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Richard LeTourneau

INTERVIEWEE: Richard LeTourneau (RL)
DATE: October 20, 2000
LOCATION: Longview, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2117 and 2118

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

DT: My name is David Todd and I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas and it’s October 20th, the year 2000 and we’re in Longview, Texas and we’re taking this chance to interview Richard LeTourneau about his various work on water conservation in the east Texas region and I wanted to thank you for joining us.
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RL: Glad to be here.
DT: We usually start interviews with a little visit about your childhood, early days and whether there might have been early events or experiences that introduced you to being outdoors and being interested in conservation.
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RL: Well I’ve spent my entire life, other than outside trips, here in east Texas and in a rural area like this, I had early exposure to a lot of wildlife forests that were virtually untouched when I was a child. So I had some very good experiences as a child not knowing then how quickly they would disappear.
DT: Were these outings by yourself or did you go with relatives or friends?
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RL: It was—some were by myself, some was with—with friends depending on, you know, as the age progression went up. I didn’t really do a lot of outdoor activities with my family as a unit but it’s—it was primarily friends.
DT: And were these trips mostly camping or hiking or hunting or fishing? What would you do when you were out?
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RL: Hunting, fishing, camping, exploring. Spent a lot of time searching for arrowheads and Indian artifacts in the early days and ended up giving all that stuff to a Caddo Indian Museum. But we found a lot of things back in the fifties that were just interesting. But I’ve spent my entire life associated with this local Sabine river bottom so it’s become a very large part of my life.
DT: Are there any trips that stand out in your mind?
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RL: Well, trips in the fifties stand out because either I alone or with anyone else, we could go to the river bottom and begin walking and we could actually walk for miles and miles and never come to a clear cut of timber, never come to roads or fences. Might cross a pipeline in those days periodically but there was just so much untouched hardwood forest then. That really stuck in my mind especially as I began to see the east Texas logging intensify and it really began to intensify in the sixties and certainly by the late seventies.
DT: Maybe you could tell a little bit about how the logging changed from I guess earlier high grading or selective management towards even age?
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RL: Yeah, in—in the fifties when we came upon a logging operation if we did, it was selective. They were just taking the tall, straight trees (clearing his throat) and, excuse me, they were leaving the—the den trees and the other trees that weren’t useful. And I didn’t really reject that, it seemed like a good practice. And then later on…
DT: What kind of equipment were they using back then? Was it mostly mechanized or were they still using mules?
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RL: Well, there were in—there were fa—in fact, in the fifties, some operations were using mules, some were using modified tractors. They didn’t have the awesome equipment that they have today that just goes in and totally destroys everything. So they left a lot to regenerate. Then as time went on, in the late sixties, they began what we call clear cutting. And this would eliminate huge blocks of land and they would cut everything to the ground. Sometimes burn it and replant it, generally in pine—pine plantations, and this left no diversity to the forest. It eliminated all your hardwood trees, all your food producing trees and it left a very generic pine plantation.
DT: Why do you think the pressure for logging increased in the sixties and seventies? Was it to make pulp for paper or was it…
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RL: The industry grew in the south, the industry really grew. Hardwoods weren’t important in the fifties and sixties. They became important in the seventies, eighties, and nineties.
DT: For what reason?
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RL: Well, part of the reason is they had exhausted their supplies of old growth pine timber and so there were also more markets created over the years. For instance, the—it used to be the market was only for wooden pallets and crossties. And that was the bulk of your hardwood timber market. Then you get furniture markets, exotic furniture markets, flooring markets, so many new markets were created. That’s our system, to create markets, and we had the commodity, the hardwood trees. We had them here, so they—they went up in value and then they started disappearing.
DT: And the people who did this logging as things got more mechanized, did you see a change in the kind of people or the number of people that were still involved in the forest industry?
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RL: Bigger and bigger operators that had more and more money, better and better equipment, could do the job whatever it was, they could do it more economical but it was more devastating to the—the diversity of the forest, much more.
DT: Could you maybe describe what one of the clear cut patches looks like?
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RL: It looks like an A-bomb hit it. It’s nothing but—they go in and they cut everything. Whether they use it or not, they cut it. And they take out the logs that are salvageable. Then they take big machines and they windrow what’s left. They burn the windrows then they come in and plant pines exclusively and by the ti—and then they—they’ll poison any—any hardwood vegetation that starts coming up around it. Within six years, the pines have such a head start that they form a canopy under—under which nothing can grow other than maybe a weed here and there. So they eliminate all their competition by their advanced start at a certain size. In other words, they’re planting pine trees that are twelve inches high and killing back everything that can compete with it and give—pine tree is faster growing, it’s like a weed. So it gets a head start, forms a canopy and there’s nothing else. It—it ends all diversity of the forest, knocks out all the food trees, all the trees for the food chain for all the different wildlife species that need them. And it’s a domino effect on losing—you don’t actually—maybe you don’t actually kill specific wildlife species, although I’m sure some are killed in the process, but you eliminate their habitat. So there’s less and less habitat at the expense of pine plantations.
