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Martha Fenstermaker

INTERVIEWEE: Martha Fenstermaker (MF)
DATE: February 18, 2006
LOCATION: Helotes, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Melanie Smith and Robin Johnson
REEL: 2349

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

DT: My name is David Todd. It’s February 18th, 2006. We’re outside of Helotes, Texas and we have the good fortune to be talking to Martha Fenstermaker, who is a artist—an art professor in Laredo and is part of a family and one of three sisters that have been very active in protecting their ranch and trying to speak up for conservation in the San Antonio, as well as in the Laredo area where you live. And I wanted to take this chance to thank you for spending your evening with us.
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MF: Oh, I’m delighted to. Thank you for coming.
DT: I thought we would start by just asking you if there were some episodes in your childhood, early ones, that might’ve influenced you in your interest in conservation?
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MF: I had parent who were interested in the outdoors. My father was a rancher early on and he always—and as we walked around, he’d know what the rocks were and he knew what the plants were, he knew what the birds were. And we were curious so we were always asking him. He taught us early on that if you look at a windmill, you can tell how deep the water is and where the wind is where you go. The larger the—the wheel, the deeper the water and the higher on—or the tower will be wherever the wind is. So if they’re short, then the wind is close to the ground and if it’s high, it’s way up high. But he was always just interested in nature and my mother was, too, so it’s just a natural
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thing. And growing up in Fort Davis, the countryside is so beautiful that I guess you just become accustomed to beauty. I know I’ve always missed it since we moved back, but every two or three weekends, we would take a day trip somewhere in the vicinity, that had odd geological formations and things. It’s an area that has them—a lot of very exposed geology. And as we drove along, they were always looking at the countryside and they’d say this rancher is overgrazing because there would be no grass on the property. It was during the 14-year drought in the 50’s. So we were always aware of
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when land was not being taken care of and when it was and different geologies and the plants and the animals. And I assumed for a long time that everybody did this and after we moved to San Antonio, it was kind of shocking to realize that people didn’t do that. They weren’t aware of plants and they weren’t aware of the animals and birds. But again, if you grow up in the city, you don’t have access to that and we were very lucky not to grow up in the city. Our parents didn’t want us growing up on city streets and so we each had a horse and we rode. Anytime we weren’t in school, we were on our horse,
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riding with friends. A lot of friends had horses. And we rode all over little Fort Davis, which is a tiny town, and all over the old fort and up the canyon and down the canyon and every which way.
DT: Do you remember some of the rides you used to take?
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MF: Oh, yeah.
DT: What would you see?
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MF: Depended on the time of day or the—the time of year, but we were all—you know, the vegetation is very varied out there and the rocks are incredible. You—every time you’d look down, they had these beautiful types of rocks, which you don’t have around San Antonio. It’s all limestone here and out there it was more igneous and sandstone, so, uh, beautiful stuff. Lot of basalt and a lot of quartz, usual things. You know, you were always picking up rocks. When we moved in, my father was horrified because we had these ha—huge boxes of heavy rocks that had to come with us. Everybody had their favorite rocks. So it’s just something we grew up being aware of and it’s because our parents were. And I guess being a rancher, my father—you’d have to know the different vegetation that you’re—he was a sheep rancher—would eat and—
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and you learn early on that—that’s good for sheep, that’s not and we had a horse when we were young—one of the first horses we had in Fort Davis—who ate loco weed. So right on—right away, you become aware of things. Locoweed makes a horse really go loco and they eat it when they’re just desperate for something green and it was during the drought. So she did eat it and she did—she was different. It wasn’t just a regular horse. But vegetation and its effects on animals and all, it’s just a natural thing to us. And we were interested in the outdoors. The mountains were so high, the TV waves
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couldn’t come over, so we didn’t grow up with TV. We’d—we’d go home after school and we’d play with friends or we’d ride. We were always outside.
DT: You said that you also went driving with your father and that he would show you plants and animals. Can you recall any of the things that he tried to show you or teach you?
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MF: I mean, just the names of the wildflowers and all? The ones he grew up—well, because he had ranched up in the Glass Mountains before and—and when I was just born, and then out in Fort Davis, he knew the names of plants. But the people who worked for him, the men who worked on the ranch were all from Mexico, so I’ve grown up knowing the names of wildflowers but I know the Spanish translation—I mean, the English translations from Spanish. And such as Old Man’s Beard is what I call it, but it’s called
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something else in English for that—the columbine, the natural—the native Texas columbine. Oh, but anyway, I—often we know the, sort of the English translations from Spanish because I guess he learned it out there as much as here. And he spoke Spanish very natively, which I wish I did.
DT: When you were there, I think that they were just starting to reintroduce the bighorn sheep.
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MF: I don’t remember that.
DT: Do you recall any of that effort?
