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Victor Emanuel

INTERVIEWEE: Victor Emanuel (VE)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Radcliffe (DR)
DATE: March 6, 1997
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Judy Holloway
REEL: 1007 (hi-8)

Inserted comments refer to the analog audio tape copy of the interview.

[Tape 1 of four.]
VE: And Joe [Heiser] –I remember it very well. I’m sure this is all spelled out in the history that was written of the area. Joe–again, like people do now that are land buyers for Natured Conservancy, went around looking for large tracts of land that he could buy. And in San Jacinto County, a very small and fairly low-income county, about 50 miles north of Houston, he found about a 650-acre tract of land that had belonged to the King family that was for sale. And it was hilly and it had wonderful clear streams on it and beech woods and magnolias, and he bought it, and he bought it right before the post-Korean War inflation. I’ll never forget–I think he paid about $18 an acre.
DR: About that. He bought it in 1950.
VE: Yeah. About $18 an acre. And he had–even though he had a fairly modest income at Texaco as an accountant, he had–he had lived very frugally, and had saved his money and invested in the stock market, and was relatively well off compared to a lot of the people in the club, and so he put up the money for it. He was able to buy it himself, and sold it to the Outdoor Nature Club on, like a 20-year note at what he’d originally paid for it, plus some small amount of interest, so, even though they took a long time to pay for it, he didn’t appreciate the land any. They got it, you know, at what he had bought it for. And eventually they bought it, and then they added additional tracts to where it got up to where it’s now I believe about a thousand acres, and my guess is it’s worth anywhere from 500 to one thousand dollars an acre. But anyway, early on, Joe saw that this land needed to be restored, and so what we would do is go out to areas where people that he knew who had tracts of land or knew they had some plants–and collect seeds. The same thing–people didn’t know how to collect seeds of, like, black-thorned holly or something, some plant that had been eliminated–and plant them, and broadcast them on the land there, and also plant plants, and then water them and try to get them going. So, we were trying to recreate the diversity that had been there. ‘Course when I–getting into catalog helped a lot and there was some natural restoration just from birds and other things spreading seeds. But it wasjust a wonderful place, and I spent lots of time there. Many, many weekends I went up there, with joe, when I was in junior high school. And in high school we–Joe, the–Edna Miner, and a lady named Josephine–I mean, Nance–thought it was her name. I’m forgetting right now but Joe and Edna Miner and some of the other people in the club–and did this restoration work but also just did bird-watching, and just hiking trails. I haven’t been back there in years, but it was a very, very special place to me. But anyway, it was my introduction to not only Nature, there in a area I got to know very well but also to conservation, and to the work that one person could do.
DT: Hmm.
VE: I mean, that’s what impresses me as to–behind many, many parks that you see around the world–there’s one person or a small group of people involved. There’s a–southern Brazil, they’ve preserved a larger area of grassland than we probably have in the United STates preserved of really–of prairie, and that was a total of one man that got it set aside. It’s a reserve for a bird called the r¡a, which is the South American version of an ostrich. And the park is called in Portuguese the R¡as. It’s Das–Das Emas, E-M-A-S. And it’s surrounded by cattle ranches, and the cattle people just look at it longingly. And they’ve even set fires near it. They have to keep trying to get the fires from getting in it because some people think the cattle people want to burn it up. But it has gotten set aside, and I–I can remember–it’s 50,000 or 100,000 acres but it’s a large area of prairie, which is just the hardest area to get set aside.
DT: Sure. Fertile and productive and …
VE: Fertile and productive and good for cattle. And everything else but Joe was an example of that, of someone that–that–and then he went on to be one of the founders of Texas Nature Conservancy, along with another one of my mentors. My two main mentors were Joe Hiser, and Armand Yrmanetegui, and Armand Yrmanetegui was younger than Joe. He was probably–Joe was probably 55 when I met him in the mid ’50’s and Armand was probably 25 or 30, and Armand was the son of Mexican-American immigrants. His mother was from Monterrey, his father was from somewhere down near Meridia. But, at least his father was of BAsque descent. Yrmanetegui is a Basque name. And “Yrmanetegui” is what you say when you get to the top of a mountain. In the Basque country, instead of saying “Wonderful,” or “Eureka,” you say, “Yrmanetegui!” It’s just an expression of kind of wonder, and that’s the way his personality was. He was incredibly exuberant, incredibly full of life and appreciative of nature and life and enthusiasm. He had gone to Rice University, and then he had taught in high school, I think. And then he had sold real estate with his father, I think. And–but his real passion was nature and conservation. And he took me to Mexico on my first trip, and–of course he spoke fluent Spanish, and he took me a lot of different places. And he and Joe were my two mentors, and Armand had this same passion for conservation. And I remember, toward the end of his life, he was–he was killed. He was murdered in 19–in January of 1970, on the Southwest Freeway in Houston. But, toward the end of his life, every weekend he would go to different parts of Texas, looking for land that he thought should be preserved–for a bog that was threatened or that would have some species of plant in it. And Joe was doing the same thing, but Armand, being younger and having more time to do that, more energy–we’d go just all over Texas looking for land–the same kind of things that now, the staff of Nature Conservancy does.
DT: How fitting.
VE: It’s–he was a–he was a one-man–one-man Nature Conservancy land survey team, looking for these tracts of land. So they were wonderful mentors, and wonderful examples of what people could do and–what impresses me is, you know, it’s–it’s kind of like–in political science we studied the fact that there’s one man per vote, and there’s also the intensity of your commitment, and these people made up for lack of numbers by the intensity of their commitment. They devoted an enormous amount of time to this, enormous amount of energy, and had tremendous results, in terms of what they were able to do. So those were some of my early experiences.
DT: Maybe something had to–some of your days in–in high school and in college, were there teachers or courses that you took, or interests that you had that you felt were formative and helpful?
VE: Well, I went to Rice the first two years, and–just kind of taking basic college courses. I had a teacher there who had come up with Julian Huxley. Dr. DAvies, who was a–an Englishman who had stayed on after Huxley–Huxley left after the school opened. He was a very interesting man and very interested in–in nature, in biology in general. But looking back on it, what strikes me–and maybe it hasn’t changed that much–was there wasn’t much of an environmental consciousness at Rice. There was no–Sierra Club Chapter or there wasn’t–Sierra Club I guess–I don’t–I mean, how active it was then. But I didn’t find many kindred spirits there in terms of people interested in nature and conservation at either Rice or the University of Texas that I got in touch with, either among the students or among the faculty, andit may be that I just wasn’t aware of what their activities were. Then I transferred to the University of Texas and took a lot of botany and zoology courses there and I had some wonderful teachers, and learned a lot about an analogy and broadened, you know, some of my knowledge about the natural world. But again I didn’t find that much in terms of local conservation activity or national or international conservation activity.
DT: But I’m curious who–looking at your vita, it’s diverse, and …
VE: Yeah.
