INTERVIEWEE: Ygnacio [“Nacho”] Garza (YG)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and Susan Petersen (SP)
DATE: February 28, 2000
LOCATION: Brownsville, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
Please note that video 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 background noises, unrelated to the content of the interview.
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. And it’s February 28, the year 2000. We’re in Brownsville, Texas. And we’re visiting with Ygnacio Garza who has served as Mayor of Brownsville, on the Commission and as Chair of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and in connection with the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission and has done a lot of work for conservation in many different ways. And I wanted to thank you for spending some time with us to talk about that.
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YG: Well, you’re welcome.
DT: I thought we might start by talking about your childhood and days as a student, and if there might have been members of your family or teachers or friends that might have encouraged your interest in the outdoors and conservation.
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YG: Well, in growing up here in Brownsville and in South Texas you did a lot of time outdoors, whether it be in the neighborhoods and—and actually my parents lived next door to where I went to school and there’s still a bunch of resacas. Brownsville’s famous for resacas. And brush areas around those resacas. So, a group of my friends playing in the forty acres that was the campus for St. Joseph Academy, which is all surrounded by resacas. And there was woods and trees. And then, obviously spending time outdoors with my father or my older brothers, whether it be out hunting or fishing. But, spending time out—out of doors and—and playing outside. And I—and I compare that now-a-days with my daughter sitting in front of a computer screen and thinking the whole world revolves around the internet, and not spending the time that I used to spend just outside.
DT: Can you maybe describe what a resaca is for those that aren’t familiar with Brownsville?
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YG: Resacas are a term actually, I think, in English, is an Ox Bo Lake. And it’s basically where the Rio Grande, before we damned the Rio Grande River, the Rio Grande used to flood and it would ca—cut additional little river channels where these floodwaters would run. Well, now that the river has been controlled by damns, it doesn’t flood. And levy systems, those old river channels are still there. And they’re full of water. They’re used to transport raw water from the river to the water treatment plants in some of the cities. And they’re just esthetically—they’re used—and they fill with rainwater. So, they’re just natural little river channels that run through Brownsville and good parts of South Texas, whether it be Brownsville or other parts of the valley.
DT: Could you tell about some of the fishing trips or hunting trips that took you to resacas or elsewhere in the valley?
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YG: Yeah sure. We—we would go out in—to the ranch country of South Texas, whether it be to my friend Mike Garcia’s and his family’s ranch north of Raymondville or to parts of the Keene(?) Ranch at different times with my father. The Turior(?) Ranches, South Texas to go deer hunting or turkey hunting or dove hunting. Obviously, growing up here on the border, I mean, we spent time hunting in the U.S. and then we’d spent time, as I got a little older, going into Mexico to bird hunt, whether it be Quail or Doves, into Northern Mexico. So you got to see a lot of habitat, different types of habitat. And I guess, as I think, and I still consider myself real young at 46. But, I can think from the time I started hunting in Mexico to now and the amount of habitat that’s no longer there. I mean, whole groves of Mesquite Trees or acres, and acres of brush that have been cleared to make marginal farmland. So, I mean we spent a lot of time fishing on the Laguna Madre, camping out on the beaches, whether it be in Mexico or in the United States side. Fishing with my uncle or my brothers or, you know, people, friends, one of my partners, Skylos Badella(?), he and his family, we used to go and camp out on the beach and fish. We use—that’s the way you grew up.
DT: Can you talk about some of the changes along the coast from when you used to go camping out there and what it looks like now?
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YG: Well, obviously, on the U.S. side, I mean, South Padre Island, you know, our—our experiences were on South Padre Island. And that’s developed quite a bit. There’s still a lot of it north of the island, I’d say that—that part of the island that runs north of the town all the way to the Port Mansfield cut. You know, all of that is still, fundamentally undeveloped. Although there had been talk of development. And then in Boca Chica Beach, in Boca Chica Beach, which is south of Padre Island and runs from the mouth of the river to the Brazos’ Santiago Pass, I mean that is really undeveloped. I mean, there’s really no development there. And I think between Parks and Wildlife and U. S. Fish and Wildlife good chunks of that have been acquired to be preserved for the future. On the Mexican side, it’s actually been years since I went down on the Mexican side on the beach. I mean, going down there used to be, I mean, it was just pristine beach, nothing on it. You could go miles and miles and miles it would just be a beach. And you could pick a place you wanted to stop and start fishing.
DT: Maybe you can takes us a bit further along in your life and talk about some of your first public service, which I understood was as Mayor of Brownsville. Was that correct?
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YG: Well, actually my first public service, in terms of an elected capacity, would have been as a member of the City Commission in Brownsville, from 1983 through 198—no ’79 to ’83. I’m trying to re-date myself here. But, I actually started as a member of the Brownsville City Commission from 1979 through 1983, sat out four years. And then went back and ran, and—and was elected Mayor of Brownsville in 1987, and served in that capacity from 1987 to 1991.
