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Ted Siff

DATE: January 20, 2007
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Jenny Gumpertz and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2382, 2383, and 2384

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

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here in Austin, Texas at the home of Ted Siff and Janelle Buchanan. And it’s January 20th, 2007. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas to interview Ted who has had a diverse career working with a bird tour outfit called Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, well-known in the field, as well as the Trust for Public Land, as well as the Austin Parks Foundation. And he’s been involved in many political efforts to get bond issues passed, and many and sundry things that we’ll get into in the next few moments. But with that, I wanted to welcome you and thank you.
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TS: Pleasure to be here with you.
DT: Ted, we often start these interviews with a question about your childhood. I’m thinking that might be a starting point for your interest in conservation. I was wondering if you could tell us if there was a friend, a neighbor, a family member, that might have introduced you to the outdoors or to a concern about the environment in general. Anything you can talk to us about?
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TS: Well, actually two. I was in Boy Scouts. And Bud Williams, our scoutmaster, a retired military and Texas A&M graduate, very knowledgeable about the outdoors, t—took our rebel-rousing group of twenty or thirty on—on a series of campouts over a three or four year period from age, I think eight, to eleven, or nine to twelve. And I—I know I got my interest in the out of doors, at least in large part, from Boy Scouts. Second, though, w—our family moved from inner s—near the center of Houston to the suburbs along Buffalo Bayou when I was eight. And in our little suburban subdivision, our house, though it was not—it was just a block off of Memorial Drive, w—the backyard
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was what we called “the woods”. There—there wasn’t any development beyond our house for at least of couple of years. And so from at least years of age eight, nine, ten, my brother and I would explore the woods. That was our after school activity. And—and it—un—unsupervised, and it—it gave me an exposure that I’m sure led to my longer and deeper interest in the environment.
DT: You said that you were in a Boy Scout troop.
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TS: Right.
DT: I was curious if you could tell about any camping trips that stand out in your mind as being fun or memorable in that sort of melodramatic way that some trips can have.
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TS: There isn’t one—big event. But I guess the macro-memory is of nights where the adult men would get us around the campfire and—and inevitably they would tell scary stories. And—and the—that’s my memory of those—those nights.
DT: And I guess these outings in your backyard were with your twin.
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TS: Right.
DT: Do you remember any of these outings (?)?
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TS: Oh, sure. I—as far as w—exploring the woods…
DT: Yeah.
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TS: …my—my teammate for life is my identical twin brother, and there are no other siblings. So we—I think in large part because there were two of us, our parents felt comfortable to let us go together. Not as single people, but as a pair, in—into the woods. And we actually went what is probably a half mile or so into the woods to find Buffalo Bayou like the first discoverers of it. And on the other side of Buffalo Bayou that we crossed only through fallen trees, we found an old log cabin that, of course, we thought we had—were the first people to ever see it at age eight or s—so. So it was really quite
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a—a ed—wonderful set of adventures that we had, aside from what would be probably s—experienced by other folks. Today we do Christmas recycling, and—Christmas tree recycling. In our neighborhood, Joe and I did the Christmas tree recycling by gathering up our neighbors’ Christmas trees to build Christmas tree forts in the woods, and I guess they eventually went back to nature that way. But there were—the—those were great mem—those are great memories, and they were great times.
DT: Have you read this book that’s come out recently called Last Child in the Woods?
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TS: I haven’t.
DT: I think that the thesis of the book is that this exposure at an early age makes a difference throughout a kid’s, and then a grown-up’s life. That they have a different outlook on life on the planet.
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TS: Yeah. Yeah.
DT: Do you think it helped in the case with you?
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TS: Well, I—I—I know my own experience that I just described has effected me, and I don’t know that it needs to be an exploration of the woods the way I’ve just described was my experience, but when I was director of the Austin Parks Foundation, I would open board retreats by asking all board members to describe their first exper—their first conservation-related, or open space-related experience. And to a person, they each had one, whether it was a neighborhood park, or a family member’s ranch or farm, or s—or something in between. I th—I think people are more prone to be conservation or
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environmental protectors, activists, or even just appreciate towards if they have that early experience, and it is one of the core reasons why I think we should all do what we can to expose every child to that kind of open-space experience.
DT: I guess as much as we’re a child of where we grew up, it’s also maybe a case where a child, or the times that he grew up. And I understand that you went to Harvard in the late ‘60s and studied American Government while you were there, along with urban studies.
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TS: Right.
DT: And it seems like a time of great ferment, you know, where there were terrible problems with civil rights, and the Vietnam War. At the same time, there was the development of a whole sort of alternative, progressive culture. And I was wondering if you could give sort of a ringside view to that, what the experience was like for you at that time?
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TS: Well, you know, Dickens said they were “the best of times and the worst of times.” And—and the—from ’66 to ’70, on collages ca—I think all American college campuses had some of this, and Harvard was clearly one of them, where students were upset about the Vietnam War. They were upset about r—inequities with regard to race and—and social opportunity, economic opportunity, and—and protested that in ways that hadn’t been proset—tested ever, I don’t think, on American college campuses by ultimately taking over buildings and burning things down, and doing at least w—what were called at the time radical activities. The—the plus side of that was that whether it was politicians like, first John, and then Bobby Kennedy, or other elective leaders or aspirants to elective office, there were—people were also looking to the heavens. We
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landed on the moon in ’69. And—so there was a lot of dreaming, as well as sort of fighting going on. I don’t think much p—productive outcome happened before the early ‘70s of that tumult, but just any—any objective recorder of events would see that in the early ‘70s, whether it was in the environment, or in general public policy, there’s this huge blossoming of new nonprofit organizations. The Environmental Defense, or Common Cause, or ultimately Public Citizen, they were a different kind of public policy advocacy-creating organisms than were their predecessors. You know, the earlier public
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policy advocacy model organization might have been Consumer’s Union, or even The League of Women Voters. Or Audubon, or Sierra, which was more of an advocate. But there was a h—it was a sea change in the kind of—within the law, public policy advocacy activity that happened really starting right at the beginning of the ‘70s, and I think that was in larger part a result of that tumult in the ‘60s, and thus, as a country getting out of Vietnam.
DT: After you left Harvard you came to the University of Texas and went to the School of Law, and shortly after that, went to work for Ralph Nader and Public Citizen in some of its early years. And I was curious if you could tell us about that experience of working for Nader’s Raiders.
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TS: Right. That was a media term for—the Nader’s Raiders term f—was created by a reporter for summer interns that were all law school students who got accepted through an application process applying to work for an organization called The Center for the Study of Responsive Law. Sounds less flashy than Nader’s Raiders, but Ralph Nader, through money that he got actually as a settlement from a lawsuit that he filed against General Motors for defamation of his character when he wrote his first book Unsafe at Any Speed, he used that quarter of a million dollars, or something in—around that amount of money, to create a nonprofit called The Center for the Study of Responsive
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Law. And he hired a few colleagues, and—less than a half dozen fulltime employees, then he got summer interns. Well, those—that—that center that Ralph Nader created, I would argue has had more impact, or the—that—that seed that he planted through creating that organization and the summer interns that it hired has had at least as much, if not more impact than any other public policy effort in the last thirty years. I—the—the first year I was involved, the summer of ‘71, was maybe its fifth year of operation, and there were a total of a dozen people. And I did study for a man named Harrison Wellford
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on some of the policies of the Federal Trade Commission. Well, it—in the next summer there were t—teams of interns hired to do studies of various other agencies, and ultimately, about a hundred interns hired still in that summer of ’72 to create an organization called Congress Watch, which evolved into what is now Public Citizen. But those—and I know I’m going on a bit, but thi—those teams of other interns, in ’72, but also in the summers of 1970 and ’69, did studies of the operations of different regulatory agencies—federal regulatory agencies. Federal Communications Commission, Federal
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Trade Commission, the—etc. And al—almost to a task group, to a team of interns, there are now nonprofit organizations that are monitors to the policies that those agencies make, whether it be Clean Water Action, which was founded by David Zwick, one of those first staff members of the Centers for the Study of Responsive Law, or—or many others. They—the—they permeate the public policy landscape now. And where—where there were the—a dozen, now there are tens of thousands.
