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Fred Wills

INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: February 15, 2006
LOCATION: San Antonio, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Melanie Smith and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2324 and 2325

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

DT: My name is David Todd. We’re in San Antonio, Texas. It’s February 13th, 2006 and we’re at the home of Fred Wills, who’s a herpetologist and wildlife biologist and has been an advocate for protection here in the San Antonio area for many of the natural sites and species. And I wanted to take this time to thank him for telling us about his experience and insight.
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FW: Thank you.
DT: Fred, I thought we might start with a question about your childhood and if you could tell us of anything in your early days that might have gotten you inspired and interested in the outdoors—a friend, parent, whoever might’ve gotten you interested.
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FW: Well, I think my dad was probably responsible. He always took the family on summer vacations, often in very small trailers and station wagons that served as sleeping quarters and things like that. We usually went West—New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah. Sometimes we just took a weekend or one day drive out, for example, to Del Rio, Texas or the area that’s now Amistad Lake was really impressive to me because th—the roads used to wind down into and up out of those canyons—the Devil’s Canyon, Pecos Canyon. And—so I—I think his introduction of us to the natural world was really important.
DT: And as you grew up and eventually went to college at A&M, were there people there—professors or some of your fellow students—that might have shared interests or tried to encourage you in this direction?
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FW: It—it’s hard to single out any one person. I—I think my initial interest was in forestry and took a couple of forestry courses, went on some field trips to managed forests, to paper mills, sawmills, things like that and I realized at that point that maybe forestry was not the field I—I thought I was interested in because it seemed to me to be very oriented toward cellulose production. And I think I wanted to do something a little less consumptive oriented, so that was—at that point, I went over to wildlife biology.
DT: And what did you learn in wildlife biology that might have suggested where you’ve gone in the future?
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FW: I—I think wildlife is a fairly broad field. It—you know, it covers essentially everything from plants to vertebrates to, you know, human an—interactions with those plants and animals. And so I think it appealed to me, the—the—the broad scope as well as the—the emphasis on integrative biology.
DT: Did you take any field trips while you were in college that you recall?
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FW: We did. Went to East Texas. Was introduced to swamps and mosquitoes. Went down to the coast and got to do things like abuse alligators and [laughs]. Maybe I shouldn’t put it that way. Got to feel the private parts of critters that may not have wanted to have those sorts of things happen to them. We went to Kerr Wildlife Management Area, where I noted that the hill—hill country could, indeed, grow grass and my previous experience had been that hill country landscapes were all rocks and so I wondered why that was the case at that site.
DT: And as you came out of college, I understand that you’ve become a consulting biologist? Is that fair to say?
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FW: I think so. I’ve—I worked for several environmental contractors and mostly in the area of endangered species, monitoring and, to a certain extent, management issues. Primarily I’ve worked with golden-cheeked warblers and black capped vireos, which are the two local endangered birds in the Edwards Plateau.
DT: Could you tell a little bit about those two creatures and their life habits and why they are so rare?
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FW: Well, partly it’s—it’s that—well, in the case of golden-cheeks, they’re an endemic. They’re a Texas endemic. They only breed in the Edwards Plateau, which is totally within the state of Texas. So they’re starting out with a limited amount of habitat. You know, what’s happened in part is that development—urban development is—is encroaching on that area. You’ve also had effects due to agricultural management. In other words, if you manage the Edwards Plateau for livestock, it tends to remove woodland, which the golden-cheeked warbler is restricted to.
DT: And how about the vireo? Why is it so threatened?
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FW: The vireo, I think, is very fire dependent and what’s happened is that we don’t get frequent fires in the hill country anymore so you don’t have the kind of habitat developing that results from fire. So as you lose that fire disturbance, you also lose the black capped vireo. In fact, it’s possible that they may have been even more common than golden-cheeked warblers in the past. But golden-cheeks are far more common today because they’re a woodland dependent species.
DT: This might be a time to talk a little bit about how the ecology and the landscape has changed in the hill country. I understand that you’ve started to make a study of the sort of long-term changes, maybe since the Civil War, and how the Edwards Plateau is made up of this mix of grassland and forestlands.
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FW: It—it’s hard to—to really know where to start on that question. I’ve for some time had an interest in, you know, what the baseline conditions were or what the original conditions were of the hill country. There has been some work done on that—that question by a man named Del Weniger, who published a couple of books and the primary title of those two books was The Explorer’s Texas. And what he tried to determine was what were the landscape conditions, what did the mammal fauna look like when Texas was first settled by Europeans and he gathered all the written information he
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could obtain. He looked at General Land Office survey records. In some cases, he looked at illustrations, historic illustrations. And what he found was that the state had changed enormously post-1860. Prior to that time, the Spanish-Mexican-early Texan periods, the changes had been fairly subtle, but they accelerated after 1860 or post Civil War. And by the twentieth century, many landscapes had changed quite a bit due to clearing of forests, due to increases of certain tree species, such as mesquite, ash juniper,
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which is a required habitat element for the golden-cheeked warblers has actually increased enormously. One thing I really wanted to do was satisfy my own questions about these sorts of issues. Much of the literature, the range management literature, assumes that our Texas landscapes were essentially all grassland and often, those sorts of assertions were not well documented. They may have had some—some basis, but the basis was normally not stated. So I decided to look at primary documents and try to
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determine for myself what sorts of changes the amounts of change had happened over, let’s say, the past 120 years or so. And the first area I looked at was Kerr Wildlife Management Area, where I’d gone as a student and been surprised by the quantity of grass and perhaps lesser quantities of—of trees in that landscape. And so the way I went about looking at that question was the same way that Del Weniger had approached it, although he never got around to publishing the book containing those data. He had a
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small paper in a symposium volume back in 1988 looking at the whole Edwards Plateau. My approach, partly for financial reasons, partly for time reasons, I looked at a single site and I—I chose Kerr Wildlife Management Area, in part because it’s successful. It’s often used for ecological research and it was relatively nearby. I gathered the land survey data from the General Land Office, analyzed those data, and I found, at least for that site, grassland had been the predominant landscape type there. You did have some woodland, some forest, some savanna, but because the area is—has relatively little relief, fire was able to remove most of the fire sensitive trees, primarily ash juniper. It also shaped the
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distribution of abundance of other trees, like oaks.
DT: Can you explain that—because the terrain was different, the fires had a different effect? Why is that?
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FW: Well, if—if you have a flat landscape, it’s much easier for a fire that starts in one place to travel across it unimpeded. And anytime, you know, fire contacts woody vegetation, it tends to kill it and, you know, at least set it back to ground level. Grasses are, of course, pretty much adapted to fire, so they—they do just fine with almost any level of—of fire. But the more frequent fire you have, the—the fewer woody plants, like trees, will be in the landscape.
DT: And these fires, do you think that they were lightning set or do you think that the Native Americans would’ve originally set them?
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FW: I think you had both. I believe there—there was quite a large amount of human set fire in the landscape. They used it to create environments that attracted animals in. In other words, fresh grass would tend to attract grazing animals and then they would be able to easily hunt them.
DT: So you were telling me about Kerr Wildlife Management Area and, before I interrupted you, about how its terrain is maybe more susceptible to fire.