DT: Have you noticed a difference in the number of deer, turkey, or songbirds when you go out in the forest?
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RL: Well, deer managed—deer do as well in fringe areas as they do in hardwoods. Deer need hardwoods in the fall but all the wildlife species need the hardwoods at different times. Definitely a decrease in—in the songbird population. If you go to the center of the pine plantation, you would have a decrease of nearly everything. You’re eliminating the habitat instead of killing off specific numbers of a species. You make it impossible for the species to—to exist as they did in previous numbers because the habitat’s not available. It’s just like having a five room house and tearing—tearing down four peo—four rooms and then ask the question, “How many people can live in the room that’s left?” Well everybody has to move into the room that’s left.
DT: What groups sort of promote this kind of lumbering? Where’s the impetus coming from? Is it from wood lot owners or from the forest service or is it coming from the academic institutions for the…
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RL: Well it’s—it’s the most economical way to make money and that’s what this is all about. It doesn’t matter what you want to talk about, this is about making money. And the most economical way both to harvest the wood and to ensure future supplies of pine, both enough for here and to meet all the world markets that we’re meeting, then you’re going to do it the most economical way, regardless of its impact on other species including the trees and plants.
DT: Do you think that those economic returns can be sustained for a good while?
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RL: I don’t know, I don’t—I don’t really know. Apparently in some locations they can, in some locations they can’t and if they can’t, they’ll find that out quickly and they’ll abandon it—they’ll abandon that particular site. I mean, they’re not going to waste money. They’re in the business to make money.
DT: And is most of the clear cutting happening on private land or is it also happening on public land.
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RL: It’s—well it—now it’s happening on private land, it’s happening on corporate land, probably to a little lesser degree, I mean, cor—corporate lands—the paper companies have changed the way they clear cut. They’re still clear cutting, they’ve just kind of changed the way they clear cut. But the—in the national forest, it’s rape and—and that’s a—a big, big problem today with what’s going on in our national forests. And they say, “Well we’re not taking as much now as we used to take.” Well that’s true, but they used to take peripheral areas and they didn’t get into the old growth hardwood forest. Now the only thing that is left is old growth hardwood forest. They’re taking it but they’re saying, “Well, we’re not taking as much.” No, in acreage, they’re not taking as much. But, in prime old growth timber, it’s devastating to—it’s devastating. They’re taking the last of what’s left now.
DT: It seems like there’s not a lot of discussion about this in the public. Do you why it doesn’t seem to generate much concern?
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RL: Well, one, it’s an economic—economic issue especially in—in ea—in ea—in every region whether it’s Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma, or here. The timber industry provides a lot of jobs so most people—there are more and more people that are concerned about the way everything is done in terms of clear cutting, whether it’s for an apartment complex or a mall or whatever, but it’s an economic issue. And there are those that will stand up and say, “This is wrong.” But they’re overshadowed by those who say, “It may be, but it’s mine and I’m here to make money.” And that’s—that’s essentially the problem.
DT: Maybe we can talk about another subject that you’ve been involved in, water development. East Texas, very rich in timber and forest products, but it’s also known as an area that has much more water than many other parts of Texas and has been used for water development, surface water in particular. I think that in the 1980’s you had some involvement and interest in the proposal to build the Little Cypress Reservoir. Can you tell how that came about?
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RL: It was more interest than involvement, although I watched it—I watched the evolvement of that issue, kept on top of it. It was a unneeded reservoir, the water wasn’t needed. It wasn’t needed then, it’s not needed now as is the case in most reservoirs. What they need is infrastructure, they need pipelines, they need additional treatment capacity, they don’t need more surface water. You can create all the surface water you want and, until you spend the funds for the infrastructure, you don’t have an extra ounce of water for anybody to drink. So the lake was unneeded. There were real estate developers that stood to gain. There were obviously engineering firms that stood to gain. It looked like a real neat little local pet project born out of the exaggerated need for more water. And it was just immediately south of a huge lake, Lake of the Pines, or it would have been south of a huge lake. And—and in—in the year 2000, Longview was in the process of building a pipeline to get water from Lake of the Pines. Well, if you can build a pipeline in 2000 to get water from Lake of the Pines, why couldn’t you have done that back when you needed the water in the early eighties when we had to create an unneeded reservoir? So I got to see the spin that the proponents put on it, knew a lot of it wasn’t right, it’s just who’s the best spinner. They were good, but it—probably for the first time ever, I saw local opposition rise against it, force the issue, educated the public, caused it to go to a vote. It was voted down. Well, Little Cypress Utility District didn’t like that. They don’t like being told they can’t do something. So they brought it up for reelection, voted down again. And eventually, the Little Cypress Utility District just settled back and said, “Hey, we’re not going to build this lake.” Now I don’t believe that they could—ob—obviously bring it up again, but they’ll have plenty of opposition because it’s not needed.
DT: And what was your view about the problems with their proposed reservoir beyond the sort of question of need? Were there environmental impacts you were concerned about?

