investigation of its own and it confirmed what I had written and that’s—that’s why the base was ultimately closed. It became, later, a National Wildlife Refuge. And I had the good fortune to continue to work on Matagorda Island later on, first as a—as a employee of the Nature Conservancy and then later as an employee of Texas Parks and Wildlife. So I—so I worked for a while—after leaving Interior, I worked for a while on the—at the—at an agency called the Federal Energy Administration, which was a precursor to the Department of Energy. And if—at that time, there was a—energy conservation was a—was a big part of the—of federal policy,
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because of the energy crisis of the mid-seventies. And if you—there was a campaign which the Federal Government conducted which was called “Don’t Be Fuelish.” And I—and I administered the programs under which “Don’t Be Fuelish” and the other educational efforts toward energy conservation were—were conducted and administered. Worked with the advertising agencies and the Ad Council to—to spread that conservation message across the country.
DT: Can you talk about some of the pieces to educate people about conservation?
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AS: Well, the main one was the advertising campaign, which—which was interesting because we—we had to be careful. We got in a real controversy one time because I remember that we—our advertising agency put together an ad which showed a—a hand that was obviously a Middle Eastern arm because it had a sort of a white robe on it, moving chess pieces across a chess board and the—the black pieces were oil wells and the white pieces were Statues of Liberties. So, the ad was—you know, implied, you know, that there were people outside the United States who were manipulating our country, you know, by controlling its energy. And it was a very, very powerful ad—I mean, it was a very powerful ad. But it was so controversial that it went all the way to
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the—to the President of the United States and—and they decided not to—you know—not to use it because of its diplomatic implications. So that—that type of thing was probably one of the most interesting experiences of that. We also organized a—a—a more in-depth educational program with an organization that was, at—at that time, was called the Conservation Foundation. Today it’s part of the World Wildlife Fund. In which we conducted seminars for activists across the country to—to—to sort of get appropriate technology and ener–energy conservation information out to people, both technically and—and—and—and motivationally. That’s how I met people like Pliny Fisk and others is that we—we did a lot of that work here in Texas. We produced a series of—of visual materials with the artist Peter Max, because we wanted to get the young people and so we selected a—a—a—an artist that we thought could connect with—with young people. And so I got to work with, actually with Peter Max, and spend a good bit of time in New York, you know, working with him to put together those materials. So, it
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was a—it was an interesting thing and it—the main thing it did for me was it re-established my connections in Texas and allowed to come back home in 1976 where I went to work at the end of that year with the University of Houston and I—I became involved there with a program on that campus for energy—energy research and energy policy. It’s called the Energy Institute, and I was there for about two and a half years. We—during that time, energy was a very, very big thing for me, energy conservation, particularly. I—I—working with faculty there on the campus, designed and built a passive solar home and down—back down at my home in Lake Jackson and that was a—that was a real experience.
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DT: What were some of the features of the home?
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AS: Well, I was working with some of the most advanced engineers and architects in—in energy conservation in the country at the time, and so I had at my disposal some—some people that really knew the technology. But, part of my plan was to—was to build this house out of recycled material as well, so I spend a whole lot of time in buildings that were built, certainly prior to World War II, many of them prior to the turn of the twentieth century, collecting materials. And I discovered, in that process, that many of the most important principles for, what I call passive solar, or—or appropriate, you know, building technology, were indigenous. And you would find in things like farmhouses,
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and in buildings that were built prior to the—any kind of air conditioning or HVAC technology. And so, most of things that ultimately went into my house were things that—that I—I—I borrowed from vernacular, you know, Texas rural buildings. It had two dog runs in it, had a—which were, in effect, large breezeways. It was oriented to the—to the south. It had very deep eaves on the south side of the house that allowed the sun in in the winter and kept it out in the summer. And it was built in a—in a configuration which caused its highest point to be about 25 feet above the floor. And it—and it had a large series of louvers up in the top so that it would actually draw a breeze. It
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would—the whole house functioned kind of as a thermal chimney. And it would—and it would—it would draw a breeze just simply by the thermal effects of—of—of—inside the house. It was—it was neat. It was—there were many things about it that failed. It had an active solar hot water system. It was one of the earliest in Texas that never really functioned very well because nobody knew how to do it at that time. It—down on the Texas coast, it was very difficult to have a house open to the environment all the time because there were some times in which the conditions were really, really bad for—for things like mildew and other things. And so, what we ended up doing would be—would be—would be managing it with conventional heating and—and air conditioning for parts of the year, but—but you could live in it for much, much more time than any other
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building without those things, so you could stretch out the amount of time that you—that you—that you were able to do without air conditioning. So, it was—it was quite an experience. And I ultimately built another one which is—is the offices of the South Texas Council of Girl Scouts down there. And it—it functioned much better because we learned—we learned from that first building. So, you know, I—in the process became involved with—happily with a number of, sort of, environmental projects in Texas. I was involved in the South Texas Nuclear Project, first as a journalist that wrote a series of articles about it which were critical. I was—became involved with the Texas
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Environmental Coalition, met people like Ken Kramer and DeDe Armentrout, Sharron Stewart, back in the late seventies, and—and I was pretty much able at that time, through freelance journalism, through some various environ—consulting assignments, through my passive solar design work, to sort of live independently for a short period of time. And I hooked up with a historical museum in Brazoria County, the old c—county courthouse and I was raising money to restore the old county courthouse and put a historical museum in it, when some friends of mine in—back in Washington called me and indicated that the—that the Texas Nature Conservancy was looking for an Executive Director. And I was…
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AS: But, whether the in—I don’t know whether it’s still there or not.
DT: If we could, could we perhaps return to what you mentioned earlier. You said that as a freelance reporter you covered the South Texas Nuclear Project and I was wondering if you could describe what the controversy was regarding that and…
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AS: Well, I think at the time, you know, there was—there was a tremendous amount of national interest and concern about nuclear—in the late seventies. I mean—and it—and it—covered a broad interest of concerns. For me, the—the—the two things that brought it to a head were first, Three Mile Island, and second, Karen Silkwood. And both of those things happened in the late seventies, and so there was a—an intense concern about nuclear power. At the time, the South Texas Nuclear Project at Bay City was under construction. And so, a—a group of us in the Brazoria-Matagorda County areas, wondered, you know, whether our plant would have some of the same problems that had occurred, for example, at Three Mile Island. And I—to me, that was a legitimate, you
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know, question to ask. What we found at the South Texas Project was that it had been commenced with only about ten percent of the design complete. And so, first and foremost, it was—it was—construction began before there was any completion or closure on the design of the plant itself. And that resulted in some major changes along the way. It resulted in intense pressure on the contractor, you know, to get the project done, and it resulted in overruns that probably were—were—caused that plant to go from an initial estimate of six or seven hundred million dollars to something like six billion dollars before it was complete. But the real controversies—and the—and the—and the—area that I worked in—was that I developed a—a relationship with workers in the plant, who disclosed to me, confidentially, that the—many of the inspections—that the whole
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nuclear construction process is characterized by un—an unbelievable redundant layer of paperwork and inspections—of every weld, of every concrete pour, every wiring connection. And that is part of what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, you know, uses to—to try to ensure safety. And what was happening in the South Texas Project was that the pressure to complete the plant was so great that the inspectors would simply sign the forms and not inspect—not do the inspections. And there were periods in—for example in the containment vessel on Unit One, in which they went for almost a year without ever actually performing an inspection. And all of that documentation was fabricated. And so, it was—it was a—it was a bad deal. And, fortunately today, it seems
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like, you know, as a result of all of the controversy, the plant is, you know, is functioning. But it certainly had some very, very major concerns at that time. And, it was an interesting thing for me because I, you know, I would go to places like Palacios and Port Lavaca and meet with pipe fitters and welders and concrete technicians, you know, at, in the middle of the night because they were concerned about their welfare and they would—they would give—they would help me with my investigation at—at risk, certainly, to their jobs. So, I wrote a story—a—a number of stories—the most—the principal one was published in the Texas Observer in the late seventies about the plant.