DT: Well, we were talking earlier about the Center for Responsive Law, and Congress Watch and Public Citizen. I’m curious how these groups intervened in the whole political process, and the policy making process. Do they write reports? Do they file lawsuits? Did they do public organizing? What was their modus operandi?
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TS: You really just described it in large part. As opposed to street action, or even, you know, rallies or protests, which were the sort of modus operandi of the—of the late ‘60s, and I’m not saying that doesn’t have a place, it absolutely does, but what the Center for Study of Responsive Law did was study the law as it currently existed, study the process by which new law was made, and then intervene with—in the way lobbyists for private interests do on a regular basis with suggested changes in the proposed new law. So car safety, just to pick. There are seat belts now because of that. DDT, it doesn’t e—ex—it’s not permitted to be used because of that. There—nuclear power plant safety exists because of the things that different parts of the Center for Study of Responsive Law Internship Program, Nader’s Raiders, did. And—does that answer what you wanted to see?
DT: Yeah. I guess as part of that whole effort, you wrote a book called Ruling Congress, which I guess gets into the nitty-gritty of how the Congress, with its various rules and ways of operating, passes bills, as I understand it.
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TS: Right.
DT: And some of it is sort of opaque to the public. I was curious what you found when you started digging in that area and what sort of differences and improvements that that exposure might have.
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TS: Well, one of the things that Congress Watch did was divide up into teams to study different Congressional—to—to discuss, or research Congress divided by its different committees. The committees of Congress in—include on the House and the Senate side a rules committee. So the team that I was responsible for, and ultimately, as I was co-author of this book with that team, studied how a bill becomes a law whatever subject matter the—the law might have. And what is—is not all that well-known by the average
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citizen is that when Congress comes into session every two years, it adopts its own rules of the game, if you will. And that is how a bill becomes a law is the rules that are adopted by the House and the Senate each time they meet. And some of those rules are formal and adopted in writing, some of them are the culture of both bodies. Seniority for example, is not written anywhere in a—in black on—on white and on pap—you know, electronically or anywhere. Seniority is a—a—is—is the rule, informal though it is, that says how a committee member of a House or Senate committee becomes chair of that committee. And it’s the longest serving member on the majority party becomes chair of
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the committee. Well, that—that’s—that’s n—not an absolute rule, but it’s been a—the—there been exceptions to it, but that’s the way a House member or Senate member becomes a chair of the committee most of the time, and that means that you have to be in Congress for decades before you have real power. A—a pretty important rule, though you’d never read it anywhere except maybe in books like the one our team wrote. So other than the substantive argument you could make about a particular policy, people in Congress who know the rules, or peop—public interest advocates who know those rules,
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will get their legislation passed, and the ones who don’t won’t, no matter what the merit of their substantive argument is. And that—that’s why we wrote the book, but more importantly, what the whole process that Ralph Nader and the various advocacy groups that were spawned out of his effort understood and—and—and work with everyday.
DT: Can you give any examples of bills that might have succeeded or failed because the rules were understood or were not understood?
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TS: Well, it’s—it’s—it’s har—it’s hard to mention one particular case study, but what—what—what happens when a bill is going through the process is that the—those who are against it might add an amendment to it that is not germane. Well, knowing that it’s not an amendment that would have an m—a majority against the whole bill just because that amendment was attached, but it might be—not sufficiently of the same subject matter of the bill itself to be permitted as a—a—as an amendment. And so rather than having a vote on the amendment s—substance, a person could raise the question as to its germaneness, and the parliamentarian of the House or Senate could rule whether or
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not it’s germane. On one level, just knowing that could pass—could help a bill pass or fail. On a different level, being able to raise those kind of questions could delay the process enough to have a bill pass—delay or not delay the process to have a bill pass or—or fail. So I guess the—the main thing I’m simply trying to suggest is that in—in getting public policy passed, it’s—it’s as important to know the—the rules of how that game is—is played than it is to know the rightness or wrongness of what you’re advocating.
DT: Let’s talk just a little bit more about the experience of working with Ralph Nader and that culture of the nonprofit organizations. I think you said earlier, before we were on tape, that at one point you thought you might go into elected office and that kind of career. And that there was some turning point, some fork in the road, about this time, in I guess the early to mid ‘70s where you decided, no, there’s a legitimate role to play in the political process of going outside as a citizen. Can you tell me how that changed your mind and what that’s meant to you?
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TS: Sure. The—I, when I was in my first year of law school, met a few folks who had been interns the summer prior at the Center for Study of Responsive Law, and they encouraged me to apply. At that point in my life, I successfully graduated from Harvard and was an Eagle Scout and thought I was, you know, fully qualified to think about ultimately running—running for office, and it seemed like since I’d been, you know, class president and fire chief or whatever, I might have a—a chance of—of doing that. And hopefully what motivated wa—me was having some positive impact by being elected to something. Well, I—I got accepted into the internship program. I became a
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Nader’s Raider, per say. And what I learned through that summer of ’71 in Washington working for Harrison Wellford who was doing a study of the Federal Trade Commission’s policies was that you can—I at least began to learn it then—you can have as much impact on public policy by being involved in public interest work in a totally non-elected capacity as perhaps you could by being the senator, or the member of the House of Representatives, or the mayor, or whatever. In fact, maybe even more, because
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if you—if you dig—drill down into the rules and regs of a c—commission like the Federal Trade Commission and understand the data that’s involved in what one particular pesticide may be doing to the health and safety of our populous, you can make that argument in writing or in testimony, or in other ways get the message up through the staff and to the Federal Trade Commissioners and have an impact, change that law. And that might have an effect over millions of people in a way that you may not even ever have a chance to by being elected. So I was—I—obviously—I think it’s obvious just—just
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riveted by that experience. And the next summer, and for a couple years then after that, doing that kind of work in Washington with not one person or a half dozen people, but with hundreds of people through Congress Watch, I became fully committed to being active in public policy in a non-elective way because I thought it was at least as effective and—and also fun.
DT: (Inaudible) And helped see groups of hundreds of thousands of members started.
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TS: Yeah.
DT: I mean it’s an incredible time. But you know, maybe we ought to go on. I wanted to ask you about The Quorum Report.
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TS: Okay. Yeah.
DT: Ted, we talked a little bit about your experience in Washington in the early and the mid ‘70s. I thought maybe we could pull the clock forward a few years and bring you back to Austin. And I understood from ’83 to ’87 you published a document called The Quorum Report, which I think tried to monitor what was going on in the political world here in Austin at I guess the state level in Austin.
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TS: Right.
DT: And I was curious if you could sort of give us some sort of understanding of what the Quorum Report did and how it taught you the differences and similarities between federal politics that you’ve seen at Congress Watch, and in state politics, and in other things that come to mind.
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TS: Yeah. Well, The—The Quorum Report was a—a weekly report that—that was actually founded by a dozen or so Texans who were s—interested in—in monitoring state—state law and the Legislature. There—there were other publications, but not what—didn’t—didn’t get into as much nitty-gritty as The Quorum Report hoped to.
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Those original founders wanted to sell it. I had, for the prior decade or so, been involved with Texas Monthly Magazine from almost its very beginning. And I w—ended up buying The Quorum Report and being its publisher for four years. What we learned through Tim Richardson, our editor at that time, and myself is—is that there are lots of similarities between Texas and national legislative process. It’s on a big scale in Texas, not as big as national, but m—m—many of the same—not that visible processes happen.
