INTERVIEWEE: Merriwood Ferguson (MF)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT)
DATE: February 26, 2000
LOCATION: Brownsville, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
Please note that videos include 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 noise or conversation unrelated to the interview.
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. And it’s February 26, year 2000. We’re in Brownsville, Texas. And we’ve got the good fortune to be talking with Merriwood Ferguson whose been active with many groups on different levels, trying to protect the valley, it’s habitat, it’s water quality and other aspects of it’s environment. And I wanted to thank Merriwood for spending some time with us.
0:01:56 – 2087
MF: Thank you.
DT: I thought we might start by talking about your childhood, parents, friends, camp counselors, who might have influenced you interest in the conservation and the outdoors.
0:02:15 – 2087
MF: Well, I think first and foremost my parents were the biggest influence during my childhood, bringing me up, taking me to outdoor experiences, spending time with my grandparents, getting me involved in organizations at a young age, like the Girl Scouts. And finding a place like camp in the hill country that I really enjoyed for many years. And I had many outdoor experiences there from canoeing to camp crafts to archery to horseback riding. And I think all of those combined gave me the desire to see our outdoors protected. And it also took friends that grabbed me by the arm and invited me to meetings to start working towards protecting some of the areas that we cherish down here.
DT: I understood that you, when you were quite young, you worked at the Gladys Porter Zoo as a docent. Is that right?
0:03:21 – 2087
MF: I worked as a docent at the Zoo during high school. When I was in high school we went to school either in the morning or the afternoon session. And so we volunteered our time at the Zoo working in the herbitarium or in the clinic. And, also sharing the knowledge with the visitors that came to the—to the Zoo about the collection of endangered species that we have right here in our backyard, and around the world. And, that was a—a very nice experience.
DT: I also heard that you were a Girl Scout for a number of years.
0:03:58 – 2087
MF: I was a Girl Scout. And that is something that I think helps you organize the things that you’re interested in. And gives you something to look towards achieving by earning your badges, whether it be out bird watching, earning a—a badge for the outdoors. They just teach you to get along with other people and work with other people towards common goals.
DT: As you’ve grown up, I understand that you’ve wanted to work in the construction business with your family.
0:04:37 – 2087
MF: Yes. My family is in the construction business. We build schools. We build banks. And, I do most of the bookkeeping. And, I’ve enjoyed working in the—in the family business. My grandmother ran the business when I first started going over there and working in the office. So, it’s a—it’s a family tradition.
DT: You’ve seen a lot of building and the development of the valley, both for good and for bad. One of the things I noticed that you became concerned about building on South Padre Island and the destruction of some of the dunes. Can you talk about how you first learn of that and what your concerns were?
0:05:31 – 2087
MF: Well, I’ve always gone to the beach. My parents loved the—the beach and have always taken us to the island and to Boca Chica Beach. And then I, of course, I was in my teen, late teens, going to high school when the building boom was taking place on South Padre Island. And it just was very saddening to see all the dunes being bulldozed, literally being bulldozed. We walked the beach and—and a lot of people came into the valley and made a lot of money building on the island. There weren’t that many contract—local contractors down here that can build tall buildings. And, we didn’t have much to do with it, really. But I think that seeing what happened and knowing where the original dune line was on the island, it’s a—it’s interesting seeing how the officials have taken to the idea of wanting to protect the dunes. And that’s from, when they go and clean the beach they pile up the sand that they—to make the new dunes in front of all those buildings that were built back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.
DT: Can you describe what the island looked like before all the construction out there?
0:06:49 – 2087
MF: Well, if you take a trip down to Boca Chica Beach, that’s what the island used to look like. It’s a—had—had a nice dune structure. And, it’s a barrier island. It’s a very—very narrow island as compared to Galveston Island. It’s only about a half a mile wide in some spots. It’s very low lying and it’s—now it’s a small destination resort.
DT: You mentioned Boca Chica and I guess that’s a small destination resort that was averted. Can you talk about your work to protect and acquire Boca Chica?