DT: –and a lot of your interests in college, and then shortly thereafter, and I guess into your early career, had to do with politics, and I’m wondering if you can tell how politics informs — is in your environmental interest and vice versa, and what the overlap is there for you.
VE: Well, growing up with a father who was a newspaper man and who was very interested in current events himself and politics and had been involved–my dad had–in being a public relations person for–like, Squatty Lions in his first campaign for County Commission, my father was his–I guess campaign manager. I heard a lot about politics and met a lot of politicians, and heard a lot about current events, I’d always been interested in them. And really my father had gone to the University of Texas with Ralph Yarborough, so when Ralph Yarborough was running for Governor, I kind of formed a team, like Yarborough Club for Teenagers or–probably it was just me and a few other people in Rice University. So I got involved in working in political campaigns and–through my father, and an organization that was called the Harris County Democrats, which was really a grass-roots political organization that Frankie Randolph had–and some other people had started. So out of that kind of childhood involvement with politics as a teenager through my dad, and an interest in current events and public affairs and how governmental decisions affected things, I got involved in how you could influence those. And it really–you’re out of kind of a–of that–that background with my–through my father in terms of caring about different issues that–that I thought–you know, that if Ralph Yarborough was Governor we’d have a better state. And so I was working in those. It didn’t really involve in those days–again, looking back on it, what’s interesting is the environment was not an issue in those campaigns. It was really later in the ’60’s that the environment became more of an issue, and in the ’70’s. And, the first person I remember hearing about the environment from in politics–and he was a very close friend of my family’s and is a close friend of mine–is–is Bob Eckhardt, and he was very concerned about the oyster dredging. And it was the first time that I guess I became aware of the connection between private economic interests and public policy, because there were certain companies that benefited from dredging the oyster shelf, to get the shell to make roads. And they were lobbying the Legislature to allow this dredging to occur, and it’s like cutting the old growth forests. I mean, the reef are all gonna be gone eventually. You’re–you’re–you’re mining a very limited resource. And if you mine this resource–if you dredge the old reefs, then the oysters don’t have any place to raise–you know, for new oysters to–to set if they’re gone, and the question would be how close you could dredge to the existing reefs, and that was what they were always fighting over. And, Bob was a wonderful–you know, conservationist and is a wonderful conservationist–he’s in his early 80’s now. But another thing he did that was impressive–again, it was far ahead of his time, things that–is happening right now in the Pacific Northwest–was mobilize the oyster men and the other fishing interests, to try to counterbalance in the Legislature, in terms of lobbying and political influence, the other economic interests that were benefiting from the dredging. Now I don’t–I don’t think he really ultimately won that fight. I think basically a lot of dredging was done that it would be better if it hadn’t been done. I–you know, I’m sure that something was left. But, the whole Galveston Bay issue–Bob Eckhardt was one of the leaders in that whole fight of trying to preserve Galveston Bay as an ecosystem, and being a friend of Bob’s, I started hearing about that very early and–aware of his work on that. So he was the first environmental politician I ever met.
DR: Do you remember what year …
VE: And still *** …
DR: Do you remember what year that was, offhand, than that …
VE: The …
DR: –than that–than keeping–knowing Bob Eckhardt and his ***?
VE: It would’ve been …
DR: Is that in late ’50’s or …
VE: Early ’60’s probably.
DR: O.K.
VE: When I was at the University of Texas from ’60 to ’63, I would go by the Legislature, and go by and see him, and I was just in awe of him. I thought he was one of the most honest and brilliant and–and competent politicians I’d ever met. And so I’d go watch him in the Legislature and I know that at those times–see, he got elected to Congress in about 1968, I think, maybe 66. So it was the early ’60’s–the shell dredging and the open beaches were the two ***. Open beaches was not so much of an environmental issue but a public access issue, and that was–and so the big fight.
DR: Right.
VE: But the shell dredging was an environmental issue.
DR: Right, the open beaches. Fifty-eight, when that started?
VE: Um-hmm.
DR: And then, the *** illness was ’65, so I didn’t see …
VE: Um-hgmm.
DR: –worked around there as well then.
VE: Yeah.
DT: You mentioned your father a couple of times about his role as a newspaper man, …
VE: Um-hmm.
DT: –and–and I’m curious if there are things that you took from that. I mean, the–the sort of interaction between the press making and covering a story and how that can shape an environmental issue. And I realize he was–was he a sports writer, is that right?
VE: He was a sports writer but then he was the news director of KXYZ radio station.
DT: O.K.
VE: And in fact, one of his early friends was Dan Rather, because Dan Rather was starting at KTRH, while my dad was starting at KXYZ. ‘Course Dan is much, much younger, and they became friends. And Dan Rather, who I later met in Washington, told me that my father taught him everything he knew about Texas politics. And, so that was kind of interesting, but–so he had a really–you know, and KXYZ was writing editorials for the man who read them. Fred Nehas would write–read his editorials on the air. So he was really involved in a lot of issues then, involving–you know, in terms of city politics and in terms of state politics and national politics. But, yes, I think that through that–you know, when my father–whenever there was an issue I was involved in, like–an environmental issue, the focal issue, he would say, you know, “Get out a press release, call a press conference.” I mean, the whole thing about–I wrote the press release for Mickey Leeland when he–when he ran for the Legislature, and I had the idea of having his first press conference at his grandmother’s house in the Fifth Ward. And I read the first press release for Anthony Hall when he ran for the Legislature that same year. I wrote both of their press releases, and kind of set up their press conferences and their announcing. So early on, that whole thing of interacting with the press and how you would get press coverage and present an issue and try to get publicity came very naturally to me. But I think the other thing that came from my father was some natural organizational skills that helped me in my political involvement but also helped me in my business involvement. I mean, he was very good at being in touch with lots of people. My father had lots of friends in Houston. Lawyers, bankers, school teachers, people that he knew. And, that kind of keeping in touch with people, networking, and so–that if you had an issue that you were trying to work on, that–he could mobilize some of those people to help.
DT: Um-hmm.
VE: And he had friends in the newspaper business that he could talk to about trying to get some coverage of an issue, trying to get them to be interested in a story, would have access to, say, someone that’s on the editorial board and try to get some favorable coverage for something he cared about.
DT: And, I guess this sort of led you into your–maybe some of your–your interest in politics and I guess your dad understood a lot about the mechanics of how it all worked and some of the personalities that …
VE: Um-hmm.
DT: –that were involved and then, I understood that you were a political, I guess–can you say operative?
VE: Consultant.