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MF: No. Hmm mmm. I know they did try to introduce it. I don’t think it was particularly successful. I know there were experiments while we were there to take the pronghorn antelope, which is down in the flats around Martha and Alpine and up into the Davis mountains and they are not a mountain animal and they didn’t survive.
DT: Also I think that there was some predator control going on then to try to keep the numbers of mountain lions down. Do you recall any of that?
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MF: No, but I do remember eagles. Eagles were an issue if you were a sheep rancher and…
DT: Tell about that, please.
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MF: Well, it’s not a great thing, but of course if you’re raising lambs, you don’t want golden eagles. So there was a man in Alpine, a Mister Caspiers, who shot eagles out of a plane. And he had this plane—his favorite plane—he would turn it to shoot and it would right itself. Most planes would just keep on turning but this one, for some strange reason, had a quirk in it and it would always right itself. And I can remember later on, we were in—pro I—I was probably in junior high by that time, he had crashed in the side of the
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mountain and he’d walked away. But anyway, it was his favorite plane. We drove by to see it. So that was the end of that plane. But of course, they don’t do that anymore, naturally.
DT: Do you remember the trial about…?
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MF: I’ve read about it, yeah. But that was much more recently, yeah. Not a good thing to do. I have seen an—a golden eagle’s nest out on the Big Bend Ranch Natural State Park, out on top of a—we went out, Susie and I—Mary and I went out to the—we did a wildflower weekend with Doctor Warnock. It was a fascinating weekend and went into that caldera that’s out there on the ranch, that it’s a bubble. It’s a volcanic, or gaseous bubble that ex—that broke. I don’t know if you know about it. Well, if you look at a map, you can see it. It’s a perfect circle. It’s about fourteen miles across. Anyway, in—in going in to look at the native plants on that property, we saw a golden eagle sitting on her nest. It was pretty spectacular.
DT: When you were growing up out there, or when you visited back to Fort Davis, have you ever had the chance to visit McDonald Observatory?
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MF: Oh, yeah. If you grew up in Fort Davis, the people out there really appreciate the land. And every day, everybody takes a—or every two or three days, you take a drive in the evening and you just drive and you’re looking at the countryside. I mean, it’s a place where they really appreciate their—their views, their land. So yes, McDonald Observatory was often a—you—I’ve actually never been in the observ—observatory, but I’ve seen the view many a time.
DT: The view during the day, out of the landscape, but also any interesting astronomy?
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MF: It—I think—I wonder if it comes with age, I’ve thought about that recently. My grandmother was always interested in stars and she was always pointing out constellations and all to us. I couldn’t have cared less. No, and when I was, you know, was a child, I never cared about going into the observatory. I’ve never been in; I’ve never seen the stars. Now it’s something that’s begun to interest me and so maybe it’s an age thing, I don’t know.
DT: I guess when you were in your mid-teens, you moved back to San Antonio with your family and I was wondering if you could tell us about some of the things you encountered in San Antonio, in particular, some of the environmental issues?
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MF: My grandmother was one of the founders of the San Antonio Conservation Society and it’s something I’ve heard about all my life, the different things they saved, the different things they fought to save and were not able to save. And I can remember, I lived for four years before we moved to Fort Davis in San Antonio, and I can remember going somewhere with my father and he stopped to listen to the radio in the car because Grandma was giving a talk to save—to keep the tr—tennis courts out of Sain Pe—San Pedro Park. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and they’re now there. But that is—Papa always said the most—that was the most beautiful natural pool he’d ever seen anywhere. Now it’s all cemented in, of course.
DT: Was it a spring fed pool?
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MF: Spring fed po—uh huh. San Pedro Springs, mmm hmm. And it’s across from San Antonio College and it has a library annex in it and it has a little theatre in it and it has lots of tennis courts in it. And the—the swimming pool itself is all cement. So the natural beauty of it has a long been lost. But the Conservation Society did try to save it, to keep that out.
DT: Well, what is the argument about active and passive uses of parks? And many times folks say that for public health, we need to have tennis courts and baseball fields and football fields.
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MF: Right, but they don’t have to go put them in beautiful areas.
DT: …in natural areas.
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MF: You do. You don’t have to go put them in beautiful areas. You can have them and you need them, but you should pick where you put them and the tendency is just to go find an open area and put them in it and not look at what’s there and what is—see whether or not that’s the best park to put them. And unfortunately, parks have been used this way. Beautiful natural areas have been used for ar—things they shouldn’t have been used for. And of course, you know, you can overuse a park, too. It’s one of the things with the ranch and the conservation of it that we’re concerned about. We want the public
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there, I mean, but we—but we want it in a more educated—educational sense and not huge masses of people. I’m not interested in people, you know, coming out to barbeque and belch beer, which can really ruin a park. You—you need that and you need areas for people to do that, but then you need to preserve your natural beauty, which means putting some thought into it and not having just open for everybody, anytime. But it—it can be put to an educational use because, well, people have to be educated. If you grew up in a—in a city, you don’t know about that and you don’t have that experience. It’s not important to you, so I can see why it happens.