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There’s a huge private sector lobby that is embedded, entrenched, and—and well-remunerated for getting public policy passed. And without that the state legislature that meets constitutionally undred—only a hundred and forty days every two years, w—w—without that private sector lobby there—there would be many senators and House members who wouldn’t know what to do. They’re very educated by the private sector lobby in a—in a technical way and a substantive way. And The Quorum Report re—reported on that. It—the publication, I might add, is very much a—a force today in state
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public policy making. It was bought ultimately by Harvey Kronberg, turned into an electronic media, and it’s a online, twenty-four/seven resource for people interested in public policy today. I say that as a dutiful subscriber.
DT: Well, did your exposure to the inner workings of the Legislature give you some pause about the influence of lobbyists and campaign finance? Or was it just something that you learned to accept rather than try to stop a campaign?
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TS: Well, you—I th—I think private interests are going to be represented in the legislative process. I’m for campaign finance, and—and cer—certainly, restrictions on—on—on how that influences—is peddled, if you will. But to think that p—a private interest will never be represented or shouldn’t be represented, I think is—is naïve. What—what our representative of democracy allows, in fact, and requires, is that every—every person should t—think out and seek out how to get their own—own interest or view expressed. And so I guess one sort of through-line, if you will, of—of my adult life
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is—is trying to do that, for myself and for others for what I think are public interests that when I—and my definition of public interest is simply one that is n—an interest that isn’t driven by a—a profit and loss, a dollar and cents profit and loss statement, but one—an interest that would be more—more a—a b—a benefit to the public at large.
DT: Maybe we could go back just a few years and talk about your experience, not sort of commenting or reporting on what was going on in government, but being part of the apparatus yourself. I understood that from ’74 through ’75 during some of the height of the OPEC controversy, you were a staff director for the legal and regulatory policy committee, the Governor’s Energy Advisory Council, considering that this, you know, oil and gas stayed a major player than (?). What was going on then? What was your experience (?)?
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TS: Well, the governor, Dolph Briscoe, had created this c—council made up of leading private sector in large part, in fact maybe solely, private sector representatives that i—of the Texas energy industry. The Texas indus—ener—energy industry was really the national energy industry in many ways, since most of the major energy producing companies had major, and still do have major operations in Texas. Dolph Briscoe asked the then attorney general, John Hill, to develop the staff for the advisory
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council. The Advisory Council was really set up to, without remembering it verbatim, it’s—its charge or its mission was to study the energy crisis that we were in at that time basically because OPEC, the coalition of those nations had gained control of the supply, and therefore the price of—of oil. And so the charge of the Governor’s Energy Advisory Council was to try to figure out how that affected Texas, its economy and its energy industry. It—to—to think of it now over thirty years later, we—we—that—that staff work clearly documented that—the Texas dominance of decades past in oil and gas
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was—had peaked, and—and was not ever going to return because the supply of oil in Texas, even including offshore, was diminishing, and therefore wouldn’t play as large a role as—as other—other sources. One of the outcomes of—of that was to do, I think early if not initial research on alternative fuels, and wind and solar were identified by that staff work as major resources—energy resources that Texas had, that it should—as well as geothermal, actually, that—that—that should be exploited and explored and promoted. Obviously, that’s happening to some extent now, but it—it was—the clarion call to get started on it was made in the early ‘70s, and that clarion call didn’t—didn’t hit any pub—any—an—didn’t result in any public policy for I guess at least two decades.
DT: I’m curious. You said that the council was made up of (?) the oil and gas industry. Did these companies sort of bridle at the suggestion of alternative energy as being a threat, or did they feel that that was something complimentary to take this for because they had experience in energy markets, and that would be a good next step for them?
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TS: Interestingly, wr—thinking back on it, there—there wer—it was not viewed at all as a threat. The staff generated reports and recommendations, as best I can remember, were fully adopted by the formal Governor’s Energy Advisory Council. What didn’t happen was any f—any follow-up in—in any significant and immediate way.
DT: Let me go on just a little bit and talk about another role you played in trying to guide the interests of business to consider alternatives, if that’s a fair way to put it. From ’85 to ’87 you served on the Transportation Council for the Austin Chamber. And I’m sort of curious. You know, this is before this latest round of growth we’ve had here, but it was during a previous round of growth where there must have been a lot of pressures and concerns about how are you going to handle a lot of new visitors and residents in Austin, they’re all going to need transportation. What was some of the talk that you remember from back then?
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TS: Well, it—as folks who’ve been in Austin as long as I have actually I’m sure do remember, but most folks were not—here not were not there in—in the ‘80s—here in the ‘80s. Austin’s population grew in four years forty percent. From 1980 to 1984, Austin increased its population forty percent. It’s—it sincerely sounds unbelievable, but—but I—the statistics will support me on this. So the chamber—the—there weren’t many other voices—public voices talking about public policy in Austin, but the Chamber had a transportation committee, and—and it—it was trying to help the city do some planning.
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This is pre-capital area, metropolitan planning organization, CAMPO, which is now the Regional Transportation Planning Authority. And our—our little committee, you know, recommended more roads. There wasn’t anything very creative about our—our effort, but I guess just that dot on my resume s—s—is—is a—important for me to keep on there just because I’ve—how we get around is—is—is one of the most important aspects in land planning.
DT: Have you considered some of the alternatives that have been knocked around for the last twenty years, and since then, of trying to get people from here to there, like rail and other mass-transit suggestions? Can you recount some of the things that you think are offensive or productive or, you know, wouldn’t make a difference?
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TS: Well, on a—on a micro-level, what—what I’ve been involved in i—is a way that sort of integrates my interest in environment and transportation. In the early ‘90s, with others I helped create the Austin Metropolitan Trails Council, which is now called Austin Metro Trails and Greenways. And it’s advocated for a system of inter-connected hike-and-bike trails throughout the at least three-county region, and has gone from the—the—the region has gone from having a few tens of miles of trails to a couple hundred miles of trails now. And more and more folks in their neighborhoods are getting around by using
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those off-street, mainly creek-based, hike-and-bike trails for recreation. Not much for commuting, but a tiny bit for commuting, and for—for personal trips. Not home-to-work trips so much, but home to the convenience store, or home to the neighborhood playground trips. On a bigger scale, I don’t think toll roads are—are the answer. I think they’re the—actually, the private eg—privatization—leading to the privatization of our whole public road system, and I think it’s a terrible direction we’re going in. It’s mainly
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the result of the Legislature not being willing to add a penny or two to our gas tax, which is our major source of revenue that pays for roads in the state. And for more than a decade, almost to the gas tax that’s collected to pay for s—s—state highways hasn’t been raised, and that’s why we’re in the funding crisis to build public roads we’re in. It’s a—
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it’s total collapse and failure of legislative and gubernatorial leadership. It goes across party. So that could be ameliorated, not fixed. But at least somewhat ameliorated in this session of the Legislature, because there are couple proposals to index that tax and—and—and increase it some. It needs to increase a lot more than it’s being proposed to get enough revenue to reduce or eliminate the need for toll roads. But it could be done. It just would take political willpower. There are lots of m—other multimodal solutions, or ar—alternative-mode solutions, some of which have a foothold in Austin, and—and those
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are exciting to me. Commuter rail and lo—and—and a downtown trolley or s—some sort of fixed rail trolley system are both proposals that I think will become realities within the next five to ten years. So it’s a m—it’s a mish-mash, and we’re way behind, and our city is less good because we haven’t done stuff, and it’ll be less good in the future if we don’t do a whole bunch more soon.
DT: I guess one of the other ways that you maybe have addressed this whole transportation dilemma is your interest in investment in inner-city real estate. I mean here we are sitting in a house within blocks of the central business district. And I know you’ve also been a real advocate, and I think that the Austin Chronicle refers to this neighborhood, as “the old Austin neighborhood, a.k.a. Ted Siff”, if you read that last issue. But you’ve often been associated with this part of town and the idea of trying to live close to where people work. Is that something that you think is a viable way to go?