DT: Could you tell about some of the natural resource related issues that came up while you were either on the City Council or Commission and then serving as Mayor?
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YG: Sure. I mean, we always had to deal with issues like parks and acquisition of parks for the city, or maintenance of parks and green spaces for the City of Brownsville. We’d also have to deal with issues such as water, you know, water supply for the City of Brownsville. All the—our source of water, a hundred percent of our source of water in Brownsville, and for almost every city in the valley, is the Rio Grande River. And, so, what’s the quality of that water in that river? Is there a supply—adequate supply of water? As the city was growing, did we have the water rights? That is would ensure that we could provide water to the citizens and to the industries and to whatever was moving into town. And so, a lot of what we did was either preserving parks areas or dealing with the issue of water, just water supply and then ultimately water quality for people. But, I never viewed, I mean, as I was on the City Commission, or as I was the Mayor, I guess I never focused on them as environmental issues. They were just things that we did as part of city government.
DT: Maybe we could explore the water supply and water quality issues. I understand a current issue is whether a damn should be constructed on the Rio Grande just below Brownsville. Was that topic when you were serving?
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YG: Sure. We—we—one of the jobs of the Mayor is he is an ex-officio member of the Public Utilities Board of Brownsville, who are the major proponents of the Channel Damn Project…Channel Weir…they—they changed the terminology from damn to weir so it doesn’t sound so imposing. But it has the same effect. And so we would vote on those issues and do you spend money for the environmental studies? Do you spend money for the design? Do you spend money for the licensing and the—and the going forward on the permitting of that process? So, you know, I’ve been involved in that process, continue to know and monitor what’s going on with it. But clearly, one of the issues was – how do you have a supply of water, on hand, so that you can ensure the community will have the water it needs to drink. And we say the community, I mean, I talk about Brownsville, but the reality is the water that gets here is shared by Brownsville and Matamoros. So you have a total community of seven hundred and fifty to a million people, seven hundred and fifty thousand to a million people, between Matamoros and Brownsville. And so how do you have the water here. And the reality is if everybody who had water rights tried to exercise those water rights, there’s not enough water in Falcon Reservoir, or the Rio Grande. I mean, there’s no water rights that have been issued than there is water. And sooner or later, that’s going to get to be a problem, especially in times like we’ve had for the last couple of years with droughts. I mean, the water reserves are down to 40%, 50% in the damns. It’s going to cause a problem. And sometimes it’ll become an issue of, who gets priority. Do farmers, do you limit the amount of water that agriculture gets to preserve what the communities get. Those are going to be issues that come forward. And so, one of the views, or one of the ways to try to deal with that was this idea of stacking water up in the river, not allowing it to flow out into the mouth of the Rio Grande and out into the ocean. And, a lot of times, fresh water
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inflows are a big issue with rivers in Texas. Because the Laguna Madre and all the bays and estuaries in Texas are dependent upon fresh water. Without that fresh water to maintain that kind of balance, you lose the ecology or you lose what makes the bays special. Fortunately, in this discussion, the all—the river, the Rio Grande doesn’t flow into a bay or estuary. It’s one of the two rivers in Texas that flows directly into the Gulf of Mexico.
DT: Maybe we could also talk about water quality issues. I know the infrastructure on the Brownsville area, especially on the Mexican side, has been really strained. And there’s been concerns about the quality of the river water. Can you talk about any of the efforts at the city level to try to address those problems?
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YG: Oh, I mean, the Public Utilities Board of Brownsville has a—you know, built water treatment plants and upgraded their water treatment plants to meet all state and, or federal standards. And those are expensive processes. The more—the dirtier the water is that’s your well water supply is, the more expensive it is to treat and to clean that water. And, so, actually a lot of what happens in terms of water quality here depends upon what happens up river. Cities like Reynosa, or go as far as—as you can in Texas, in El Paso, Juarez. Juarez is just now building their first waste water treatment plants. It’s a city of two million people and here to for the water—the sewage was just treated through some ponds and settling, but eventually it would make itself—or it’s way back into the Rio Grande River. And that was the same in Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa. So, what’s being done to address water quality here, a lot of that depends on what’s done to address water quality further upstream?
DT: One of the issues that’s grown in controversy is the issue of industrial waste entering the Rio Grande and charges that it was related to an encephalitic problems. Was that an issue when you were serving on the City Commission?