DT: What was the reaction to the story and some of the disclosures ..
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AS: Well, at the time, the reaction was pretty, pretty strong—pretty strong. Number one, that part of the Texas coast is the home of the petrochemical industry. And most of the folks that work in that industry are technically oriented, there’s a lot of engineers. And so, the challenge to an engineering project was culturally pretty unacceptable. I remember that one of the things that we attempted to do was to hold a—a—sort of a public forum in Lake Jackson to just allow people to come and debate the plant or talk about the plant.
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And, in fact, I recruited one of the most senior experts on nuclear power from University of Texas and a well-known critic of nuclear power to come to Lake Jackson and conduct a public debate so citizens could hear both sides of the issues, not taking one side or the other in this case, but simply providing an opportunity for public dialogue. And, we—we had originally arranged to have that hearing in a college down there. It wasn’t a hearing, but a public meeting. And once the leadership found out what the meeting was gonna be about, they cancelled the—cancelled the forum. And we ultimately had to have it in a church because there was the only public place down there that would hold the meeting
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that’d allow us to do it was a—was a church. And—and, so—so—so it was very difficult to raise these issues, particularly in—in—in—in the kind of climate that existed along the Texas coast. There was much more concern about the nuclear plant in Austin and in San Antonio than there was in its immediate neighborhood.
DT: Did you follow much of the controversy about the STNP [South Texas Nuclear Project] about whether Austin should opt in or opt out?
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AS: Not really, because—because once I finished my story and I went on to work for the Nature Conservancy, I kind of got out of it and I—and I—and I was only at that point in time, a person who followed it in newspapers and I was not an active participant in it after that.
DT: You said that your story was carried in the Texas Observer. Did many of the other organs of the media carry it?
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AS: Not at that time. The—at that time, there were only two people in the state that were really writing about it. One was a guy named Bruce Hyte from the [Austin] American-Statesman and—and I. And, my story was originally written for another publication which ultimately declined, you know, declined to publish it on—on fear of a lawsuit. And that’s why it was published in the Observer. And so, after the information was out, one of the things that ultimately happened was that 60 Minutes did a story on it. Brought—brought a team down, interviewed all the guys that I had, you know, that I had found in the plant, and it became a much more of a public issue. And in fact then, it began to appear more in—in the media, particularly in the newspapers in San Antonio and in Houston. But prior to that time, it was only covered by, really by Bruce and I.
DT: How did you find these people?
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AS: Good question. Because I lived down there and I—I—I had—I had become acquainted with people who lived around the plant who were concerned about it because they had—like everyone else. I mean, you can imagine people who live in tiny little towns like Matagorda or Palacios or Wadsworth and—and they’ve known that there’s this plant going up, you know, six miles from where they live. But they really don’t think much about it until one day they hear about a meltdown at Three—Three Mile Island.
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And all of a sudden they became really concerned, and many of the people who worked in the plant lived in those little communities. And so through that process we were able to ultimately able to develop the—the sources to give us, what I think was a more accurate picture of what was going on inside the construction site.
DT: Is there anything you wanted to add about the STNP process?
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AS: No. You know, I feel like, you know, it was—it was an important part of my life. It was—it was the thing that got me to abandon, at least for the time, that what I—one of the things that I enjoyed most in my life which was freelance writing. Because I spent several months on that story and was ultimately paid, like sixty dollars for it. And so I couldn’t afford to do it anymore. And so one of the unhappy, you know, outcomes of it was that I just—I couldn’t afford to do it anymore. And that’s one of the reasons why, when the Nature Conservancy came along, I was—I was thrilled to be able to go back and get a regular paycheck again.
DT: Why don’t you tell us about that – how you first got approached by the Conservancy and your years there?
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AS: Well, I had—I had—as I say, I had worked with the Nature Conservancy when it was a infant organization in Washington on the Big Thicket. Worked with TNC on the Big Thicket. So I had some friends there, contacts, colleagues. And—and I was not the first director of the Nature Conservancy in Texas, I was the second. And, the first director did not stay long, I think, probably a couple of years. And when he left, they began to recruit for a—a new director and I, like I say, I was very, very anxious to get back into the conservation movement, to—to—to—because that was really what I loved the most. At that time, the Nature Conservancy was officed in—above a—a bar on Sixth
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Street in Austin. And there was three people there, including myself. We had an old African-American man, whose name was Billy, who was known locally as the Mayor of Sixth Street that lived in the back of our offices. He actually lived there. And it was—it was quite a place. It was—it was—it was—it was so ill insulated that when it—when—when it would freeze in Austin, the—the water in the toilets would actually freeze solid. It was a—it was quite a place. At that time, the Nature Conservancy was extremely in debt. They had gone out and bought a spectacularly beautiful piece of property called Honey Creek, which is adjacent to the Guadalupe River State Park and borrowed the
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money to do it. And the purchase was made, seems to me around 1980. And—and what happened was that the economy kind of went sour and so they weren’t able to raise the money that they originally thought they were going to be able to raise. And so, that’s the principal reason for the first director’s leaving was that they simply couldn’t get that money raised to buy the land and when I became involved with the Conservancy, they were literally about to sell Honey Creek back to development. And so that was my main objective, at least initially, was to get that project completed. And I ultimately was able to do that by a—acquiring for Texas Parks and Wildlife, a piece of property down on the Texas coast, which is now called the Peach Point Wildlife Management Area, from a consortium of oil companies. And at that time, our Department—the Parks and Wildlife Department was looking for a huge wetland along the Texas coast. That was there
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principal acquisition objective. And so, I was able to find that for them, and by going to the Department and sort of packaging Honey Creek and Sea Dock, which is what we called Peach Point at that time, as a part of a single project, the Department ultimately acquired Honey Creek and today it’s part of the Guadalupe River State Park. And that’s how I became—that is also how I became involved with Parks and Wildlife is that while I was with the Nature Conservancy, I was fortunate enough to do many of the acquisitions for Parks and Wildlife during the mid-eighties through the Nature Conservancy. So I stayed with the Conservancy from December of 1982 until December of 1987, so I was there five years. And during that time, the Nature Conservancy moved from that office on Sixth Street to it’s—where it is now located in San Antonio. We had a wonderful
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privilege of being one of the first tenants in an old nineteenth century building on Alamo Plaza, so we were—we were located right across the street from the Alamo. We went from an organization that was—had three people to one that was there was probably a staff of 16-20 when I left, and probably acquired over that time, maybe three or four hundred thousand acres of land around Texas. And it was—it was a great privilege. I loved working with the Conservancy and learned many of the things that I was able to—to put into practice at Parks and Wildlife I learned at the Nature Conservancy. It was as good a job as I’ve ever had. I loved working for them.
DT: Can you tell us about some of the major acquisitions, negotiations, and how you identified the tracts, and how you dealt with the landowners?