DT: Operator or …
VE: Operative. Yeah, I was an opera–consultant, an operative. That all happened because I had this involvement as a teenager in these political campaigns and had gone to all these meetings of the young–of the–I’d been in the Young Democrats at the University of Texas, had gone to this Harris County Democrats meeting and I had a lot of–of good friends there, and had seen how a precinct organization worked and how you built up a–or–you know, a–a political organization. And I was at Harvard studying political science, and I came back to Texas on a vacation, and I heard that a–a guy that I had known in the block in Houston I grew up in, in southeast Houston, was running for the School Board, named George Oser, O-S-E-R, and he had moved back to Houston from Michigan, where he’d gotten his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in Physics, and he was running for the School Board. I hadn’t seen him in probably 20 years. And I got in touch with John, and went out and met his wife and his daughters, had dinner with them. And, then he asked me–he said, “I’ve never been in politics before. I have really been–never done anything like this, but I’m concerned about the state of our schools and would like to try to improve them.” He said, “Would you be my campaign manager, because I know you’ve been involved in politics.” And in a moment of weakness, I said yes. And there went seven years of my life–of incredibly intense involvement, because I ran his campaign. He ran, he was taken off the ballot by the School Board when he was about to win by–an unfortunate procedure, and the public outcry over that allowed–me and a number of other people came up with the idea after he was taken off the ballot, in an abuse of power, to form an organization to carry on that fight called Citizens for Good Schools. And, I was one of the–chief architects of that, along with a lot of other wonderful people–Jonathan Day and Vic Sangals and some other people that have been very active in politics since then, and in the life of Houston. But the purpose of this organization was to carry on the effort to change the schools, and the next time we elected a majority of the School Board, and hired a new superintendent, and started making some changes, and I went to every School Board meeting. We had all of these organizational meetings. And, again what impressed me, as in the Environmental Movement, was the real dedication of many of the people we had, the–time they gave, and the pursuit of information. We had study groups, we had people researching the schools, studying schools in other parts of the country, gathering information about how our schools could be better, getting information about test scores, and there was a very high level of involvement and of dedication and of integrity. And, the idea that anybody would’ve pulled dirty tricks or lied about data would’ve been–unheard of. I mean, they were very, very high-minded and very decent people involved in this, and we attracted–there’d never been, to my knowledge, anything like it in Houston, where so many people that were new to politics got involved. We were, like, a thousand people, in our campaign. I–I would wager that–the vast majority of them had never done anything like it before, and then they later got involved in other campaigns and got involved in civic life but–people from all walks of life. A lot of them were professionals. A lot of them were, like–worked for oil companies or law firms or–or were–you know, taught, whatever. But it was a wonderful organization. It was just a marvelous organization and it was–had very good–it was very well run in terms of structure, and it elected some very good people to the School Board, and did make some progress. And that was my most intense political involvement was that seven years out of my life to Citizens for Good Schools. And then I ran Mike Andrews’ campaign when he ran for Congress the first time. I was his campaign manager. It was the same thing that–he was a friend I had met through the School Board campaigns. He was working for the District Attorney, and he announced for Congress. And I was living in Austin then, and I went down to some event he had and he said that his campaign manager who he’d hired had quit–because he didn’t think Mike had a very good chance and would I run his campaign. And I was living in Austin so I just kind of commuted down there and did it. And that was my last involvement. And, it was interesting because the thing about politics–there were some negative things about politics in terms of the intensity of it and the smoke–not smoke-filled rooms in terms of people wheeling and dealing but–I think these campaigns–being very high-pressured, a good many people in them smoke, which I don’t. And, there’s an awful lot of smoke in the offices but I’ll never–that campaign–even though we did win the Democratic Primary and Mike–Mike was the nominee, I remember being in the office and not–it’s kind of like when I was working as an academic. I didn’t want to be inside, I wanted to be outdoors, and–just like I’d like to be outdoors today, and–but I am outdoors most of the time now. But I was in the–in the campaign headquarters. I never got into my office. They were in this strip shopping center on the south–on the Gulf Freeway, just a sea of traffic and–and shopping centers, and I was in this office in a cinder-block, strip shopping center in the back office as the campaign manager. And I was sitting at my desk, and I heard this, very distinctly, “Bob WHITE!! Bob WHITE!!” And I realized that there was a bobwhite quail perched on a post right through the wall–in other words, in the field behind the office. But they like to get up on a elevated perch to call–to project their call, and this one was sitting right–through the wall behind my office and it was coming through the wall. It was almost like it was kind of hauling me back to my real love. And then one night I was leaving at midnight to drive back to my parents’ house. Since I was living in Austin I was staying with my parents and I saw a barn owl. And another day, just in the parking lot I saw a western king bird flying over. It is a migrating–kind of an unusual migrant. Anyway, here was a spring that was spent not out in the field, which is where I like to be, but in this campaign. But that was my last real intense involvement.
DT: I was curious if you could talk a little bit about your–your role in education and, you know, the different facets here from running a bird camp to teaching in the college level to your role in the SChool Board and–and–you know, what interest that flows from within you and how that might affect your later interest in conservation.
VE: Well, I think my parents both had a very high regard for education, they both felt it was very important. And they both always stressed the importance of people learning as much as they could and they were very pleased that I had gone on to college and undergraduate school. And they–they cared a lot about schools and–schools that my sister and I went to, and–I think that translates in my concern for those institutions as a vehicle for progress and change in society and improvement of people. And–so the school board experience came in at that–and we felt that better schools would result in a better society in Houston. Teaching was something that I had considered as a profession, and I did teach after I got out of college at Rice and the University of Houston. I had some wonderful students, a few of whom I stay in touch with–and enjoyed lecturing but was not a library and a research kind of person and was therefore not cut out to be an academic. But, it’s very, very rewarding to be around young people and see their–you see part of yourself in them, in–in their interest and their excitement, and you kind of relive some of your experiences, and–so, the bird camps came out of that experience. When I moved to Austin, in 1979, I’m–through birding–through a hawk watch that was held at Corpus Christi, I met three young boys who were at St. Stephen’s school who were, like, 12 or 13 years old. Peter English, Curt Helpin, and David Segueno, and they were all very close friends. They were only a year apart in school. They were all like–I guess in the eighth or ninth grade, or whatever, at that age. And–maybe they were, like, the seventh and eighth grade–and I started taking them out bird-watching. And I took them all over Texas just like those mentors had taken me out. And so in part I felt I was kind of repaying what the mentors had done for me, but mainly I was just really having a great time being with them because they were so enthusiastic and had so much fun when we’d go to a new place. I’ll never forget the first time I took them to Mexico, and it must have been like it was for Armand the first time he took me. We drove down from Brownsville about 300 miles south to the mountains of the Sierra Madre, and we arrived late in the afternoon at a facility called Rancho Cilito that is a research station, owned by Texas Southwest College. And it was late afternoon and parrots were calling and flying around and there were brown jays flying around–all these birds and