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YG: It was an issue probably after I was on the City Commission. But, clearly an issue that Brownsville has to deal with in terms of both from a health perspective and from a public relations perspective, so to speak. If, in fact, people believe the water is so bad it’s causing these diseases—I one time had a group from Dallas—young business people from Dallas. And they came to the bor—to the border to learn about Mexico and the border and the relationship to Texas. And they were staying at the Sheraton Hotel on South Padre Island, which is a resort facility. So, I guess they wanted to come to the border, but they didn’t want to get exactly on top of the border, so they didn’t come to Brownsville, they went to the Sheraton. And, when I got out there to welcome them or something and—they started thanking a gentleman, they said, “We want to thank Jim Bob, ‘cause Jim Bob brought all the bottled water we will be drinking while we’re here on this trip.” And—and I just had to chuckle. Because it was a classic “Don’t drink the water,” I mean, they had brought their water from Dallas. And, mind you, they’re staying at the Sheraton, which is a resort hotel on South Padre Island. And so when I stood up I said, “Look, I—I can’t vouch for the water on South Padre Island, because I’m not the Mayor of South Padre Island. But I can tell you I’ve been drinking Brownsville water all
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my life and I’m 6′ 6″ and weigh 250 pounds and obviously it didn’t hurt me growing up.” But I think that’s part of the perception is, you know, it’s not. And the reality is, our water is fine. But, we have to deal with the quality of the water that we’re getting to treat before we make it fine for the citizens of Brownsville. Matamoros, our sister city, has to have some major—they have water treatment facilities, but they have no sewage treatment facilities in the city of Matamoros. And that’s a project that will be undertaken fairly soon by EPA and CNA [Comisión Nacional del Agua] and the International Boundary and Water Commission to look at how do you build the facilities they need to clean up the water before it re-enters the bay or re-enters the river.
DT: I understand that has a port, Port of Brownsville and that it’s served by canals that run through the Laguna Madre. And I was wondering if you had any involvement in the discussions on how to mitigate the damage to the Laguna from the dredging of the inter-coastal waterway that serves the port?
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YG: Yeah. We—we were involved—I was involved because the port is very important to the economy, not only of Brownsville, but of this whole region. And so the thought of shutting down the inter-coastal never made economic sense or political sense to me. And that trying to shut it down, you know, you might have been successful in keeping it from being built today, but trying to go back and shut it down doesn’t make sense. And I think it’d be a big hurtle to overcome politically. But when that threat of—we want to do something about the inter-coastal was there, it was bringing people to the table, whether it be the barge industry, the Core of Engineers, the port, the communities. The environmental communities were all saying, “Okay, well we can’t shut it down. What’s the best way to handle the effects of maintenance dredging on the inter-coastal water way?” And—and I mean, you know, I say, you know, preventing it from starting would be much easier than shutting it down. There was talk at one time about extending the inter-coastal from here, in Brownsville, all the way down to Vera Cruz, or Tampico, big project of the former Governor of the state of Tamaulipas. And I remember meeting with people in Mexico City and meeting with the Governor and his staff and—and saying, “You won’t get it done.” “Oh, yes, yes, yes, we can do it.” I said, “You won’t get it done.” I said, “You see this seven miles you have to go from the current inter-coastal to the river, before you could tie in to an inter-coastal eubra(?). You’re talking about going through South Bay and bays that are important and you’ll never get the environmental permits you need to do this.” “Oh, but it’s only seven miles.” I said, “Forget it. I mean, you’re not going to get it extended, you know, it’s not a project that’s going to happen.” That’s different than saying, “We’re going to shut down an existing facility.” I think one of the biggest mistakes I saw with that whole debate and that whole issue is that while you had this threat of something happening, you had everybody coming and talking about, “Well, let’s go to Congress and get the additional money we need so that we can
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pump it out and stack it on the ground instead of just stack—you know, pouring it into the bays. But the Audubon Society decided to file a lawsuit in federal court in Brownsville, Texas to force the closure of the inter-coastal canal, from basically from Corpus to Brownsville. I thought it was a bad move. They lost that decision. Once that threat was gone nobody felt the need to sit down and talk about it any more. The pressure to sit down and negotiate and as a united front go seek funding to do a better job, went away. So I thought that, that was one case where, had I been keen, so to speak, and made the decisions on how we would approach it, I would have done it differently.
DT: Maybe we can go upstream a little bit on the Rio Grande and talk about some of the initiatives to save the Rio Grande as a wildlife corridor. There have been a number of proposals to built bridges that have raised controversy. There have been some to clear brush along the Rio Grande in order to enhance flood drainage. Did you have any role in talking about those things?