DT: And what would you say to those who say well, either with a public piece of open space or with private piece of open space, there’s some tax dollars that have already been put toward purchasing that land or in giving the tax advantages for conservation uses, for example. And that people should have the right to get some sort of return on that investment and be able to use the land.
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MF: Yeah. That’s why, if you look around, private property is really cared for better than public property. If you look at our big national parks, some of them are simply being destroyed by the number of people there using them. There has to be a limit. There has to be a yearly limit or we won’t have them.
DT: So the argument is don’t love them to death, in a sense.
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MF: Yeah.
DT: You mentioned your grandmother speaking out for protection of San Pedro Park and that there have been a recurrent kinds of threats to open space in the San Antonio area and that you’ve learned from many of these. Can you talk about some of the instances and the lessons that you’ve taken from these particular struggles?
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MF: Well, I’ll try to. Growing up in our family, this was always an ongoing thing. The San Antonio Conservation Society has been fighting for some—one thing or another almost constantly as long as I’ve been alive and so I grew up hearing a lot of stories. And one of the things I was real conscious of was Travis Park, a downtown park in San Antonio that my great-gran—great-grandfather gave to the city. And H.P. Zachary wanted to build an underground parking lot there and it has beautiful, huge Spanish oak trees. It’s a spectacular small park. Anyway, my family fought it and it got fought all the way to the Supreme Court eventually—U.S. Supreme Court. But the lawyer that was
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originally hired was a young man who was very good, but at the, I think, State Supreme Court level, he lost the fight. I mean, he just literally just gave it away. He had been bought out by the city. And the lawyer that then took the case was an older man who was retiring and this was going to be his last fight and it was something he believed in. So he’s the one that actually went—and we won at the Supreme Court level. But he would come back every week or every day and would tell the Conservation ladies the bribes he’d been offered to throw the case. And since he believed in it, he didn’t take them. But
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I knew—I mean, we knew from a early age that you have to be careful who you hire if you hire lawyers because they could just as easily lose it for you as win it for you. So that was a—an important lesson that we learned. And then we became real involved—I was a sophomore in high school when it started—with what was called the North Expressway fight. The City of San Antonio wanted to build an expressway through Brackenridge Park and the golf course. It would cut off the ninth hole of the golf course. It would go through parts of Brackenridge Park and it would split the San Antonio Zoo in
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half. It’s—it would just cut it. It had two or three ninety-degree turns, I mean, it—it just was not the thing to do. There were—there were other better routes, but it ended up where a developer in San Antonio wanted it. And so what it—what ended up happening, it was a 15-year fight and it was—sometime there would be major highs and then—then you’d crash to major lows. It was a real emotional roller coaster that we learned not—to be real aware of that and not to do that. Not to let your emotions go high or low, just sort
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of keep an even keel. When we finally had the fight on the ranch, it was an important lesson to have learned. When the 211 fight came—when we heard that they wanted to build an a—a highway through our ranch property, we knew a lot of things to do and we knew a lot of things not to do because of this other experience we’ve had. We had also tried to keep a little airport near here from coming in and the group that—I forget what it was called—it, you know, was our group—hired what we thought was a very
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competent young lawyer. And he was, but the other side hired F. Lee Bailey, who just absolutely wiped him up. He didn’t stand a chance. So we knew also you had to get the best lawyer you could possibly get and not a local one. We felt that was really important.
DT: Why was a local lawyer—you’d think that a local attorney would know many of the judges.
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MF: Yeah, well, having had the experience we had with Travis Park, having heard about it all our life, we really didn’t know who we could trust. And so I was in Laredo at the time and—and I was watching with everybody else down there, a fight between a big landowner and Union Pacific, who was wanting to—they wanted to switch—change the switching yard. They were taking it out of town and they wanted it a certain place and he didn’t want it there. He wanted it somewhere else and Union Pacific does not negotiate. They just do what they want; they have the right of eminent domain. But two years later,
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they finally came to the negotiating table and this young lawyer was responsible and that—that was a very impressive thing. So we talked to him and as soon as we heard that they were coming through—or had the intention of coming through our property, we hired him. And many people told us that—that we were crazy. It was way too early. But you can never be too early in a thing like that. I mean, we knew that from experience.
DT: And the arguments that you would make over Highway 281, the North Expressway, or 211, did they have to do with the facts of the case, about the need, the cost? Or was it about technical issues?