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AS: Well, it was kind of a combination of opportunity and strategy. For example, at the time there was still a tremendous amount of interest in Gulf Coast wetlands, both by the federal government and the state government. And so we were always on the lookout for big coastal wetlands. And so I became familiar with almost every remaining coastal wetland tract on the Texas coast, I met the owners, whether they be corporations or individuals, and I was—by just keeping up with them, and staying in contact with them, I—I was able to—to be in the right place at the right time if they wanted to do something with their property. Sometimes those connections resulted from—from things outside
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Texas, for example, Mad Island Marsh, which is now sort of a joint project between the Nature Conservancy and Parks and Wildlife. The owner of that property was a man—a fellow from Houston named Clive Reynolds, who actually contacted the Conservancy in New York. And they said, well, you have to talk to this guy down in San Antonio and so I met Clive Reynolds through an intermediary in New York. The other thing that would often happen in those days would be that there would be people who would—who would want to sell their property for conservation, but the government—the wheels of—wheels of government would turn too slowly for them to be able to—to sell it in time. The first piece of property that I ever bought for conservation was a—was a place called Las Tres
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Corrales, which is in Hidalgo County, just north of Edinburgh. And, it’s a wonderful brush, Rio Grande Valley brush tract, principally protected for endangered felines, ocelot and jaguarundi. And, there was a wonderful old gentleman who owned the tract, whose name was Yael Shelabin. And Mr. Shelabin had preserved this tract himself all of his life, and so it was exactly what the Fish and Wildlife Service wanted because it was ideal habitat for these cats. Well, Mr. Shelabin, in the—in the—in the later part of his life, got into debt and he needed—he needed to sell some of the property in order to—in
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order to pay off his debts. And so he went to the federal government who had been trying to buy it for twenty years and they couldn’t move fast enough to—to get him the money in time to pay off whatever he needed to pay off. And so, he contacted me and I went down there and—and got a donor in Fort Worth to put up the money to buy the original 350 acres and we—we—we—we bought it and—and held it for awhile and when the Fish and Wildlife was ready, we turned it over to them. Sadly, during that time, much of that negotiation was conducted on Mr. Shelabin’s deathbed because he had a—he had a heart attack during that period and actually died, and so I finished that work with his—with his widow, who’s still—still there today, on—on the one part of the land that they still own. So, those are the kind of experiences that really made that time with the Conservancy rich for me was principally was dealing with—with the land owners themselves who—most of whom have become lifelong friends.
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Probably another one that—that is—is exemplary and worth pointing out was two wonderful men in Texas, Houston and Ed Harte, owned an extremely large ranch in the—near—near the Santiago Mountains, north of Big Bend National Park, between the Santiagos and the Rosillos Mountains. And they actually went to donate that land to the National Park and the problem was to add land to a National Park takes an Act of Congress. And so, they were not willing to wait the three to four years it would take to—to have a act go through Congress, and they needed to make the donation, and so—so the donation was made to the Nature Conservancy and I actually ran a ranch in the Big Bend for about three years until we were able to get the bill passed to take the land into the National Park. So, that was another one that—that sticks out in my mind. Probably, in a way, the most important one was that I in—literally in the—in the—in the last days of
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my time with the Nature Conservancy, I bought the first piece of Blackland Prairie—really native Blackland Prairie in Texas, which is at Clymer’s Meadow. And it was the first—first significant acquisition of Blackland Prairie. Now—now, a fairly large preserve, at least in the context of Blackland Prairie. I think that first—first tract I bought was only about three hundred acres. So, that was—that was one that I really—I—I think a lot of. We talked earlier about Matagorda Island. At the time that I went to work at the Nature Conservancy, Matagorda Island was owned about a third by the federal government, about a third by the state government, and there was still a private ranch on the south end of Matagorda Island that comprised about a third of the—of the island. And, fellow in San Antonio named Tim Hixon, who was a member of my board on the Nature Conservancy, was well acquainted with the owner, the Wynne family from Dallas. And so, Mr. Wynne called Tim one day and said that he was interested in talking about
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selling the Wynne ranch, which was the last privately owned land on Matagorda Island. And so, Tim Hixon and I went to Dallas, and that day began negotiation which ultimately resulted in the acquisition of the remaining land on Matagorda Island. And Mr. Wynne was concerned because he—he was not sure that he wanted to leave that land in the hands of his family. Not because he was afraid that they would not take care of it, but—but because he was afraid that it would cause strife among them in terms of trying to figure out who was going to use it, or how it was going to be managed, and so he saw it as a potential point of controversy among his family. And so I was able to acquire it from him, and within—within twelve months after the acquisition was done, he walked out to get his newspaper one morning in Dallas and died of a heart attack. And so, he—he
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somehow was prescient about, you know, about—about his own life, although I’m sure he didn’t think he would go that fast, but he didn’t last very long after that. And subsequently, the Wynne Ranch has become part of the National Wildlife Refuge system. So, that was a huge one for me. And, of course, one that I had—had completed work that I had begun twenty years before when I worked in Washington.
DT: I had a question about the landowners that you’ve dealt with. Why do you think some of them have kept their tracts in pretty much their native states rather than introducing exotic grasses or you know, removing a lot of the brush in the south Texas brush land? Why do you think they chose to resist progress?
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AS: Well, the first of those people were, in my judgment, pretty—people that pretty—people that pretty much swam against the current. I don’t think you can—you can characterize that movement or—or approach to land ownership or stewardship as being common because it was pretty uncommon. Yael Shlabin, who I mentioned, in the valley had actually taken his family on a photo safari in Africa in the—in the sixties. His daughters, he had two daughters and at that time they were, like, in their teens, and so they all went to Africa for like a month on this long photo safari. And it changed their lives. I mean, when he—after he made that trip, he became obsessed with the preservation of the natural diversity of his land. An—another example is a fella who
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you—you –you all probably have talked to, or know, his name is Hugh Goodrich. Hugh Goodrich’s mother I believe was an acquaintance of your grandmother, who sort of got involved with natural area preservation in the Houston community with Joe Heiser, and all of that group and—and sort of became interested in all that and—and bought a ranch up near Liverpool in the Hill Country. And began to burn it and cut cedar and do those kinds of things and restore native grasses probably in the—in the mid-sixties. David Bamberger, as you know, you know, read [Louis] Bromfield, and got it from there. But when those kind of people started, they were viewed by others as pretty strange. Particularly because, I think, all of the normal institutions that landowners interacted with like the Soil Conservation Service, the Ag Extension Service and others, were advising them to
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do other things: to plant cultivated grasses, to—to do things on their property which—which were, you know, thought to be enlightened, but and in fact, did make some improvements particularly in terms of erosion and—and other things—soil conservation. But, actually were ultimately destructive of—of diversity. And so the people that led that movement, the Shelabins, the Bambergers, the Goodrichs and others, were—were very, very, very unique. And today, happily, people go to those ranches to see, you know, what—what they did and how they did it, and that—and that movement is spreading. I think that one of the reasons why it is spreading is because the principal rationale for the acquisition of –of land in Texas today is recreational. Most people who buy the—what is driving the sort of rural land market in Texas principally is people who are affluent enough
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to be able to buy tracts of land in the countryside for recreation. And their motivations are often different, and so they come at it with a—with a—a desire and even an excitement about creating a natural diversity on their property as opposed to a strictly sort of agricultural return. And I think that’s probably accounted, more than any other thing, along with a—a really strong educational initiative by institutions like Parks and Wildlife and the Nature Conservancy and others to—to—to teach people about this. But I think that—that desire of people to buy land for—for the purpose of their own enjoyment and pleasure and recreation has been one of the strongest reasons why that—that activity has increased in Texas so much today.
DT: I guess the flip side of your work at the Conservancy is trying to appeal not just to landowners to sell it, their land, to the Conservancy, but to get donors to put up the money to acquire it, and I was wondering how you made the arguments, what kind of arguments, you made to potential donors?