0:07:36 – 2087
MF: Well, back in the early ‘80s, I guess 1983, ’84, there were rumors and then plans came about by some developers that wanted to put in a large international destination resort. And it would have encompassed about 10,000 acres on the U. S. side and about 10,000 acres on the Mexican side. They had plans to dredge canals and put in small city golf courses, airstrips, hotels, condominiums, the whole works, the whole works. And it was—they planned to put a marina in South Bay, which is—it’s just a unique part of the lower Laguna Madre that to have seen anybody even think of the idea putting in a marina. It lit the fire under a lot of ours’ feet to work to stop this project. And, it—It took a good ten years to do it. We had to go through a lot of federal processes and—and eventually lawsuits to stop the development. But it—it took on many shapes and forms and had a lot to do with the savings and loan disaster.
DT: Had the land gone into receivership with RTC [Resolution Trust Corporation]?
0:09:13 – 2087
MF: It had. It had—one of the local savings and loans here in the valley had lent the majority of the money on the project. And then they were backed by another savings and loan in Houston. And they both collapsed. The one in the valley collapsed and it was not insured by the federal government. And then the one in Houston eventually collapsed too. And it was during—that gave us a—an avenue to try to see some of the lands that had natural resource value. There was legislation in Congress that set up some of these RTC lands that had the natural resource value, to set them aside and give the—the federal government or natural oriented organizations the opportunity to buy them. And it was about the time—or that’s—that’s what we used amongst other problems that we had in the final years of that lawsuit, that was the argument that we used to see that a natural resource organization acquired the land.
DT: What was the argument behind the lawsuit? What were you all saying?
0:10:38 – 2087
MF: Well, the—it—somehow or another it ended up with the FDIC. And the FDIC was supposed to allow natural resource agencies to acquire that land before they put it out, so to speak, on the auction block. And they failed to do that. And so even though the property, or contracts had already been signed by the FDIC to sell the land to another development interest, we were able to get the—the court system to reverse those decisions and start working with the federal government to start the process.
DT: Who eventually bought it and what’s the status of Boca Chica now?
0:11:30 0 87
MF: Well, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service eventually bought it. It took them a while to gather the money to buy it. But now they have clear title to the property and they own the property. We’re very pleased about that. It was a ten-year battle and—and it’s something that we don’t have to worry about anymore.
DT: Congratulations! Upstream of Boca Chica, which I understand is sort of at the delta of the Rio Grande, I’ve heard that you and others had been involved in trying to acquire land for a wild life corridor along the Rio Grande Valley. Can you talk about how that’s progressed and how you came to that idea?
0:12:11 – 2087
MF: It’s—I mean, if you look at the Rio Grande Valley, 95% of the land has been cleared. And we have such a biological treasure down here. We’re at the crossroads of a semi-arid and semi-tropical climate. And we have anywhere between 11 and 12 distinct biotic communities that are represented in—in the Valley. So, we’re just trying to save the little bit of natural habitat that remains. Some of it is in existing refuges, like the Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge and the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge. But the concept of the wildlife corridor came about in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. And concentration for land acquisition has been along the Rio Grande River from Falcon Dam, south all the way to the mouth of the Rio Grande. And, there’s some other land acquisition in other places that’s not concentrated along the river, but we felt like the greatest biological diversity could be found where there was water and habitat combined.
DT: And how much land has been acquired so far, do you think?
0:13:29 – 2087
MF: I believe about 65 thousand acres has been acquired by the federal government. There’s been other land that has been acquired by private, nonprofit organizations. And also, Texas Parks and Wildlife has some land, but they do not have an active land acquisition program.
DT: Speaking more about the habitat along the river, I understand there have been a number of threats to the habitat along the river, including bridge construction. Have you been involved much in trying to discourage that?
0:14:05 – 2087
MF: (talking over David) Yes. I was involved in—in our—what we perceive is to be a real threat to the wildlife corridor and that’s the construction of international bridges. And it seems that every community along the river is anxious to put in an inter—an international bridge because it’s a revenue generator and it brings people into their community. But, we’ve worked real hard to try to get—to try to make sure that if they’re going to put in an international bridge, do they really need it. Are there alternatives to that? And if they put one in, put it in, in a way that’s allows the uninterrupted flow of wildlife, under the bridge, reduce the lighting, use other techniques and resources to try to have your normal business.
DT: I’ve also read that because of immigration across the border, not just on bridges but across the river, that there’s been pressure to fence the border along the Rio Grande. Have you been involved much in trying to discourage that and think about alternatives?