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FW: Oh, yes. I—although Kerr Wildlife Management Area does have a certain amount of relief, it’s probably one of the flatter areas of the Edwards Plateau. In other words, it’s up at the headwaters of the Guadalupe River and the amount of stream cutting has been relatively modest compared to, say, the edges of the Edwards Plateau at New Braunfels, San Marcos, San Antonio, over here at Medina Lake, where you’ve had deep incisions into the—the canyons. And what that does is that it creates barriers to—to fire. In other words, the fire will reach the edge of a canyon and it’s not likely to go over the
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lip and down. Fire tends to move uphill. So those areas that were in areas of high relief, deep slopes tended to maintain a tree cover in the face of frequent fire. These fires ranged in frequency from about, I’d say, seven to twenty-five years. So you can’t dro—grow a very large tree in seven years if you’ve got fire passage. If you’re going to have woodland or forest, it—it has to be less frequent than that.
DT: And the grasses then were dominating. What kind were they?
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FW: Primarily Little Bluestem, which is a mid-grass, a bunch gr—bunch grass. You had some others out there, Gamma Grass; think you had some Big Blue Stem. Often it depended on how deep the soil was. The hill country, the Edwards Plateau is very variable in terms of soil depth. Some areas are rock at the surface, you know, which is impossible for plants to grow in. Other areas have fairly deep soil, several feet.
DT: And then what happened that caused this sort of arc of change that you were talking about after the Civil War? And if you take that as being sort of being the baseline, the situation you just described, what happened then?
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FW: Well, you had the introduction of livestock, which was probably the largest change. And what this did was—was rem—remove the grasses, you know, decrease them, shorten them. You had to replace them with tall grasses by shorter species, so you didn’t get the—the frequent fire regime. So what tended to happen was that things which did not burn were not palatable to livestock, essentially your woody plants, shrubs and trees tended to increase. When fences were built, livestock could not roam so they focused their grazing pressure on the areas inside those fences. And once the grasses
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were gone, there was no more fire. The woody plants, which were there, tended to—to increase. So you went from a more grass dominated environment to a more wood—woodland dominated environment. Del Weniger suggests that the amount of woodland and the amount of open area, let’s say grassland or savanna, were essentially in balance when the Europeans arrived. It was about a fifty-fifty mix over the whole Edwards
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Plateau, although that varied from place to place. And what you have now is a much more woodland dominated environment, although there’s still—you can still see variation from place to place. The most common tree out there now is ash juniper. Most people call it cedar or mountain cedar and this tree was not nearly as abundant, historically. The different kinds of oaks, primarily live oak, were the most common trees, historically.
DT: You said that part of the change is because of introduction of cattle. What about goats and sheep? Did they have much effect and was the effect different from what cattle brought?
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FW: Yes, because sheep are able to graze much closer. They’re much—much harder on grass than—than cattle. Goats tend to eat woody plants. For example, the shrubby oaks that are favorable to black capped vireos, the goats were very hard on those. They tended to, you know, browse down that kind of habitat. So you—I think what happened was you ended up losing much of your—your grass cover as well as your fire dependent shrub cover, or shrubby tree cover. You know, the short, let’s say, head high sorts of things that the vireos were adapted to.
DT: And then sort of turning the pages forward a bit, I think you also found that some of the changes in the Edwards Plateau were the effect of logging. Could you tell a little bit about what you found there?
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FW: There—there were some areas, primarily river canyons, where woodlands were—were clearly dominant. And these trees were valuable for construction purposes, for firewood, and later, beginning in the 1880’s, fence building. All the canyons, let’s say starting with the Colorado River and going through the Guadalupe Canyon, Medina, Frio, Sabinal, Nueces. All those canyons had pretty good stands of ash juniper, which is the primary fence building material in the Edwards Plateau. Even—even today, it’s—it’s still heavily used. In the past, there—there were a lot of large trees that were even large
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enough to be sawn for heavy construction timber, railroad ties, things like that. Some investors from Austin, San Antonio and Uvalde, primarily, decided that it—it would be profitable to try to build a railroad up along the Nueces River, up into the Camp Wood area and used that railroad as a means to haul out ash juniper timber and other kinds of timber—firewood, as well—from that area. I believe it was 1921 when the railroad was completed. It’s about 37 miles long, running from Uvalde to Camp Wood, which
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was, at that time, simply a site. There had been a historic military post there. And at that time, they threw up a tent camp, a tent city, if you will, and brought in about 200 cutters and—and haulers who had mule-drawn wagons. And they proceeded to harvest the ash juniper and other trees from that area. I don’t remember the exact tonnages shipped out, it was a tremendous amount. Thousands of—of tons. Some of these single trains carried
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out loads of forty thousand posts, fence posts. Eventually, the area of harvest increased fur—to be further and further from Camp Wood and at some point it was no longer economically viable to go out so far to bring the material, the trees, into the railhead. So what had been a fairly thriving local economy essentially crashed during the late 1930’s. At that point, I calculated that at least 37,000 acres of woodland had been removed. It may have been higher; it may have been up to 50,000 acres. And at the beginning of
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World War II, the railroad, because it no longer carried passengers or a significant freight, was closed and they—they pulled the tracks and the town pretty much became a ghost town.
DT: How was it logged? Was it selectively cut or was it clear cut?
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FW: That’s a good question. Much of it was cut for fencepost, so they were selecting, let’s say, four-inch diameter posts. If the tree was larger than that, they sometimes also cut it for larger timbers, you know, four by four or six by six timbers. So my suspicion is that they cut just about anything that was saleable.
DT: So you were saying earlier that the mix of woodland and grassland species were pretty balanced and then these changes from grazing pressure and from logging upset that balance. So where does that leave us, say, after Camp Wood is logged out in 1940, then? What are the impacts of these changes on the ecology?
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FW: I—I don’t think we’ve really documented the kinds of changes, if any. Certainly we lost whatever old growth timber was there, and there was some. There were probably impacts on the golden-cheeked warbler, which needs the woodland environment which was harvested. There was probably soil loss from exposure of—of soils to rainfall. But nobody’s really quantified that. The only area I know of where someone has tried to quantify the soil loss due to removal of ash juniper and other impacts is near Austin,
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where if I remember over a fifty year period, approximately five and a half inches of soil were lost. It was due partly to the removal of the tree cover, but partly also to the overgrazing, which followed. So you essentially had a bare landscape and a bare landscape tends to erode when rain hits it.
DT: Tell me a little bit about the logging culture. Do you know much about this sort of cedar chopper society that might’ve, I guess, found Camp Wood as one place to work and, I guess, it’s been throughout the Edwards Plateau?
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FW: They were a pretty hardy, unique bunch of people. They were partly migratory because once an area had been harvested of juniper, of cedar; they would have to move to another area. Most of what’s been written about them was—was po—has been positive. I think because of their fairly strong work ethic, although it’s also been written that when they’d made enough money to satisfy themselves, they quit for the day. So, I think they were a very Texan type of culture, although ultimately, that culture, I think, came from
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Appalachia. You know, they were primarily Anglos. I would say probably a lot of them Tennesseeans, or other Appalachian mountain—eastern mountain folk. And so there was a similar environment, though more—more arid and they—they occupied that human niche, if you will.
DT: How would you say it differed from the logging that happened in East Texas that seems to have been run by pretty large firms with a lot of capital and a lot of land?
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FW: Well, the—these folks were always basically doing it at the—the family level and then they would sell to a cedar yard in—in the towns, in Kerrville, Bernie, Junction. All these places would—would buy single loads of posts and things like that. In east Texas, things tend to be more industrialized. You had a much larger wood volume. It was wood that was—was good for house timbers as opposed to, let’s say, fence material or firewood or charcoal, which were the—the latter were the three products that the cedar choppers or post haulers were harvesting.