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AS: Well, when I worked at the Conservancy, we were—we were just beginning to fully appreciate the ecological diversity of Texas in the fact that there were parts of Texas which were, from an ecological standpoint, truly endangered: once again, a principal example being the Blackland Prairie. And so what I would normally do would be to go to donors with the—with the plea that—which was—which was, in every case backed up by scientific fact, that these were the last of such tracts in existence, and that if we didn’t do something to protect them, that they would be gone. I would guess that when the
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Europeans first came out of the trees in East Texas, there were probably twenty million acres of Blackland Prairie and I would imagine today that there’s probably less than two to three thousand. And so, it wasn’t difficult to make the case on those kinds of tracts. The—the—the—the problem was, at the—in those days, which was, once again, the mid-eighties, was that the dominant philanthropic institutions were just beginning to have conservation be a part of their strategy. And so, most of our philanthropy in those days actually came from individuals rather than foundations, because once again, there were people who had themselves become interested in conservation, and so the—the vast
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majority of the money that we raised in the eighties for—for purchase of land came from individuals as opposed to foundations or corporations. Now we received some fairly substantial gifts of land from corporations because, number one, because the Conservancy had established this wonderful national network of corporate contacts. And so we were able to work with institutions like International Paper, or Union Carbine, or Sun Oil, or, you know, by—by—by the fact that there—those relationships were there. In addition, the tax laws were much more favorable to gifts of land at that—at that time,
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because—because both individuals and corporations were in a—at least fifty percent tax bracket. And so the donation of appreciated real estate was much more attractive, from a, you know, from a tax standpoint than it is today. So—so fortunately, as the—as we got into the nineties, and institutions like the Nature Con…
[End of Reel 186]
DT: Andy, we’ve been talking about individual donors and one of the early people who was active, I believe, in trying to support land acquisition and especially with the Nature Conservancy was a fellow named Joe Heiser and I think you knew him. Could you tell a little about him?
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AS: Yeah, I had—obviously, for me, that—that period of—of the Conservancy, as—as most of my life, the greatest privilege has been the extraordinary people that I’ve gotten to meet and work with, and one of the most extraordinary was a man named Joe—Joe Heiser. Joe Heiser was a lifelong bachelor who died in the late eighties at the age of nearly ninety. He was born and—and lived all of his life, and died in the same house, on Kipling Street in Houston. And as a child, kind of like Teddy Roosevelt, he was sort of sickly, and—but he would sneak out at night whenever the circus came to Houston and
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he would go down and watch the men unloading the animals and the acts, you know, and putting up the big tent for the circus. And he became such a familiar feature of the arrival of the circus in Houston that they—that they knew him, and when he—when th–they’d expect him to show up at eleven o’clock at night. And they’d let him do stuff, like ride the elephants and, you know, they—they actually incorporated him into the set-up. And he was given, because of that interest in the circus as a child, he was given a book called Wild Animals of the World, or something, by P.T. Barnum. And—and, at that time, when you think of it, you know, the only place that people encountered wild animals was at a
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zoo or at the circus. And so, Joe’s—Joe’s interest in the environment grew out of that encounter with, you know, animals at the circus. And so that’s how he sort of became in—involved in—in conservation. And through his life he accomplished many, many interesting things. He was the man who had the mockingbird made the State Bird of Texas. He was the man who first had banned, a—a—apparently at—at the time of his—when he was in his early twenties, there was a lot of holly, beautiful native holly that would grow along Buffalo Bayou, and during the Christmas season, people would go in there and they would—they would harvest it by the, you know, by the truckload and
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create wreaths out of it to sell. But as a result, it was denuding, you know, and virtually eliminating the native holly along the Bayou. And Joe was able to get a—a law passed that banned, you know, the commercial harvesting of native holly like in 1922 or something. So, he—he became involved in the Nature Conservancy because he had worked on the preservation of a place up in San Jacinto County called the Little Thicket, which probably was one of the first privately purchased preserves in the country, and it was preserved by the Houston Outdoor Nature Club, although—although Joe put up the initial money for it and got it done. And I actually visited it with him in the late, late part of his life, when he was about eighty-seven years old, I said, “Joe, I’d like to go to the
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field with you.” And—and he said, “yeah, that’d be great.” And I said, “well, where would you like to go?” And he said, “I’d like to go to the Little Thicket.” And I said, “when?” And he said, “well, I want to go in May because I can hear both the Indigo Bunting and the Painted Bunting at that time.” And, in fact, I went there with him, he was blind, and we walked through the woods with him using a walker and he called both birds. He was able to—he was able to call wild birds to him. And I’ve seen photographs of him at an earlier age when he was able to actually bring wild birds in so that he could—they would perch on his arm or he could feed them. He—he, for the last oh, ten or fifteen years of his life,
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he became very interested in conservation on private lands. He was the first person, along with some—probably Mickey Burleson, to really advocate the preservation of natural diversity on private property and understand that that was a—an important strategy for protecting fish and wildlife in Texas. And so, Joseph Heiser put up, at—at at—the end of his life, a grant of $50,000, which started an organization called the Texas Land Steward Society, which became—today, you can see many things that have grown out of that. For example, each year now the Parks and Wildlife Department puts together the Texas Land Stewards Awards, which is kind of the Oscars of private land stewardship in Texas. Well, all of that started with that initial grant by Joseph Heiser that we were
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able to develop a whole idea of identifying land owners who were doing the right thing on their property, organizing them, keeping track of what they’re doing, and then ultimately recognizing them for what they’re doing. That started with Joseph Heiser. He was a—he was a neat man. He—he—I had the—I had the wonderful opportunity that whenever I would go to Houston to make a fundraising call or a business appointment, I’d go by and see him. And he’d let me just drop in, I could just go over there and drop in on him, and-and he was pretty sick in his old age. But he had this wonderful poem that he—that he—that he would always recite to me. And I wish I had it with me, I do not—I do not remember it, but it was a wonderful, very stirring poem that was written back at
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the turn of the twentieth century about the disappearing forests and the disappearing wildlife in the United States and the fact that, if we didn’t do something, we were going to—we were going to lose it. And the poem now would be almost, probably more than a hundred years old. But Joseph Heiser would always recite that poem for me and I would ask—and—and—and at the end of his life, I would ask him to. And sometimes, he would only remember bits and pieces of it, you know, he could only remember like one phrase or one verse. But he would always give me a little bit of his poem before I left. He—his favorite phrase was “the things that belong.” He was not interested particularly in sort of the rarest natural features, or the rarest animals or plants. He was interested in
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the most common things. For example, Joe measured the lack of—the decline of natural diversity in the Houston-Galveston area by the—the decline of the number of turtles that he would see on the roadside in say, a—a trip that he would make every week for thirty years. He would—he would—he would watch things like, how many turtles he’d see on the roadside and he would record it. And so he would—his real concern was for things that you do—you know, that you would not normally think of as the Old Faithfuls, or the Big Bend National Parks, but the common animals and plants that—that—that—that—that you take for granted, but, in fact, were also disappearing. So, he—he was really
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something and he told me—I asked him one time how it was that he became a board member the first—of the first board of the national board of the Nature Conservancy, and he told me that it was because he was the only environmentalist that they could identify south of the Mason-Dixon line. And they needed somebody from the South.
DT: We’ve talked about some private individuals and some private groups such as the Nature Conservancy, but you spent a number of your years in the public life and with public agencies. Can you talk about the next chapter, the Parks and Wildlife episode?