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YG: In terms of clearing the brush, that’s a National Boundary and Water Commission issue. That deals with, you know, flood protection and the flow of water and—and how do you maintain that and still preserve corridors. With the expec—with the discussion of a bridge, you know, while I was the Mayor we sought a Presidential permit for the construction of the Las Tomatas(?) Bridge. And one of the issues was, how do you maintain the corridors? What kind of trade offs do you do with U. S. Fish and Wildlife in terms of property that they can use for their wildlife corridors, still have the bridge and meet all those objectives? And we were able to do that, work out plans with and have the U. S. Fish and Wildlife, along with every other agency, sign off. And, it allowed the construction of the bridge, which opened about a year ago now. It allowed the construction of the Las Tomatas Bridge. So I think you—it can be done. And the reality is, you do need to have more crossings. And I’ll make this analogy that people in Austin probably could understand. Brownsville and Matamoros are about the size, in terms of population, the size or larger than Austin. And up until the construction of the Las Tomatas, we had two bridges in Brownsville that crossed the Rio Grande River. And Austin has nine crossing of the Colorado River in Austin. So you try to move everybody on small, I mean, the fact—as we grow, and the traffic increases, whether it be because of NAFTA or because there’s just more people here that go back and forth across the bridges, or the river, you need more bridges. So, the issue is not, do you built more
bridges or not build more bridges in the future. My view is how you build bridges that are environmentally acceptable and allow everything that’s trying to happen along the border, happen.
DT: Maybe you can expand a little bit on that and talk about how Brownsville and the valley can manage it’s grow, which I understand has been tremendous in the last 20 years or so. There’s been talk of smart growth and sustainable development and ways of accommodating the grow that you want for your economic future, with the need to protect special natural resources in your area. Can you talk about that?
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YG: Yeah. It’s been interesting because I attended a smart growth conference in San Francisco a year and a half ago. And I wouldn’t—I mean it was a new concept to me and here I’d served as the Mayor and a City Commissioner. But this whole talking about smart growth and, I guess we try to put labels or names on things as opposed to just what we took for granted trying to do it in office. And I was asked to go out in November of this year—last year, excuse me, and make a speech to a smart growth conference in San Diego, California. And I’m thinking, they’re inviting me and I don’t know a lot about this. And I—and I think the sense being, though, where I’m not the technician, the formally trained community planning, or master community, or have a Masters in public administration. What I have and bring, and this is not just when I was the Mayor, but in other endeavors, is kind of a political sense of what’s doable, what’s not doable, what does it take to get things done, how do you bring people together to accomplish things. And so, that whole issue of smart growth, I mean, I don’t know if we did a good job growing smart. We implemented good plans in terms of zoning proposals and overlay districts and historic districts and different things like that, to put a structure to it. But, what I find is, and I guess my comment is, when people talk about planning long term, is that most people who have to make those decisions at an elected level, have a time frame or a horizon which is their term in office, whether it be a two year or four year term. That’s how they think in terms of; we need to get things done so I can show results should I choose to run for election again. And too often, communities and/or selected leaders don’t take the time to think long term and to plan, not just short term, but long term. What—what does it mean to implement this today and our goal is to be here in 20 years and I may not be here in 20 years, but that’s still what’s best for the community. And so, I guess my experience tells me that sometimes we, the electeds, don’t think beyond that short-term horizon. And that probably is a detriment to our communities, long term.
DT: You were appointed in ’91 you were appointed to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission that leads the department. And, I saw a placard, they called you the Great Negotiator. And I thought maybe we could talk about some of the difficult issues you had to deal with and bridge some of the different factions on the commission. One of the ones that I recall was the Take Back Texas, and private property rights pressures that the commission had to deal with. Can you discuss some of those?
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YG: Texas, I think, what is it, I mean, you see different statistics, but like, Texas is 97 to 98% owned by private individuals. I mean there’s 2 to 3% of Texas is owned by public entities like the state or the federal government. So, by and large, Texas is a privately owned state. And the issue is, who makes the rules about hunting and fishing on those private lands? What do you do about endangered species on those private lands? And there was always the issue about, it’s my land and I can do what I want on my land, versus, this is what’s good for the state. And, by and large, most private landowners in Texas are good stewards. I mean, they take care of their land. They respect the people I deal with, respect the wildlife on it, partly because wildlife has become a big economic factor to those, whether they lease their land for hunting or do eco-tourism on it. They recognize that those animals have a value. And that makes it sensible for them to take care of their land. But, what we have to do with that. You know, I don’t want your biologist on my property because they might find something that’s important and I don’t want anybody to come tell me how I can use my land. And, once again, it was just kind of sit down and talk to people and—and telling them to not be threatened. And the key there isn’t—I mean the Commission can sit down and talk with them, they key, I found, was how our biologists in the field approached those landowners. And some of them were very well received and were allowed access and others weren’t. It was just, you know, it’s the—I’m the government and I’m here to help you, versus, hey what’s going on and, you know, can we work together. There’s two different approaches. And so, but that issue is something Texas will have to deal with. I mean, we’ll never be able to acquire, in Texas, I say never, even if we acquired, all of the sudden got all kinds of money to acquire land in Texas to preserve it and to protect it, it will still be a small fraction. The reality is most of the land, when you take the inventory of Parks and Wildlife, almost 50% of what we own is in the Big Bend State Natural Area and out in West Texas. Because it’s been fairly inexpensive to acquire tracts of land out there. But, I think that—that kind of debate between private and public, and interestingly enough, you’d get out in the Davis Mountains and they’d say, “No, no, no, we don’t want the state out here.” And then somebody would show up and say, “Hey look, I’d like to sell you my ranch. You know, I thought you’d need a park out here. You know, I’d like to sell you my ranch out here.” So, I mean, you have to find ways to deal with those people, in
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terms of allowing the public to view some of the things that are on private land. And that’s a—that’s an issue that I don’t envy, whether it be the Commission or the staff of Parks and Wildlife, it’s an ongoing issue that they have to deal with. We did make some progress by just not being threatening, or trying to—to eliminate the perception that we’re a threat to private landowners. And becoming more of their partner in how to best manage their property.