DT: Well, I guess part of the reason that the Edwards Plateau timber industry sort of collapsed was just that the resource got used up, but I think you also mentioned that some of the reasons were sort of that the building technology changed. That the foundation posts changed? Is that right? Can you tell us a little about that?
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FW: Sure. I think some of the older housing tended to use cedar post, juniper posts to set in the ground because these were very resistant to rotting when in contact with the soil. I mean, that’s why they’re used for fencepost as well. Some of these fences last for decades, fifty, seventy-five years or more. The partwood of—of cedar or juniper is extremely hard and resistant to—to weather. Not too resistant to fire, but if you’ve overgrazed the landscape, you won’t have any fires out there and you will have more juniper for fence material.
DT: You wrote an interesting article about ash juniper, in particular, not—not so much a historical one, but about how it functions in the environment and that for a long time, it’s been kind of vilified as an invader species or a species that uses too much water. Can you talk about some of these myths, about the ash juniper and what the truth is about them?
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FW: Well, the—the thing about myths is that they often have a—a grain of truth in them. I think at the time I wrote that, I was essentially putting a pro-cedar or pro-juniper spin on things, in some cases, because there’d been such a heavy bias against the—the tree to the extent that some people were just passing on out and out lies. I think sometimes, again, y—you have these myths with—which have some basis in fact. In fact, some birds do eat the juniper berries, but they’re not going to transport the tree a
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long distance to the Edwards Plateau. For example, there was a myth that ash juniper came from East Texas, was brought in by birds to the Edwards Plateau. I mean, that’s totally fallacious. There is no ash juniper in East Texas. It’s—it’s a different species over there. Ash juniper is pretty much restricted to the Edwards Plateau and similar areas to the north, in North central Texas. So it’s—it’s been there for, you know, at least ten, twenty thousand years, if not more, long, long before any Europeans got here. You may want to remind me of some of the other myths that I addressed. I may have…
DT: I think one of the issues that’s been brought up a lot is this aquifer recharge and if water use has always been kind of associated with the junipers.
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FW: The tree, I think, has often been blamed for degradation of watersheds. It does have some effect. It does use water, but then so again do oak trees and grass. I think the reason is that—that ash juniper is considered much less valuable than grass and oak trees for a variety of—of reasons. The trees will catch rainfall on the foliage. Much of that will evaporate; some will run down to the soil. They do tend to transpire a little more
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than a—an oak tree of—of a given or a similar size. But what’s happened in many of the studies that have attempted to look at these is that the juniper was removed, the soil underneath was essentially bare so you did have increased recharge. But once grass began growing on that bare soil where the trees had been, the amount of recharge decreased because the grasses were also transpiring water. So at this point, there’s the evidence for removing juniper as a way to get more recharge is—is pretty ambivalent. I
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think this is the reason the regional water planning group did not include that as a water management strategy. The Edwards Aquifer Authority still wants to fund that kind of management, so I can’t say what their reasoning was, but it—it certainly is—is different than the reasoning used by the—the larger regional water planning group.
DT: This might be a good time to talk a little bit about water, which has for a long time been a controversial subject in San Antonio. You know, aquifer recharge has been one option for trying to assure that the Edwards Aquifer continues to provide this sole source of groundwater and drinking water for San Antonio. But there have been a number of other ideas about irrigation transfers and use of water from Canyon Lake and even desalination. Use of recharge dams, I guess, would pool water around sinkholes and areas that could feed the aquifer. Can you talk about when you were speaking on behalf of the Alma Group of Sierra Club to try and bring some good thoughts into this whole discussion of how to get sustainable sources of water for San Antonio?
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FW: Well, sustainability is always a—a difficult thing to get to and especially in an area where the population seems to be continually growing. If you’ve got a limited resource base, which the Edwards is, you’ve got to do something other than just continue to increase use of it. I—I think the region has done a fairly good job as far as water conservation. Not perfect, but certainly better than in the past. You know, we’ve installed low flow devices in our—our bathrooms and kitchens. We’ve gone to higher
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water rates, which has, you know, in theory at least, reduced the—the rate of water use. You know, people will think twice if it’s going to cost them to water down their driveways or wash that car at home, so things are a little better. But—but I think we’ve, in the end, really failed to come to a consensus on the big items. You know, what sh—what should we really be doing other than conservation? And I think conservation is—is a no brainer. It—there are no—there’s no downside to it, it’s always good. But where do you go once you’ve reached that limit, which we—we have not at this point, of course.
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But if the region continues to grow, at some point conservation will have been built out essentially and what’s the least impactive method to go to then? You’ve had a number of things proposed. You know, buy irrigation water rights. Build a pipeline down the lower Guadalupe River and pump it back. The Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, you know, injecting treated wastewater there and recovering it. All these things, you know, are potential, but the question is what—what’s the appropriate and I’m not sure anybody has really come
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up with that, including myself. But one point I was proposing that—to protect spring flow, we should be diverting the water below the springs as opposed to diverting it from the ground. That, I think, might have some benefit, but again, that would impact surface water supplies. But then again, so will pumping groundwater impact surface water supplies. So the—the complexity of the problem is—is very, very hard to get a firm grip on. I think the club has tended to—to go toward low-impact solutions. Things like, you
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know, lining irrigation canals to prevent seepage loss, increasing water rates, installing low flow devices in homes. You know, controlling lawn watering, drought management, those sorts of things.
DT: And what is their view on—and your view, of course—on these water import ideas? I know that SAWS—the San Antonio Water System—has an agreement with the lower Colorado River Authority to explore importing water from the Colorado River basin. What’s your view about that?
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FW: Well, I—I believe that that agreement has pretty much fallen by the wayside. I think the—well, maybe we’re talking about two different importation projects, so I—I shouldn’t say that particular one has fallen by the wayside. But some of the—the versions, for example, from the Guadalupe have apparently been dropped by—by SAWS. I still think you—you’ve got the problem of limited supplies. You can divert it from a
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storage on the Colorado Basin, use it in San Antonio, but that may require giving up inflow to bays and estuaries, may require giving up rice farming, all these sorts of things. There’s—there’s no easy answer to it. Unfortunately, I think a lot of our reservoirs have been after the fact turned into second home sites. And so if someone has a house built around a periphery of a reservoir, they don’t want the water level dropping. So you essentially drown the landscape, but then you can’t use the water. If you can’t draw the
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water out of the—the lake to divert, then what do you really gain except the nice sheet of water in front of your second home. So I know these things cause a lot of differences between, say, the citizens of Austin and San Antonio because we may tend to re—view those resources differently, where one pe—person sees recreation, another sees a water supply going to waste, so. It—it’s something the club, I don’t think, has really come to resolution on either, not to mention the society, or the citizens as a whole.
DT: One of the water proposals that was considered for a number of years, the Applewhite Reservoir, can you talk a little bit about the history of that and how that finally got dropped?