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RL: Oh, certainly. It was g—it was a very large reservoir and was going to flood a very unique stream bottom north of here, north of Hallsville, north of Marshall. And it—it’s a hardwood bottom. It takes away from farmers and ranchers. It takes away from the agricultural interest. It takes away from the timber interest. In other words, timber is a renewable resource if you let it renew itself. And a lot of responsible companies—logging companies do responsible work and so this is not a criticism of them, it’s a—they’re—they—and in many cases, they do as they’re told and it depends on who owns the land. If a corporation tells you that you will clear cut it or you will—or you don’t have any work, it gets to be an economic issue, so they’ll do whatever they negotiate. But, on they’re own, there are individual, responsible logging operations. This is a renewable resource in this area and it is very important to many, many people in this area, just the timber industry alone. So the water wasn’t needed. It was within ten miles of a major, major lake so the recreation wasn’t needed. It did present economic bene—benefits for those who were real estate people that were on the inside, of course, only a few—and if you were on the inside, then you stood to make some nice gains in—in real estate transactions. But, here again, this is just the inner circle that are going to get on the inside. You and I never would.
DT: Were there tracts that were bought off to circle the proposed lake?
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RL: Yeah, there was some of that going on because they felt like, you know, they’d always done exactly anything they wanted to do, why should they—who was going to stop them this time?
DT: Considering the drawbacks to the reservoir, what sort of spin or spiel was put forward to promote the reservoir? What did the proponents say…
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RL: Well it’s the old, old story, you know. Water, we need the water and people need water. It’s true people do need water. They need as much as they need. And water—and people are more important than humans. I mean people are more important than animals. Well sure they are. No one disagrees with that. Only problem was, people didn’t need the water. So they spend their time creating needs. Industry’s going to move in. It’s going to bring in a lot of industry. They built Lake of the Pines in 1960 and not one new industry has moved in to utilize Lake of the Pines water. Longview hasn’t been receiving Lake of the Pines water. Longview’s been getting their water since 1948 from Cherokee Lake and the Sabine River. So Longview had an in—had a booming industry for years and years and years without the need for water from Lake of the Pines. We’ve got Lake of the Pines and we’re not using it. Why do we build Little Cypress in the mid eighties when we’ve got excess Lake of the Pines water? Don’t know. Economic development.
DT: I think it surprised many people that the Longview community was able to stop the Little Cypress Reservoir. Can you speculate how it was that the opponents of proposal were effective there?
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RL: Well there were knowle—knowledgeable people that spent some money and they took out full page ads in the newspapers in this area and told the people what the real truth was, what the real facts were, what the real costs were, what the continuing costs were going to be and said, you know, “This is not a good investment.” And the electorate of this area bought off and said, “We agree with you, this is not a good deal. It may be a good deal someday if there’s a need,” but we don’t want to do it when there’s a need because the moment you create a lake, it starts deteriorating through siltation and what not.
DT: And this siltation is a problem because it
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RL: Well it’s a time problem. The longer the lake sits there, the more it goes to silt. And this particular lake was going to be a very shallow lake anyway, I think eight—I think—I can’t remember, maybe eight foot in med—me—median depth. Well it wouldn’t take long for siltation to really create a problem in a—in a shallow lake like that. Here again, I’m not against water, I’m against creating water that’s not needed at tremendous cost where, if there is local needs, truly a need that isn’t more economically viable from groundwater, then you create a small reservoir, non-mainstem. In other words, not a huge dam on the river, but dam a small area up the creek—a creek bottom and you need this for the people, you build a small reservoir. It’s ideal, it serves their needs and it’s much, much cheaper to build these—a little small reservoir and much less destructive to the environment then these huge, huge, huge reservoirs that have far reaching implications on the environment. A reservoir sixty miles north of here will have dramatic impacts on cos—coastal estuaries at the gulf.
DT: What kind of impacts?
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RL: Well, it’s—it’s got to do with the flows of the water—the regulated flows of the water. They can regulate the flow, therefore, maybe the estuary doesn’t get clean fresh water when it needs to. Most of them are combinations of salt and fresh water. You—you get—the flows are regulated for economic reasons. There’s not a lot of people in east Texas that are greatly concerned about the quality of water in an estuary on the gulf coast. That’s someone else’s problem. That’s the philosophy of most of these pr—it’s someone else’s problem. But it, in fact, is the State of Texas’ problem. It’s all the people’s problem.
DT: I believe that, aside from your interest in Little Cypress, you’ve also been involved in other reservoirs including the Waters Bluff Reservoir proposal and perhaps you can tell us a little bit about where it would have been and what sort of issues it raised.