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MF: In order to build 211, San Antonio only had to do one thing. They had to do an environmental impact study and they refused to do it because they knew there were better routes. They never did do it. And what happened, Tower and Vincent, we were—we were arguing the case before the Supreme Court and by that time—it was 15 years down the line—road—the San Antonio Conservation Society had dropped out because there had been a change in people who were presidents and all and suddenly they didn’t want to go on. But the man who had filed the suit to begin with had filed it in the name of the San Antonio Conservation Society and individual members thereof. So a very few handful of us, I think there were like 20, continued the lawsuit. And—oh, then there was—at that—then finally a, you know, group of younger people our age formed called Save Our City. And it was a really shocking experience because it was the first time in
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my life that my—the friends of my age were actually on my side because never before had they been. They’d always said you know, that’s crazy. But here were a group of people that, you know, were the same thing and I had a funny feeling at first. It was like, you know, this is my thing. What are you doing here? And then I thought well, you know, it’s great. But a couple of the environmental—or an environmental agenc—group went in with us and Save Our City and then the handful of us that still had that lawsuit. And we were arguing before the Supreme Court when Tower and Vincent attached a
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rider on the Highway Act of that year exempting San Antonio from having to f—file an impact—environmental impact statement. It’s like saying, you know, segregation is illegal except in Mobile, Alabama and that’s a special case. San Antonio did not have the protection that the rest of the United States did. And that passed.
DT: And how do you think that happened?
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MF: Well, it just happened. Tower and Vincent did it. And so what they had done at that point, they had built Segment A and Segment C and so it was only Segment B that was being—I mean, you know, they had it all set up. Where else can they go to connect those two except through the park and the zoo and the golf course? But San Antonio never had to do an environmental impact statement—I mean, in—study. And they knew if they did it that that route wouldn’t be chosen. Anyway, you learn a lot of things. You
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learn you’re—you’re up against a bunch of skunks and so it’s sort of all—no holds barred. And when we started fighting 211, I remember going—I went into the High—the District 15 offices here, the Highway Department. We had—we had heard by that time this was the meanest of all Highway Department off—districts, that they didn’t listen to anybody. Anyway, I went in with a lawyer from our lawyer’s office, a young man, and our environmentalist that we had hired. The three of us went in to meet with John Kite, who was the head, I guess, of the district here. And that’s who we were supposed to meet
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with and he came out at first and—and we sat down for a minute. We were out in the reception area and he said it’ll be ready—the room will be ready in just a minute. Anyway, he said well, I know about you all. You know, you—I know all about you all because you fought the 211—I mean, the—not 211, but the North Expressway. And I remember thinking oh good, because I’d already decided we weren’t going to make any of the mistakes we made there. And we made a lot. We didn’t know. You know, you’re kind of innocent when you start out. I thought that’s good. I’m glad he thinks he knows
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us because we’re going to be doing things, he has no idea. We’re going to be coming out of left field. Anyway, when we walked into the room, it was a real ambush. He had, I know—probably almost twelve, fifteen people there and they were all from Austin. All the head people and all the different—head archaeologist, the head environmentalist, you know, just all of them. It was real interesting meeting. They had a map and I don’t know if you know about little pieces of masking tape. You know, they sell little tiny rolls and
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they had yellow—and you know, it comes in color. And so they had the map of the ranch and areas and all and they had these lines with this masking tape. And we had already heard and—and had been watching—let me just back up a little bit. There—a group of cousins on the other side of 10 and the Highway Department had come in and had gotten them all fighting amongst themselves. And so—they love to do that. They leave—love to come in and, you know, stir up things and everybody’s fighting and then they come in and get whatever they want. So that’s one of their tactics. But they’d also told them that
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they were going to build—they showed them the route. You know, here’s something that goes ten feet from the back door. And then they say well, yes, but if you’ll donate your property, we’ll put it over here. And you know, it’s just so obvious what they’re doing. So here we are and we’re looking at this map and all these little lines running—these little masking tape lines and if you know anything about that masking tape, and I did because I was using it in my art projects, you can just pick it up and put it down and you pick it back up and put it down somewhere else. So, you know, it didn’t mean anything. But sure enough, there it was, ten feet from our backdoor. And they say well, now, if
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you’ll donate the property over here. It was just the same thing again and, you know, we just said no. And—and the—it was a—it was an interesting meeting. It—it went on forever. Lynn, the environmentalist, just kept, have you done this? Have you done that? Well, why haven’t you done this? Well, you know, you’ve had so much time, why haven’t you—and just kept after them and kept after them, kept after them. And I
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remember the woman who was the head environmentalist, and at that point, I thought the environmentalist was supposed to protect the environment. I didn’t realize what their real job was. But she spoke up. She was real irritated finally and said well, you have to understand my job is to build roads. And I thought gosh, that’s their head environmentalist. It’s just to, you know, clear the deck of whatever. But they’ll just do whatever, you know. And—and they make deals with people they know and the reason the road got shot at us was because of another rancher who wanted as much road frontage
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as he could get and he sold—he—he sold things to them. So they knew him. Anyway so it shot it at us. Originally, it was not intended to come across us. But then whenever you have open land, people think open land is not worth anything. And by that, I mean land that’s not developed. And they don’t realize there’s a real economic advan—vantage to it. You don’t realize when you develop land that you’re actually losing an economic advantage. We don’t look at it that way. We’re just accustomed to thinking houses are where the economic advantages come from and that’s not true. And we did a real
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thorough environmental study of the ranch once we realized we were getting into this. We wanted to know where we stood when we started, so we had something to go on. And I mean we studied the birds and the animals and plants, the geology, the hydrology. We did everything. And we found that at night, the—the air from San Antonio and South Texas goes north over the hill country and is purified and it comes back. There’s a lot of stuff people don’t even know about. This is a real important thing for San Antonio and
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South Texas to have. They don’t—it’s just not anything anybody thinks about it but that’s an im—that is a real important thing that has to be kept. And as we’re, you know, eating up the hill country with houses, we’re losing all of that—or it’s being lost more and more. Someday people will realize the importance of it—the someday just isn’t here now. But—and when we found out just hundreds of things.