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FW: I—I believe Applewhite was proposed in the 1950’s as part of a regional water planning scheme, kind of an outgrowth of the Texas Water Resource Planning that resulted in part from the severe drought we had in the 1950’s. It was revived in the late 70’s and many in—institutions and individuals saw it as a way to begin this planning process. In other words, you build a small reservoir and then the big ones will come later. You know, introduce people to water that may not taste quite as good but is more easily available and—and at some point, they’ll be willing to pay for it and use more of
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it. Many, many citizens and citizen groups here in San Antonio did not like that idea. They were used to drinking Edwards’ water; they didn’t want to drink lake water. They saw the lake as pretty much a wash, in terms of water supply. You know, it might capture some wastewater and put that into the drinking water stream. Some people thought that was unhealthy. It would also drown perhaps twelve miles of bottomland hardwood forest on the Medina River, which, I believe, back in the 1970’s was
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designated one of the outstanding natural areas in the state. So you had a number of people fighting it for different reasons. In the 1990’s, there were two votes by the citizens. It was rejected the first time, the water authorities. The city brought the issue back; it was rejected a second time. And at that point, they pretty much gave up on the surface water for San Antonio, at least from newly built lake supplies. The site had been acquired, at least in large part, by SAWS and a number of us thought, well, this is a perfect opportunity to have a large park, natural area, open space on the south side of San Antonio. So we got together and proposed to SAWS that they hold onto this land. You know, they’d worked so hard to acquire it, so why get rid of it? Why not keep it for some
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kind of public benefit since it wasn’t going to be used for a reservoir? That process, years and years later, is still going on. There’s been…
DT: Is this part of the Charette project?
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FW: Yes.
DT: Can you talk about that?
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FW: The Charette was an idea that some local landscape architects had and, for example, Bonnie Connor was the City Councilperson who was heavily involved in that. She was very interested in—in trying to, you know, have that area turned into some kind of a public facility. So what we did was try to involve as many citizens as possible in this sort of informal planning process. We got together at a site in a south part of the county,
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not too far from the Applewhite site. One of the things that—that happened—well, I think a number of ideas were presented on—on how to use this land. Some people thought it should just be given back to the landowners or sold back to the landowners—the original landowners. Others of us thought the area should be kept together as—as a unit. Unfortunately, some of the—the mapping by SAWS had suggested that the area
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was not a single unit. They had a nice little colored map that showed the land north of the river in one color, south of the river in another and upstream in a third color. And I think that had the unfortunate effect of making people see these areas in different terms rather than as something which was po—potentially a unit, a large unit of a—a large block of land that could be public. The upstream part eventually became a city park for the City of San Antonio. That’s been open, I’d say, I think about a year now. The part
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north of the river became the Toyota truck plant, which will open the n—in the near future. The part south of the river, that was to be what was tentatively called the Land Heritage Institute. This was an idea brought up by some archeologists from Texas A&M who saw the area as a perfect site for demonstration of historical agriculture, of the history of cultural development of South Texas and as a—as a natural area—as a—a site for demonstrating the archeology which had been exposed by the excavation for the dam site. At this point, it hasn’t fully come to fruition. There’s been a number of—of
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proposals made for it. I think it’s—it’s mainly a problem of money, that the money from A&M has not—not fully materialized. Perhaps when the A&M university sy—system has a campus here, that will—that will happen. But the problem I still have and—or I had and still have is that the area was not maintained as a unit. It was treated as something that you could peel off and do different things with. The Charette process was one in which I think the structure was problematic because they had everyone in one room. The noise level was such that it was hard for people with—with hearing problems,
00:48:08 – 2324
with soft voices to enter the conversation, let’s say. So I think a lot of bad ideas tended to survive and be put into a document that, with further discussion, I think may have been—been left out of that.
DT: How did the Toyota plant get proposed and authorized?
00:48:36 – 2324
FW: Well, my understanding is that the local government entities, politicians, city, county and state, decided that there was a nice piece of free land that they could give to the corporation, which would then build a plant on it and provide a number of local jobs. I—I think their reasoning is, as far as it goes, relatively good but they did not consider at all the potential of the land for ecological purposes, for open space, for parkland. They said, implicitly anyway, that okay, you’ve got your land south of the river and upstream, we’re going to give this to Toyota. That may be a little too negative a way of looking at
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it. The riparian forest along the river on the north side is still there. I think, although I haven’t visited the site, that much of the mesquite woodland that had good wildlife populations—turkey, deer, javelina and so forth—I think much of that is still there. So in the end, it may be a win-win situation. Much of that site may eventually be incorporated in the land heritage idea. But at this point, that has not really happened, so.
DT: I think it’s interesting, this pattern of the public sector—the city, the county—providing subsidies and incentives for companies to come in and do some sort of development that I guess helps the tax base, but brings up problems of equity and this seems to be one instance with the Toyota plant. Another that I think you’ve been involved with is the PGA Village Development. Can you talk a little about what that involved?
00:50:41 – 2324
FW: I’ve had a little bit in—involvement with it. This thing has gone through different iterations. It was essentially a golf course and a housing and—and hotel development in the northern part of the county, in the recharge zone along Cibolo Creek. Unfortunately for natural values, this is an incredibly biodiverse, scenic kind of site. Of course, it’s also, as I said, a recharge zone for the Edwards Aquifer and it’s golden-cheeked warbler habitat as well. What the PGA folks proposed was that the majority of the land be developed and somewhat less than half be preserved in the form of a—an easement—
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perpetual easement. What was bad about that was that such a large fraction of the area was going to be developed. I think what was good about it was that they were doing something that most other corporations were not. Most of the other developers were simply dozing the land and building houses on it. The—probably because of public pressure, they had at least taken the step of saying okay; we’re going to set aside and manage part of our site in perpetuity as a natural area. So even though I—I criticized the net loss of habitat, I think I could also say that there will be a—a—a benefit in the future because at least a certain percentage of the land was set aside. And I think in the future,
00:52:50 – 2324
all development should be required to do that sort of thing, you know, set aside at least a portion of the development as natural area, as parkland. And at least you will have some pieces of the whole remaining as opposed to having wall-to-wall houses or wall-to-wall businesses or yet another golf course, of which we have at least—at least thirty. No, more than that.
DT: What do you think about this issue—I think it was brought up by some that you’re taking money from the public treasury and using it to develop privately held land, such as a PGA Village or the Toyota situation?
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FW: I—I think that’s created a large amount of resentment among the public because they—they feel like they’re subsidizing businesses which should be coming at—here anyway. We have very inexpensive labor here. We have a warm climate which requires less utility expenditure on—on their part. So why shouldn’t develop—developers be coming anyway? I think that—that people see the—the natural values of the area being lost and to have that subsidized is—is kind of essentially adding insult to injury. It’s—it’s very tough. You’ve—you’ve had politicians who seem to initially support the idea of getting rid of these kind of subsidies flip around and—and end up supporting them. So it’s a—it’s something that I don’t think will go away in the minds of the public.
DT: San Antonio has a long tradition of being linked in with the military.
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FW: Yes.
DT: Because they have a number of bases here, the Air Force and the Army, and I think one of the…
DT: When we were on tape earlier, we were talking about Camp Bullis and the inventories that you’ve done on that site. Can you talk a little bit about what the site is and some of the natural aspects to it and then some of the impacts and risks to that site?
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FW: Sure. Camp Bullis is about a 28,000 acre training site. It’s part of Fort Sam Houston, which means it’s a—an Army managed entity. It’s been used for training by others besides the Army. The Air Force has got a facility out there. People from other states, other bases, like Fort Hood, will come down to do training. So over time, there’s been a much larger number of people training out there. The area is a very exemplary Edwards Plateau site in one sense, but it’s very unique in another in that fire has remained in the landscape out there, both planned and unplanned. So as opposed to most sites in the hill country that—that never get burned, much of Camp Bullis was burned fairly frequently. And this was due in part to burning to keep the area open for troop
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maneuvers, in part due to accidental fire from live fire, you know, machine gun, cannon, those sorts of ordinance often caused fires out there. And what this resulted in was an increased amount of golden—excuse me, of black capped vireo habitat. The scrubby vegetation, thick, leafy, down at ground level is—is favorable to black capped vireos. So what you got is a site that has habitat for both of these endangered birds and it’s a publicly owned site. There is a certain amount of conflict between use of it by the
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military and use of it by the birds. I think that—that amount of conflict is perhaps buried over—over time. Excuse me, can I break?