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AS: Well, I, as I said, I—I had the great honor to do many of the—of the—of the big acquisitions for Texas Parks and Wildlife as their agent when I was working for the Nature Conservancy and so I became very familiar with the senior staff and the board members of Parks and Wildlife. And—and in 19—in—in 1986, Parks and Wildlife went through the Sunset Process, which is a process in the Texas State government which causes agencies to literally go out of existence unless they can justify their reason for being. And in that—in that process in the mid-eighties, as amazing as it—as it—as it sounds today, the Department was harshly criticized because it had not acquired enough
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land. And, in fact, the Department had ac—accumulated about $30 million worth of funding for land acquisition, which it had not spent. And there was a combination of factors, I think there was some resistance probably over the years, to doing it in the Department, and there was a lack of real expertise in acquisition. And so I was asked to join the staff of the Parks and Wildlife Department in December of 1987 to essentially be the “Century 21” of Parks and Wildlife. I mean, I—I went there to do the land acquisition for the Department. And, and as I said, the most interesting thing to think about, in the context of where we are today in public policy, was that there was a
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legislative mandate to acquire land, and particularly, natural areas. And so, I—I—I landed in that opportunity in a time when there was leadership support for it, when the—when the—when most of the land in Texas was for sale, because it was in the bust of the late eighties. And there were—and there were—there was land all over the state at rock bottom prices. And so, I went through the thirty million in probably two and a half years. And, and I had a—and it was an absolutely spectacular experience because I got to see some of the most significant places in Texas at the time. I wish we could’ve bought more, but by the time I finished, there had begum—begun, in effect, a kind of a backlash
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to—to the acquisition. But, I was able to participate in the acquisition of Big Bend Ranch, the Devil’s River Natural Area, which is just above Dolan Falls on the Devil’s River. I bought the first non-game wildlife management areas in the history of the Department. One is a fabulous place at Smith Point, Texas called the Candy Abshier [Wildlife Management Area], which is a fallout grove of oak trees along the Texas coast. An area right near here called Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area, which is a bat cave. Another—another one is a place called Atkinson’s Island, which is right off of Morgan’s Point in Galveston Bay, which is an island in the middle of Galveston Bay. And so, it was an opportunity for me to—to really participate and play a role in adding fairly signi—significantly to the
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inventory of public lands in—in Texas, at least as managed by Texas Parks and Wildlife and to really understand and get a feel for what was out there in terms of the tremendous real estate, environmental real estate, if you will, in private hands in Texas. And after two and a half years in that job, my predecessor at Parks and Wildlife retired, and—as the Executive Director. And the [Texas Parks and Wildlife] Commission appointed a search committee to select a replacement and I was fortunate enough to be the only person that was employed by the Department at the time to be interviewed by the Commission and I was ultimately selected to be the Executive Director and became—became—became so in August of 1990.
DT: You say that you started your affiliation with Parks and Wildlife basically as a land man, or an acquisition agent for the Department. Can you sort of explain the situation with private lands and why Texas has this peculiar, unusually small amount of public land, and why there has always been this interest, in some corners at least, in getting more public land?
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AS: Well, Texas is unique among all the states in that it negotiated its entry into the United States as an independent nation. And so, it would be like, sort of, England, you know, joining the United States. Texas was an independent nation. And so, as such, it negotiated the terms of—of its statehood. And the most significant thing that it negotiated was the retention of its public lands. So that when Texas came into the Union, probably ninety-five percent of the state was actually owned by the government, at that time the Republic of Texas, subsequently, the State of Texas. And that land, that enormous estate, was its only asset, that was all Texas had was—was—was this vast inventory of public land. So what it did immediately was to begin to sell it off in order to
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finance the government. So for example, the—the most—sort of prominent example of that is that three million acres in the Texas Panhandle were sold to a syndicate from Chicago that was used to construct the State Capital. So the State Capital itself was constructed by the sale of land in Texas, in fact, it was traded to that syndicate for the construction of the capital. All of our school systems and county governments and—and other institutions like that were totally financed by this sale of land, so that by, oh, I would—I would guess, certainly by the early part of the last century, almost all of the original public estate was gone, having been sold off to finance what would have otherwise been a completely broke government. And—and that’s—that’s how it is that today Texas is probably ninety-five percent privately owned and the situation is
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completely reversed. Such that today, there’s a smattering of public land left in the Far Trans Pecos, principally owned by the University of Texas and the General Land Office. In the case of the lands owned by the Land Office, it’s in sort of individual sections, not very accessible, and then, what I think of as our true public lands which is the Texas Coast. An analogy for me of the Texas Coast is like if you lived in Colorado, you could go hiking in a National Forest, or a Bureau of Land Management lands. Well, the only thing that we have analogous to that is the twenty million or so acres along the Texas Coast, which is principally wetlands, but that is our public lands, and that’s all
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that’s left to speak of. So that’s why private land—private land conservation is so critical. And why I spent much of the—of the nineties at Texas Parks and Wildlife working on strategies that would encourage, assist, and help private landowners to find ways to protect fish and wildlife and botanical resources on—on—on private lands.
DT: Maybe you could talk about some of those measures, whether it’s the support for the wildlife exemption or conservation easements or support for co-ops through the Land Trust Council, I mean, you’ve done many things, maybe you could cover some of those?
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AS: Well, the first, you know, the first and most important thing we—we had to do was get their trust. Because the—in the early part of the—the last decade, the relationship between private landowners in Texas and government was about as bad as it could be. So the first thing we had to do was convince landowners that—that in fact they could look to the government, in this case, Texas Parks and Wildlife, as a—as a source of assistance rather than a—than a threat. We did that by concentrating on things that they related to and needed. For example, the—the principal source of profit on most private ranches today in Texas is wildlife, through hunting. And so, knowing that landowners
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were beginning to lose income from declining oil and gas resources, cattle markets going down, and other factors, property taxes going up, they began to look to wildlife as a source of revenue. And we were there to say, here’s a way you can improve your deer herds, or manage your habitat to—to achieve greater economic gain from wildlife. And that was the way, I think, that we ultimately began to be much more accepted in—onto private ranches; and then from there, we were able to do things like say, well, you know, if you’re going to work on your deer populations, you might be interested in increasing this population of bats that you have over here in the cave on the backside of your
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property. Or you know, a particular population of rare plants that might exist on a wetland on your property and—and—and—and—and you do that by providing them with some incentives. We were able to pass Proposition 11 through the Legislature in the middle part of the decade which allowed people to manage for natural diversity and still get what was otherwise known as an agricultural tax exemption on their property, so there was a tax advantage that it was felt in real dollars. We actually pioneered in Texas the notion of giving landowners grants for protecting the natural diversity. We—we—we would get some money from the Endangered Species Act every year, and we were the first state to actually take some of that money and give it to private landowners for
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managing endangered species on their property. And today, that—that program is—is used in many states throughout the United States, so we’d actually give them dollars in some cases. I think, by far, one of the most important things that—that we were able to do was to establish a strong and—and—and respected and prestigious recognition program for landowners who really did the right thing. You can never do enough recognition. I mean, one of the things I’ve learned in my life is that when people do the right thing, you can never recognize them enough. And so, by creating a way to—to take those landowners who had really devoted themselves and their resources to protecting natural diversity on their properties and—and—and recognizing them for it, you caused
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an—an effect that really cascaded among all landowners because they would go, well, I’d like to have one of those signs on my fence, or I’d like to potentially be—receive that award as well. And so that has caused a tremendous amount of growing interest in—in private land stewardship. I think that the final thing has been to try to find—yesterday I was visited a—a—a—I participated in a conference in which the growing use of birding trails in Texas was discussed. That is, highway trails which are established for the purpose of bird watching. And many of the sights along those birding trails, now there’s one on the Texas coast, there’s one up through the hill country and there’s going to be
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one in the Panhandle, and soon one in East Texas. All of the—most of the sights along those birding trails are on private property. And the landowners have asked to be a part of it because, they may actually have a little bed-and-breakfast that they’ve set up on their land, or a—they’ve—they’ve got somebody on the property that’s—that’s willing to sort of serve as a guide to take someone out and see a rare species. So their—so you—to help them find ways of, once again, increasing economic return on their property through various consumptive and so called non-consumptive uses of wildlife.