DT: Maybe you can talk about some of the partnership efforts. I understand there’s a Private Lands Initiative and Lone Star Land Stewards programs that were developed towards the end of your tenure.
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YG: Sure. One—one of the things we did was create a private landowners committee. Where we brought private landowners from across the state of Texas into an organized committee so they ex—you know, express to our staff and to us the concerns of private landowners. So we could tell them, “Well, this is what we’re trying to accomplish. What’s the best way to do this?” You know, “What can we do in terms of tax relief for wildlife management?” Texas used to grant property tax relief or exemptions for agricultural use. Well, could you get the same kind of property tax relief and exemption for wildlife management. And so, to—to take on those kind of initiatives so that it allowed them to feel that you could preserve land for no other purpose than to protect wildlife. And that it still had a value to doing, in terms of economic reward for doing that. So it was that kind of a thing. Then there was other programs like the Stewards Program and other programs that have been put in place since I’ve been there, that continue to develop that kind of cooperation, and we’re working together as opposed to it’s us versus you. And it’s our way, or your way. I mean it—it—the partnership in working with people is a whole lot more effective than trying to implement or impose your will upon them, when they don’t want to be imposed.
DT: One of the ways that the Commission has taken the lead in the area is to develop opportunities for eco-tourism. Can you comment about what eco-tourism is and what the value of it might be?
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YG: Oh…What is it worth? A billion, two billion a year to the state of Texas. I mean, eco-tourism has grown and is the fastest growing—and I’m quoting, Chamber of Commerce kind of here, but it’s the fast—fastest growing segment of the tourism industry in Texas. It’s people just coming to view birds, or to hunt or to fish in Texas. Or to hike and bike in Texas and to see our parks. So it’s important to people all over, that tourism. I’ll never forget, one time, I was—when I was the Mayor and my—I went to visit my parents and pulled into the driveway and there was like two vans of people stopped in front of my parents’ house. And they get out and they have cameras and they have binoculars and at first I thought they were going to interview me or something—there was something must have happened in town that I wasn’t aware of or whatever. And I was watching them and they were looking at the little wild—the—the parrots—and parakeets that are wild flying here in Brownsville now. Because their habitat was destroyed in Mexico. So they had to migrate to where there was habitat. And the trees in the neighborhoods are their habitat. So we have flocks of wild parrots and parakeets now that we didn’t have when I was a, you know, growing up, fairly recent that these types of concentrations have occurred. But the people were there to view them. And I said, “Well”, you know, “Where are you from?” “Well, I’m from Michigan.” And, “I’m from
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Indiana.” And, “I’m from somewhere else.” And they all had expensive cameras and expensive binoculars and they were on a tour that somebody had arranged for them to come see birds. And, it dawned on me, well they’re spending money in the hotels and they’re spending money in the restaurants and they came to see those little birds. So, we’re going to take care of those little birds. Because they have, all of the sudden it kind of said, well, they’re important ‘cause they’re bringing tourists in. Well that’s what’s happening all over the state of Texas, not just in Brownsville, but all over the state of Texas are—that these resources we have, and probably resources we’ve taken for granted really can draw people. And—and they have that value to the community of—of impacting real people in terms of jobs and opportunities. So, it—one of the things we did was a follow up to that in Brownsville, was we always had the discussion whether it was a weedy lot or over gra—grown lot, or was it habitat. So we came up with a designation,
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rules and designation about wildlife habitat areas, so we could go stick a sign on it, Brownsville Wildlife Habitat Area, and so we wouldn’t have code enforcement officers who wanted to go in there and mow it down. That we could preserve it. And so, that forced us to think in terms of resources within the city, habitat, pieces of brush or small areas that were habitat and had value because of the birds that they attracted.