0:15:28 – 2087
MF: No I haven’t. But it’s—it’s quite unsightly if you take a trip out to say the Sable Palm Grove Sanctuary, the Border Patrol has put up all these light stands along the levy. And it’s—while they’re having—or may not be any studies around to say that it disrupts nature, night-time wildlife movement, it’s, you know, their mission is to apprehend illegal cro—illegal crossings. And—and the mission of—of the federal natural resource agencies is to protect habitat and sometimes those two don’t agree. And so there’s—there’s bound to be some way that everybody can work together so that they—one agency is not out destroying habitat while another agency is trying to protect it.
DT: Who generally gets precedence among those agencies?
0:16:32 – 2087
MF: Well, it depends. I’m sure it depends. I’m sure there’s a lot of political pressure on both of them, for various reasons. But, it—it—a lot of times that’s where it takes a nonprofit organization to step in and—and take action to make sure that—that the agency that’s not involved in wildlife protection is following the federal environmental laws that all federal agencies have to follow. And there’s so many federal agencies where their mission is not protecting wildlife habitat and they just don’t think that they have to follow federal environmental laws. So—so we try to make sure that—that they do it. And we t—take any action that we need to—to try to make that happen.
DT: Can you describe some examples of where you’ve tried to deal with some agencies and they just don’t seem to acknowledge the requirements that they should?
0:17:37 – 2087
MF: (talking over David) Well, our case on the Boca Chica property where we were suing the Federal Deposit Insurance Companatio—Corporation, which regulates banks. That’s a good example of a federal agency that didn’t feel that they came under the—the federal laws for protecting the environment. And another instance was the International Boundary and Water Commission, which has a lot to do with the regulation of the water on the river. And they felt like that since they were part of the state department, that they didn’t have to follow federal environmental laws either. So…
DT: Speaking of water, could you talk a little bit about water supply down here in the valley? That’s always a problem in an arid area.
0:18:28 – 2087
MF: Well, it is. I mean, the Rio Grande is our only source of—of water, down here in the valley. We don’t have ground water and we don’t have many rivers. I mean, most of the rivers go from Corpus on north. And we have very little rainfall down here. Our average rainfall is about 16 inches, whereas in Houston it may be 53 inches. And there’s a—the valley’s been growing. There’s more of a demand, unfortunately, for our natural resources and—and, of course, all life needs water. The agriculture industry down here uses a lot of water too. And I think if they reassessed some of the crops that were grown, that didn’t have such a high demand on water, that, I mean, it’s—it’s—it’s a problem. I don’t think anybody has the right answer to solve our water needs down here. But, we need to look at alternatives to dams and things like that, that have been the traditional way of addressing water shortages for communities.
DT: Could you talk to us a little bit about the dams that have already been put up, Falcon and Amistad [reservoirs]? Do you think there was an impact after those dams were built?
0:29:59 – 2087
MF: (talking over David) Oh, certainly there was. And I think back in the ‘50s when they put those in, you know, they were trying, like all good people, to address human needs, without looking at—at the consequences of it. But I think if you went to Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge and walked around to—and looked at the Cedar Elm tree population in there, if that river were still—had some natural flooding on it, we would be seeing some of our trees die. I mean, the water table obviously drops drastically below a dam and it does affect the wildlife habitat. But it’s—it’s—it’s just a very difficult issue to address, down here.
DT: Has there been much discussion about this recent proposal to build a dam downstream of Brownsville?
0:20:58 – 2087
MF: Yes. That’s—that’s been in the works for many years. And a lot of us worked on it and some people are still working on it. And it’s—the City of Brownsville wants to build a channel dam, a dam inside the channel. And although they say that the water flow below the dam will make—meet state requirements and things like that, it’s—there’s a lot of unanswered questions there that… I mean, right now the lack of water flow below the dam and the drought that we’ve been experiencing has taken its toll on the Sable Palm Grove Sanctuary. And it’s—it’s just very difficult to get our city fathers and, of course, a population of 100,000 people to understand that wildlife needs water too. And adequate water.
DT: Speaking of population, I understand that the valley has grown by almost 50% in population over the last 20 years, or so. Are these people coming from outside the area or is it just internal population? And what sort of affects are you seeing from people coming into the area?