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RL: It raised a lot of issues. It would have been—it would be in two different counties. It would be in Wood County, it would be—primarily, and Smith County. It would be a huge reservoir on the Sabine River. It would flood an existing National Wildlife Refuge that’s about thirty-eight hundred acres. It would flood the existing old Sabine Bottom State Wildlife Management area, which is about fifty-five hundred acres. It would flood another twenty-five thousand acres of excellent hardwood bottoms but these two areas, by name, just—they are two of the greatest old growth hardwood forest areas left in the state. The area combined—the two areas combined, which are only separated by the river, the two areas combined have been selected as one of the top fourteen old growth hardwood forest areas left in the nation. It is very ecologically unique. The—the forests themselves are hundreds of years old, both on the Little Sandy Na—National Wildlife Refuge and also on neighboring land and private landowners. We know now that there’s seven state and/or national champion trees in this old growth hardwood forest. It’s one of a kind. It’s really all we have left and, thank goodness, it is currently preserved in a National Wildlife Refuge and a State of Texas Wildlife Management area. Now actually, Texas Parks and Wildlife manages this old Sabine Bottom Wi—Wildlife Management area but it is—the acreage is owned by the Texas Department of Transportation. It is a mitigation bank for the Texas Department of Tr-transportation. In addition to that fifty-five hundred acre mitigation bank, there are three other large mitigation banks within this lake basin. In 1997, Texas Parks and Wildlife requested—no the Texas Water Development Board requested of Texas Parks and Wildlife that they do a mitigation study of this basin. This is both a state and federal law. Wetlands lost have to be mitigated. Whether you like it or not, this is the way it is. The mitigation study showed that in that same general basin, you would ha—for this thirty-five thousand acre lake to
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be built, you would have to set aside through mitigation between a hundred and forty-one thousand and five hundred and sixty-nine thousand acres. And that’s land that has to be purchased and maintained. And this obviously is a direct horrendous cost to building the lake, even if there were a need for it. There’s not a need for it. Maybe to perpetuate the Sabine River Authority so they’ll have something to do in grandiose style, but the lake’s not needed. We feel like, I guess about every three years we feel like we’ve—we’re up against the Sabine River Authority again, they want to bring it up, they won’t let it lay. They won’t say, “Hey,” you know, “This area really is environmentally unique.” They don’t want it designated anything that hadn’t already been designated because they certainly don’t want any further impediments to their agenda. So it’s a constant battle against primarily the Sabine River Authority whom won’t let go in the face of incredible opposition. You’ve got Andrew Sanson, Executive Director of Parks and Wildlife who is on record against the lake. You’ve got the Environmental Department of the Texas Department of Transportation on record against the lake. You’ve got the U.S. Department of Justice, you got U.S. Fish and Wildlife, you got U.S. Fish and Wildlife—Wildlife Labs. You’ve got six state and federal agencies that are against this lake. You’ve got thirty-five state and national organizations that are on record against the lake. There would be more on record if they just were aware, but there are thirty-five organizations like National Wildlife Federation, Audubon Society, League of Women Voters of Texas, they’re all on record opposing this—creation of this reservoir. You’ve got applicable faculty of at least six major universities that are on record against this reservoir because they use both of these areas as research sites for many, many different
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biology and chemistry and entomology and all departments you can think of. And then le—last but not least, you know, we’ve gone out and gotten thousands and thousands of signature cards from people who are in opposition to this lake. We’ve sent these cards to the two congressman are in—involved because if the lake was—was to be built, it would encompass two different districts, so there’s two congressmen involved. We’ve kept them apprised of what we’re doing on our side. We send them the names and addresses and a lot of other information, phone numbers, of the people who are against it. We’ve made them aware of the organizations and the state and federal agencies that are against it. And it—it just doesn’t end.
DT: What is the pressure on the Sabine River Authority to develop this? Why are they so eager to do this?
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RL: Well, they’re in the business of impounding water and selling it, that’s their business. They’re a state agency. They have a big payroll and they need to do something. It’s kind of like maybe the Corp of Engineers was years and years ago, you know, if they ain’t got a job, why do we need you? They’re self perpetuating. They’re going around creating all these false needs. It’s pretty well documented by recent engineering studies that this—certainly this lake, Waters Bluff and/or Belzora Landing which would both be devastating, approximate in the same area. They certainly don’t need this one. They may need a very small reservoir here or there and that sounds—that’s what the engineering companies—consulting engineers said. I mean, they did their studies, they did their studies, and they did their studies. They agreed with Parks and Wildlife about the mitigation re—re—requirements, they agreed about that. Small reservoirs, where needed, logical. More of these huge, huge unneeded reservoirs, no reason. Oh there’s a reason if you are the Sabine River Authority. You can sell a lot of water and make a lot of money and then you’ll say, “Well, we did this, we’re selling this to Dallas or Waco, wherever you’re going to sell it and, you know, we allocated all this water so actually east Texas is still out of water, we need to build another lake.” And that’s exactly what they’re going to do. They constantly coming up with a—with another one. It’s mind boggling.
DT: I understand that there are some Sabine River Authority lakes that have a great deal of water in them but the water hasn’t been used, I mean, in some cases, ninety-nine percent of it hasn’t been used. What do they say if you say, “Well maybe you should use the water that you have rather than develop these new sources”?