we’d driven all day and had hardly gotten out of the car. And we got out and they were just beside themselves with excitement. And I remember Peter saying, “This is better than Europe, and I’ve been there.” That–in other words, this is the most exciting place they’d ever been. And, of course he’s into being a tropical biologist. I mean, that’s what he’s studying but that was his first time in the Tropics, and they were just so excited–excited about it. And I had such a wonderful time taking them around. And then of course, they grew up and went to college. I thought it’d be fun to do it with other kids, and so that’s why I started the birding camps. And they’ve been going on for 11 years now, and this summer, we’re gonna have one in Belize, which will be our–at Chuncheech, which would be our first camp in a really truly tropical area, where there’re howler monkeys and spider monkeys and jaguars and all these wonderful things, and I was just down there leading a tour. I was thinking about how exciting it’s gonna be for those kids–when they get off the plane, and go to that lodge, and hear their first howler monkey roaring, and I was wishing that I could be there. I’m gonna be doing other things and I’m–got other commitments but I might try to drop in for a few days, because we’ve gotten a lot of letters from the kids that are coming this summer about how hard they’re working to earn the money and they’re having all kinds of ways they’re trying to come up with the money to go. And just long, three-page letters about all of these things they’re doing and how their local bird clubs’re giving more money and their–other parents are giving a little money if they can but–anyway, it’s gonna be wonderful. But I saw that in Arizona. When people came there, they would come to the camp. They would go–the first afternoon, in ARizona, when we were–after we leave Tucson and get out to the Chirikawas, we stay at a place called the Cave Creek Ranch. And next to it, there’s a group of hummingbird feeders that a lady named Sally Spofford and her–her late husband had–have, and they would go to these hummingbird feeders. And most kids–if they’ve seen a hummingbird at all they’ve seen one kind, where they live. ANd here at Sally and–Spoff’s there would be five or six different kind, including really big ones like Blues Heaven hummingbirds and Magnificent hummingbirds and–and they would come back from that, and you would think they’d seen the Holy Grail. Their eyes were just shining, they were just absolutely–transported by the experience of seeing so many hummingbirds of so many kinds, plus all the other birds. And it’s just a wonderful experience to see that, and to feel that you’re passing on some of the–feeling about nature, some of the appreciation about nature, some of the ways of looking at nature to other people, because it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give anyone. I think nature, and contact with nature, is one of the most positive, healing, spiritual, invigorating and–experiences that people can have, and I think that very few people or–not enough people have them. I think there’re other countries–possibly parts of Canada, possibly–from what I’ve learned, actually in Russia, certainly in England, where more kids are exposed to nature, on a more consistent basis. And, it–it bothers me now that we have–and so many kids just kind of playing Nintendo and watching television–are helped, seeing bugs and critters and seeing a–a bird or a snake or something, and that’s–I really–if–there’s something about it that’s very powerful when you–when you get into it.
DT: Well, I guess some of these kids perhaps are pushed by their parents but I imagine a lot of them bring their own interests to it and *** …
VE: Well, when they come to camp, it’s a wonderful camp and …
DT: Yeah, but is there something that you see in those who self-select to go to these camps …
VE: Um-hmm.
DT: –that they have in common with each other?
VE: Oh, yeah, they’re–the ones that come to camp, by and large–there are certain exceptions where a grandparent has said, “You should go to bird camp,” and they don’t–actually it turns out not to be their cup of tea but the ones that come, they are–have–like I was, they’ve been interested since they were born, practically. They’ve just been–nature has fascinated them. So the camp doesn’t–it simply deepens and furthers their interest, and has–and so–and a lot of them are going into biology and conservation and are gonna pursue careers because of the–that deepening and because that–what’s in their heart and soul. But, the–the–really the most powerful thing that happens at camp, besides the contact with nature there that they have, with a–with a different aspect of nature, with a different group of animals and plants–is meeting other people that share their interests, because it’s a very–like it was for me when I went to the bird club. But these are people their age.
DT: Oh.
VE: And many of them have never met anyone their age …
[Tape 1, Side B.]
VE: And many of them have never met anyone their age, who’s interested in nature.
DT: Oh, a truly affirming thing.
VE: Yes.
DT: This is O.K.
VE: Yes.
DT: Yeah.
VE: And even now–when I was a child, I kept it a secret, except from my close friends in the neighborhood. I didn’t go in high school and say, “Oh, I’m going to go out birdy-watching this weekend.”
DT: Right.
VE: And they still do. Many of them still do, because they’re taunted and they’re made fun of. It’s changing, but slowly. But when they get to camp, everyone shares their interest. It’s like if you’re interested in opera and no one else was, and you get to a place where everyone’s interested and they know everything about operas and you’re talking about operas and you’ve seen this opera. They just–they’re–they start talking about what birds they’ve seen in their town compared to what birds someone else has seen. Many of them become friends with other campers, they stay in touch. They visit each other. It’s just really the–the–the personal connections that grow out of these camps are extremely beneficial to people.
DT: And lifelong, for …
VE: Yes. One boy from Houston, Cullen Hanks, has told me his best friend is a boy he met at the camp. They’re both in college now. Cullen’s at Cornell and Brian’s at Reed, I think, or Evergreen or somewhere.
DT: Well, that’s a great thing.
VE: But they visit each other and they stay in touch and–it’s–it’s very powerful to find people that share that interest. But on the other hand–on the other side, you were saying that these are the people that self-selected. It’s my basic contention that in an earlier age, almost all of them are in–have a–have a–an–a native interest in the–in the outdoors, but that that isn’t cultivated. I took a kindergarten class from Travis Heights Elementary School out last spring, on a bird walk. And, I put up the telescope at Zilcar Park on some ducks and things like wood ducks and–you couldn’t get them away from the scope. We had to start counting to five, and saying, “You get to five, you have to move on,” and people were cutting back in line. And they were just incredibly excited.
DT: I have a related question. I notice that Texas Parks and Wildlife has a program for teaching kids about hunting. And I’m wondering if, despite sort of the Texas tradition of, you know, a father and his son going hunting, whether that’s not the natural tendency for–for kids and I’m curious what–what you seen in this, if–if that is a natural interest or not.
VE: Burden, our nation?
DT: No. Hunting.
VE: I don’t know, I can’t comment on it. I think that if the parent was a hunter, that–often particularly with boys. They want to emulate their father and there may be a natural interest in hunting or fishing. But, they’re decreasing–you know, they’re not–there’re many parents that are not hunters and fishermen. And, I–what I’m interested in is that–that–the situation where–let’s say you’ve got a parent that–they’re not interested in hunting or fishing or nature. Their interest is bridge or–or golf or whatever. But the kid–if they were in a school situation, where they were exposed to nature at their school, might get turned on to it. And it’s my feeling from my personal life that if they did get a connection with nature, where they enjoyed camping, hiking, and seeing flowers, seeing birds, being outdoors–they would have a–a much richer life. I think just–I see the experience of people on our tour as that–the trip is tremendously beneficial to them, that they feel invigorated. Roger Petersen always used to tell me that his friends would tell him when he came back from a trip, like to Antarctica or–he was, like, ten years younger, that it really just–invigorated him so much. And–you know, you can be dealing with things in your life that are difficult, like–very painful things. Being out in nature can just be a very healing experience. I have a very close friend that–visited me last spring and–one of his grandchildren had been killed by a car in New York and he was really in a lot of pain over it and he was coming here and going out in Burney, which is very–I mean, he still had a lot of pain but it–it was a very–health–healing experience.