0:22:28 – 2087
MF: Well, there’s been a tremendous building boom that’s been occurring recently, here in the valley, over the last couple of years. And your seeing more malls and shopping centers, expansion and more housing going up. And most of it has been in abandoned farm fields. Because, again, 95% of our lands has been cleared and it’s—it’s gone from agricultural lands to housing developments, tracts and tracts of housing developments, up and down the valley. I mean, the—every area of the state is going to continue to see a population increase. And that’s why it’s important that local conservation organizations and state and national need to spend a lot of their time on land acquisitions and natural resource protection. It’s—down here it’s just very important. And I think that by protecting our natural resources down here that’s a—can be a good area of the economy to focus on. But it has to be done in the right way. So, we don’t want to exploit our natural resources and we don’t want to—to overuse our natural resources. And therefore we need to protect more habitat so that we have more places to—for the public to enjoy the outdoors.
DT: You mentioned that some of the land development that’s happened up to the present time has been agricultural. And I was wondering if you could talk about one of the controversies that is related to agriculture around here, and that’s the burning of sugar cane fields and the air pollution associated with that. Were you involved at all in that?
0:24:39 – 2087
MF: (talking over David) I wasn’t really involved in the issue about the burning of the sugar cane. But, I—I don’t think it’s any secret that sugar is a very highly subsidized commodity. And it—it uses a lot of water. But it’s—but with the subsidization, that is an incentive for the farmers to grow that crop. And, I think that, I mean, everybody’s hurting. Everybody in the farming community is hurting. But, I really think that some reassessment needs to go on to look at the crops we grow in the valley and what kind of water use that they take.
DT: Do you find that there are many environmental instances where subsidy is supporting an activity that’s not maybe the most prudent?
0:25:37 – 2087
MF: Oh, sure, sure. There’s tons of federal subsidies out there. And, there’s a lot of industries that enjoy—enjoy those subsidies. Of course, agriculture is probably one of the highest subsidized, you know, businesses around. And federal subsidies have been in place since the 1930s. And it’s—it’s hard to take them away. And, you know, there’s arguments that well, if—if we don’t have the subsidies, then all of our produce is going to come from a foreign land. And the prices of our—what we buy in the store is going to go up. But, you know, there are a lot of businesses that survive without federal subsidies. And, you know, I think that—and I know that when—especially when working on the Coastal Barrier Act legislation in Congress, they have, I mean, if you look at it, there’s—there are subsidies—federal subsidies to build infrastructure on coastal barrier islands. And so, we were always at odds with trying to protect our undeveloped coastal barrier islands. Whereas the developers wanted to have their land taken out of that protection area so that they could enjoy the federal subsidies for the infrastructure that needed to go in for development. And I think that that’s a perfect example of something that—that needs to be stopped. It’s…
DT: Going back to talking about some of the subsidies that go to agriculture and the air pollution that may be related; I think I remember that you were involved in the Vulcanus Toxic Waste Incinerator. Can you talk about that?
0:27:50 – 2087
MF: Yes, yes. That was—that was one of those cases where I—that’s where I really got involved in legislation, policy, decision making process. There was a company that had proposed to incinerate very highly toxic waste on a ship out in the Gulf of Mexico. And someone that I barely knew in this community grabbed me by the arm at another function here in town and said; “We’re having a meeting at my house tonight. Can you come?” And—and I spent the next ten years fighting ocean incineration. And reading through mountains of regulations and writing letters to our Congress people and researching alternatives and fighting big business. Toxic waste and trash hauling business that—that wanted—wanted to incinerate these chemicals out in our Gulf.
DT: Could you talk about some of the proponents of doing this, the people who supported toxic incineration in the Gulf?
0:29:10 – 2087
MF: Well, it was—it was a large company called Waste Management that had this ship. And apparently they had—had burned—done some experimental burns—I think the actual burning that had taken place may have been done by our own government, in some tests and trial runs. And then the—the idea of—of, I mean, we all know with Superfund and all the toxic waste that they had to find ways to get rid of it. So that it wasn’t just poured into our ground or our landfills and where eventually housing developments went up and people became sick. And so I think it was one of the ideas that—that was dreamed up. Well if we take it off into the ocean and burn it, incinerate it on a ship then nobody will ever raise an eyebrow about it. But our major—biggest concern about that was, what happened if the ship leaked? What happened if there was a disaster at sea? I mean, we know what it’s like when we have oil leaks, we know how hard those are to clean up. So, and I think that was an issue that brought a li—a lot of different people, not only did we have environmentalists, we had the shrimping community that makes their livelihood out in the Gulf of Mexico. We had the Chambers of Commerce in the valley opposing it. So we had a lot of support that helped defeat that.