DT: Tell us about some of the other things you found out.
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MF: Oh, gosh. Oh. It has—well, it has—it has to do, gee, with lots of things. God, I’m just drawing a blank.
DT: Well, maybe we can…
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MF: Well, we found out. Okay, hydrology. We were told at the time we started this that the—our—we were not part of the Edwards Aquifer recharge and we had our young man, George Benny, who came and went under into our caves and all and—and, of course, it was during the drought so it was kind of hard to go in when there wasn’t a lot of water. But we were having a little three—eight day—year drought at that time. But he said that the—the—the edges of the Edwards Aquifer was at—where—were drawn politically. It had nothing to do with reality. Was—no, it was the recharge zone. The
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recharge zone was a political drawing on the map. It wasn’t, you know, real. No one had really studied it. And definitely there were areas on the ranch, and he could show us where, where the—we were part of the recharge. It did go down and eventually seep into the Edwards. So the Highway Department all denied that for a long time, but that’s since been proven to be the case. This area is part—does contribute to recharge, but more for Comal County, not so much for San Antonio. Of course, San Antonio doesn’t care about Comal. I mean, Bexar County doesn’t. San Antonio doesn’t.
DT: Well, you mentioned that the ranch has interesting contributions to air quality and circulation.
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MF: Well, all of this part of the country does.
DT: Yeah, and…
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MF: Water.
DT: And then the water contribution. What about fauna? Anything about the wildlife on the place that you’ve learned?
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MF: Yeah, we value our wildlife and we have a—you know, a lot of variety, from ring-tailed cats and fox and, of course, coons. Squirrels, you know, you know, all your snakes. Birds—we were very delighted to find out that we do have the two endangered birds of San An—of Texas, the black capped vireo and the golden-cheeked warbler. And the golden-cheeked warbler had just been put on the endangered list and it—it needs cedar, the bark of cedar trees to make its nests. So it has a very limited—it’s unique to Texas. I mean, that’s—they only nest in this area of Texas in the world. Oh, and we—I
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remember going to a hearing in Austin of—as to whether or not to put it on the endangered list. And there was a young woman from Turkey who was very eloquent, who got up and spoke. I guess she was a student at UT. Anyway, she said, you know, the national bird of Turkey—the country of Turkey—is the mockingbird. And, you know, we have hundreds of mockingbirds here. And she said—she said she’d always heard about mockingbirds, her grandfather had always told her about mockingbirds and, you know, sent all the literature and all. But she said there aren’t anymore. They’ve all
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been killed, eaten or whatever. That the national bird no longer exists and it’s something we don’t think about. It’s so easy for the black-capped vireo or the golden-cheeked warbler to just disappear. Their habitat is disappearing and as people, you know, landowners don’t want to be told—a lot of them don’t—that they have this on their property, so they clear their property of cedar. I don’t know, I feel it’s an honor to have it. I’m glad to have it. It’s certainly something we wanted. The Highway Department for a long time said we didn’t really have it. And finally they had to fund a study and they hired a group from Austin to come over to see if we did or didn’t have it. And they found five singing males within a certain area, which we were delighted—delighted with.
DT: Was that one of the tactics that you used to try to stop 211?
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MF: That—we used every tactic we could come up with and that was definitely one, uh huh.
DT: Any others that come to mind? Strategies you used?
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MF: Oh, some that I won’t even mention because who knows? It could crop up again. But I mean, you—you just—it’s all—it’s no holds barred. You just do anything you can. But when we first heard that they were coming, I think all three of us took a weekend to figure out, to sort of—you know, that they had this thought. And I know I thought about it. It would be—God, you know, I was involved in other things. We had fought the North Expressway for 15 years and it was an exhausting experience and I really didn’t want to get into another fight. I hadn’t done anything since then. And but there was always a thought, well, okay, so if you, you know, subdivide and sell, then you can—and you’ll have lots of money and do whatever. But then you wouldn’t have the ranch and it
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meant an awful lot to us. We had it when we came in from Fort Davis and it really kind of saved us because we were country children and the city was not something I was really that attracted to. I liked getting out in the country. So we—every weekend, we’d come out and we had brought our horses in so we had them and, you know, it was just a nice place to go. And so we all decided that we would fight it. And our cousins, you know, said they’d fight it with us because we own it with others. Anyway, so, you know, it was this good six years just straight fight.