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RL: Well, they’re aware of it but if you use that water, then you really can’t create a new lake. They have argued for forever that it’s cheaper to build a lake then it is to pipe water somewhere. Well, Waters Bluff or the proposed Carl Estes or the proposed Carthage Reservoir, any of these reservoirs are so far in excess of five hundred million dollars each now, they—the Sabine River Authority has agreed to pursue building a very small reservoir between Kilgore and Tyler and they’ve also agreed that it would be a great idea to run a pipeline from Toledo Bend, where virtually no water is used, up to this reservoir to replenish this reservoir if and when replenishment is needed. Well, this is a lot less environmentally destructive to build a pipeline, part of which is going to be—is going to coexist with another pipeline so it’s—it’s kind of a double utilization of the same track. It’s much less devastating to the environment to run a pipeline from where you’ve got plenty of water to another reservoir source that could be used, if needed. You know, you can increase the yield of many, many of these large lakes in east Texas and have a lot more water even percentage-wise you—you can increase it twenty, thirty percent. But they don’t want to do that because this lake’s already got a name. They want to build a new lake, a lot of hoopla, a lot of fanfare, put somebody’s famous name on it and create new income.
DT: How would they use the water more efficiently? Are you talking about by building pipelines and by out-pouring reservoirs in tandem?
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DT: Yeah, both. Building pipelines from reservoirs that have water to reservoirs that historically potentially may need water during a season. This infrastructure back and forth and you—you can control the lake levels better if—if you have these pipelines that would tie them together. Much less cost and—and even if you say, “Well, it’s expensive.” Well, if you built Waters Bluff, although it’s not needed, if you built it, it may end up costing you, I can’t, you know, I don’t know how you mitigate this much land and I don’t know how you mitigate land that’s already been mitigated. But if you could, it’s going to cost billions. And when you’re through, you have a source of raw water and not one person that needs water to wash their clothes or drink, has any water because these—these little communities and small towns don’t have the money to spend on the infrastructure to either increase or build new water treatment plants. Either you in—increase their current capacity or build new ones or—most of them don’t have
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enough money to—to drill a new well that would—that would end all their problems. It may be all—that’s all they need is one additional well. That well may cost a million dollars to drill it. They don’t have a million, so since they don’t have a million to drill a well, who do they think is going to run a pipeline from this lake over to a community of three hundred and twenty-seven or eight hundred and eighty or two thousand? Ah, somebody else will do that, somebody else’s problem. Taxpayers problem is what it is. Whereas we—we have an obligation to meet water needs, we have the water, the water’s available. It’s right here. By using pipelines from where the water is, piping it to a city, a town or a community that needs it. Yes, it costs money, much more feasible, much more economical.
DT: We’ve talked about the controversy over Little Cypress Reservoir and then over Waters Bluff. My understanding is that there are a number of new reservoirs being proposed through the Senate Bill One process and I was wondering if you could go through how that process is being conducted and what you think some of the results might be.
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RL: Well, that’s a tough one. Yes, although the—the final draft isn’t complete as of this date, it should be very soon. And over the past two, two and a half years, the different—there’s sixteen different regional water committee—planning committees in the State of Texas. And each one of them will report in January to the Texas Water Development Board. Region D and Region I comprise most of the forest at east Texas area. In Region D—in all the regions, the planning group, through funding from Texas Water Development Board, hired consulting engineering groups to do feasibility studies for different water needs within that particular planning group’s district. And these studies were done at some cost over a period of time and those studies are complete and are in the hands now of Region D Water Planning Committee. And nearly without exception, I think there were—there were about a hundred and sixty, a hundred and eighty different water needs based on community water needs, whether it was a community, town or a city, there were about a hundred and eighty. And I think they came up with about sixty of them had a current water need. And the engineering firms that did these studies went out and made these studies, analyzed their problems, looked at what they had, looked at what they didn’t have and came up with solutions. Obviously, they ca—they were supposed to come up with economical—economically viable solutions. Well, I’ve read every one of them, as has int—everyone on the Region D Committee has heard what the solution is. And, in every case, with the exception of one very small, small reservoir in the Sabine River basin, in every case, surface water is not the solution. If it is, it’s a pipeline to existing surface water and not new surface water. In every case, additional water wells or
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increased treatment facilities was the answer, not large reservoirs. None of the engineering firms proposed that there be a large reservoir be built in Sabine basin, none of them. They did propose a very small non-mainstem reservoir between Kilgore and Tyler that would be fed by a pipeline from Toledo Bend and they did propose on the Sulphur River a very large reservoir, Marvin Nichols One. But while proposing it, they’ve made it very clear that the people of Region D, where this lake would be, don’t need this water. Dallas doesn’t need the water, but obviously Sulphur River Authority wants to build a reservoir and they would say, “Well, we’re taking care of the future needs of our people which is a very, very rur—rural area.” But they want to sell the water to Dallas. Well Dallas already has more water than they can use. They already have more water available and allocated than they can use through 2050. Well, I guess this is—if you don—if you can’t get it in a fifty-year plan, let’s—let’s go to a five hundred year plan and, you know, build that lake now and it’ll be a bog by the time anybody ever needs it. All the while, you’ve taken the tax base out, you’ve taken the forest out, you’ve taken the wildlife out and you’ve created an—a very, very expensive place to do what? Jet ski, water ski? We have plenty places to jet ski and water ski. East Texas is full of existing lakes but Region D, which was heavily dominated by members of river authorities and in—in cases where it wasn’t a member of the river authority, for instance, representing citizen groups, we had former members of river authorities. So they’re going to push this agenda reg—down your throat whether you like it or not. They proposed fifteen large reservoirs in Region D. They proposed that they be set aside as unique reservoir sites.