DT: Do you know why they selected a site off the Coast of Brownsville to burn?
0:31:14 – 2087
MF: Well I think they actually chose a few different sites. They had the Gulf of Mexico site and there were some sites off the Atlantic coast. But I—who knows, it’s an ocean and I really don’t know why the decided to—to move forward with that—that site first. But they ran into their most fiercest opposition when they tried to move forward with that plan. Because we weren’t going to let that happen. And we had a lot of people come out and oppose it.
DT: How did you manage to get the Gulf de-designated as a burn site?
0:31:56 – 2087
MF: Well, after all the commotion died down, we continued working with our Congress people to get the site de-designated. As long as that site was designated as a burn site, we had to go to bed at night thinking that there was always a possibility that somebody could—could get a contract and go out there with a ship and burn toxic waste. And the only way to prevent that was to de-designate the site. And we had to work through the Environmental Protection Agency to do that.
DT: Speaking of toxics, one of the issues that’s been in the papers over the years has been the claims of toxic water pollution from the Miquillo Dorrez(?) and I was curious if you had any involvement in that and any comments that maybe the anencephaly problem was related?
0:32:59 – 2087
MF: Well, there’s no doubt that there’s been some pollution in Mexico and potentially in the Rio Grande that has been caused by some of the factories over there. When you look at the infrastructure that it takes to clean water and take care of hazardous waste, they don’t have it in Mexico. And they don’t have to have it over there. There’s nothing that says they have to have it. And it’s—it’s not only toxic waste, it’s sewer. I mean, we literally have third world conditions right across the river from us. And, there are—there has been a lot of progress towards putting in infrastructure in the industrial parks to handle wastewater and maybe some of their toxic waste, maybe recycle it. But I’m not real familiar with the processes. At one time I had looked into and was involved in trying to find out what they were doing because the federal—our federal government was requiring that if any U. S. operation over in Mexico was operating, they had to bring their toxic waste back to the U. S. I don’t know if that’s—I don’t know what happens to it. It’s a scary thought, really. And, I mean there’s—there’s just a lot of issues that come up that, human issues, people working around toxic waste.
DT: I noticed that you’ve worked with the Gulf Coast Commission for Public Health. Did you get involved in any anencephaly problems?
0:35:00 – 2087
MF: No the—actually the organization died out after the ocean incineration issue was over. It was a one-issue organization. And there were a lot of people, housewives and people that had families to take care of and—and that was the issue that brought us all together. And once it was resolved I think people just went back to—to what they enjoyed doing, or got involved in other issues. I know that after that issue died off, I—I started focusing more on—on habitat protection type issues. And that’s where my interest grew in the work that I’ve done. It went in that direction.
DT: It seems there’s a real ebb and flow of people getting involved and working on these problems. There seems to be a real problem with people getting exhausted by working on these problems. Has that been the case for you?
0:36:06 – 2087
MF: Well, I think so. I mean, I’ve just—there’s a lot of things I enjoy doing besides the environment—work on the environment. I enjoy bird watching and spending time outdoors and I really think that if your going to advocate for the protection of—of a lot of these natural resources that you have to go out and enjoy them and experience them. And that way it—it kind of drives—gives your passion for wanting to protect them. I know that if I just sat in my apartment all day long and got on the phone and made a bunch of phones calls and—and never got out and saw the beauty of what we’re working on and what we’re trying to protect, that I would just feel a bit lifeless. So, I think experiencing the outdoors is what—what drives a person’s passion for wanting to protect it.
DT: Can you tell us about some of your bird watching trips?
DW: Before we leave the EPA and the incinerator issue, the EPA is supposed to be an organization that protects public health. Did you come away from the issue with a different attitude toward official organizations that were supposed to be protecting public health as a result of your interactions with them?