DT: So could you continue about Camp Bullis, some of the conflict that you see there?
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FW: Well, in one sense, I think the area has maintained and created habitats for the birds because, initially, the military was not terribly interested in agriculture. So agricultural use of the area has decreased over time. They have had cattle leases on there, but the last cattle were taken off in 1995. So the only major use is—is military training. There’s no, in my opinion, direct conflict between training itself and these birds. Where the conflict comes in is attempts to manage the vegetation for ease of troop movement, for example, or move—ease of vehicle movement. And that tends to—to alter the
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factors—or alter the habitats that the birds use. Often you’ll have—well, for—for example, in my opinion, the area probably has or had, let’s say, in the mid-1990’s, more golden-cheeked warbler habitat than it had, let’s say, in 1918 when the post was essentially put together in its present form because of increase in woodland. They’re in the process of removing a certain fraction of that woodland, perhaps moving it down to something like 40 percent wooded versus 60 percent open. In the early 1990’s, there was
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a monitoring program established by a contractor who I worked for and what we did was walk a set of 60 transects out there. And that was designed to monitor any effects of training or vegetation manipulation or any other factors which might be impacting the bird populations. What’s happened over time is that, for a variety of reasons, many of which I—I do not know, the number of transects, the ability to monitor it in a consistent fashion has decreased. The number of transects has been cut to 36, so it’s—it’s almost been halved. I think the methods of analysis have—have changed. So essentially what—
01:00:52 – 2324
what’s happened is that the monitoring program has been degraded to the point that you really don’t know if there have been changes out there in the bird populations. The data from, let’s say, the first seven or eight years essentially show that the populations did not change, but about the time that there was an increased amount of vegetation management out there, the methods of analysis, the number of transects were changed. So it may be that the—the increased impact is impacting the birds, but I don’t think we’re going to know that. I also think, although I may not have perfect evidence, that there were
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political forces in play that wanted it to look like the population of these birds were increasing out there in the face of increased habitat manipulation. I’m very skeptical of that, but again, without a consistent monitoring program, no one can really know. It’s sort of like the best laid plans can be out there, but at any time, political forces can change those plans.
[End of Reel 2324]
DT: Fred, can we resume where we were before, talking about Camp Bullis and you were saying that some of the management decisions, both for how the landscape is manipulated and how it’s monitored has changed over time and that you see it as kind of politically driven. Can you give us more of a complete picture of why this is going on, what’s happening?
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FW: Well, the—there’s been couple of things that happened. There’s been an increased amount of training out there. In other words, much more—many more boots on the ground from when I started out there, which was in the early 90’s. And—so there’s pressure to create more land that’s—s available for training. In other words, more open lands opposed to the wooded area which may be difficult for troop movement. Some of this could be perceived as—as restoration because, as I alluded to before, much of the hill country has increased in the density of its—its woodlands. But what—as I see
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it, one of the problems is that we tend to use highly impactive methods to—to do it. For example, bulldozers, chaining, things like that. I don’t think they’ve done any—any chaining out there, it’s—it’s been primarily bulldozers. But—but what happens when you bulldoze a rocky landscape, you tend to—to tear up the—the soil, the—the microtopography—in other words, the—the rocky character of the landscape. I can’t remember, it may have been J. Frank Dobie or—well, I’ve—I’ve lost the name now, but—but there was this quote about a—a landscape that can’t be plowed keeps its secrets. And what’s happening out there is essentially that the hill country’s being plowed. And so I think a lot of the—the beauty, the diversity is being lost because it’s not being managed in ways that are perhaps a little softer. In other words, hand cutting fire, things
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like that. In some cases, I think you’ve had areas which were developing into black capped vireo habitat that they decided to go back in and burn, you know, before they got big enough to be habitat. So I—I think—you know, at the same time, they’ve adopted the static approach toward the wildlife. There’s a very dynamic approach toward human use of it and in—in some ways, I think this is—is backwards because the dynamic ec—ecological processes out there are being set aside. In other words, they’re—they’re
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treating, say, warbler habitat as something which is in Point X but not in Point Y. You know, that we won’t let it develop in Point Y even if Point Y is a good place for—to have it. And the—of course, the other side of the coin is that—that areas which may be or potentially are habitat are being removed before they can develop to that—that stage. It’s—it’s always tough because the reason for existence of the place is obviously military training, but the same time, you have things like NEPA and other environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act, that require that a public agency, including the U.S. Army,
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subject itself to those—those rules. I think to a certain extent—certainly on paper—they have attempted to—to meet those requirements, but my concern is that there’s a certain amount of the—the good old boy syndrome, which is partly driven by, you know, the very concrete needs of the military for training area. Well, I sort of lost the train of my thought there.
DT: Well, maybe this would be a good place to talk about this dilemma that a lot of the folks who might be doing the monitoring face because on the one hand, they are technically educated scientists that had this ethic of being objective and independent. On the other hand, they’re business people that have to think about their next job that they’re going to be getting for using these skills that they’ve got. I was wondering how you balance this sort of scientist versus consulting businessman role in your work.
DT: So maybe you could respond to this dilemma that—that consulting scientists find themselves in, yourself included, of course.
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FW: Sure. Yeah, it—it’s always really tough to—to be objective, but yet, at the same time, they have an appreciation for the land as—as something which goes beyond the measurable or countable. When you go out in the field, what you’re doing, even though you’re recording observations, is that that area is affecting you as a scientist the same way it would—it would affect you as a user of a state park or a national park. So when you do that, when—when you’re out there recording things objectively, that’s one thing. But when it comes to how that information is used, it—it’s difficult. The information may not be used in the way that you think it should be. It—the information you collect may be used to justify actions which you subjectively think are not—not appropriate. But as a contractor, as someone who’s doing a job for the military, ultimately being paid by the Corps of Engineers, you have to go out there and—and collect the kinds of things
00:08:10 – 2325
that you’re—you’re tasked to do and you may have to bite your tongue when it comes to how those resources are subsequently managed. But it’s the old Aldo Leopold dictum about it’s the better part of wisdom to never revisit a wilderness because it’s quite likely that someone will have gilded the lily, will have, you know, changed the—the beautiful setting that you saw. And for me, I think the problem has been, being out there so long, going out every spring and doing those surveys for endangered birds, I’ve seen the—the
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changes over—over a fifteen year period and I can remember the way it was, you know, with very little military use, very little heavy equipment use, you know, roads that were perhaps in poor repair and so forth. You know, lots of hills covered by trees. If I go out there today, you know, I don’t recognize much of it. If I go back even after a year’s time, it—it looks quite different and I have to actually go out there and look at a road sign to make sure I’m in the same spot I remember because the kinds of changes that can be made by machinery are much quicker than I think the human mind can—can deal with,
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can incorporate. You know, if you—if you see a landscape that, you know, doesn’t change for five, ten years and then in one year is totally changed, it’s—it’s kind of a shock. And because we’re, you know, ultimately subjective creatures, it—it—it does impact our—our psyches. But again, we—we have to—because we’re getting paid to do a job, simply do that and—and—and try to let the—the more subjective feelings about that landscape—either let them go or try to in—incorporate them in—into some kind of activity which does not, let’s say, impact our future ability to get a job or make us appear that we’re not being objective about—about our work, so.