DT: And this was the fight on 211. As I understand it, there were other fights involving utilities.
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MF: We have since then had to back CPS off, three times, I think. Well, two times from running their transit lines and then the third time—it’s funny about corporations. They’re just—they’re like—I mean, they’re bullies. You’re going to—you’re going to do what they want. They don’t want to have to give an inch. So, you know, we don’t give an inch either. Anyway, there was an interesting phone call which started the third one. Bebe and Susie both picked it up and all. It was a young woman from State Public Service who wanted to come on the property and to—I forget, do—we needed some new lines and all. Anyway, her fine—her parting words were she would be at the gate in the morning with the sheriff with guns drawn, you know, like some Wild West thing. She admitted later from—after they did come on—later at the—it went through the lawyer
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and were doing what we wanted and not what they wanted, that perhaps she had overdone it. But imagine doing that to one of your customers, at the gate with guns drawn.
DT: Why is there so much pressure to build these power lines and these roads?
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MF: People see land—undeveloped land and they think it’s worthless and they think oh, well, it won’t matter. And they don’t realize that that’s actually very valuable areas. Unless it has a lot of houses on it, it—the—in their minds, it’s not valuable. But it contributes so much to your environment that it’s very valuable. Someday we’ll appreciate it. I mean, other countries in Europe and all have greenbelts around their cities. They know how valuable un—undeveloped—you know, they know how valuable trees and all are. But we haven’t caught on yet. We still have what I call the frontier
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mentality. You know, there’s land and there’s more land and it’ll always be there. Well, land is finite and we have long since hit the edge of the frontier and it’s diminishing. But our mentality about it, our mindset has not changed.
DT: One thing that intrigues me about your family is that you and your sisters share this kind of, I don’t know if it’s noblesse oblige or the sense of civic obligation that I guess you could trace back to your grandmother, who was a suffragist.
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MF: Yeah.
DT: What do you think this strain is that goes through your family that feels like a public fight is your fight?
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MF: Well, I don’t know. If standing up for what you think is right is—I mean, I would never have picked to go into these fights. They’re not comfortable, they didn’t—they aren’t pleasant. You’re definitely by yourself, nobody stands with you. We had—we were warned by our lawyers that there would be nobody with us. He said every organization’s going to run from you and we thought yeah. But we know all these, you know, wonderful environmental and conservation organizations, they’ll—no. They’ll stay with you. No, no. When they saw you coming, they ran. In fact, there were only
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two who did say they would—they would stay with us. One was the Boerne Area Historical Preservation Society and the other was the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who said they would go to court with us if we got that far. But not one other environmental or conservation agency said—I mean, they ran. And so we—you truly are out there and you lose friends. You know, it’s unfortunate, but then you gain a lot of other friends. What I thought was interesting when we did—when we s—got into
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this 211 thing, 95 to 98 percent of the men, when you told them that they were fighting—you were fighting the Highway Department, would go oh, my God, you can’t do that. I mean, you’re crazy. And 95 to 98 percent of the women said right, that’s great. Go in—more power to you. But men somehow are brought up to think you don’t—you know, you can’t do that, you know. It’s not done. Women—and a—and they also, in the Conservation Society—San Antonio Conservation Society—the reason they were so successful for so long is they were just women and didn’t know they couldn’t do
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certain things. You know, when you don’t know you can’t do something, you often do it. But if you think it can’t be done, then you know, you can’t. You’re lost before you start. And I’ve always thought that was one of the reasons they were so successful, you know—you know, over time. But men as a whole thought we were beyond dumb, too crazy to fight the Highway Department.
DT: I think you mentioned at one point that people weren’t saying that you were dumb, but that you actually lost friends over some of your stances. Why did that happen?
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MF: Oh, well, they felt otherwise. You know, they—or they were—they—they stood for things that we just finally couldn’t stand. We couldn’t accept. Sometimes it would—we backed off. When you’re fighting something that intensively, you don’t see a lot of people either, other than those that are right there involved with you. And we were pretty intensive. I mean, I came up from Laredo every weekend and we met and strategized. And we met with law—the lawyer came down or we met with environmentalists and we had people coming out and surveying. I mean, it was an intense six-year fight. There was no giving—no letting up on it. So often it’s hard to maintain friendships. Oh, but then—and then sometimes, people just totally disagreed with you.