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TS: Well, I do. I don’t think everybody needs to live downtown for that to work, but I think people need to be able to live in neighborhoods where they can walk to their—the—to the m—most things that are important in their lives. And s—the—real estate development isn’t currently configured to have that result most of the time. New communities that major homebuilders are building presume the car is the sole, not just—or at least the pri—way—far in front of any other way to get around. There are exceptions. The whole new urbanism movement and architecture promotes pedestrian-
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friendly walk-ability—wa—walk-able neighborhood kind of construction, and—or land development, and—and that exists in—in the Austin area. But what—the c—city can do about that is limited because it only has land planning authority within its g—within its territorial jurisdiction, and most new development of a large scale happens outside the city’s control. Counties have much more limited land-planning authority. And so—I don’t know that I answered your—there is—there isn’t an easy answer to that question.
DT: So in a sense, it’s a kind of a question of scale. Most large developments happen outside the city, in the county, in the general (?), and that to get that kind of investment of money and square footage, and that may people is difficult to do in the compact city forum.
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TS: Well, t—take your typical new community subdivision right now, of five hundred acres or more. While that smart developer would probably allow, within his infrastructure, land for an elementary school, and probably some park land, there may or may not be any light retail, you know, convenience store kind of allocation within that s—subdivision. There may or may—there probably wouldn’t be a public library or other things that—that people would normally go to. If—to the extent that a library or a neighborhood park, or definitely an elementary school, maybe a health clinic were all with—within that five hundred acre subdivision, all of those nodes of activity would be
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within walking distance of every home in that subdivision. And that’s—that’s simply what I’m saying, that the general way and the private sector land development occurs, it’s—it’s hard to require that. And since they’re just down the major highway from most of these subdivisions, most developers don’t integrate them into the neighborhoods. The—the—the city’s role could be and has been in some—some cases s—the St. John’s neighborhood in Austin is an example, where the city and the school district went together to create a—a new elementary school that had a public library component to it,
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and a health clinic component, and a neighborhood park all in one area. And now, what was an old neighborhood is being revitalized and there’s new housing being built in that general vicinity because of—because of the public complex of facilities that were built there.
DT: …stuff you want to touch on that’s conservation-related? That was the (?).
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TS: …public policy, which it did in its relevant years. As Janelle calls it, I was there during the relevant years of Texas Monthly…
DT: Ted, from ’76 through ’87 I believe, you helped the Texas Monthly Press, which got the award-winning Texas Monthly Magazine that quickly gained a reputation for investigative reporting. I was curious about what drew you first to work for the press, and then to try and orient the press to public issues?
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TS: Well, I was—I was in—invited to work for Texas Monthly by a law school classmate, Mike Levy. And th—though I didn’t have any direct involvement in the editorial, in—in—indirect or direct involvement in the editorial, I was also knowledgeable of and friends with Bill Broils, the founding editor of Texas Monthly through his work in Houston school politics before—before he became editor. And so I was—I was attracted to the magazine first, and then to the book publishing aspect of the
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company because I knew that Bill, it’s fou—its editor, would be involved in some public policy stuff. And as it turned out, certainly from those—those years that I was there, a—as well as now, the—the initial stories on big Houston law firms and the life of—of—of an employee of those big Houston law firms, to the best and worst Legislature stories that started as soon as the magazine started, I think if it make—have—have had a significant impact on the way legislation is made in Texas, and who makes it. And a—i—in large part through educating a—a Texas leadership that’s willing—willing to—to read. Today
00:55:11 – 2382
as opposed to thirty-five years ago—thirty and thirty-five years ago, there are so many alternatives that—or there are so many additional resources beyond Texas Monthly, or in addition to Texas Monthly to learn about, to be—Texas public policy that it—it plays a different role than it did in—in that decade or so that I was involved.
DT: Maybe you can think of one other aspect of your experience with the media. The last year or so as I understand it, you’ve worked with the Texas School Administrative Legal Digest. And while this probably doesn’t have a large conservation aspect, I’m kind of curious since the location and investments in schools drive so much of development where it happens, the pace it happens, that if you have any discussions about that when you visit with principals and administrations that are involved in the schools?
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TS: Actually, I don’t think that is relevant. I mean I’m—there’s nothing to hide there, I just don’t have those kind of meetings with principals. I’m sorry.
DT: Sure. Sure. Yeah.
[End of Reel 2382]
DT: Ted, let’s resume the interview. We’ve talked about a number of things from your role in political operations to media outlets. I thought we might talk about some things that were really intimately involved in conservation. And one of those chapters in your life was from ’89 to ’91 you were the executive director of a firm called Victor Emanuel Nature Tours that just really become one of the preeminent, global ecotourism guide organizations. And I was hoping that you could tell us a little bit about the firm, and about Victor Emanuel, and the kind of clients that you had and places that people were sent, and just how this whole industry, ecotourism, has evolved since then.
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TS: I’d love to. It’s interesting how these connections—what happens in your life that results in connections later. Victor and I had known each other at Harvard. We were both Texans at Harvard together. He was a graduate student when I was an undergraduate, and we met at the Adams House Dining Hall. And Victor, being—having gone to Rice and the University of Texas before coming to Harvard, ha—ha—brought some Texan elected officials to talk to us at the Adams House Dining Hall on a regular basis. W—we became friends. That was in the late ‘60s. In the late ‘80s, twenty years later, Victor, by that time having started his bird touring company and having been into it
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for fifteen years or more, needed a new executive director, and he—he called on me at the point—at that point a total non-birder, but an appreciator of nature, to help him run—run the company, which it was my privilege to do for a couple of years. As—as you allude t—t—it was really the beginning of ecotourism in terms of that word, the public being conscious, the economy, pe—people involved in the eco—state economy, the national economy b—b—beginning to appreciate what the travel industry already knew,
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which was that tourism and travel by any number of measures is one of the larger industries, if you count airline—t—the transportation expense and the housing expense, and so forth. Well, ecotourism, though still a—a probably decimal dust level s—factor in that whole travel and tourism sector, is—is absolutely growing very fast now, and—and was in its infancy at the time. Victor’s Tours certainly helped promote that, particularly in Texas by helping create the whole public policy called the Great Texas Birding Trails, which are now multip—mult—multiplicity of trails, I think a dozen or more, with maps all promoted through mainly Texas Parks and Wildlife, and through major centers in
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South Texas, one in McAllen called the Great Texas Birding—aagh—I’m not sure of it—Texas Birding Center. But because almost all the birds in North America come through Texas, and particularly South Texas, if they migrate south at all, Texas—one of the Texas’s significant environmental assets is—is the birds that live here and—and—and visit here.
DT: That’s interesting. So he didn’t feel it was necessary to go to some exotic place, a rain forest or the Antarctic to see spectacular wildlife. He sort of promoted the idea of looking in your backyard?
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TS: Victor became a world class birder by looking in his backyard. And growing up in Houston, looking at the birds in Houston, traveling as far away, which was maybe thirty miles to the Katy Prairie in West Houston. When I was an undergraduate in college and we were both home, Victor and I to Houston for Christmas break, he would take me out to the Katy Prairie in the late ‘60s to look at the hundreds of thousands, or millions of birds that were landing on those rice fields before they went further south. T—today, and even when I was at Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, now what that company
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is is a—a collection—it—its staffing is the collection of what I describe as the Indiana Jones’ of their various countries. And there’re probably thirty or forty of them now. The expert in s—in—in Brazilian wildlife, and particularly birds is the—is the affiliate, or the person that people who go on Victor’s tours will be led by. And my—my role in that was in part at least getting to help communicate and—and—and manage this worldwide network of Indiana Jones’, which was we’ve—which was both fun and challenging.
DT: So you had these guides that you were trying to rope together, and then you were also trying to appeal to clientele. Can you tell anything about the kind of person that would go on these trips? It doesn’t seem like a easily packaged kind of entertainment. It’s not going to a museum or to a restaurant. It takes special skills and interest and patience, and you know, walking and seeing these things. What sort of people would that appeal to?