DT: As with the eco-tourism, a lot of conservation boils down to money you have and money you need and money you can find. I was curious if you could talk about the efforts of Parks and Wildlife to find money for conservation and maybe discussions with the legislature, and…
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YG: When—when I was the Mayor of Brownsville, and Brownsville was not a very wealthy city. And after the devaluations of—the Mexican peso devaluations of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and mid ‘80s, you know, sales tax revenues were down. Things were a little stressed. And so, we didn’t have a lot of money in Brownsville. And I can remember when Governor Richards appointed me to the Parks and Wildlife Commission and I said, “Well, this is the state of Texas. And they’re going to have plenty of money.” And when I got to Austin, you know, money’s not going to be an issue. And we showed up for our first day of orientation, new commissioner’s school I guess. And the whole issue was, we don’t have enough money to maintain existing parks. We don’t have enough money, or any money to acquire additional lands. You know, it wasn’t—I mean, from the very moment I got there in 1991, we just didn’t have the dollars that we needed to maintain the parks system in Texas. And if you go around the park system in Texas and look, a lot of our parks were constructed during the Depression era by the WPA and—and different programs that went around, or were in place at that pine(?), our older parks. So the issue became, well how do we fund parks in Texas? How do we fund acquisition in Texas? And, is there a better way to do that? And so we went about changing the way we funded parks in Texas. Texas used to fund it’s park system through an innovative program, when it was first done twenty-five years ago, which was a
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cigarette tax. It was a penny a pack on every pack of cigarettes sold in Texas. There was a tax of a penny for state parks, and a penny for local parks. Or it could go to either state or local parks. So there was basically two pennies per pack tax. Well, the reality was that was great, but at it’s start, or it’s inception. Well, by the time we got to the mid 19—or early 1990s, the reality is less people smoked in Texas than they did in 1970. So that penny a pack, or the two pennies a pack, were actually less dollars in the na—early ‘90s than what they were in ‘70s or ‘80s. So we had a demanding—a—a demand that was growing. More Texans wanting more outdoor opportunities in terms of parks, but the source of funding to maintain them, to build them, to buy them was decreasing. So I had to look at, how do we change the way we fund p—parks? And we—we were able to do that through the help of state Representatives and state Senators and the Speaker of the House and Lieutenant Governor at the time, Bob Bullock, and Speaker Laney, Senator Montford, John Montford, Representative Renaldi Veda(?), others, Rob Janel(?), and, I mean a lot of people worked on it. And once again, that was one of those where you build the
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coalitions. You had the people who hunt and fish in Texas and said, “Well, we shouldn’t spend so much money on parks. It should be spent on wildlife.” Then you had the people who run local parks. And we found there was really no organized constituency or no organized group to represent the interests of state parks users in Texas. And so we started thinking politically, okay I want to get this bill passed that changes the way we fund parks. And we’re going to go from a dedicated cigarette tax to dedicating part of the sales taxes of Texas. Those sales taxes collected on sporting goods in Texas, a percentage of those we get allocated to fund parks. Well, we talked about building coalitions. So, if you didn’t have a constituency that spoke for state park users, but you had the Texas Association of Park Professionals, which are the managers of local and county parks in Texas. We got them together. We had to do something for the sportsmen, the hunters, the fishermen. So we created a conservation fund that’s at the discretion of the Commission. A certain percentage of those taxes can be used for anything, not necessarily parks, but anything. And then built the constituency—constituency within the legislature to be able to pass the bill. And—and this is kind of that long term. It didn’t give us any more money immediately. In the first biennium. But it stopped us from losing money in the subsequent bienniums. Because we changed from a funding source that was decreasing to funding source that was, at least, stable, and/or increasing. What’s happened though is in those seven-year interim now, we’ve really not been able to bump the amount of money we receive from those taxes, up. We
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still don’t have the people within the legislature who are willing to say, “Texas should be spending more money acquiring habitat across the state of Texas and preserving it for future generations of Texans.” And so, that’s an issue that I think Texas, whether it be Texas Parks and Wildlife or all the other environmental community as a whole, needs to address this. How do we fund continued acquisition and preservation of habitats in Texas. And—and I always thought, “Well, Texas, I mean, we’ve got all the land we’ll ever need. And it’s all, you know, just like it was a hundred years ago.” And maybe they could go out on some of the ranches here, and they probably are just the way they were a hundred years ago, or fifty years ago. But then I learned things with Parks and Wildlife like, well, we used to have seven million acres of bottom la—bottomland hard woods in Texas. And by 2020, it’s projected we won’t have any. So, if you don’t go out and preserved that habitat, by acquiring land and putting it in the name of the public through the state, then, you know, 20 years from now, or 30 years from now, somebody won’t be able to walk through a bottom land hard wood forest in Texas and know what it was like. So, it’s easy to say we have a lot of land. The reality is there’s types of land in Texas or types of habitats that are disappearing. I mean, here in the valley, the Rio Grande used to be the Rio Las Palmas. It was the palm river, the—because of the palm forests that were on either side of the Rio Grande River, thousands and thousands and thousands of acres of Sable Palm Forest. We’re down to a 169-acre tract, that’s preserved by the Audubon Society at the Sable Palm Grove. So all that habitat, which was thousands and thousands of acres, is gone, except a 169 acres and probably 22 acres at a—on South Most Ranch,