DT: Well, I remember you–and I read one of the interviews with you and you said that it–there’s something transcendental about being in nature, with nature, among natural things. Is that what you meant?
VE: Avsolutely, and–what I think–the thing about nature is that it’s–it’s like certain types of learning. You can’t do it with a video and you can’t just do it by watching television. You really need–it’s like a lot of teaching. You need the teachers that communicate enthusiasm, excitement, appreciation, wonder. And, if you’re just with someone that’ll say, “Oh, there’s a bluebonnet, and there’s a pink primrose.” If you said at once, “Wow, those bluebonnets are incredible, look at them! And, that right next to them is a whole bunch of the–of the pink evening primrose! It’s just come out, and look at how the different colors blend together in kind of–almost like a big painting of different–like a painting of nature.” But, if that’s enthusiasm on a person, then that’s communicated to the people they’re trying to teach. And, when I was–what I try to do on my tours is to share with people my way of looking at nature, and that is–I’m very lucky, that every time I see something, it’s almost like I’m seeing it for the first time. It’s not like, ‘Oh, well, there’s another killbill Tucon.” It’s like, “There’s a killbill Tucon!” Like if the colors of the bill …
DT: I guess the context is always different, you know.
VE: Pardon?
DT: The context is always ***.
VE: The context is always different, the light is always different, …
DT: –tree and …
VE: –it’s always something different to see. The way the light’s hitting it and you’ll see different aspects of its plumage. You’re different. It’s a different day in your life. You’re right. It could be nine Tucons in one tree or three Tucons in–but it doesn’t matter. It’s–it’s a feeling–you know, as I say, seeing everything new and that’s why, one time when Peter Matthiessen was here, and gave a talk at the University, he said that I had a natural Zen attitude toward nature because I saw everything as though for the first time, and I’m very lucky to–to be that way and have always been that way. And, it’s–that’s what I try to communicate to people. And it’s interesting because sometimes I’ll be on a trip and I’ll get very excited about something and say, “Wow, there’s a Jobaltu[?],” and they say, “Well, is it rare? Is it unusual?” And it’s something interesting about society about the idea that–you shouldn’t get excited about something or why would you care?”That doesn’t–that’s not the point at all. The point is, it’s beautiful in and of itself. A cardinal is beautiful in and of itself, a blue jay is beautiful in and of itself. Doesn’t matter whether it’s rare. But things that are common tend to be devalued, and regarded as commonplace. So anyway, that’s something that I try to teach to the camps, to the tours, is nature is appreciating common things.
DT: Hmm. Can you talk a little bit about–then and–and–how the tour guide system got set up and all, how it’s flourished?
VE: Well, when I was a young birder there weren’t any bird tour organizations. And then, I went to college, and I was at Harvard in graduate school and I met a fellow named Peter Alden, who had started a bird tour–a nature tour program for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and it was the first bird tour program I’d ever heard about. There actually were a couple of earlier ones but I didn’t know them very well. And, I had always been looking for some way to make a living and be outdoors. And after I came back to Houston and got a job at the University of Houston working in the Institute for Urban Studies, and then later running political campaigns, I wasn’t happy being in an office, and in 1969 or ’70, a fellow named Dean Gorham called me, who had come to Houston for a convention. He was a banker, and he’d come to a home builders’ convention. And he’d called me, because the manager of the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Russ Clapper, had given him my name and phone number. He had asked Russ Clapper did he know anyone locally who would take him and his sister out for a day of bird-watching. So Dean Gorham called me–probably about March of 1969 or ’70 and said, “If I paid you a hundred dollars, would you take me and my sister out for a day of bird-watching?” I had never done anything like that before, had never taken people out, really even on a field trip. I don’t think I’d ever known a field trip for the local bird club. I just birded with friends, and I–I said I would. And so he was my first professional client. And we had a very nice time and I enjoyed being out with him and his sister. They had a good time. Very nice people. He was a gentleman probably in his 70’s. And, I thought, well, maybe there are other people who would like to do this, so I put a small ad–probably cost me $50–in a birding–in a birding magazine published by the American Birding Association, called Birding, and it was entitled “Personalized birding Tours.” ANd it said that if you were in Texas and you wanted to go out to call me, and–I got people calling. Lawyers that would come to HOuston for business that would call me that were bird-watchers–I had to take them out. And doctors who would come there for medical conferences, and I took some people to Mexico, just me and one person. We’d drive to Mexico for a week.
DT: Personalized.
VE: Yeah. Very personalized.
DT: Very personalized. [Laughs.]
VE: Very personalized, in my car. And very cheap, too. Lorraine says that I had no idea how to–how to price things. And so I did that from 1970 until 1975, when I had time, away from my other job. And then, in 1975, I got another phone call, and this was from Wiley Wilkinson, who was the program chairman for the Orleans Audubon Society. And the National Audubon Society was having its bi-annual convention in New Orleans, and the local chapter is in charge of organizing pre- and post-convention trips, and Wiley had met someone from Houston who had moved to new Orleans who knew me. And so Wiley called and said, “We’re gonna have a trip that’s gonna go to the Galveston area, before the Convention, and would you be one of the local guides to help in this–with this trip. And I said I would be glad to. But I said I–“What I think you should do is offer a pre- and post-convention trip to Yucatan, because it’s a short flight from New Orleans to Merida, and people will see all these wonderful tropical birds.” Fortunately Wiley and his wife had been there, and they realized what a wonderful area it was and didn’t have the negative attitudes that some people have toward Mexico and other Latin countries, they really thought it was great. So, he asked me to plan and organize and staff the pre- and post-convention trips to the Yucatan. And so these were run as official trips of the Audubon Society, and they were contracted out to me for my fledgling company, and those were my first groups. And they both filled up because there were a lot of people at the convention. They had 14 people on each trip. And, so that was my beginning as a tour organizer and, you know, tour operator. And those went well, and so then the following year, 1976, I had more ads, listing about 10 or 12 trips through various parts of Texas and Arizona and Mexico in the Birding publication. I actually advertised of course in the fall of ’75 for trips for the spring of ’76. And at–by that time–or earlier I’d gotten to meet and get to know Peter Matthiessen. He’s a–one of the great nature writers and naturalists in the United States. I asked him to co-lead a trip to Texas–on a spring trip in Texas, and he agreed, and it filled up, and so that was a–helped get me started. And so–you know, I got a brochure and got some business cards and started advertising and started offering more trips, and getting some people I knew through the birding community, people that were birders my age, to lead them with me. And, that’s how I got started. And it was to the age where these birding tours were just starting and it grew and grew and grew and then birding tours became more and more popular. And so we–you know, we added more tours until we’re up to, like, 140 now.