DT: Maybe we can talk a little bit about some of the natural areas that have been preserved in a way where you don’t maybe run into these conflicts between an inconsistent use, like the military developments out at Camp Bullis. And the two instances that come to mind are some of your work at inventorying the Government Canyon State Natural Area and I was hoping you could talk about the origins of that Government Canyon Park and what you see as distinctive and special about the area that’s been protected.
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FW: Well, cer—certainly the origins of it are fairly straightforward. Back in the nineteenth century, there was a family called the Hoffman’s who acquired fairly large acreage out in that area. That was eventually sold to, I believe, the man who owned a theatre here in San Antonio. In the 1960’s, 1970’s, because of increased growth in the City of San Antonio, that area became inviting to speculators—land speculators. They entered into an agreement with the federal government to build a so-called new town
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development out there to be called San Antonio Ranch. And of course, the environmental community here, small though it was, immediately jumped on that as—as a threat to the Edwards Aquifer. Faye Sinkin I think was one of the people who was initially involved in that. In the 1980’s, with the failure of many of the savings and loan institutions, the undeveloped part of San Antonio Ranch went up for sale as an RTC—
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resolution trust corporation property. And through the efforts of a number of people here in San Antonio, Danielle Milam Congressman Harry B. Gonzales, this land was eventually acquired for the public. Three agencies, which I believe were Edwards Underground Water District, SAWS and Texas Parks and Wildlife, participated in the acquisition of the property via the trust for public land. I think started out with five thousand something acres and eventually that grew to—to, I believe, approximately nine thousand today with additional tracts added. Parks and Wildlife is the managing agency.
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They’ve had a hard time opening it to the public, simply because of re—financial resource issues. They just haven’t had the money to hire the personnel to develop facilities on the area. It is now open to the public as of this—this year and—well, I…
DT: That’s a good history of it. Maybe you could…
DT: When we were speaking earlier, I was asking what is it about Government Canyon that is special from a natural resources standpoint?
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FW: I think one thing that’s unique about it is it sits right on the edge of the Edwards Plateau. In other words, it’s a—it’s at the junction between South Texas and the Edwards Plateau. And there’s a major fault line that separates the Edwards Plateau from South Texas at that point. Essentially the Balcones Escarpment runs right to the park. To the south of that, you have brushland, you know, mesquite woodland, other—oh—other types of brush. To the north of that, you have a very distinctively different community, ash juniper, live oak, Texas oak. So in that sense, the park is geographically diverse
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within a relatively small area. I think it’s fairly unique. I can’t think of another park in this area that has that kind of overlap of two major biogeographic regions. Once you cross that boundary, you’re into the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. There’s a major drainage called Government Canyon Creek that runs through that area and, of course, unless the discharge is extremely large, much of that water will recharge the Edwards. So it’s important that this area remain undeveloped to provide some protection for water quality and water quantity that’s entering the Edwards. Well.
DT: I know you’ve done inventories out there. Can you tell us a little bit about the biota out there?
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FW: Well, the inventory I was primarily involved in was herpetofauna, amphibians and reptiles. We built some trapping arrays which consisted primarily of five-gallon buckets that were sunk into the ground—four of them, with one in the middle and three on the spokes—and those were connected by fences made of aluminum—aluminum valley
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material. We also had some minnow traps—mesh minnel tr—minnow traps arrayed along the sides of those fences and those were for catching snakes, which could easily get out of the buckets. So we were able to catch frogs, toads, lizards, snakes. I don’t believe we caught any turtles or amphibians. So that was one method we used. We also went out and just turned rocks and did general searches to look for animals that were not amenable to catching by the traps. One of the ideas I had in mind for that was to monitor the area
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over time. In other words, to see what happened to the herpetofauna with a different management regime, for example. Or with increased visitor usage, did—did things change out there? That didn’t turn out to be totally successful partly because there was some conflict between the vegetation management of the southern part of—of the area. In other words, the—the brushland part of the area. And partly because we didn’t get to continue it as long as we had—we had hoped to. Now that’s not totally true because
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there—there is an individual from Our Lady of the La—Lake University and he has taken over the project and is continuing that with—as time is available. But we tend to do it on a more continuous basis. In other words, we would operate the traps for days at a time or weeks at a time, in some cases.
DT: Did you find any endemic or rare species there?
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FW: Well, there—there is a neotenic salamander there. There’s a spring in Government Canyon that does have a—an aquatic salamander, which is, I believe, restricted to this part of the Edwards Plateau. In other words, this general part of the San Antonio segment of the Edwards Plateau. Other than that, not too much unique but it is moist enough so that you have the slimy salamanders in some numbers and some of the moist—more moist canyons. There is another unit—unique faunal aspect in that we found black-tail rattlesnakes there, which are in—uncommon in most of the Edwards
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Plateau. They’re much more common to the west, out in the Big Bend area. But here they—they’re either peripheral or for some other reason are relatively uncommon. And those seem to be associated with cave features on the area. There—there was a cave survey done and—and they’ve, you know, found a number of caves and other karst features out there.
DT: One of the things I’ve heard of is, even though it’s been really successful in protecting the Government Canyon site, that there have been some development pressures around it that have brought in power lines, transition lines and there was some discussion about—I think Phil Graham and some other politically influential people—had a tract that was nearby and they didn’t want the power lines and were trying to divert it through the park. What can you tell about that instance, I don’t know enough about it.
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FW: Well, that—the way you’ve explained it is essentially correct and a number of us fought that idea quite strongly and—and I think were able to persuasively make the argument to Parks and Wildlife. Certainly, Parks and Wildlife did not want the power line going through their natural area. But what happened was that the power line was rerouted to the west—or at least proposed to be rout—rerouted to the west along Highway 211. The park extends over to 211 in some areas now, but it—you know, at least, the major impacts would—would be averted with its current alignment. You know,
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even that has been questioned by some folks because it potentially could interfere with the bird migration or—you know, water quality, whatever, you know, just due to construction activity and so forth. But I think that’s a positive development that at least it’s not going straight through the—the park. I did do some consulting work for some of the landowners on the west side of Highway 211. For the most part, there was not quality golden-cheeked warbler habitat over there, only in one area up toward Medina Highway,
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which is State Highway 16. But that’s just—just one of the things that—that, you know, thankfully, was—was at least averted in terms of the—the park impacts.
DT: Do you have any other sort of general thoughts about the development pressure on this northwest side of San Antonio that affects Government Canyon’s region?
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FW: Mmm hmm. Tremendous amount of development pressure. In fact, the area to the north of the park has been developed, so the watershed of Government Canyon Creek is—is compromised to a certain extent. When you enter the park, if you look to your left, you’ll see a whole row of tract housing in there. It’s—it’s not wall-to-wall dense housing, but it is quite prominent so it’s pretty hard to block out that view of the barbed wire fence. But I—I think it’s inevitable that that—that kind of thing happened because the Edwards Plateau is sim—simply more attractive as a building site to people who can
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afford to build there. The views, the oak trees unfortunately are more attractive than, let’s say, the mesquite trees and the flats of the southern part of the county. I think at least some of that may change, at least for the employees who are working at the Toyota plant. In other words, they’ll—many of them will probably prefer to live down there as opposed to building in North Bexar County. But I—I don’t see the development pressure going away.
DT: You mentioned the southern part of Bexar County. One of the sort of natural features down there is Mitchell Lake and I understand that you’ve been tracking that for a number of years. Can you tell us about the origins of Mitchell Lake and what makes it special and how it’s come to be protected?