0:37:36 – 2087
MF: Well, I think so. I think—I think most people have a tendency to not trust the government and so I think that’s always in the back of your mind when you’re working with a government agency. Because they often times, they’re regulating industry and often times they’re not paid as well as they could be if they were doing the same type or similar job outside of government. There’s—it’s great when you come across the dedicated government employee that really wants to try to resolve an issue. But we did encounter many employees in the EPA that—that we could easily say that we had a good hunch that they may have been involved with a—with a—with the industry that we were fighting. I mean, when you look at—they regulate air and water and—and things and—and they’re always dealing with industry.
DT: Did you ever see many instances of a revolving door from the agency to working as a consultant for industry?
0:38:54 – 2087
MF: I did. There were a lot of people that we worked with, in the EPA that ended up going to work for the industries that they were regulating. It happened quite often. I think there were at least two or three people that we worked with on this issue that left and went to work for toxic waste companies, or a conglomerate that—that—that hauled trash and—and disposed of toxic waste.
DT: A related question. A lot of these permit fights become sort of “pissing matches” between the scientists on one side and the scientists on the other. And I’m wondering if the toxic waste issue became something like that where people were charging “good science” versus “bad science” and you’re sort of trying to choose which consultant was the best.
0:40:51 – 2087
MF: That—well that’s where we kind of took it on—upon ourselves to come up with—with scientists. And there were some very qualified people, even here in Texas. And I don’t have much of a science background, but there was a retired chemistry teacher that actually invited me to these meetings that kind of coordinated scientific panels to discuss the issue of—of PCBs and some of the toxins that they were talking about burning. You know, there’s always—when you looking at toxic waste, there’s—there’s—there’s data, there’s science. But, there’s also a lot of research. I know that we kind of helped look into what are the alternatives to ocean incineration? What are some of the land based alternatives, not just land-based incinerations, but other ways, other processes to destroy this toxic waste. They’re out there and it just takes private industry to put the money into doing the research. Or—or government research, trying to find a solution.
DW: There seems to be a disconnect in communications between the groups supporting environmental protection from a habitat standpoint and the groups more involved in supporting human environmental issues. How do you see that playing out in your areas of involvement and the potential for rivalry or alliance between them?
0:42:20 – 2087
MF: Well, the—on the incineration issue there were a lot of alliances formed. We worked very closely with Valley Interface, which is a large organization here in the valley. And—and it was a human impact issue. I mean it wasn’t just going to just potentially affect the Gulf of Mexico or the shrimpers. But, you know, we also looked at the—the onshore breezes and how if there was—you know, where is that plume going to go. So, that was an instance where a lot of diverse backgrounds came together to stop something that was a threat to our community. I think that some of the organizations that are—are working to protect the natural se—resources down here haven’t done as good of a job as they could in attracting more of the Hispanic community. Although the tram tours at Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, they’re available to school children and they’re available to anybody that wants to go on them. So that’s—that’s a good instance of educating, you know, the local population about our resources.
DT: One project that you’ve been involved in that’s tried to educate people about the value of our major resources and protect it too, is the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation. Would you talk a little bit about the formation of that, that you were involved with, and what some of the issues are on the Laguna?
0:44:16 – 2087
MF: Well that—the formation of the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation came about when there was another proposed resort on South Padre Island, across from Port Mansfield. And a large insurance company, by the name of American General, had proposed a world class, destination resort. And it brought together many people here in the value to—to stop that. And it also brought people from outside of the valley in to help us stop it. Because a lot of people come down here and, I mean, Lower Laguna Madre is probably one of the hottest fishing spots along the Texas coast for recreation. So, we had environmentalists and we had recreational fishermen and just plain old ordinary citizens that go out and enjoy the Laguna Madre, getting together to—to work on that too. And we had to fight legislation again, this time in the state legislature when the special interests were trying to get special legislation passed that would give them the authority to issue bonds. And, which in turn would have given them their—their—the means to provide the infrastructure to sustain a huge development.
DT: How did you…
DT: Can we continue with Laguna Madre and your work with the foundation there? You mentioned some of the efforts to stop the American General development out there. Can you talk a little bit about your legislative work to try to stop the special interests efforts to get bonds?