DT: Can you talk a little bit about how–birding tours have sort of, I guess, introduced the whole exploding world of eco-tourism, and …
VE: Well, that’s–yeah.
DT: –some of the benefits and risks of that?
VE: That’s–that’s to me a very gratifying aspect of birding tours is–I’d never dreamed when I started, because there were so few of them, that they would become a very important force for conservation in these tropical countries–in certain ones. So–happened first in Trinidad, and of course in Africa with the animals–in Kenya. But, just a small example, that is, that in Ecuador, west of Quito over the mountains, there’s a little town called Mindo, M-I-N-D-O. And, it’s just a town of maybe 500 or a thousand people, in a–kind of a subtropical lush area kind of at the base of the mountains, with very good birding. But there was nowhere to stay there that was–that the accommodations were very nice. They were just very, very inexpensive, like $2 a night hotels that were–very poor accommodations, and so people would go from Quito and back in one day until–oh, about a two-hour drive, so it was quite a–quite a haul to get down there and back. And, a few years ago, a man from Quito built a little hotel down at Mindo, called Carmello’s. His name was Washington Lopez, and he built, like, 10 rooms that were bungalows, because he saw all this developing market. Well, one of the premier birds in that area is the cock of the rock. It’s like a small orange chicken, brilliant, almost iridescent orange chicken with a big kind of a crest. And the males gather, like five or 10 together, and dance around on vines and make all these incredible calls. It’s one of the great sights of the world, in terms of birding, is to see this cock of the rock dance. Well, it so happened that up above his motel, up a dirt road about an hour, there is one of these dancing groves where these cock of the rocks assemble, at dawn, and–he started taking people up there. The village got involved. They have a–kind of a–a nature association, and they require that you have a local guide to go, so it gave people a little bit of employment, and so you’d go there with a local guide. School children started going up there, and they would bus them and drive them up there to see these cock of the rocks. It is very spectacular. Well, the land where the cock of the rocks were dancing came up for sale. Whoever owned it decided they wanted to sell it. They were just letting people go on it, but it wasn’t owned by the village or by Mr. Lopez. When a man from Colombia put in a bid to buy it, with the idea that he would cut down all of the forests and plant a crop called naranjilla–it’s a fruit that you make a drink out of–and just kind of coming in and plant naranjilla. Mr. Lopez heard about this. Now, remember that probably five years ago Mr. Lopez didn’t even know what a cock of the rock was. He heard that this man from Colombia was gonna buy it–he outbid ’em. He paid more than the man from Colombia was gonna pay and bought it, and borrowed the money to do it, because he realized that if the thing got cut down, his motel’s value would just sink, because it was one of his big attractions. So the cock of the rocks have a place to dance now. Their habitat is secure, the–the acreage he has, because of ecotourism. It would be gone, otherwise. So it’s created an economic incentive for people to do things like that. And it …
DT: That’s wonderful to hear that, because that’s really a definite …
VE: Yes.
DT: –you know, anecdote about how this has made it–it’s not just sort of statistics that can be manipulated and that’s something very concrete.
VE: Oh, yeah.
DT: That’s wonderful to hear.
VE: Oh, it was a–it was just a heart-warming story when he told me that. And I was–I–then I checked it out with some people I know in the tourism industry at Quito and they said it’s true. He did borrow the money. I think he paid–I can’t remember if it was $90,000, it was some very large amount of money. There were–how many acres he bought. But it’s–it’s just a wonderful story. And, I’ve run into more and more of–people doing it.
DT: What do you think about the–the flip side of it? I read an article recently about–the concerns in Costa Rica about overdevelopment for ecotourists. Do you think that’s a real threat, or …
VE: No, no. I just–really the overdevelopment threat is big beach resorts in Costa Rica and the pacific coast where people build 200-room hotels for people to go lie in the sun. Ecotourism, that’s–it’s–it’s a little bit irritating to me because–I understand journalists needing to kind of look at the other side, but sometimes I think they create another side that’s not there. The only thing that’s–danger of over–not over-development but over-use is the quality of experience is devalued if–it’s like going through an art museum if you have someone right behind you, kind of pushing you so you have to keep moving. If you’re on a trail in a nature reserve and there’re so many people on the trail, that you–that your experience is devalued. But as far as the environment itself, you know, you’re not gonna damage the trail. If you have horses on the trail, you are gonna damage the trail. I was just told of a lodge in Costa Rica, that they have horseback riding as well as birding and the horses have made a quagmire of the trails. But people, traffic–in the Galapagos, the big problem is not the number of tourists. The problem is the fishing for sea cucumbers by the Japanese, or the Ecuadorians who are moving to Galapagos hoping to get jobs, so you have more people living out there, and therefore more sewage and all of that, but–but not the visitation. Some of these places in Ecuador–I mean, in Costa Rica they limit the number of people on the trail, which is what you need to do, and say if there’re a hundred people there, you can’t go on till somebody leaves. But in general, what you’ll find is a market situation that as places get crowded, other places will open up, because people will see, you know, there’s advantage–and what we’re going to have also in nature tourism, which is gonna help contribute to more conservation, is the marketplace operating. That people will say, “I don’t want to go to a park where there’re 20,000 people in the park.” Some will open a very nice ranch, where when you stay at the ranch, you and your group are the only people, and you’ll pay top dollar. So it’ll be a segmented market, where there’ll be parks that’re more crowded, but it’s just like in the rest of society, there’ll be other places. But it will mean where people who are willing–who are able to pay more will be able to have a less crowded situation, but it’ll create more incentives for land to be saved.
DT: Um-hmm.
VE: Like for ranchers to–to practice–ranching practices that increased the diversity of wildlife on their area, because what you’re gonna have, again, is a marketplace situation–is Ranch A, that doesn’t practice wildlife conservation and people don’t go there because there’s nothing to see. Ranch B that leaves hedge rows and stands of native brush and trees, and it’s a–and has water for birds and so forth and feeding areas, people go there, and then the ranch can bring in some extra money. I think it–that ecotourism, both in this country and abroad–I didn’t used to think this but I do now–has a tremendous potential. And Costa Rica’s really benefiting from it, Ecuador’s benefiting from it. I think that other countries like Bolivia and Brazil have great potential for it. It’s particularly areas that are close to the United States that people can get to easily. I think the no. 1 area that isn’t getting a lot right now that has tremendous potential is Panama, ’cause it’s right next to Costa Rica; is just as modern or if not more modern in terms of its infrastructure; has just as many birds and animals to see if not more. But very few people are going there and there’re very few lodges available. But, if I were gonna invest in something, in terms of buying some land and building a lot, I’d do it in Panama.
DT: I see.