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TS: It’s an amazingly ec—eclectic group of—the customers of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours mainly gotten at the time through direct mail, that is, customers wh—peop—people who subscribe to Audubon Magazine, or other similar magazines, those subscription lists were rented and direct mail promotional pieces were sent to them, and that—some of them responded saying they wanted to go on this or that tour. It—in large part, a very educated group, but n—that—I guess if there’s one or two commonalities
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that—the vast majority of them were already established bird watchers. And—and young or old, they had a—a sense of ad—that they want to do a different kind of travel, complete—a sense of adventure, if you will. And they got it.
DT: One of the things that I’ve often heard about ecotourism is that it’s this sort of two-edged sword that, on one hand it promises environmental education and jobs in remote areas, an education I guess mostly for the visitors, and the jobs for the residents. But on the other hand, there’s always the concern that you’ll kill the golden goose, that you’ll bring too many visitors that it will scare off the wildlife, or harm the habitat that you’re going to enjoy. How do you see that balance playing out over time?
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TS: Well, I—I think it’s an important question for the regulators or owners of those resources to—to be concerned about. And I—I don’t—my observation, both while I was at that, but also now, is that the scale of the current ecotourism travel industry isn’t—isn’t going to impact the resource in—in—in general. There may be special cases, but there—the—it’s going to have scale up a lot before there’ll be a significant threat there.
DT: We sort of touched on these questions about habitat by talking about your exposure to ecotourism at VENT. I was wondering if you could take us to somewhat later in your life. In 1991, you helped lead the bond proposal and lead this passage of I think it was twenty million dollars, is that right, for park land acquisition in the Austin area?
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TS: Right. Actually, August of ’92.
DT: ’92.
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TS: Yeah.
DT: And you were working then as a consultant to Trust for Public Land. Is that correct?
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TS: Yes. And your ninety-one reference, I guess we were working on that bond—bond campaign for about eighteen months. So, yeah, that started in ’91.
DT: Well, tell me both the personal and the sort of politic side. I mean how did you get interested in that, and why was there this clear outpouring of public support and dollars for land conservation at that point?
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TS: Well, actually, while I was working at Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, a friend invited me to come to a meeting. And that meeting turned out to be a—a group of just a half dozen or so folks that had already decided to call themselves Citizens for Open Space. And the—the meeting included a City of Austin park planner named Butch Smith, and the head of the—the current head of the Voluntary Parks Advisory Board in Austin at the time, Beverly Griffith, a—a former PBS re—or NPR reporter who was currently working for the Save Our Springs Coalition, Bridgette Shea, and another
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environmental advocate named George Cofer, all youngsters bef—in the environmental advocacy arena, but as it turned out, it was a sort of threshold event for me, and I think each of the other folks there, because—while the city had—citizens had passed bond elections in prior decades for park land acquisition, it—the—there hadn’t been the bond elections since ’84. This was ’91. And the city had gone through a boom, as I’d mentioned earlier, a huge boom in the early ’80s, then a huge economic bust in the late ‘80s, and was just crawling out of it e—in the early ‘90s. Parts of Texas actually suffered
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an eco-bust in the early ‘90s, Houston in particular because of oil related issues. But Austin started a very progressive increase in its e—e—economy in the early ‘90s, thus resulting in the economic stars being in place for a new bond election by the end of ’92. Our—our group was f—was formed because all of us felt like there needed to be more park land in Austin. And the result of that bond election, sort of fast-forwarding eighteen months since I’ve already spent so much time describing this, is that the most important environmentally sensitive land was identified to be at essentially the headwaters of Barton Springs, or that is the land right above where the springs are and a thousand of those acres were bought with the twenty million dollars that was authorized in bonds by the voters in August of ’92.
DT: Well, so the main driver in a sense was water quality, or was it the recreation that drove this?
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TS: The issues at the time were—were concern about the water quality at Barton Springs, recreation on the Barton Spr—Barton Creek Trail, and expanding that. And separately but related were concerns about endangered species habitat. There were two birds involved here, the Black-capped Vireo and the Golden-cheeked Warbler, both of which are listed on the Federal Endangered Species Act. And in fact, in—in the early ‘90s, it became very much of concern in Austin that these birds were residents of Austin, at least part of the year, and—and that much of western Travis County was their habitat,
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which imposed federal restrictions on to the develop-ability of that land. So part of the city’s reaction to that was to try buy some land—or propose to buy some land that would be for the protection of endangered species habitat, and therefore, free up other land that could be developed without as significant restrictions. All that—all of that played into
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the identification of this land, which is now called the Barton Creek Wilderness Park, which as it turned out, not only had this potential to expand the Barton Creek Trail, but it was right over the most important part of the recharge zone that created the—the—the i—n—land through which Barton Springs flowed—or—a—and, in addition to that, the same—same thousand acres was also endangered species habitat for the Golden-cheeked Warbler. So part of that eighteen-month period was to identify land that was the most important to buy, and that that process resulted in identifying the land I’ve just described.
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The rest of that time was really building from not much in place a—a citywide constituency for parks, and—or for parks and public land. And—and Beverly Griffith, who ultimately became a city councilmember, Bridgette Shea, who later also became a city councilmember, George Cofer and I worked—worked on doing that.
DT: My understanding is that you were working as a consultant to the Trust for Public Land in helping pass this bond package. And then later on you became a staff member working full-time, and actually set up the Texas office. I was curious if you could tell us a little bit about how that organization came to have a footing here in Texas.
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TS: Yeah. Sh—that park planner that I mentioned earlier, Butch Smith, had been invited by the regional director of the Trust for Public Land to go to a conference, I guess a—a year or so before Citizens for Open Space started. Butch was so impressed by what was happening in other parts of the country at this Open Space conference that he went to, that he invited the people I earlier mentioned to talk about open space and open space plan for Austin. Well, my day job was at Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and a—at these monthly meetings, this—which was their frequency at least at the beginning, one of them,
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a—that regional director who’d invited Butch to the conference, a man named Ted Harrison who was based in New Mexico, came and talked to our group. And that was the first I’d ever heard of the activities of the Trust for Public Land. I learned that there wasn’t a state office—this Trust for Public Land didn’t have offices in Texas, that it desired to have offices in Texas, and Ted Harrison was just commuting from Santa Fe on a i—irregular basis to try to identify parks—projects for the Trust to work on in communities in Texas. So I proposed to Ted that he hire me as a consultant to work on
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City of Austin efforts, and ultimately that evolved into me doing that consultancy work as my day job in ‘90—the end of ’91 and into ’92. And by the end of ’92, I was offered the opportunity to open the Texas field office of the Trust for Public Land, which I did.
DT: Maybe you can tell us a little bit about some of the projects that you’re most proud of that TPL was involved in. One that I think you started, and that has continued to gather steam, years ago, known as Government Canyon. And (?) something that you can mention. I’d love to hear about that.
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TS: Sure. Sure. Well, the Trust for Public Land helps public agencies, primarily cities and counties in Texas, identify and then buy land for open space. Your mention of the Government Canyon Proj—now State Natural Area of op—over ten thousand acres, that was a public—that was a Trust for Public Land project that a project manager named Dave Sutton, who also worked in the Santa Fe office, did the first two or three land transactions for. He worked for s—he worked with citizen advocates in San Antonio, not unlike our Citizens for Open Space group in Austin. I think their acronym was—was the AGUA, and you may have interviewed DaNeil Milam, or others involved in that group.