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next door to that. So, there are habitats in Texas that have disappeared, whether it be the prairies and—and kind of, my theory while I was there, it makes sense to acquire this. You may not be able to do anything with it in terms of building a fancy facility to start with, but just by acquiring it and making sure it’s not destroyed, that’s important to Texas. So, and—and I wish I could say that was my mission when I got to Parks and Wildlife. I mean, I was this dedicated environmentalist whose life dream was to be on the Parks and Wildlife Commission so I could do conservation work and be tagged, you know, an environmentalist. And, I wasn’t. I mean, the reality is I asked Ann Richards to go on the University of Texas Board of Regents, and she said, “No I can’t. I’ve already promised all those slots.” “How about Parks and Wildlife?” And I said, “Okay. Sounds good, I mean, I like to hunt. I like to fish. And, you know, probably be what we talk about.” And I came to find that there was a whole different world than just hunting and fishing, and, you know, how many deer can you take? Or what’s the limit on doves, or ducks, or Quail? But the whole issue of parks, of preserving habitats, of dealing with bays and estuaries. And there’s such a wide range of issues when you talk about natural resources in Texas. And so sometimes I still chuckle when people say, “Well, you know, you’re an—an environmentalist.” I thought, “God, I’ve never thought about myself like that.” I understood, you know, the relationship you have to have with the outdoors, ‘cause I grew up out there. And what it meant to pres—you know, to protect and take care of things. But, really my transformation into kind of environmentalist or having worked in conservation, was just because Ann Richards gave me to opportunity to serve on the Parks and Wildlife. And….
DT: How do you think you can best recruit other people to give people, in the next generation, perhaps, the opportunity to make a difference, as you have?
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YG: I—I—I think you have to get them out there. And I said earlier, my daughter sitting in front of a computer screen. Well, reality is they’ve gone with me to the ranches or to go hunting around South Texas since they were two or three years old. So they like going out there and they like seeing the animals. And they like, you know, one daughter hunted for a while. Now she’s not so interested in it. The other one never had any interest in hunting. Fish, I mean, they like to fish. They like being out there. And so there was always the ac—the opportunity to explain to them the relationship of, you know, taking care of the habitat and what it meant to the animals. If it weren’t for the habitat, you wouldn’t have animals. You wouldn’t have, whether it be the deer or the birds, or whatever. And so I think it’s important to continually educate younger generations about how important it is to preserve these things. And I think Texas, we do have within—we do have some curricula that the Parks and Wildlife has developed to be taught at schools across Texas. But I think the best experience is, get them out there. I mean, try to get them out there. And, you know, whether it’s putting a fishing rod in their hand or take them out to hike. But you have to get children out into the outdoors to kind of wonder about, this is neat, you know, I mean, this is a neat place to be. And so I think that’s probably one of the challenges is recruiting young people into the conservation effort.
DT: Just one more question. You talked about getting young kids out there. When you have the choice and you have the time, where do you like to go? Is there a place you find particularly beautiful or…?
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YG: Well, I mean, I enjoy the ranch country of South Texas from, you know, all over South Texas. To be in the brush, whether it’s sitting in a blind, deer blind and watching the birds that are flying around me and looking at the deer that come by. And—and people say, “Well, you know, you’re a hunter.” Yeah, but, most hunters don’t realize it, but they’re also conservationists, because they understand about protecting and preserving things. Or there won’t be any thing there, whether you want to go fishing or hunting or whatever. But now, it’s mostly just being there and seeing things. So I enjoy driving around and seeing animals. And I enjoy being out there. And then, of course, you know, sunrise on the bay, when you fishing, pretty neat. You know, it’s hard to—hard to top that sun coming up and seeing life kind of come to—whether it be out in the brush or in the water. But there’s no one particular place, other than just out there. I mean, just out in the field somewhere.
DT: Good enough. Thanks very much for spending time with us.
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SP: Maybe we could talk about your efforts that have been local, and then state, and now you’re international. Can you talk about that and some of the role you’ve played there?
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YG: Okay. But, you know what, and I want to follow up one thing with Parks and Wildlife. I was really fortunate to be on the Parks and Wildlife Commission. Wonderful group of Commissioners. But more than anything, and I guess was the staff that we have at that department who are truly dedicated to the job they have about conservation and about parks and about wildlife. One famous man was asked one time was asked, you know, why were you so successful? And he said, “Because I always surrounded myself with people smarter than me.” And that was kind of my take on Parks and Wildlife. From Andy Sansom, the Executive Director, to all the staff that work underneath him. I mean, they truly have, I mean, they truly are environmentalists. Yet, beyond his being environmentalist, they’re practical about what needs to be done. What’s the best about getting it done, and how to move that agenda forward. So, I guess my conservationist—my—my conversion from outdoors person and elected official to environmentalist was at the result of learning from the people at Parks and Wildlife. I mean, it’s a wonderful organization that deserves a lot of credit for what they do for Texas.