DT: I thought it was interesting that as a state agency you also provided a home to sort of a little laboratory for land trusts, the Texas Land Trust Council. Could you tell about that?
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AS: Oh, I believe that we are on the cusp of—of the next—moving to the next level in private—private land conservation in Texas. And that—and that level will be reached when permanent commitments of stewardships begin to occur on private property through—through easements and purchase of development rights in—in—in ways that landowners actually make a commitment that even beyond their own lifetime, the preservation of their property in private hands will continue. It—it—it is always been my belief that you’re much more likely to cause that think—that type of effort to occur if you’re not dealing with the government. If the landowner does not have to deal with an agency of government, but can deal with a—a—an institution which is much more user
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friendly. And, to me, the best opportunity for that is a—is—is—is a local land trust, which, in fact, may be composed of the peers of landowners. Because that, if they look and they see on that board someone who may own a ranch right down the road, or someone whom they trust, then they’re going to be more likely to enter into a transaction which not only binds them, but their children and their grandchildren. And so, that’s why we work so hard to get this no—movement of local land trust established in Texas and I believe today there are about thirty or so. And that, to me, is one of the—in—in the years to come, you know, there will be hundreds. And they’ll be—they’ll be in places like
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South Texas, below Corpus Christi; they’ll be in the Panhandle; they’ll be in—in—in the area around Brenham and Washington County; and you’ll see them springing up in places where people are—are motivated to try to find a way to preserve their property beyond their own lifetimes, but they need a vehicle to do it.
DT: So you told us some of how Parks and Wildlife dealt with the public and particularly private landowners. Can you give us an insider’s view of how you negotiated among the bureaucracy at Parks and Wildlife? I mean, you’ve got three or four thousand people working there and a variety of different backgrounds and expertise, and politics, as well. I think you were noted as being a real diplomat at doing that. How did you manage balancing those different interests?
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AS: Well, you know, first let me say that having said what I’ve said about private land stewardship, which I believe is as important an initiative as can be occurring in conservation in Texas today, it is not an excuse not to do public land acquisition. That—that as hard as we need to continue to work to encourage conservation on private lands, we got to redouble our efforts to make sure that we are continuing to acquire public land. And—and that’s the hardest one. And in answer to your question, that’s where the—the—the—really the notion of getting private landowners into conservation was not one that was—it was—it was almost like a no-brainer. And—and it was widely supported.
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On the other hand, bringing land into the public inventory was extremely difficult and required all of the things that you asked about. First, every time you spend a dollar to buy a piece of land, that’s a dollar that you can’t spend on something else. So, from an institutional standpoint, that meant maybe we didn’t get to buy as many cars for the game wardens or, you know, raise the salaries of the employees or any of the other things that—that—that would be competing for the use of those initial capital dollars. And so, there’s an institutional resistance to investing in—in—in—in capital assets when—when we need money right now for—for day-to-day operating needs. Another built-in institutional resistance comes from the fact that when you acquire a piece of land, you
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have to take care of it. And so there’s an attendant liability, if you will, for—for the management of the property. Which is why, in the middle of the nineties, we began to try to figure out ways to try to endow properties that we acquired so that there was some stewardship support going in. There’s a—there’s a—there’s a resistance to the acquisition of property that comes from the fact that most local government in Texas is financed by property taxes. And so every time you take a piece of property off the tax rolls, that—that causes a hit in the local school district’s budget, the local county’s budget, and in some cases, the local city budget. And so—so, there is an institutional
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resistance from that standpoint. But, all of those obstacles and many more, you know, required a lot of effort to overcome whenever an acquisition was made. But, I think in answer to your question, you just always got to try to keep everybody’s eye on the future and never let yourself be deterred from that. It’s probably a little presumptuous to make the—make the comparison, but I think sometimes we should look at acquisitions like Big Bend Ranch, which has—which has been controversial since the day it was acquired, and there are people today who would sell it if they had the opportunity to do so, like, look at it in the context of Alaska. When Seward bought Alaska for the United States, he bought it from the Russians for $8 million. The entire, what is now the entire state of Alaska.
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And it was considered to be the most asinine, foolish things that the U.S. government ever did. And in fact, Seward was ridiculed for it, for the pur—it was called Seward’s Folly. And imagine today, from a conservation standpoint, what it would have been like if we had not acquired Alaska. And so I think when you—the—the—the—the principal thing that you have to always—never be deterred from is that—is to understand that, although people look at places that potentially—in—in our time, like Big Bend Ranch as being, why would they want to do that? Fifty years from now, or a hundred years from now people will say, I can’t believe they did that. And you have to always keep everybody’s attention focused on that point, is that we—we—we not only have a
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responsibility to the children of today, but we have a responsibility to the children of tomorrow. And it’s—and it’s equal. Our responsibility to the present generation is no greater than our responsibility to the future generation if we’re going to be true to ourselves as conservationists.
DT: I understood that one of the real flashpoints for the tension of the direction of Parks and Wildlife came over endangered species. Can you explain the whole controversy and how you tried to manage that?
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AS: Well, it was principally, in my judgment, a—a function of the way the federal system works. I—I advocated the listing of both the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo, I mean, I think there’s letters in the file to that effect. I supported their listing as endangered species. But, what—what the federal system subsequently did, was that it put people who were, and this is not said in the pejorative, but like, junior level biologists in a position of negotiating with mayors, or county judges, or people, you know, who—who—for whom they were not really prepared, by experience, or job title, or rank, to deal with. And so that was a—that was a—that caused a—a lot of stress that would otherwise—that—that—that—that—that really set us back in many ways in terms
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of public acceptance of conservation, particularly by private landowners during the nineties. I’ll give you an example, and Susan will remember this, there was a point in time in the nineties when the—when the junior biologists in the Fish and Wildlife Service prepared to publish a map—a series of maps that identified some sixteen counties in Central Texas as being, you know, critical habitat for these birds. Well, I think that probably was valuable information, but it ended up sort of being leaked out of the federal
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bureaucracy before its time, and everybody got frightened about it because they didn’t know what it was or what it was for. And it caused the whole sort of, Take Back Texas movement, which changed our politics in Texas. I mean, it didn’t just affect me; it probably was a principal reason why George Bush was elected governor in Texas. And it was because—because of a, frankly, a clumsy approach, you know, to what was basically sort of legitimate scientific information, put into the public arena in a—in a awkward way that caused us, in fact, us to be dramatically set back in many ways in terms of where we were trying to head. So, I think a lot of it just—just happened at—I’ll tell you that one of
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the things that I—I have learned over—that I believe deeply is that—that the p—p—public entities that are closer to the people, being state and local government, if their motivations are correct can do a better job of doing some of these things, particularly with local people. So therefore, what I’ve always figured is, my challenge was to bring the right motivations, the right science, to the government which was closest to the people, because that’s the government that they’re going to be the most likely to trust. And I think that, still, today is our single greatest challenge in Texas is to continue to fight at the local and state level to get those institutions more a—attuned to the goals of
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protecting things like endangered species and other things. Because I—I feel like—that they’re going to be more likely to—to gain the trust of the people who actually possess the habitat for these species than a government which is far removed from them. And I do believe that.