DT: Well, I’m curious about that because, as you said, eventually folks will probably appreciate the values for the aquifer recharge or for the air quality contributions or the open space, lots of different values.
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MF: Or they have—will have lost it and wish they had it.
DT: What is it that they’re missing now? Why don’t they appreciate what you do?
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MF: Oh, I don’t know. It’s a funny thing about water—water quality. San Antonio people don’t seem to care and water is a finite thing here and they’re encouraging growth and development, but we don’t have that much water. Not just here, but I mean, there’s a limit to what the Edwards Aquifer can do, too. There is just simply a limit. They don’t want to hear there’s a limit. It’s like you just want to put on blinders and it’s a, you know, wonderful world. A lot of people don’t want to hear that it isn’t a wonderful world and so they’ll avoid you when they know you’re deep into a fight because they don’t
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want to get into it. And I can’t blame them, I mean, I didn’t want to get into it either, but you—I couldn’t not because I cared about the property, or I cared about whatever. It’d be nice not to care that much, but—I mean, it’d be much more comfortable, that’s for sure.
DT: It seems like much of San Antonio’s economy is based on growth and I’m wondering if you see that as a problem. You know, this expansion and the stretching?
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MF: I don’t know. Years ago, San Antonio’s major economy was the military and the second one, right behind it, was tourism. But were they saving historic things, which was what people came to look for? No. I mean, the Conservation Society has always had to fight to save historic areas. And San Antonio has never wanted to and yet that was their second largest, and it’s huge, industry. It still is. I was amazed when I went to Laredo. I always thought San Antonio was a very historic city, you know. And you know, you have a building here and three blocks away, you have another maybe one or two, and maybe ten blocks away, you have a whole block. You know, we have little pieces of it. When I went to Laredo, I was shocked. They had hu—they had whole segments that were intact of the historic part. It’s now beginning to be nibbled away and—more than nibbled. But I mean they still had the original stuff, which San Antonio’s just let go. You have to fight to save everything.
DT: Well, you started out by telling us how you learned lessons from fights to protect Travis Park or to protect against the North Expressway and how you’ve used those lessons to teach you about ways to protect your ranch here in San Antonio.
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MF: Right, or things to avoid or to get into sooner.
DT: When you moved to Laredo, were there lessons that you took from these battles in San Antonio that you could apply there about how to protect what was special about Laredo?
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MF: Yeah. Oh, yes, I mean, we’re doing all we can. But again, you know, you have the same thing. You have people who want to—who don’t see the value in the old things. And there’s su—I mean, historic tourism is a major industry. I think Laredo is finally waking up to that. I—I would—San Antonio thinks they’ve saved all their history, I think maybe. I don’t know. It has a reputation as being historic tourist Mecca, so you know, it’s going to get by with that. But if you go to New Orleans, New Orleans is pretty intact too in areas—well, it was. Who knows now? But in the French Quarter and all, I mean, they had block upon block upon block. It makes San Antonio just look piecemeal by comparison. But if Lare—if Laredo doesn’t, you know, quickly save what it has, it will lose it, too. The—we are doing—the Webb County Heritage Foundation
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down there is—has partnered with the county to save—to begin, they—they bought a—several buildings right along the river, the first street up, and they’re doing a Border Heritage Museum and they’re going to do several other things. And they’re hoping that the rest of the downtown area will realize the advantage of this. So it’s a real economic development that’s beginning to go.
DT: I think you’d mentioned to me earlier off tape that one of the environmental concerns down in Laredo is the construction of a road that…
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MF: Oh, it’s a done deal. It’s there.
DT: That follows the river. Can you talk about that and how you offset these different—you know, the National Security and immigration concerns, with the environmental value of the riverbank?
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MF: Well, I don’t know. It seems to me up to date, all our terrorists have come in through Canada, as far as I know. They haven’t come in through Mexico. But the con—the concentration tends to be on the Mexican border. But I think it’s really to appease senators and congressmen from the middle of the country. They can show their constituents that they’re fighting drugs and all by building this road down on the border because who cares about the border? And really, the border has some very delicate environmental areas that once you destroy, they’re gone. They never come back. But we now have a Border Patrol Road right along the border. Course, it gets washed out in the big floods, but it’s there.
DT: And what was lost to have this road?
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MF: Oh, it—it’s a—the terrain is very sandy and—and—and once you start on it, the—the—you know, what do you call it? Runoff, what’s it called?
DT: Erosion.
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MF: Erosion, thank you. Erosion is just immense, among other things. You’re going to talk to Jim Earhart and he can tell you in great detail about all of that. But it’s a concern to all of us down on the border. I mean, it’s there; it’s a done deal.
DT: You had mentioned that the water is a concern here in San Antonio with the development and overuse here. What’s the situation in Laredo as far as water quality and water flow?