DT: Fair enough. And then the international level that Susan was asking about. Maybe you just have a comment our two about the role of trying to invest in infrastructure along the border.
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YG: It—when NAFTA was being debated, NAFTA was clearly—you had to bring a coalition together to get it passed. And part of the groups that opposed NAFTA were environmental communities – the NGO community – made up of a lot of environmental organizations … unless they saw some benefits coming from it. And part of those benefits were the environmental side agreements that said, “We will build—we will put new resources, which is funding of the North American Development Bank and grant funds from the EPA into building environmental infrastructure projects along the border that will have the benefit of improving the environment. (Excuse me.) …Improving the environment along the border. Being most—I guess the biggest indicator of that improvement, or lack of environmental quality is the quality of the rivers and the waterways along this border. So there’s a real focus at the BECC [Border Environmental Cooperation Commission] in terms of water treatment facilities, waste water treatment facilities, and solid waste disposal. Those are really the three priority areas. But the whole kind of evolution of the BECC was, it’s easy to put it down on paper. We’re going to put five people from Mexico and five people from the United States on a board. And they’re going to—local communities will come and ask them for money to build projects. And they’ll set up criteria. And then they’ll review those applications and then they’ll certify them and then they’ll go to the NADBANK [North American Development Bank] and ask for money. But we had to put two cultures together. I mean, I grew
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up on the border and my last name’s Garza, so I figured I understood the Mexican mentality. But when you get people from Washington and people form Mexico City trying to negotiate this, then they’re the governments and it’s different. Once we got to the board level though, things kind of worked out. Because we were just people who said, “Okay, what’s best for the border?” But the whole evolution of the BECC as starting from zero, to develop criteria that had issues like sustainable development and financial feasibility and—and environmental technology. And then, public participation. And then belief that it—you needed to have the support of the communities. If somebody says, ” I want to build a water treatment facility. I want to build a waste water treatment facility.” You need to have the support of the community. Because they’re going to have to be willing to pay the rates to repay the loans to maintain and operate that facility so that it can go into implementation. What we didn’t want to do was spend limited dollars. Granted there were new resources coming from both governments, but still limited, in terms of the scope of what has to be done. Spend them on building a facility that then two years later, or three years later doesn’t work, because it hasn’t been maintained. So, that brought about the whole issue of public participation where local communities, local committees are put together from the very beginning, with public hearings and public meetings. So that they can buy into the project and buy into what’s going to happen. For us, on the U. S. board members, well that was just kind of a natural process. I mean, we’re used to public hearings and it’s part of being a City Commissioner and being at Parks and Wildlife. I mean, people get up and make their comments about, we’re for or
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against this particular issue. For the Mexican side of our board, it was a whole new area. I mean, public hearings, without knowing what people were actually going to say before they got there. And so, it’s been an evolution to where, they say, “Well, this is okay.” You know, the people buy in, they feel like they’ve had their voice, they’ve been heard; they’re supporting the projects. So, that whole issue of getting communities and largely we’re aimed at communities, we should be aimed at communities that can’t access the resources, that don’t have the technology. We’ll say, “Well, what plan do you have to maintain and operate this sewage treatment facility?” Well, if they’ve never had one before, they don’t have the human capital in terms of people who know to run—how to run one and operate one. They don’t have the financial resources. There’s been a real process of getting people to the point where you can build things. And infrastructure projects like this are long term in nature. They’re long term, in terms of planning, designing, construction and the benefits take a while. But we are doing things in Juarez, in Reynosa, in Nuevo Laredo, in Mexicali, in Tijuana, major border communities and—and all Mexican border cities. Not mentioning El Paso, Donna has a project, Del Rio had a project. I mean, a lot of cities on the U. S. side, San Diego, communities in Arizona, where these projects are now under constructions. And so hopefully in the next two years, you’ll see some real improvement that’s marked by the quality of the rivers. That only deals with one part of it. That residential and/or industrial waste that goes through the city systems. Still doesn’t deal with issues like industrial—other industrial runoff, agricultural runoff into the river. But it—but it’s been interesting to see, bring people from two countries together, in one office, working together with a common goal, which is improving and providing infrastructure for communities along the border and have an impact. And so, I’m excited about where we’ve gotten to. I think there’s a real good future for the BECC and the NAB(?) bank in terms of really building projects going forward that will have long-term benefits for the border. But, you know, it’s just one component of what has to be done along the border.
DT: Thank you for your work there and again for your time with us.
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End of reel 2088.
End of interview with Nacho Garza.