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But in the late ‘80s the—all of Texas went through this real estate bust. One of the results of that was a federal regulatory special agency called the Resolution Trust Corporation that took over the land a—assets of failed savings and loans and banks, many of whom were in Texas. So there were literally tens of thousands of real estate assets of failed banks and savings and loans owned by the Resolution Trust Corporation. One of those assets was a—I think it—can’t remember the exact acreage now, but it’s several thousand acre, maybe somewhere between two and four thousand acre ranch
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called The San Antonio Ranch outside of the City of San Antonio. That was the first project of the Trust for Public Land. It ultimately became the starter piece of Government Canyon. I did three or four land transactions that added to that, and they were all—the—part of the mix of things that has to happen for one of these land
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transactions to work is—is funding. We’ve mentioned activities in bond elections. The Government Canyon land, the different tracts of land that ultimately have created this c—almost completed puzzle called Government Canyon State Natural Area, was paid through a coalition of—of—of s—sources, the State Parks and Wildlife, some foundation grants f—large ones from the Kronkosky Foundation and the Meadows Foundation, have gone into the—the funding of these—these—these purchases. Over the maybe half dozen or so years that were the first six years of the Government Canyon acquisitions, there—there was built up enough citizen appreciation and advocacy in San
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Antonio for those folks to advocate for a portion of the San Antonio—City of San Antonio sales tax being dedicated to land acquisition. So in the late ‘90s, that election to authorize a portion of the City of S—S—City of San Antonio sales tax was successful. And then it’s recently been reauthorized. So the City of San Antonio, which was very under-ser—under-parked, if you will, very little public open space in San Antonio fifteen years ago now is a city that ranks among some of the best cities with regard to the amount of public open space or park land, whether it be in natural areas or—or public parks. A lot of that is the result of the Public—Trust for Public Lands work.
DT: There was another transaction, and I think TPL was pretty deeply involved in it, this Guerrero Park out here in Austin. And it interested me because it’s got many of the same attributes that I think that Government Canyon has of having a water resource of maybe being an under-served part of the community. Can you tell about the acquisition of that place and why it was important to TPL?
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TS: Sure. It—Guerrero Park is along the Colorado River in the eastern part of Austin, and it actually was a—it’s an area that was identified in the early ‘80s by a citizen commission called the Town Lake—Town Lake that—that created a—a plan for Town Lake, which is the part of the Colorado River in the center of the City of Austin. It’s dammed on both sides and it’s called Town Lake. So in ’84—1984, this—this report was published envisioning a Colorado River Park, the r—the first name for Guerrero Park. Actually, the full name is Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park. In the—y—in 1980—well, I’m sorry. It was earlier than ’84 that the report was published because in I think
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1984 there were bonds, three-point-two million dollars worth of bonds allocated to buy land for that purpose. Well, we were in the—still in the midst of that boom that I was talking about in the early ‘80s, and the city spent all of that money on about twenty-five acres of land. I—I say all that money, the—the bulk of that money. They had a little left. But now we get to the early ‘90s and no more of that land has bought, but the vision of this three hundred or more acre park is—still exists. And most of the land surrounding
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the original twenty-five acres is owned by either the Resolution Trust Corporation or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the other federal agency that got a lot of these failed bank or savings and loan assets. And the short version of the story is that a—a—through a—about a dozen different transactions on different parcels of land, several of
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which were owned by these federal agencies, the Trust for Public Land was able to use its money to buy ultimately what ended up being three hundred and sixty-three acres, and then the City of Austin bought the land from the—in—held in trust by TPL, a—and sold back to the city at TPL’s—or at the appraised value of it—o—as the city could pay for it. So now we have this signature park, as you said, with water resources and—in a under-served area of town that’s a sort of matched set of parks, it on the east, and one called
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Zilker Park on the west where Barton Springs is, and a—a—a big trail in between called The Town Lake Hike Bi—Hike and Bike Trail. So you’ve got ma—major—major open space resource in the center of the city.
DT: Maybe we can include this piece that you experienced about TPL by just talking about what’s your perception of the difference between TPL and some of its cohorts in crime. The other major land buying and protecting nonprofits, one of which I just mentioned, the Nature Conservancy, and you know, the Conservation Fund. And then of course there are a whole slew of smaller land trusts that are more local, regional.
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TS: Right.
DT: Where do you think TPL fits in that sort of ecosystem?
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TS: Yeah. W—well, among the big—those big three, TPL is the Hertz to the Nature Conservancy being Avis or—or (?) maybe Avis—well, in any case, Nature Conservancy is clearly the—the most—the largest land conservation organization in the world. Over a billion dollars of annual revenue, etc. The T—TPL, though much less visible, is—is second largest and has annual revenue. And I mention these figures just for scale purposes, but of about three hundred to three hundred fifty million dollars. Trust for Public Land buys land for people, as its motto. That is, it buys park land while—while the Nature Conservancy’s land acquisition criteria is science-based. It buys land for
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preservation purposes, preservation of the biological, scientific, ending—assets of that land. Some land can be both for people and have significant endangered species habitat aspects, or water quality or quantity assets, and so there’s signi—there’s some overlap between the Trust for Public Land’s mission and—and the Nature Conservancy’s mission. And h—I’m happy to say that now, much more so than in some earlier years, TPL and TNC work very much as partners in many projects throughout the country. The Conservation Fund I’m—I’m not as able to pigeon hole in one area or the other, but their
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main—they have two main programs. The—one is more oriented toward TNC te—nature cons—the Nature Conservancy kind of work, which is ch—very landscape scale, multi-thousands, multi-tens of thousands of acre assets. They work with private corporations and other funding sources to buy that land and either hold it themselves or—or—or gift it to federal—to public agencies. The other is the Conservation Fund has a—a major greenways initiative, which is trails like I’ve mentioned before, and they do a lot of good work in making t—trail-related or greenways-related grants to smaller nonprofits.
DT: About the same time that you were helping get TPL off the ground, I believe that you were a co-founder of the Austin Parks Foundation.
00:33:30 – 2383
TS: Right.
DT: …in 1992. And as I understand, you started out as a board member, and then eventually segued into being their executive director. And I was hoping you could talk a little bit about how you made parks a popular thing. And I guess it’s always had a constituency in Austin, but it’s usually an Austin Parks Foundation—I mean your leadership helped created the Adopt a Park Program and the Movies in the Park Program, and this Local Grants Program. There are a lot of different ways to sort of reach into the neighborhood (?). How did you do that and why?
00:34:19 – 2383
TS: Well, one of the national programs of the Trust for Public Land was called—is called its Green Cities Initiative. And th—through that initiative that was h—funded through some national foundations, seven cities were picked to focus on urban parks. And Austin—the Austin office of the Trust for Public Land in competition with others applied to be one of those seven cities. W—Austin got selected. One of the requirements
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of the foundation grant was to have a local—have a—a—a Trust for Public Land office involved in partnership with a—a city—city-based office, because most Trust for Public Land offices are either state offices or regional—multi-state offices. In—independent of that effort, my friend from Citizens for Open Space days, Beverly Griffith, who had served for ten years on the City of Austin Parks Board, s—decided—said to herself, no matter how good the parks department will be, no matter how good our advisory board
00:35:50 – 2383
will be, we need an outside group of advocates and funding supporters for our city parks system, over and above, to enhance whatever funding the—the citiz—the—that can provided on a city budget. So Beverly and two cohorts that she grabbed along the way, Cliff Price and one other, fou—incorporated this 501(c)3 nonprofit Austin Parks Foundation. I was invited to be on its board. I helped the Austin Parks Foundation with no staff write its part of the grant application to get this national grant money. And through that national grant money, the Austin Parks Foundation got the funding for four years to pay for limited staff and—and to start doing programs, some of which you just mentioned.
DT: It seems like the park system in Austin would make any city proud. I was curious if you could explain why we’ve got this large park system and whether it was the Endangered Species Act that brought this about, or a quality-of-life concern. And then also why it seems to always be sort of a poor country cousin to other parks or the cities’ obligations to fund it and to staff it.