DT: What does that mean?
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RL: Well, a unique reservoir site—Region D Water Planning Committee was asked by Texas Parks and Wildlife to designate, if they so saw fit, unique reservoir sites and they also asked Region D to designate, if they so saw fit, any ecologically unique stream segments. Well, Region D did not designate any ec—ecologically unique stream segments. They were concerned that the language about stream segments was too vague and that it would impact—it may have an adverse impact on landowners. All the while, they knew that if they designate a reservoir as a unique reservoir site, that the—the goal was to designate it and list it as a specific reservoir site and then go to the Texas Legislature and see if they can’t pass a law that would preclude any other state agency or entity from, for instance, building a National, I mean, a Wildlife Refuge or a Wildlife Management Area or anything that in the future at any time, that would impede the River Authority or a water utility district from building a lake at one of these designated reservoir sites. And they said they were going to postpone the issue of unique stream segments, they’re going to postpone it until after the law is passed. After the law is passed, it’s the equivalent of saying, “Well, yeah, if you got a creek in your backyard you can designate it as unique, but we’ve already passed laws that say you cannot designate any of these areas where these huge reservoirs would be. You cannot designate them as ecology—ecologically unique stream segments.” Well, this is an—it’s an inside job, I mean, believe me. I’m not proposing or sa—saying that they’re going to start building fifteen lakes, they’re not. They are going to—they’ll—they do want to get a law passed quick that would protect the River Authorities in the future. This is also—I guess it would preclude mitigation banks being formed in these basins. It’s, you know, they’ve had it their way—they’ve had it their way since the beginning of time and they don’t want anybody challenging them.
DT: I imagine these planning committees are supposed to reach their decisions by consensus but clearly you’re sort of a dissident on the planning committee. Can you explain how some of those discussions went and how they made you feel?
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RL: Well, on a personal level, a lot of these people are, you know, they know where I stand, I know where they stand, we get along. We shake hands, we chit-chat about the weather, but they know where they’re going with their program. They’ve got it stacked the way they need to have it stacked to get to where they want to go with it. So, yeah, they give me—they give me courtesy—they give me courtesy. I’m a nuisance. Anybody that’s in their way that—that they can’t rubber stamp their agenda is a nuisance. I think it’s funny that, you know, I was on the Region D Water Planning Committee representing the environment and on September 27th we had a public hearing and I chose to get up at the hearing and read something I had prepared. And they really tried to make me miserable, tried to cut me off in the middle of the speech because they didn’t have time. Well, I don’t know, I ha—I and they had taken off for two years one Wednesday a month and driven to Mt. Pleasant and attended a three-hour meeting and now because I had something to say, and others, that wouldn’t be supportive of their agenda, they wanted to limit everyone’s speaking time to three minutes. And I got my three minutes in and the moderator told me to really wrap it up. I said, “I can’t wrap it up.” I said, “It’s going to take as long as it takes to read what I have to say. Do you want me to quit now?” And someone out in the audience said, “No, I want to hear what he has to say.” And other people piped up, “Yeah, let’s hear what he has to say.” And, of course, now this is the public, this is certainly not the planning committee. They’re on the stage in gloom and doom. They don’t want to hear this again, they’ve heard it a hundred times. They don’t want to hear it again. But when I finished, I got a good reception from the people that
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were there representing the public. So it would just seem like you would extend a—even—maybe you would extend a little more courtesy to a member of the committee than you may to an irate citizen. I don’t think I’m more deserving, but I think after having sat on this committee for a couple of years, I should be entitled to eight minutes, I—I think so. But, now—and then afterwards, you know—you know, a lot of them come up and pat you, “Oh, no hard feel—”, “Oh no, I don’t have any hard feelings. You know, I knew where—I knew where this was going before I got in it two years ago.” But they have listened to me with a closed ear, but they’ve listened.
DT: Where do you think it will go from here?
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RL: Well, I don’t think that the Texas Water Development Board is going to agree even to fifteen unique reservoir sites. I have a—maybe it’s mistaken, but I have quite a bit—I have a quite a bit of confidence in the Texas Water Development Board. I’m hoping that they’ll see through this for what it was. Every meeting that was held was attended by a representative of the Texas Water Development Board. I’m hoping that if not by January the 5th when the draft is due, if—if we can’t get at least Waters Bluff and Belzora Landing deleted by then, that due to the other state and federal agencies and organizations and the—the public uproar, I’m hoping the Water Development Board will say, “This is not responsible, this is unreasonable.” You got one above it and one below it, I mean, proposed. I’m hoping they’ll stand up—stand up for what’s right.