0:46:37 – 2087
MF: Sure, that, I guess, took place back in 1992. And Carlo Strahn(?) was our great le—leader in the—in the Senate that helped defeat that bill. It was a—it was a piece of legislation that was written by American General. And they essentially were trying to get—trying to create a district where they could issue bonds. Just like a—a municipality does, they want—they wanted to—it was very broad authority and it would have given them the backing of the state, in other words, had they defaulted on the bonds that they’d issued, the tax payers would have ended up holding the debt, paying off the debt, because they were backed by the state government. And that—that happens in any—could happen in any situation, whether it be a—a municipality and all the sudden it went bankrupt and—and they’d issued bonds. It could happen with a drainage district. There’s all kinds of districts. Municipal, utility districts, which is what they were trying to form, usually have to have the blessing of the local government to get that authority. And by giving the blessing that means that they are taking the risk of backing the municipal utility district to issue those bonds. But, it’s a—it’s not something that ordinary citizens think about. But, I know there’s been cases in other parts of the state where mini municipal utility districts have been created and—and things have faltered and taxpayers have ended up carrying the load on that. So, we—we had to fight that in the—in the legislature. And we had very—absolutely no support from any of our local elected officials. They all thought the American General development was a great idea, and it would bring in jobs and boost the economy and—and do the normal things that most normal politicians like to wave their flag about. But…so we had to—we had to put up with a lot of comments from our politicians, supported the project, and we just had to find other avenues for fighting the legislation.
DT: Did you have any direct dealings with lobbyists for the project?
0:49:27 – 2087
MF: I never had any direct dealings with the lobbyists. But there were some very cozy situations where the lobbyists were involved in—in another conservation organization that supports the conservation of fishing in our coastal habitats. And we saw a few instances that were—had some severe conflicts of interest. And it was very upsetting to know that—that another organization that wants to conserve the fisheries habitat in the state of Texas was backing a huge development on South Padre Island. So, we had to contend with that. But that—that just goes to show you that—that there are organizations out there that don’t have their priorities lined up right. And…
DT: One of the other priorities for the Laguna Madre Foundation has been find alternatives to the dredging of inter-coastal waterways. Can you talk about that issue and the progress that’s been made?
0:50:46 – 2087
MF: Yeah, certainly. I mean, dredging the inter-coastal waterway and dumping the dredge spoil in the lower Laguna Madre is killing off our sea-grasses. And we—when we look at places like Galveston Bay, or Florida Bay, Tampa Bay, places like that that have lost their sea-grasses, we have the opportunity to try to save what we have, I mean, it’s a—it’s a treasure. We still have a lot of our sea-grasses. And I think we brought the issue out—out into the open, that dredging was the ma—major cause of our sea-grass loss.
DT: Why are the sea-grasses important?
0:51:27 – 2087
MF: Well, the sea-grasses—the whole Lower Laguna Madre is a nursery, for our—a lot of our commercially imported species like shrimp and crab and oysters and all these animals and invertebrates, they live amongst the sea-grasses. That’s where a lot of the nutrients are found in the—in the water. They’re also important to sea turtles. Fish, it’s habitat, fish habitat. So, it’s a—it’s—it’s been—it was very difficult to, but certainly a lot easier than some of the other issues that I’ve been involved with, to tie in the economic importance of the Lower Laguna Madre. There’s been very little study on it. So we’ve had to search hard and—and dig deep to—to bring forth a lot of the economic importance of protecting the Lower Laguna Madre. Because it’s there and it’s har—it’s hard to put a value on a wetland. You can put a value on a car or—or something else, or on an education. But it’s very hard to put a dollar value on a wetland, or a shoreline, unless it’s real estate.
DT: What was the concern about how the dredging would harm the sea-grasses, that are clearly valuable even though you can’t put a value on them?
0:53:07 – 2087
MF: Well it was killing them. They were just dumping and still are dumping the dredge spoil in the bay. It’s not being contained and it’s spreading out. It—it just kills the sea-grasses. It also prevents the light, when they’re actually out dredging, it just all that sediment just keeps stirred up. And—and then they just have to keep their cycle of dredging going because they’re dumping on the banks and it’s all slipping back in. And we’ve suggested that they—if they continue to dredge the inter-coastal waterway, is that they take it offshore. And, the agency that is responsible has failed to seriously consider that op—option. So…
DT: The agency you’re dealing with is the Army Corps of Engineers. What’s their attitude and approach to environmental issues?