DT: So for a long time science has seemed to get pretty politicized with hired-gun experts, and charges of junk science and good science. Can you talk about your experiences heading up a large group of biologists who were trying to make arguments that often got couched for political terms and you had to take the heat for it?
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AS: Well, I think first and foremost…
DT: Maybe you could talk about the state of the Natural Heritage Program?
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AS: I think the thing that’s probably most important about—that I—that I believe is most important about the administration of a public institution like Parks and Wildlife after eleven years, nearly twelve years, is the continued dedication to science as a basis for action. And in most cases, although you will—you will see some—some controversy in science, in most cases, if the people are competent enough, and the methodology they use is—is sound, then you’re going to see—you’re going to be able to glean some fairly factual basis for action. I mean, I—over the years, the—the number of times in which the science was evident as opposed to the science was debatable, there was many more times when it was evident, than when it was ambiguous. The key is to be able to act on that
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and I think the—there’s a couple a reasons that I and my colleagues were able to do that through most of those twelve years. The first and most important one is that the principal financing for biological conservation in Texas comes from the users. People who visit state parks, people who hunt, people who fish. And so therefore, that money is dedicated strictly for the—that purpose. It can’t be spent on health care, or education or highway construction. What that gives the en—the—an entity like Parks and Wildlife is an independence that other public institutions do not have. I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to try to dramatically increase the regulation of the shrimping industry, as we did in the year 2001, if I’d have had to go up to the Legislature during that process and ask
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for the money to—to—to—all of the money to finance that effort. Because what would’ve happened, would’ve been that the contenders in that debate would’ve gone to their legislators and the appropriations process would have been affected, you know, by the—the wrong things. And so that’s why, really, that—that issue of self-funding is so important and why I fought so hard for it. And I believe that some level of—of self-funding is important to preserve the scientific in—integrity of these agencies. And that goes all the way back to Aldo Leopold. You’ll—you’ll see that throughout the history of Fish and Game management in the country is that—is that both the—the—the user funding through Pittman-Robertson and through local user fees and the fact that you have
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lay boards and commissions, like the Parks and Wildlife Commission, that can insulate you from politics a little bit, allows you to take action principally based on science. Now, you know, you’re going to have some controversy. You mentioned the Texas National Heritage program. We talked earlier about the Endangered Species program. Those instances, those controversies, in most cases, did not arise from imperfect science, or ambiguous science. What they arose from was a clumsy application of science or, perhaps, a less than artful, you know, application of science. And so the—the—the—the—the key, I think, is the backing, you know, of—of leadership for a administration based on science and a willingness to stand up for you, you know, when you make a
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decision based on science, and a—a—an artful, and as you, the term you’d use, a diplomatic, sometimes, ability to deploy that science in just the right way. For me, the scientific evidence on the over-harvest of the Texas shrimp populations was very, very evident. What was difficult was to take an industry through the—the—a year’s worth of public debate, you know, to come out with a conclusion that actually applied that science toward the harvest of shrimp. Now, having said that, and having been an advocate through most—through a good part of the nineties for a kind of self funding for conservation in Texas, it is not possible, in my judgment, to make—certainly to make the capital investments necessary to meet the future conservation needs in Texas with the funding of the—of users. It isn’t possible. We have to be able to find another means to
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invest in conservation for the future. Here we are in the year 2002, and the last time Texas had a bond issue for the purchase of land was in 1967. What’s that, thirty-five years ago? So, most—even—even cities in Texas in the last year have passed more money for bond issues for park acquisition than the State of Texas itself has passed in the last thirty-five years. And that’s—that’s very, very inadequate. So I think you’ve got to find ways of—of finding capital funding outside the—the—the—the—the normal revenue streams that you normally think of. Because you’re never going to be able to invest in the future sufficiently by using revenues from hunting and fishing licenses and state park entrance fees and—and those sorts of—those sorts of sources.
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DT: Can you talk about any of your negotiations with the Legislature in trying to get adequate money?
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AS: Yes, and some—some of that went well and some of it—some of it didn’t go well. You know, I found that as long as I was going up to the Legislature and saying, look, you know, in general, I can pretty much fund this Department based on revenues that we generate, then I was a pretty popular guy up there. You know, because it was unnecessary for the Legislature to dip into the till, you know, to—to put more money into Parks and Wildlife. It was only when it became obvious to me that the amount of money that we had to work with was inadequate, that I began to have some problems. And—and, there’s been plenty of—of—of work over the past three to four years that—that
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adequately makes the point that Texas is woefully under funded in terms of its investments in conservation. We rank anywhere from 45th to 50th among all the states in—in—in any category you want to pick in terms of the amount of money that we invest in conservation. And it—it—it became increasingly apparent to me that I was not doing an adequate job, as the CEO of the principal conservation agency in Texas, without pointing that out. And that’s—that’s when I began to—to have problems with the Legislature. And—and, I think that in time, that pendulum will swing. That it will not be too far in the future that the—that the people in the Legislature will begin to feel the obvious a—anxieties on the part of their constituents that Texas should invest more in the
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outdoors than it has. Every piece of polling data that you get your hands on, every indication of public sentiment indicates it, not only does the public feel like we need more investment in conservation, but they’re willing to pay more. That has not reached the leadership at this time, but it will. Ultimately it will, and that pendulum will swing and there will be more money spent on conservation. But it’s—it’s—it’s—it’s going to be a while.
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DT: What would happen when you would talk to a legislator who was not necessarily hostile, but just wasn’t supportive of giving more money to Parks and Wildlife and to conservation. What would he or she say as a reason?
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AS: Oh, one—one ex—one ex—example might be, “How can you come up here and ask me to spend more money for parks when I’m trying to finance a—a prison system, you know, to take care of crime in Texas?” Or, mean—meaning, you know, there are many things that, in the perception of legislative leadership, are more important than parks. Of course, my argument would be if we spent more money on parks, we’d probably be spending less money on prisons. So that’s one. Another one is that I think there’s a cultural, that—that leadership in Texas today still has a cultural antipathy to land
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acquisition, public land acquisition. That it’s part of a movement from a Legislature that has been dominated for virtually all of Texas history by rural interests, to one which will increasingly be dominated by urban interests. As that evolution continues to take place, that’s when that pendulum’s going to swing. But if you—you know, the fact is that—that our Legislature is changing from a—from an era, now 170 years long, in which everybody had a place like this one we’re at today, to go out and enjoy the out-of-doors. Where, either you grew up on a farm or a ranch or in a small town, or you had a relative that owned a farm or a ranch or some access to private property. That’s common in—in rural
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communities. There’s no real lack of opportunity to go outdoors. Well, for ninety percent of the people who live in Texas today, that’s no longer true. They don’t have an aunt or an uncle or a grandparent who owns a farm that they can simply, you know, throw the kids and the dogs in the car and go out and spend the weekend. They must have public lands in order to have outdoor recreation access. And, I believe that as that is manifest in terms of the outlooks of coming generations of legislators, then you’ll see a—then you’ll see a change in that culture. But, up until the present time, there’s simply
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been a lack of understanding by—by many, many leaders in Legislature as to why anyone would need to make an acquisition of public lands. I mean, who—who needs a park, I’ve got a farm. And—and that’s not—that’s not a criticism of rural life, it’s just a factor of the context in which most of our legislative leadership has—has—has come from.
DT: For most of today’s visit, we have talked about scarcity and acquisition of land and protecting it. I understand that your most recent career chapter has taken you to Southwest Texas State University where you are working on another scarce resource, water. And I was wondering if you could tell me how you chose that new job and what you hope to achieve there and what you think some of the challenges are?