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FW: Well, Mitchell Lake is an extremely interesting case of environmental history, or historic ecology maybe is the better term. Originally it was a shallow natural wetland. It had things like bulrushes out emerging from the water surface, which I think I was told could be waded almost entirely across without going higher than chest height. Around the lake, there were some large trees, like hackberries, perhaps oaks and other large trees. The area was extremely attractive to water fowl hunters. There’s a man named Rudolph
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Menger, who was a naturalist-hunter-doctor here locally and he wrote some articles which became incorporated into a book about the area. Published some photographs showing the lake. Unfortunately at that time, changes were already happening when he took those photographs and he, to a certain extent, lamented the—the changes. And what happened was that the City of San Antonio had such a large sewage stream and there were concerns about dumping it straight into the river, so I believe in 1897, the City of San Antonio began using the sewage stream to irrigate cropland. This would’ve been
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inside 1604, out in the vicinity of the small airport there. And at some point apparently there was too large a stream for it to be disposed of through land irrigation and fairly short distance away, within, you know, a mile or two, there was this—this natural wetland. Its capacity for water was not extremely great so in approximately 1902, they decided to dam the south part of that little valley to increase the capacity of Mitchell Lake to hold water. And at that point, they began diverting the sewage stream directly into the lake. At some point much later, it may have been the 70’s, a number of holding ponds and other structural features were added to the lake. In other words, they dyked off part of the expanded lake in order to improve the sewage treatment. They could settle out the
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solids and move the liquid fraction of the waste into other basins and—and eventually release it into the Medina River watershed. They—I think they also did some upland irrigation with some of the liquid fraction. At some point, probably again because of water quality concerns, they built some new treatment plants. So when this tract of land was no longer used for its original purpose, it was certainly known to the local birders who went out there primarily because there were a number of birds that showed up there
00:28:54 – 2325
that you couldn’t find anywhere nearby—shore birds. And of course, these were attracted by this artificial shoreline, artificial marsh that, you know, developed not because of a plan but simply because it was a contingency of the—this history of use of the area. Most of these folks, you know, liked to go out there every once in a while so they weren’t concerned too much about it being open to the public because they could always get permission from SAWS and get the gate key or gate combination and go out there and—and bird and then leave. But once the number of birders increased due to
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word of mouth and so forth, it was felt that there needed to be additional management of the lake. Some people wanted to restore the uplands to a more natural mesquite brushy woodland. Wanted to, perhaps, manage the water flow to the lake to be able to manipulate environments, habitats for different species so that you would keep the maximum diversity there. And eventually there was an agreement between National Audubon Society and SAWS for the National Audubon Society to take over the management of the area. And they moved a historic house out there which is now a
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visitor’s center. And they’ve done some manipulation of water flow and so forth to, let’s say, restore some freshwater ponds and to be able to move water from one basin to another, which ability had been lost when the infrastructure out there was essentially abandoned.
DT: And when you’ve gone out there, can you tell us about some of your birding trips?
00:31:13 – 2325
FW: Hmm. Initially, I had gone out there to do another one of these herpetofaunal monitoring programs. I—I was doing it on a very, very small scale. I had just a few pitfalls. I also had a few cover boards, which are pieces of plywood that you just drop on the ground and come along and turn over every once in a while to see what’s underneath. I set this up actually in one of the basins, which at that point was completely dry. And of course, while I was out there, I—I enjoyed the bird fauna as well. You have things like
00:32:00 – 2325
white pelicans. You have a number of south Texas species that show up there which aren’t typical for this area, things like Kiskadee flycatcher, well, there’s a number of—a number of species but it—I think that—that project—at least my—my little monitoring project got set aside when I went to Government Canyon to do a similar study there. But took a lot of years and a lot of folks working hard to convince SAWS that this was a good area to allow the public to use.
DT: Well then, I guess, like Government Canyon, there’s been development around, I think on the—is it on the east and south side, there’s a new development going in. What’s been the impact and some of the discussion about that?
00:32:57 – 2325
FW: Well, I think I see it maybe more as—as visual impact than anything else. I mean it—it’s pretty hard to have a water quality impact on an area which, you know, by virtue of what it was, has bad water quality, so, you know, there’s a tremendous deposit of sewage solids in all the—that area, including the main lake. So it can never be—even if you wanted to, can never be restored to the—the shallow natural lake that it was. But I think what it is now is an a—a nice example of an artificial ecosystem that, at the same time, is extremely diverse and that can be changed, restored, manipulated to increase the diversity further.
DT: I want to talk a little bit about wildlife in general, if you don’t mind.
00:34:07 – 2325
FW: Sure.
DT: You’ve been the Endangered Species representative for the Sierra Club’s Alamo group and I think that one of the issues that you addressed was the fate and protection of the mountain lion. Can you talk a little bit about the mountain lion situation and how you sought to improve it?
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FW: Yeah, well, Texas is essentially the only Western state that does not provide any protection of any kind for mountain lions. Here you have a—a large animal or what would be considered a large game animal in essentially every other state, if not protected because of its rarity in some states. What we tried to do as Sierra Club—as a Sierra Club entity—and there were other folks involved as well—was to try to get either some kind of protection for the mountain lion or, if that was not politically possible, to have the animal designated a game animal. And this wasn’t a new idea, this—even back in the 70’s, there
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was a lot of talk about trying to get it designated a game animal, which is certainly a perfectly reasonable idea. That idea, I think, was fought by many ranchers who, rightly or wrongly, sometimes correctly, sometimes not, consider it to be a very economically damaging predator of livestock. So th—the bottom line is that—that that effort was not successful. Certainly, I—I—I’m skeptical that there ever would’ve been the type of total protection you have in, say, California. But I think it—it was reasonable and appropriate that we have at least game animal status. You know, have some kind of closed season during the year as every other Western state does. Parks and Wildlife does some monitoring, but it’s—it’s mainly passive monitoring. In other words, they collect data on sightings or killings of the animal to get some notion of the—the trend in population.
DT: Is there still active predator control with mountain lions in Texas?
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FW: Yeah, there’s—there’s some. It—it’s—it’s not nearly as extensive as—as it was, say, in the 1950’s and before where, you know, lions were considered beyond the pale and they were, you know, killed on sight or—or, you know, there was always some—some pressure on them. So there—there were no ef—no real areas except for perhaps Big Bend National Park where there’s a substantial population that was not under pressure. But what’s happened during the 60’s and—and 70’s has been that the number of sheep raised has decreased fairly—fairly extensively and you’ve had both mountain
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lions and coyotes increasing in number, repopulating areas where they’d been absent for—for decades. So it’s kind of ironic in a way that—that, you know, the mountain lion is doing better now, although it has little protection—no protection, but it’s been a—a passive kind of a—a management that led to the—the increased population of the lions, not due to any efforts on—on the part of Parks and Wildlife or even those of us who tried to get it designated a game animal and failed. So.
DT: Fred, we’ve talked a lot about issues in the past, going back to the Civil War and how the ecology of the Edwards Plateau have changed and then some of the recent things that have happened at Government Canyon, Mitchell Lake or PGA Village. Maybe you can talk to us a little bit about how—what sort of advice you’d give to a younger person looking towards the future and what sort of attitude and understanding they ought to have and expectations they ought to have.