VE: And–and I would advertise it. “Come to Panama and see more than you do in Costa Rica and have fewer tourists, to contend with.”
DT: And in the course of–of, I guess, prospecting in Panama and Costa Rica and Belize and these other places, I imagine you’ve run into both wonderful naturalists–you know, from young people like Peter English to older people like Roger Floyd Petersen, and–and also landowners and–and local guides who are very unusual and special people. Now I was curious if you can tell us the–a little bit about some of these people and why they may’ve been unusual and–and significant.
VE: Well, there’s a really nice story about that. I saw this man this week when he came by. He and a friend stayed with me. This is a good example about how people’s lives intersect. One of the prime areas we used to go to–we’ve been going more to Belize now than–than Yucatan–was the Yucatan Peninsula and the Palenque area for bird-watching in ruins. And, we were renting vehicles from Avis and Hertz and other car companies in Mexico to take our people around, and–they were expensive and sometimes we had problems with them breaking down and they weren’t well maintained. And a friend of mine, Suzanne Winkler, was traveling on her own in the Yucatan, and she had a flat tire on a rented vehicle or her car broke down, and this man stopped to help her. And he had his own Volkswagen bus, and she met him, so–a Mexican man, named Alfonso Escobedo, and–she got his card and he is a–was a guide for the archaeological ruins. He was a local registered guide for the archaeological ruins of Yucatan, and she could tell this was a very unusual man. This man was very bright, very talented. And she gave me his card and said, you know, “Instead of renting vehicles, you might want to hire Alfonso as your driver and guide ’cause he has a well-maintained vehicle,” so we started using Alfonso as our driver. We very quickly–it became clear that Alfonso was much more talented than just being a driver and archaeological guide, that he was very–and he spoke excellent English, he speaks seven languages. He learned all of them on his own except for German, which he went to Germany to study. And–he speaks Maya, Spanish, German, French–maybe not seven. German, French, English–at least five languages, and he is a member of the B’Hai Faith. He grew up in a small town in Yucatan. His father had a tortilla factory. And one day on the bus he met a B’Hai gentleman, member of the B’Hai Faith. Alfonso was a very curious–got interested in it and joined it. His parents then basically disowned him–they now had a rapprochement. And then at a B’Hai Conference he met his wife, who’s from Chicago and who is–who is Anglo. And they got married and have some–two lovely children and live at Merida. Anyway, we started using Alfonso as a co-leader on the trip. We kind of elevated from being a driver to, say–and he knew so much about Yucatan and the ruins of *** birds, and so that all happened just because Suzanne met him. He became a co-leader. Instead of being one of many–there are many guides to the archaeological ruins who all have their buses and they take the tourists out. But he–he was broadening up. So through his involvement with us, and his wife’s involvement with us–I mean, and she got to know us–he and his wife conceived of the idea of opening their own tour company in Yucatan, called Ecoturismo Yucatan, and they’ve opened it. They have about six people in their office, and they set up trips for a variety of people. They have guides. Now he’s training bird guides. He sent some of them to–to various programs to increase their efficiency with birding. Now he’s built a lodge with some other people, in an area of Yucatan where there was no place to stay for tourists, where you can see flamingoes and all kinds of wonderful things, so all this has happened. His son came to one of our camps, you know, through that meeting, and Alfonso is a force–in conservation, in ecotourism. He’s here this week because he comes every year to the Conference on the Maya that Linda Schele puts on. And in fact, he’s staying as a guest of Linda Schele. And some other people from Yucatan are coming that–Linda Schele is paying their way ’cause they couldn’t afford to come otherwise–ethnic Maya. Alfonso and his friend, Carlos, who stayed with me the other night. They could afford to come on their own. And these people are learning how to read the Maya glyphs from Linda, and then taking that back to Yucatan and teaching that in the schools.
DT: And bringing their culture back to us.
VE: Exactly.
DT: That’s wonderful.
VE: And he speaks fluent Maya and he can read the glyphs, too. He learned from Linda. And he can …
DT: You don’t get much better than Linda Schele.
VE: Hmm?
DT: You don’t get much better than Linda Schele. I’ve read some of her books.
VE: You have? Yeah. Well, he–his first conference he came to, he stayed with me the whole time, and he was just so excited to be there, and he came to the short version. Now he’s at the long version. He’ll be here for almost two weeks. He’s an incredible person. Incredible person. And, Alfonso has such a–I don’t know, a–a good attitude toward the world and people. You just start talking on the phone, you start smiling. And, I’ve never met anyone before that was a B’Hai, and they have a very, very–benign attitude toward life and people–you know, they’re very accepting. They believe that all religions are–are divine. There’s no–you know, our religion’s right and yours is wrong, all prophets are divine–have this kind of wonderful attitude toward the world. But anyway, he’s–through his–and he co-leads some of our tours still, in Oaxada. And he’s just so–you know, he knows about–he was talking today about doing cooking tours because–yeah, he was hired the other day by some chefs to take around Yucatan. So he’s really just broadened out, and all of this happened from meeting one of our people. There’s a guy in Venezuela I’ve been told about, I haven’t met him, named David Esca¤o, who–Steve Hilty, who is the co-author–who is the author of “The Birds of Colombia” and is now rewriting “The Birds of Venezuela,” says he’s the best guide he’s ever met in Latin America. He’s about 28, and they say that he’s incredibly enthusiastic, gets very excited over every bird and–wonderful with people, wonderful with birds. One of the very gratifying things that happened the other day–well, a couple of years ago, Bob Ridgely and I–Robert Ridgely is a famous ornithologist who is the author of “The Field Guide to the Birds of Panama,” that is now being–“The Field Guide to the Birds of South America,” where–we go way back in the–and he helped get that started. We thought of the idea of having–in Panama, which both of us are very fond of–Bob started birding there 30 years ago and I’ve been going there for 20 years–a festival of tropical birding, to introduce people to tropical birds which we think are, like, fabulous, and to introduce people to Panama, and all the profits were gonna go or–go for conservation. Well, the first one was very successful. We had about 55 people from all over the United States. And, we had about six or eight of our leaders there and went out birding every day for six days and–and had evening get-togethers and talks. We just had the second one, and 58 people came this time. One woman came from Scotland, who travels with us. We had a man who is on an Atoll in the Pacific where he incinerates atomic waste that is such high security that your wife can’t be there with you unless she works for the same agency. I mean, he came from this Atoll to Panama to attend this thing. I mean, we had just an incredible group of people. And the U.S. Ambassador came by to say hello to us and, you know, congratulations when I was–we were doing the Panama Audubon people. This year all the profits went to Panama Audubon, and to the Center for Neotropical Ornithological Studies at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia where Bob worked–where Robert Ridgely works. So we divided the profits between those two groups. Well, what was very gratifying was that some of the Panama Audubon meetings–people came to our meetings–you know, to our little afternoon gatherings and our talks and–and their conservation chairman gave a talk about conservation problems in Panama. But, as luck would have it, one of the nights we were there, they were having their monthly meeting, and they invited us to come. So we had a bus, and about 20 of the people in our group went to their meeting. And the Panama Audubon originally was very much of a Zonian organization, people that worked for the Canal Zone that were Anglos. Now it’s very much of a–of a native Hispanic …
[Tape 2, Side A.] VE: … Now it’s very much of a–of a–native Hispanic Panamanians and Americans. I’d never been to a bilingual meeting before. Everything was–first said in Spanish and then said in English. Half the people were, as I say, Hispanic and Panamanians. The President is a Hispanic Panamanian lady who is terrific. And, there were several kids that I met there that were teenagers, who were very keen birders, and I got to talk to them. I said to one of them, how–and in–one of ’em, his dad’s a taxi driver. I said, “How did you get interested in birds?” He said, “I came to an Audubon meeting.” And that–you know.