0:54:15 – 2087
MF: Well, they’re engineers. And so they—they try to find an engineering solution to all their problems. And sometimes they fail to see the—the value of the natural resources. And a lot of times they fail to comply with some of the federal statutes that they should be complying with, just like some of those other agencies. If they’re going to do something, they have to do it in an environmentally responsible way. And there are federal laws that they have to—to follow to do it. And if they can’t do it, that’s where we step in and take action. But we feel that if they’re going to continue to dredge the inter-coastal waterway, is that they need to take it offshore. They need to dispose of their dredge offshore. Where it poses a much less significant impact to the environment.
DT: Speaking of offshore, one of the sea creatures that’s a real value is the four or five species of sea turtles that we see in the Gulf. I believe that you’ve worked for a number of years Sea Turtle Incorporated. Could you talk about that?
0:55:46 – 2087
MF: (talking over David) Yes I did. That was one of my early entries into environmental education. Opportunity came about that I—where I could go out and help Ila Loetcher and see Turtle Incorporated with the programs that they put on, on Saturday mornings, mostly for the tourists that came down to South Padre Island. But it was usually families and their children and so, what I would do is after Ila gave her program up on the stage, is I would help stand around the—the tanks where they kept the sea turtles and explain the conservation points about the plight of the sea turtles, and their habitats, where they live, how big they got, how long they lived. And it was a lot of fun.
DT: And what was Ila’s performance up on the stage like? What did she do?
0:56:49 – 2087
MF: Well she’d usually dress the turtles up. She would put a bonnet on them or a dress and a lot of—lot of people thought that, that was a wrong way to get the message out. But, when you look back at it, or even were involved in it first hand, she captured people’s attention. I mean, she had her own way of doing it and it may have seemed silly, but—but people listened and watched and that was the most important thing, was to captivate the audience. And Ila gave a very strong conservation message. And…
DT: What kind of conservation message to you and Ila give? And what did you see as the risks to the turtles?
0:57:34 – 2087
MF: Well, their nest—their nesting habitat is being lost and threatened. There’s a lot of threats out in the Gulf of Mexico. It could come from natural predators, natural predation. A lot of these sea turtles, they’re—they hatch out on land and they have to scurry back to the—back to the water, with seagulls hovering over them every minute. There’s sharks. There’s shrimp nets that they keep entangled in, because they feed on the bottom and the shrimp nets are being dragged along the bottom. There’s also blasting from oilrigs. There’s all kinds of threats to their survival. And there’s nothing wrong with pointing out all—all the different threats that exist. And trying to find solutions the them.
DT: Let’s look back to threats in general. What do you think the biggest conservation challenges are for the future?
0:58:56 – 2087
MF: For this area?
DT: Yes. South Texas.
0:58:58 – 2087
MF: I think trying to save habitat, to preserve the biodiversity before it’s all gone. With our population growth, I think that’s one of the biggest threats to trying to preserve that biodiversity. I think we’ve made a lot of good progress in education. I see a lot of good teachers out there that are working on science projects with their—their classes and informing—forming environmental clubs in their schools. And so I think that a lot of the kids around here are learning about their—the habitat that surrounds them. I mean, what’s here in the valley, whether it be a green jay, or going out and doing water quality testing on the river. They—they’re really getting involved. And I think that’s the key, you know, having an informed, educated population, is the key to saving it.
DT: What is it? Maybe you could give us an example of a place that you consider special that you want to see preserved.
1:00:19 – 2087
MF: Well, I think the Sable Palm Grove Sanctuary is a good place. It’s a small remnant population of the Sable Palms that you see growing right around us today. At one time there was perhaps 40,000 acres of Sable Palm growth and now there’s a good core 32 acres in the Sable Palm Grove Sanctuary, out of 500 that they own. So…
DT: Is it true that that’s where some of the Tarzan movies were filmed?
1:00:55 – 2087
MF: I think so.
DT: It’s that sort of jungle, I guess.
1:01:00 – 2087
MF: Yes it is. It’s wonderful. And I can go out there every day of the week, if I could, and have an—a different experience every time I walk through the grove. Whether it be windy or, it could be pouring down rain, but you’re walking through the grove and the path may turn into a—a small river. But it’s—it’s just a neat place to go and walk through there.
DT: Well, I hope get to continue to visit there and enjoy the rest of South Texas. Thanks for spending some time with us.
1:01:28 – 2087
MF: Thanks, David. I’ve enjoyed it.
End of reel 2087
End of interview with Merriwood Ferguson