00:37:33 – 2383
TS: Well, is—I’ve thought about that, why Austin has what it has, and—nnn—the—I’ve thought about your question a lot. So let me try it s—give a swing at an answer. The—the—the city itself was founded not as a real estate deal, which is how Dallas and Houston were founded, but as the seat of government. And th—through our—you know, through Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin got a surveyor named Edwin Waller was hired to do a city plan, you know. And in that city plan, there were four block square parks in the center of the city along with two creeks that bounded the city respectively on the east
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and west, and a l—and a river that bounded it on the—on the south. So there was open space or connection to the environment i—integral to the—the land that—that was the city at its core. Unlike some other city—big cities, it was the exception that where Austin got land for parks gifted to us. The—all—the big exception is Zilker Park, and that’s actually only a sort of half exception because Andrew Zilker gave his land to the Austin Independent School District, and only with ret—requirements that they use that land in some way to build a school that—so Austin—Austin actually paid for Zilker Park,
00:39:24 – 2383
but it was gifted to the school district. So Andrew got two good benefits out of it. This—we—we gi—got a great park, and we also got some school benefits. But m—most of the land protection that is exi—exi—has happened in Austin has happened because citizens voted to tax themselves to—to do that. And so from the very beginning, pieces of land have been bought. In recent decades, the—there have been two additional forces
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in—o—over and above public recreation, which have been water quality and quantity protection, and endangered species habitat protection. There’s been tens of thousands of acres bought for each of those two other purposes, some of which, but only frankly a very little of which is open to the public for public recreation. And I think for the future, that’s—the current and future, one of our bigger challenges is to achieve those other public policy goals with that land first, but do it in such a way as to allow some—some public access to that land, too, because the citizens have paid for it. But bo—bottom line,
00:40:58 – 2383
citizens in Austin come to Austin in part attracted by its environment, and its environment is a natural seller of its value to the folks who ultimately voted to tax themselves to pay for buying some of it for—as a common asset—as a public asset.
DT: Yeah. And then given that there is such public interest and policy reason for this endangered species or water quality supply, the support of having a good park system, why do you think that the parks department has often been under funded?
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TS: On—as—as great as everybody—I—I think there is huge appreciation for parks in a—and even in—in the operations of the park system, but when you—you have seven city councilors deciding over a finite—d—deciding how to divide up a finite amount of funds, their priorities are going to be public health and safety first, direct social services second, and then—and—and transportation will be part of public health and safety
00:42:26 – 2383
probably, and if you are able to deal with those two big—big things, you might start thinking about parks, libraries, other stuff. That’s an oversimplification. But the—the reality is that there is, you know, finite amount of public dollars, and there—for a city that’s growing as Austin has from its very beginning to now at a rapid rate, because Austin has doubled its population almost precisely every twenty years from its birth, and it continues to do so. So Austin will be a million and a half more people in twenty or twenty-five years than it is now. That’s the projection. S—so there—the—that requires
00:43:26 – 2383
more park land and park operating money, but it also before that requires more roads or transportation dollars, it requires more police, more firemen, etc. And at le—at least in our funding structure right now, just paying for police, fire and EMS, that takes up about seventy percent of our operating budget. So long answer, I’m not going to—did I—did I hit at least some of what you were asking?
DT: Let’s skip over to some of your interests in a firm that you started called Creating Common Ground, where unlike with TPL, or with Austin Parks Foundation, you were looking into, I guess, public land. You crafted this niche for yourself as a consultant to try to protect private land as intact habitat or as a working natural farm. Why do you think that might be an important role in Texas given its unique…
00:44:41 – 2383
TS: Sure.
DT: …private lands heritage?
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TS: Well, clearly one of the things I learned in spades for the decade or so that I was involved in the Trust for Public Land, or a little bit more than that counting the work with the Austin Parks Foundation, was sort of a—a given for us people who were involved in Texas Land Protection, which is that less than five percent really of all of the land in Texas is public land. And at least by some measures, that may include all of our public roads, you know. I mean w—exactly that percentage. It’s debated a little bit. For a long
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time people said three percent. At its most it might be nine or ten percent, but that would definitely include every—every sidewalk, every roadway, etc. So in any case, parks, five percent or less. P—Parks or public open space. From an environmental standpoint, the much higher leverage point to—to do environmental protection work would be on the ninety-five percent of the—working with the ninety-five percent of the pie rather than five percent of the pie. Or even adding—you know, increasing the five percent to six
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percent, which would be whole bunch of acres, but still be a percent. So it—it did a—it became apparent to me that largel—that lowner—owners of large land could have a win-win kind of opportunity. Owners of ranches who don’t intend to subdivide the ranch could either gift or even sell the conservation rights that—or assets of that land through gifting or d—that is donating, or selling that—those environmental assets to a—a
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nonprofit, a land trust. It’s a relatively new concept in Texas, but not new nationally. It’s been going—this kind of land transaction has been occurring in Massachusetts for a hundred years and many other states for decades. In the last five or six years through my consultancy, which is called Creating Common Ground, I’ve worked with private landowners to—to—to do just that. They remain the owner as in the law—it’s called the fee simple owner of the—of the land, that they’re still the owners of the land but they’re—gifted or sold a—certain rights to that land to a land trust. They’ve either made
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money in cash by that transaction, or depending on their tax—their personal income tax liability or their estate tax liability, they’ve reduced their taxes by donating that asset. And they still have the same use of the land with minor restrictions—maybe not even restrictions—that they’ve been having for that land before the transaction.
DT: I have a specific question and a general question. The specific question might be if you can give us an example of one of these transactions that has been a real win-win, as you say. And secondly, I’ve heard that there have been efforts in Congress to address abuses in the whole easement business where some folks feel like the easements are over-valued or land trust not prepared to monitor the actual uses of the land once the easement is passed.
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TS: Right.
DT: Think you could touch on both those questions?
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TS: An example that comes to mind as far as conservation easement donation that—that I helped happen is a owner of a large ranch in Culberson County, far West Texas, John Byram decided because he had a conservation interest, but also because he’d learned that there are some potential economic benefits, he—he decided, and I—I worked with him on the legal papers and identifying the land trust as well as the appraiser to do the appraisal, that he would donate a—the conservation easement over twenty-two thousand acre ranch. And at the time it was the largest conservation easement gift that
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had occurred in Texas. This was in ’99—1999. John By—the land in West Texas isn’t a high value per acre, but if you have twenty-two thousand acres of it, and you gift the—at the conservation easement rights off of that land, you may be gifting as much as forty to fifty percent of the value of that land. And John Byram was able to take that charitable donation just as if he’d given the money to Goodwill or the American Heart As—Association as a Schedule A deduction on his individual d—income—federal income tax return. If—if hi—he didn’t have enough income to take that whole gift in that year, under the law at the time, he would have been able to carry forward that gift and have it reduce his taxes in as much as six ad—additional years beyond that initial year. Today, just in the last session of the federal legislature, amendments to the federal law, federal income tax provisions were passed to extend that gift to a fifteen-year carry forward, and
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there were also other caps on how much you could take as a donation in any one year that had been increased. So it’s—it—it’s—it’s a great potential economic opportunity for people in a circumstance where they have a large land asset and they have income tax liability. The—the abuses that were—did hit the national news through reports in the Washington Post, and I think the New York Times, about two years ago now, have—have gone through a whole series of Congressional hearings, and there have been some tweaking of—of the laws to ad—address how conservation easement appraisals are—are done. I’d say most importantly the impact of—of that news coming—coming into the
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public is that—and a t—a trade association for nonprofit land trusts called The Land Trust Alliance has—has d—increased something that it was already doing in a—in a large way, but increased it further, and that is a certification process for land trusts. So to be a member of a—the Land Trust Alliance, or to just be a viable land trust out there in the marketplace that might be eligible and attractive to a donor, you go through a training process and a—and you—you agree to follow a certain protocol for your land transactions. And through that I think su—a s—the risk of this kind of abuse occurring in the future is significantly diminished, if not eliminated.