DT: You mentioned in a note to be earlier that you have an uncle who once gave you some advice about a case. Can you tell about that?
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RL: Well, I don’t know that he gave me advice. He certainly gave me something. I was about sixteen years old and had spent a lot of time in the Sabine River bottom and it would be a long story, but he ended up owning about thirteen thousand acres of—in the Sabine River bottom and he was a developer—a developer of unique machinery and he—he developed a huge machine called the “tree crusher” and it absolutely crushed trees. It didn’t matter what size, it crushed them. It hit them, it knocked them over and it plowed them in. He had done this—he had to test his machines. In fact they—they used these tree crushers when they built Lake Texoma and they used them when they build Toledo Bend. They used these same tree crushers. But he was always improving his tree crushers and I guess he was an—a great entrepreneur, a great inventor. But on this—on this river bottom land that he owned, he—he tested them. Actually he was converting hi—the land that he owned into a cattle ranch but he also got away with testing the machines. And it got—he had already crushed much, much, much. But there was one very specific, unique, beautiful swamp area with all this old growth forest in it that comprised about a hundred acres and I found out that they were about to crush it out to test this machine. And so I went—I went to him and approached him and asked him
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could he test it somewhere else and not take out this hundred acres? And he laughed so hard at me and I cried so hard that I left without much more said and he crushed out the hundred acres. A hundred out of thirteen thousand, on the banks of the Sabine River, old growth swamps and hardwoods and sloughs and even little lakes, old oxbow lakes and what not. This machine goes across the lakes, across the sloughs, knocks down everything in its path. There wasn’t a lot of uses for this land after you do that, but he did that. And he told me in no uncertain words that he wasn’t worried about what the machine did. And I think he changed my mind for a lifetime in terms of what I was going to work toward in my life and what I was going to stand up for. I agree he had the right to stand up, he owned it, or he stole it I don’t know which. A lot of that went on back then, but theoretically at least he had enough people to say it was his, he had more people to say it was his than the black guy that really owned it had to say it was his. So they took it and they—they crushed it. And I think I saw then that, I had some standing up to do in the future.
DT: When you look down the…
End of reel 117
DT: Can you sort of talk about the future some and what environmental problems, challenges, issues you see looming in the future that we’ll all need to face, deal with?
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RL: Well, you’d have to separate them. I think you’ve got to say, “What are the problems on the local level” although some of them are local are also on the national level and then you still have problems on the world level. On the world level, pollution of the oceans, the loss of habitat due to both forestry and land conversion through both forestry and cutting, especially in the unique, diverse regions of South America and Africa. A bigger problem in the—in the—for the United States, the two biggest problems and a lot of things are related to them, but the two biggest problems are going to be water and air. I feel, on a personal level, old growth forest are very, very important to me. I think they’re very, very important to water and the air. But I think, on a larger scale, you have to be broader and say that the pollution of the oceans, the pollution of freshwater and the pollution of our air are the three biggest environmental immediate threats. I’m sure that global warming could probably be—can be larger. I don’t know that enough folks are sold that there’s a problem yet, but there are enough folks on local and national levels that are sold that know that we do have a problem with air quality. We do have a qu—problem with water quality and I believe they’re beginning to understand that we do have a big problem in the oceans and that it effects us all because what is absorbed from the ocean, that goes to clouds and then moves over and drops, is a dispersal of pollutants in—in many cases. Especially in the gulf coast, I mean that’s one of the biggest problems. I mean, they got problems down there that are—national right now or known on a national level because of the different pollutants and you can look and see what’s—what surrounds the gulf coast and the shipping industry and the chemical plants. And although some of them have improved, they got there for a reason and so they would have a readily accessible cesspool to dump their pollution and they have cleaned up their act, by force, quite a bit. There may be a very few that have gone the extra mile and done something incredibly voluntarily, I don’t know. I—I—I’ve heard, you know, there are more and more people that are—or companies that are beginning to do things but most of it is more for PR than it is for reality.
DT: Are any of these issues cropping up locally, the petrochemical plants or lignite mines that…
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RL: Well, the—the big issue in east Texas is that we, as far as our ozone status, we find ourselves, especially in the summer, oftentimes in non-attainment, which has got—there’s some federal hickeys if you get into non-attainment.
DT: What is non-attainment?
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RL: Well, you haven’t—the ozone exceeded government set guideline levels. Well the powers that be in east Texas want to say that this ozone doesn’t come from east Texas or, if it does, it comes from trees. They won’t say it—it blows in from the gulf coast, but the truth is that our biggest problem is the—currently hopefully they’ll remedy it, I don’t know, but our biggest problem is lignite coal fired power plants and their emissions that are creating massive health problems for east Texas. There are other chemical companies and there are other polluters but, by far, the biggest polluters of the air and, in some cases, water are the lignite coal fired power plants. And—because this is a money deal, they could switch to gas but they’ve already paid for all this unused lignite. They’re committing to digging every ounce of it out before they switch to natural gas. So it’s—it’s an economic deal again, it’s a trade-off. If you complain about the coal mines and the
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electric generation from coal, you’re going to step on people’s toes. They start talking about who they employ, how many employees they got and they’re good for the community. And as long as anything that creates jobs, is good for the community, I think that’ll work, I mean, you know. Pornography creates jobs, but that’s not acceptable but air pollution is.