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MF: Well, the river’s highly polluted and our water comes from the river. And right upstream from us, they have an old—think—I forget the name of the mine. Anyway, toxic stuff is above our intake valve. I really don’t—I try not to drink the water. I don’t drink San Antonio’s water either because they put fluoride in it. It’s not natural fluoride; it’s fluoride that they get from the—from scraping the insides of fertilizer chimneys—smokestacks. The fertilizer company pays eight dollars a ton to have it hauled off and San Antonio is paying them, I think, five dollars a ton to—they’re buying it from them. So the fertilizer companies are doing pretty good.
DT: So it’s a waste product they’re using to…
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MF: Yeah. From fertilizer companies.
DT: And is there the much-touted value for kids’ teeth?
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MF: I don’t know. It’s not natural fluoride. It’s a different—it’s a different substance. Fort Davis has natural fluoride in the water and lithium. It’s a real nice place to grow up, everybody’s happy. But there it is natural, here it’s a not a natural fluoride.
DT: When you moved down to Laredo, I guess it was in part to practice and teach art.
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MF: I moved down for the job, uh huh.
DT: I’m curious if you can talk a little bit about your interest in art and aesthetic issues and your other interest in conserving nature? And do you see an overlap?
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MF: Well, to me, it’s all the same. I mean, I don’t—I really don’t divide my life in segments, it’s just all part of it. I’ve always done art and, you know, I’ve always been aware of the environment and I’ve always been aware of nature. I mean, I’m—it’s beautiful. You know, to me, it’s just all part of one. Sometimes people say well, which—which is your hobby? Well, I don’t have a hobby, it’s just—you know, it’s just part of me. It always has been, it’s not a assumed thing. And it’d be really easier if some of it weren’t because I wouldn’t have to fight these issues. You get tired of that. But then again, you have to—you have to stand up and you have to stand up for things you believe in.
DT: And when you stand up, you do it together with your sisters.
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MF: Yes, it makes it…
DT: What is that like?
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MF: …easier because it’s very stressful in doing this. And what we found is one would be at the front and one would be totally—couldn’t do it anymore back at the back, resting, recuperating and then after a while, the front one would get tired and we’d switch. So it made it possible. I mean, we had to do that. And we learned also early in the North Expressway fight not to have those real emotional highs and lows. But no matter whether the news was good or bad to keep it just real level, which helps a lot if you’re going to do it. It—it did makes it—of course, it makes it easier if you have people
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with you. And so we always had ourselves and some of our cousins. But they’re not here, they’re elsewhere. But they supported us in spirit anyway, so that was good.
DT: Well, it seems like you’ve been able to give sort of a support in spirit and also in words and actions to your siblings and cousins. I’m wondering if you might have any advice for future generations to carry on this same kind of work that you’ve been involved in to conserve natural resources?
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MF: Well, I certainly hope there are people in the future generations who will do it. If we don’t do it, people in future generations won’t have anything or they won’t know any of it because it’ll all be houses or streets or big buildings or something. You—I wish I could—I wish I had a magic wand that I could wave it over people so that they would say oh, yeah, that’s important. But I will say more and more people do. When we started out, there was nobody in our neighborhood who was doing it and now there’s a—I mean, a nice group who will stand up and say, no, this is not right. They all helped—we—I
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mean, it was a large neighborhood group that fought CPS. It wasn’t just us. We were just part of a group. And that’s nice because people are beginning to realize that this is important. If we don’t stand up for it, it won’t be here. There won’t be anything to stand up for.
DT: Speaking of standing up for something, is there a place that you like to go to that brings you solace or makes you feel very strongly about the importance of the environment?
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MF: Well, I always liked to walk on the ranch or ride on the ranch. Fort Davis, I love. I love the mountains. Anywhere in the outdoors. Actually down—I like going out in—in the Laredo area. It’s totally different terrain. There’s nothing that doesn’t have a thorn on it. I mean, it’s fascinating, the variety of thorns that you can come up with. But right now, in the springtime, I think it’s one of the most beautiful areas in Texas, although this dry spring, it won’t be. But everything has a bloom and it’s just covered and they’re very soft, subtle blooms. They’re creams and whites and kind of golds and yellows. And
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everything from the carpet on the gra—I mean, from the ground is carpeted with wildflowers to every bush has an incredible—I mean, they’re covered with blooms and it smells incredible. It’s a beautiful area. It’s not the riotous color of the hill country wildflowers, these are very subtle. It’s beautiful because everywhere you look, it’s in bloom. There’s nothing that isn’t on a good year. This is not a good year. We’re—been having a drought, too.
DT: Well, thanks for telling us about this. Is there anything else you’d like to add? I don’t have anymore questions.
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MF: I can’t think of anything.
DT: Well, thank you.
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MF: Talked around about a lot of things.
DT: Well, I think you told us a lot that is very interesting and valuable. Thanks very much.
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MF: Well, thank you.
End of Reel 2349
End of Interview with Martha Fenstermaker