DT: You were a director, and later vice chair, and then finally chair during the ‘90s of Earth Share of Texas, which is a work-place campaign for raising money for conservation groups in Texas. And I was curious if you could tell about those days with Earth Share.
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TS: Well, if you—you want to do environmental protection of any sort, or if you want to do almost anything, funding is always one of the questions you have to answer. And again, back to my Citizens for Open Space teammates, George Cofer—two of those teammates, Beverly Griffith and—and—and Bridgette Shea became city council members. George, what he was attracted to, in part, was funding for environmental organizations. And he got involved in getting corporations to have a donation campaign very similar to United Way where individual employees of a corporation would have the opportunity to decide whether or not they wanted some of their paycheck donated in—
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sort of in advance to one or another environmental charity. I got involved in that organization and—and helped it grow over about a six year period when I was at the Trust for Public Land and the Austin Parks Foundation, that it was a pleasure to be associated with it.
DT: Can you talk about the pitch that you or the employees of Earth Share might make to people in office who might not have a close connection with an environmental group, but are open to it. What would be the appeal?
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TS: To the employee you’re talking about?
DT: Yeah.
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TS: Well, honestly, the—the—the typical employee that would donate to Earth Share may not be ge—be giving that—may not have that choice right now, because the vast majority of work places that have some kind of work place giving, campaign is what they’re called, protocol really, don’t include among the choices for their employees anything other than the United Way choices. So our main pitch was to the employer to increase the amount of choice your employees have by adding all the organizations that are members of Earth Share to—to that choice. To directly answer your question, the
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choices—the—the pitches—this is simply your opportunity and an easy way to make your charitable donation to an organization that you—that—that you value. Environmental protection is—is—is a value that keeps on giving, if you will. Give it once through your workplace and you affect the whole community on—on a, you know, every minute of every day basis by—by—by that gift.
DT: It seems like it might have been another route to present to, not the employer, but to the United Way: “how about if you add some environmental choices to your suite of giving choices?”. What was United Way’s response to Earth Share and that kind of giving option?
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TS: Well, when Earth Share was founded, and other environmental work place giving federations, state-based, which started I think also in the early ‘70s, it may have been a little later than that, but there may have been those conversations with United Way, either on a national level or—the—or—or at various states. As best I understand it, in Texas—I’m sorry…
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TS: I—if those conversations between environmental advocates and United Way happened earlier, I know they didn’t result in any kind of merger. In—in Texas, and certainly in Austin, the answer from United Way is simply that their mission doesn’t include environmental protection, which is a shame. But the other side of that is it’s sort of—it creates the necessity and the legitimacy of a separate organization t…
[End of Reel 2383 – Ted Siff]
DT: You’ve been affiliated with a small nonprofit here in Austin called the Conservation History Association of Texas since 1999 as its board member. And you’ve also served as an officer, as the treasurer. Through that role, can you give some insight about the origins of CHAT since you were on from the very beginning, and what some of the progress it’s made, and then some of the shortcomings or missteps it’s had?
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TS: Well, I think the—archives of Texas environmental activity is—is something very im—important to exist. And but for CHAT, it wouldn’t, at least in one place accessible through the internet. And so my initial attraction to it when pitched by this wonderful pitchman, David Todd, was that I—I might ha—be able to be of some help just because as I think is readily apparent through the rest of this interview, I—I have a entrepreneurial personality. That is, I’m more of a—a builder in it—initial stages of organizations than maybe staying at one place thirty years, which I haven’t. And w—what’s been my joy
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is—is in—being involved in CHAT is that as the technology has progressed, frankly because of you, David, the ability to disseminate and collect, but also have this information about folks who’ve been involved in some aspect of conservation in Texas available to just interested parties, to teachers, to students, to—to future historians, now—now exists. To continue to add to it by these interviews, I think will only—only enhance it, and who knows where it might go from here. But I—I think it’s got a—in—information is—is the key to everything. And to collect the information about environmental protection, or environmental issues in Texas, and have it in one place will provide others assets, resources, tools they wouldn’t have otherwise. And I’m excited about being involved.
DT: Some people might feel like oral histories, since they’re non-vetted, they’re not very objective, have limited value. You know, things get colored by the haze of memory, or by emotions that got tied up with a partisan issue, and in that way the history is colored in some, or it’s got omissions. How do you address those kind of problems?
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TS: I think you readily admit that oral histories are what they are, just what you just described. And then also add that history is written, recorded by human beings, and so all of history has the imperfections that I—any human observer or recorder has. It’s not an objective process. If you take a Civil his—Civil War history book that was written in one period versus another versus another, they will have different descriptions and justifications of—of the Civil War because of the context of the time in which those books are being written about the same subject matter. So I—I don’t—I don’t see any
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problem with doing oral histories and having them as one asset in a—in a—in a toolbox of assets for historians or students, or just interested parties to—to consume.
DT: You talked a little bit about some of the aspects of being an oral history and whether that’s a strength or weakness. How about this issue of it being history? I remember myself being in history class and thinking, “how is this relevant?” I mean this stuff happened many years ago, and it affected other people that I don’t know. How do you make this of interest, not just for academics or interest in retrospective things, but for young people who are going along with their life who maybe don’t have an immediate evident stake in what happened years ago at some other place?
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TS: Yeah. Well, one of the things that makes CHAT distinct, at least significantly different than our experiences in classrooms is that future learners will use the internet infinitely more than you or I did. Future learners will be more able to understand more about the past than—than those who simply learned it through reading a textbook by something that’s got audio and video associated with it. And even in the inflection of a presentation, or a phrase, or describing it own—your own personal history as I have for these last minutes, I—I think will—it is a way for a person to understand a concept, or a
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process, or a particular set of facts that is a—not completely achievable just through the written word. And so the medium that we’re offering, as well as the message, I think has a significant combined power, and that it’s supportable medium, too, is also incredibly more powerful than if we were simply wr—writing up reports and recording them at some physical library somewhere. Hope—hopefully that will be the case, if it isn’t already to some degree.
DT: Well, thank you. Let’s return to things that maybe affect a lot of people, and that would be questions that we try to ask all the interviewees . One is, “is there a message for the future that you think would be good to pass on to Leah and Ava, or children of their age, or older, about environmental issues?”
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TS: Well, what’s—what comes to mind when you ask that of me is—is just that—the phrase “eternal vigilance.” That is, my—well, I’ve found it most effective for me to be involved in a number of different businesses or entities or organizations. The—the through-line again is for me that these—these issues are—these issues of protection—water quality protection just—are—I—e—eternally in the public policy marketplace. And if there aren’t advocates for protecting them, they’re going to be lost. So there’s only a finite amount of land. There’s maybe a little bit less than f—finite, that is, water
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may be a little bit more reple—replenish-able than land, but land’s pretty—pretty—pretty finite. Only through eternal vigilance for advocating for its protection, or for some of it being made publicly accessible, and so forth, will—will we achieve en—environmental good result.
DT: One of the questions we also ask is if there is a special place that you like to go that gets you away from the hurly-burly of the life of working for conservation?
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TS: Well, I actually have two answers. One is that just about any ac—any available public land is—is a good place for me. But—but if—if I have a—fifteen or thirty minutes, I’ll go to the Barton Creek Wilderness Park, because i—in—within less than ten minutes of the capitol of Austin, you can be in a place that is as far away from development as—as—as you can imagine. And that there’s an underground river below the land that you’re walking is—is—is a—makes it a pretty exciting place to be, too.
DT: Do you have anything to add that maybe we haven’t touched on today?
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TS: You know, I don’t have any.
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TS: Well, I—I just really want to thank you. I thank you for at least the six years, going on seven, that you’ve been involved in this. And this last couple of hours have been a pleasure for me. It’s given me some insight into where I’ve been, and maybe a little thought or two about where I might go. So thanks.
DT: Well, good. I’m glad we’re useful to you. I’m sure it is for us. Thanks a bunch.
[End of Reel 2384 and Interview with Ted Siff]