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AS: I believe that going forward, that there are three principal conservation challenges that face us in Texas and to some extent, throughout the United States. But, acutely here. The first is the continued fragmentation of—of family lands. We talked a lot today about private lands, what is happening as—as people leave the rural landscape, the size of land ownership gets smaller and smaller and smaller. I passed on the way—I don’t know whether you saw it, but driving in here today from Austin, there’s a great big sign that says 25-acre tracts. Well, there’s probably a hundred of those subdivisions in Blanco County now.
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The second issue is demographic. Conservation has always been principally led by those people who really enjoy and use the out-of-doors. First, they were hunters, anglers, then certainly hikers and backpackers and campers and birdwatchers and all of the people who—who actually engage in the outdoors had been traditionally in this country, both with their money and their political support and their activism, been the folks who have, day in and day out, been there to support conservation. And we’re facing a tremendous crisis in the sense that the majority of people in Texas, for example, in the years ahead will be people who have had no experience in the out-of-doors. In thirty years, the
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majority of Texans will be non-Anglos. Today, African-Americans and Hispanics probably hunt and fish less than three percent. Sixty percent of African-Americans have never been in a state park. And so, if we don’t find a way to bring these coming urban and diverse demographics into conservation, then there’s not going to be a political base to support it financially and politically in the years ahead.
The third crisis is in water. Population of Texas will double in the next thirty years. And already today in Texas, the amount of water in some of our rivers is over-appropriated, meaning that if all the water, for example, that are—that is permitted to be withdrawn from the Guadalupe River were withdrawn today, it would be dry below New Braunfels.
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So, in some cases, we’re already out of water, and we’re going to have a doubling of our population in thirty years. So that is the most extreme natural resource crisis that we face. It’s brought about by a lack of—of, many things, and first and foremost, a lack of commitment to sustainability. That we’ve got to manage this resource, not as if it—it were unlimited, but as a resource that were finite, because water is finite. And so we have to manage it that way. Secondly, we have to recognize that these rivers are part of an environmental system. They are—river basins are both collectors and distributors of water, but there’s important things that happen with that water that are not always—that do not always come to our minds when we—when we think about distributing it. For
example, all of those basin estuaries along the Texas coast are totally dependent on
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continued fresh water flowing down there to make sure that the habitat for the water fowl and—and all those commercial and sport fisheries are there. So, so a holistic approach to—to—to understanding river basins as systems is critical to managing that—that resource in the future. And what I am doing now, and attempting to do, and I’m learning, because this is an area that is—that is not new to me, but certainly to the depth that I’m into it is—it is a—a steep learning curve is to try to create there at the headwaters of the San Marcos River, which is the second largest spring west of the Mississippi River, an—an understanding of river basins and water systems as whole systems. That when you tinker with the water in the Edwards Aquifer, you’re going to affect the water in the
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estuary at the end of the Guadalupe that is the habitat for the whooping crane. And you can’t make a decision in one part of the basin that—that—that—that—that—without understanding that it’s going to have an impact elsewhere in the basin. And that is where that sustainability model is so important, is to understand that—that—that water is not only necessary for agriculture, which is where about eighty-five percent of it goes today in Texas, for industrial use and for urban use, but it also is important to make sure that there’s continued water flowing in those streams and into those basin estuaries. It’s an economic issue. Fishing along the Texas coast alone is probably a billion dollar industry, but it’s entirely dependent on continued fresh water going to the coast. We haven’t done as much on the demand side. It is thought that people, human beings, need
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about thirteen gallons of water a day for normal use; bathing, drinking, hand washing, and other—other basic uses. Americans use about sixty-five to seventy-eight gallons a day. So we’re many, many times over what the m—m—minimum requirements are. So we can do a lot in terms of reducing the demand for water. And we need to do that; that’s part of sustainability as well. It’s a—it’s a very, very critical issue to us. I—I cannot imagine living in a Texas where the Guadalupe River became a dry arroyo and not a clear running stream. But, if we—if we do not do something, that will be the case for our children. And there’s absolutely no question about it. We think of the eastern rivers as being pretty secure, but I can tell you that in my time at Parks and Wildlife the Colorado River, below—between Austin and Bastrop was basically threatened with dewatering. I
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mean, there—there was a time in which we literally believed, had not certain agreements been put into place with the Lower Colorado River Authority, that the Colorado River would have been dry below Austin. And—and that’s inconceivable. But it is—but it is going to happen unless we get a grip on it and—and—and try to resolve it. And if we don’t believe that it will happen, we can look at places like the other Colorado River that no longer flows into the Gulf of California, or vast areas of the Soviet Union in which have been completely dewatered, you know, because of misuse over—over—over—over time, so we—we—we can do it, we can do it. Every indication shows that for the public of Texas, water is the most important issue. If you ask Texans what is most important to them about the environment, they will tell you it is both the quality and the quantity of
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the water. But, once again, that message has not totally been absorbed by leadership. But I have every confidence that—that the work that my colleagues and I will be doing at—at San Marcos, and others, will—will, hopefully provide—help provide some answers.
DT: Let me ask a closing question or two. It seems like you’ve done a lot of work in the areas of energy and land and water, not so much for yourself, but for your children and our children and grandchildren. Can you talk a little bit about how you can recruit them into a concern that you have for these resources?
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AS: Well, I think that—that—that the key to that is two things. The first is to provide an experience when—in which a young person has a direct encounter with the environment. I took the—Mickey Burleson and I took the first group of African-American kids from Austin canoeing on the Lampasas River. And most of these children had never even been out of their neighborhoods, much less in a canoe or on a river. And they were very, very uncertain. But, by the end of the trip, you’d have thought they’d been in canoes all of their lives. But, when we got to the sandbar where we were going to take the canoes out, one of the adult leaders was skipping rocks. And these children began to squeal because they had never seen anyone skip a rock. And so we got out of the boats and for the next two hours, we taught these black children who’d never even been down a riverbank, how
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to skip rocks. And that night, after the campfire was, you know, going down, and the dishes were washed and we were getting settled down, the adults were sitting around the campfire telling stories and the kids were back down on the river in the pitch black dark skipping rocks. So the first thing you gotta do is you got to get a kid into a situation where they get touched by an experience in the outdoors. And then the second thing you have to do, I think, is to create an example. For me, it was, perhaps, someone like Joseph Heiser. Or let—let a young person actually be in the presence of another person who has gotten it and has understood that the greatest contribution you can make is one that you will not experience in your own lifetime. And, and that’s probably—that’s probably—those two things would—would be the most powerful ways to recruit the conservationists of the future.
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DT: Well said. One more question. You’ve been busy, doing lots. When you have some time to relax and find a moment of serenity, where do you go in the outdoors? Is there a place that you especially enjoy, that’s beautiful and comforting?
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AS: Well, I try to go, if—if—if I can get away, I try to go to many places. I don’t—I—long ago, in spite of the fact that places like Matagorda Island, or Big Bend Ranch or others have great meaning for me, I try to not select favorites in the out-of-doors. I love to fly fish. I come to this place where we are today almost every week to work on—work on my writing projects and I take some time during the, you know, the course of that—that time up here to get out a fly rod and catch some fish. I have two dogs that love to get in the water, they are Labrador Retrievers that I work with, and their favorite place is Red Bud Isle, which is about four hundred yards from my house in the Colorado River. And I
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enjoy being there as much as I enjoyed being in Alaska. So, it’s just—it’s just a matter of—more so than—than—than selecting a favorite place, it’s committing yourself that whether or not you can just afford to go down to Red Bud Isle or whether or not you can afford to go down to the Texas coast, you know, for a couple of days, to—to making sure that that is part of your life.
DT: Thanks.
AS: Thank you.
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End of reel 2187
End of interview with Andy Sansom