DT: Have you been to any of the lignite mines…
DT: Can you describe what these lignite mines look like if you’ve had a chance to visit one?
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RL: Well, there—they’re a huge—all the vegetation is removed and then the lignite is dug in different areas at different levels. In some areas it’s fairly shallow and in some areas it’s fairly deep and while they’re doing it, it looks terrible. I don’t know that the biggest issue is—is the digging of it. The biggest issue is the burning of it and the sulfur that it emits and the other types of pollutants that—that—that these emits that are not being currently caught. They have scrubbers, big scrubbers, but the scrubbers catch a certain percentage and the—the whole issue is what percentage should the scrubbers catch and at what cost and at whose cost? And it’s an economic issue. Do they provide jobs? Yes.
DT: Do you think—often times it seems that jobs in the environment are treated as competing interests. Do you think that there’s competition between the two?
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RL: There is now but when—when—when all these coal leases were—were bought, the—the big companies like Enron or whoever that bought them weren’t asking anybody what they thought about or even what the future impact was going to be. I mean, you—they were buying a—a resource that was under the ground that was essentially like oil, I mean, it’s there but you don’t see it. And until you bring it out, a lot of the people who had never been exposed to it, like myself, had no idea what the future held for east Texas. And then the—the plants began to grow and there were more and more and they started taking in and converting more and more areas to—even though they say they try to geographically set the land back as it was in contour, I can’t believe that you can dig a whole a thousand feet long and four hundred foot deep and you’ll end up with top soil on the top and not clay on the top. If you drive by their restored areas, it looks like a pine plantation under radiation impact. Everything looks dwarfed and, I mean, it’s not regenerating itself as any other land that has ordinary top soil that’s not disturbed would regenerate. But, here again, I don’t know that this is the—this is an issue for many and the destruction of the natural habitat and then you’re creating—you’re creating a new ecology. Ecology is always there, you don’t destroy ecology, you—you just cr—change it. Whatever’s going on, you’re creating a new ecology. And whether this is totally acceptable or not, I don’t know. The issue is the burning of the lignite and
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the release of the pollutants primarily in the air but there are also side pollutants that—that are emitted into the water. For instance, any drainage runoff around any coal mine like this is—has a high—high content of selenium in the runoff. Well, it’s—it’s just one of the bad boys. It’s not—it’s not mercury, but in high percentages it’s not good for aquatic life and—and we don’t—I’m not sure we know what all the long-term ramifications of too much of this or too much of that are. We know—we know—well—we know—we know a few things. We don’t know a lot and we always found ourselves—it’s kind of like the Love Canal, after the fact, ah if we’d only known. Well, if we’d slowed down a little bit or stopped when we found out and converted these plants to natural gas, we wouldn’t be where we are in air pollution in east Texas today and it—it—in the long-term it affects more than east Texas because some of these pollutants are airborne and there—and they are carried. Yes we do—some of out pollutants do come from south of us and some of our pollu—some of the pollution we—primarily south of us, prevailing winds, we in fact are creating pollution here that goes to the north and it’s a—it’s a domino effect and everybody wants to blame everybody else for themselves not being in non-attainment, or not being in attainment—being in non-attainment.
DT: What sort of advice might you give to people who are south or north or wherever they might be facing some of these environmental problems?
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RL: Good luck. Get involved—get involved. Stand up if you think you’re right. Stand up and be heard. Educate your children. If you can’t educate—if you’re thirty and you have two children that are five, you—you might not be able to educate someone that’s sixty that’s set in their ways, but you’d be surprised what children will listen to. And the people that are sixty now were educated to a culture and a train of thought. And I would hope that if you have the courage to stand up and fight for what you think is right, that you would also have the courage to tell your children what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and, in the end, you find out you’re really doing it for them because you can’t help the guy at sixty that’s got his mind set. He’s a part of the problem. Today’s children can be a part of the solution.
DT: Well, one last question I guess. You started our discussion with stories about visiting places in the outdoors. Are there any particular places that have often given you pleasure, respite in some way?
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RL: Well, I guess in a distant way I guess—somewhat distant, maybe some time I’ve spent in the mountains in New Mexico was awful nice, you know, being above the cloud level, like riding horseback and riding through the clouds and then looking down at the clouds. That’s nice. But on a local—on a local level, I think maybe getting away either with someone you care about or yourself, maybe canoeing some of these stream segments that are ecologically unique but can’t be so designated and maybe enjoying them for a little while. I get a lot of pleasure out of just seeing wild beauty—wild beauty.
DT: Well thank you.
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RL: You’re welcome. Thank you.
End of reel 2118.
End of interview with Richard LeTourneau.