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FW: Mmm. Well, in my opinion, you—you have to look at the past, the present and the future as—as a, in a way, a unitary whole even though you’re—you can only live in the present, to understand that present, you got to—to look backwards. And in order to create the kind of future that—that you want, you have to look forward. I think this—this is true of science, it—it’s true of any other field. It’s—I think it’s true of conservation. If we only look at the present, we may be looking at—at a present that is—that appears to us either worse or—or better than—than the past or—or the future. So what we—we got
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to do is go and look at what was written, what was incorporated in maps, incorporated in the memories of—of our forebearers. You know, understand what we had. I think that’s what Del Weniger was—was about, that he tried to—to bring all these historical facts together, put them in one place so that people could consider where we’ve been in relation to where we are and, knowing that, what do we want to do with the future? In other words, do we want to bring back some aspects of the past? Do we really understand the nature of the present? And once we’ve done that, once we’ve brought the past to bear on the present, I think we need—we need to incorporate the—that past and this present into our future activities, into better management, better approaches to—to
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conservation. We can see what didn’t work in the past and, you know, try and evolve a new strategy to make—make it work better in the future.
DT: I noticed that you have a nice collection of Edward Abbey’s writings and I think he really struggled with this whole issue of change and human impacts over time. And I’m curious, what do you take from his life?
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FW: That—that’s an important consideration because I think what Ed br—brought was passion. In other words, if you don’t have that—that core of passion, it—it—it’s hard to get out there and—and do the things that it takes to preserve the things that you’re—you’re—you’re in love with. I mean he was in love with the land and I think that was the—the basis of—of his passionate feeling, of his anger, of his finger pointing at the idiots that were changing things without really knowing what they were doing or caring what they were doing or altering things for a quick buck. But they were also altering
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things for all time and boy, I—I—I don’t know, I think he’s just such a—a seminal individual because most nature writing is—is too nice. It doesn’t have the passion, it doesn’t have the anger. He was—he was not a scientist. He—he said he was not a naturalist, but I think he had, you know, that grasp—overall grasp of the land, but that’s really, I think, lacking in a lot of cases. Even if you’re studying a particular piece of the landscape, if you’re studying, you know, the scale counts on a lizard or the behavior of a
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bird, I mean, these can be important parts of seeing that overall whole. And I think that was where he was. He was looking at nature as a whole and looking at the human impact on that whole.
DT: Why was he so angry?
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FW: He was angry at seeing what he loved disappear in front of his eyes. And, you know, I mean, it made gener—it may generate some lament if you go back and look at an old book and—and it says that an area which is degraded now was—was really nice. But when you’re actually seeing it degraded in front of your eyes within your own lifetime, I think that’s where that—that anger comes from. And certainly he channeled that—that anger in—into writing. He probably channeled some of it, at least in his younger days,
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into direct action, monkey-wrenching, whatever you want to call it. Those things are, at least in terms of changing things at the societal level, may not be effective. But at the same time, I think it was an attempt on his part to have some kind of direct influence on that process. You know, direct influence on things which were degrading the world he loved.
DW: What would he do or think now? I mean, driving here, we saw all those giant earthmovers at work, adding lanes to the freeways and, you know, obviously he didn’t spawn the generation of monkey-wrenchers, obviously they went away. Did the public just—have people just given up?
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FW: Mmm. I—I don’t think people have given up. I think even those of us who may be viewed as somewhat pessimistic still have that—that grain of hope. I think you have to have that if you’re going to continue to do conser—conservation work. I think you have to keep going in the face of—of a number of failures to—to do what you had hoped to do. But I think there are enough successes out there of your own and—and others that you can point to and say yeah, it was—it was worth it to try to put up that—that good fight.
DT: And what do you think would be one of the biggest failures and what would be one of the biggest successes in Texas conservation?
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FW: Mmm, boy. Well, certainly locally, I think Government Canyon was the biggest success story as far as, you know, actually acquiring land and—and managing land for public purposes. At the state level, I—I think forest management, certainly for East Texas, has been if not totally successful, at least we’ve made some impact on how the National Forests are managed. I think water—water issues, we’ve been somewhat successful in getting state legislation passed that implements planning, but the other part of that is that many of the things that are being put into these plans are at best
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questionable and—and some of them quite—quite damaging. I think one of the things is that—that many times we’re so parochial about our—our views that it’s hard for us to be objective about the landscape, the political environment, our own views of things that we—we can’t see things in—in the—the broad context. And I think that’s—that’s essential if we’re going to make conservation progress. We have to look at things comprehensively. We can’t simply look at, you know, the coastal bend or the highland
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lakes or the Edwards Aquifer or downtown San Antonio and—and think that we’re going to—to make a difference. We have to have that—that broad view.
DT: You’re saying that in some situations, San Antonio population pressures and so on get exported to other areas.
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FW: Absolutely.
DT: Water needs here may affect the level of the lakes in Lake Travis or the amount of freshwater that reaches Matagorda Bay.
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FW: Sure. Yeah. Those—those kinds of impacts, I think, are—are inevitable. I mean, we may be able to—let’s say if—if we have more unlimited supplies of energy from natural sources—wind, solar—we may be able to desalinate and avoid some of these impacts on—on our streams and—and estuaries. My question is will we do that if it’s more expensive? In other words, if it’s cheaper to dam a river or cheaper to pump water th—out of an aquifer, will we give up an in—inexpensive—relatively inexpensive water in order to get water from a source that maybe less damaging.
DT: The sixty-four million dollar question. Well, let’s finish with one question, if you don’t mind. Is there a favorite spot that you like to visit and could you describe it?
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FW: Well, I haven’t been there enough, at least in recent years, but Big Bend is one of my favorite places. So, you know, I think in the way that maybe Abbey was passionate about the Colorado Plateau and Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, I think I’m pretty passionate about the Chihuahuan Desert and Big Bend is just a—almost perfect example of the Chihuahuan Desert that’s been set aside. It’s—it’s got a mountain range entirely inside of the—the—gets up almost to 8000 feet, so you got a mountain forest up there. You’ve
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got fairly extensive grasslands around the foothills of the mountains. You have very extensive lowland desert areas where you can see miles without finding a tree in your way. It has really deep canyons, 2000-foot deep canyons in three places. It has a—a river that’s draining large parts of two different countries. And it’s very hard to get to, so it’s rarely crowded. It’s just one of those—one of those things that makes Texas a—a good place to be.
DT: You mentioned Big Bend National Park. I’m curious if you have any views about the recent controversy about Big Bend State Natural Area, the ranch; it’s the State Park next door and the proposal to sell it to a private individual, Mister Poindexter.
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FW: That—that’s an interesting problem. I—I think many of us saw it as a black-white issue. I later read two different editorials by Mister Poindexter and Ken Kramer and—and it seems it may not have been quite as black and white. That in some ways, it—it followed the Nature Conservancy model in that Parks and Wildlife was proposing to sell it to this individual and he would then be subject to a conservation easement on it. I think the major problem with the issue was that the public was not brought in; it was
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just an arbitrary decision on the part of Parks and Wildlife. So in many ways, it was—it was the process that was problematic as opposed to the potential results of the—the process.
DT: Is there anything you’d like to add? I think we’re coming to the close of the tape.
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FW: Mmm. If I had—had a chance to sleep more, I might’ve come up with a—a big idea here. Well, I would simply encourage more people to get involved in—in some way in conservation and outdoor activities, in education—particularly conservation education. I think things like canoeing, hiking, even maybe more mechanized and urban things like bicycling or those sorts of—you know, skiing, let’s say. All these—all these things put you in contact with the real world and they sort of get you out of your day to day
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problems, concerns, issues and so forth that are, in large part, generated through excessive human interaction. So, get out and get in the woods or the desert or the river or the marsh or whatever’s nearby or, if you can afford it, whatever’s far away.
DT: Good advice. Thanks a lot.
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FW: Well, you’re welcome.
End of Reel 2325
End of Interview with Fred Wills