DT: So it–it cuts across all classes. There’s not …
VE: True.
DT: –through the quintessential–the birder who was in Doonesbury, …
VE: Yeah.
DT: –who–you know, you get to fill in–work at some white-shoe law firm and had that sort of background but that–that this appeals to many different people.
VE: Oh, yes. But it hadn’t–in the–in these Hispanic countries there hadn’t been that many local birders and now there are, developing, and Panama Audubon is gonna send one of these boys to our camp in Belize.
DT: That’s great.
VE: They’re gonna pay his way. So, I mean, that’s real gratifying to see that developing–those kinds of things, those kind of interests of the local people. And, Bob’s book has been published in Spanish now, in Panama. “The Birds of Venezuela” was published in Spanish. So it’s–those–you know, all those things are–are having an effect.
DT: Can I ask you about bird-watching a little closer to home than …
VE: Um-hmm.
DT: –I understood that you were one of the organizers of the Freeport Bird Count, …
VE: That’s right.
DT: –which–I guess one of the–the–the most popular and the most productive in the United States. I was curious–if you could tell us a little about the early days and how it developed?
VE: Well, that’s interesting ’cause I started–I guess I was about 16 when I started it. Amazing when I think back of it. That was–because of Armand Yrmanetegui, my mentor, that the–the only bird count in those days in the Houston area, the Christmas bird count, which is when you get together at Christmas time and try to count as many birds–you often do a census. Different teams have different sections of a 15-mile diameter circle. And–say you might have a certain slice of the pie and I have another slice of the pie and you walk around all day and say, you know, how many cardinals you saw and how many blue jays and so forth. I’d been in the–in the Bay Town area, and I’d gone on that count for years. And Armand Yrmanetegui, my mentor, said to me in the mid ’50’s, “Someone should start a count in the Freeport area ’cause it’s a very rich area. There’s a lot of bottom land, woods there along the Brazos River. There’s–there’s beach, there’s estuaries, there’re bays, there’s grassland, … ”
DT: Yeah.
VE: “–there’s a lot of different habitats, each of which you need.” So I start–I–I contacted ***, found out how you did it, and in 1956 or ’57, I started the Freeport Count. Nine people went on it–including my friend, Carl Akin, who is one of my high school friends, and we saw about 110 different species, 114 species. Anyway, I guess one of the qualities I have that’s kind of stood me in good stead through all my activities is kind of a stead–kind of sticking with something. Year after year I organized this count. Again, I’m an organizer. I would get people–I’d call people–I’d get them to come so it kept growing–number of people, number of birds–through 110 to 120 to 130 and on up. And finally, by 1970, we saw over 200 species, like 202 or something, and we tied with the other reigning champion count, Cocoa, Florida, now the Cape Kennedy area, for No. 1 in the country. And no Texas count had been No. 1 for years. It used to be the–the count in the Rio Grande Valley had been No. 1 but it had fallen down. So we were very proud that–bringing the title back, at least to the tied of Texas. Well, the next year, all the weather and everything was right in terms of how the birds came. We got an invasion of western birds moving east, we got southern birds moving north, we had migrating birds that lingered–that when we came up with our tally, we actually–reported that day were 235 species. But there were some that we had some doubts about their ability so we–we knocked off nine. We ended up with a grand total of 226–which beat the all-time national record by San Diego, which was 224. And so …
DT: And this was in 1971?
VE: About 1971 or ’72. It was probably ’71. And so we set the new national all-time record, and so that was a big thing. The next year, the editor on the magazine, Les Lime, called me, and said that he wanted to send George Plimpton on a bird count, and could George Plimpton come on our bird count because we had been the–we had set this new record. And so George came, and that’s how we got to know each other and became friends. And, he had done a lot to help me with my tour company. He’s written three articles about me and things that I’ve done–one in “Sports Illustrated” and two in “Audubon,” at least, and probably more that I–I’ve even lost track of. And the first one he wrote was about the Freeport Bird Count, the first one he wrote that involved me. And it’s in the “Best of Audubon” Collection, the anthology, the best articles ever in “Audubon Magazine.” It’s also in the “Best of Plimpton” collection, the best article he’s ever written. So it made both anthologies, and–and it was very important. That was in 1973 that article came out–toward establishing my reputation as a birder and helping me then when I formed my company. A lot of people have read that article. So I think that was very important. But anyway, the Freeport Count continued being one of the premiere counts in getting more and more people, and HOuston Audubon became the sponsor of it. Lately it’s been eclipsed by the Corpus Christi Count–has gotten well organized by Jean Blacklock and has gotten more people on it and they have a better situation with more water birds, more bays, they got more south Texas birds, plus other birds, and they’d beaten our all-time record. So–but anyway, that’s the way that Freeport began, so I’ve done it now since 1956. We’ve just–we’re coming up–I guess we’ve just had our 40th–and we just–our–had our 41st count, and we’re coming up on our–we’ll be coming up on our 50th count.
DT: That’s amazing. That’s being steadfast, as you said.
VE: Pardon?
DT: That is being steadfast.
VE: Steadfast. I’ve never missed one. And, it did involve a lot of organization because what I had to do–in the early days we had to contact the landowners, and get permission to go on their land because all this land was privately owned. And people were very generous about letting them go on their land–all these old cattlemen–and there wasn’t any antipathy toward environmentalists–there might be now. Fact, there was a situation recently there. One of the landowners that–we’ve gone on his land for a number of years–was upset over something that–some environmental issue and we had to get–we had to mollify him or–but–but people have been very generous in letting us go on their land. And the Dow Chemical Company, which owns a lot of the land in our area, has let us go on all of their land, and has hosted a dinner for us to do our compilation every night at their cafeteria, because as the count drew larger and we had a hundred people on it, there was no–at the end of the count you always have a dinner, or–a lot of counts have a dinner where people socialize and turn in their results. And there was–there was no restaurant in that area that could handle a hundred people that–that we could–and Dow opened up their cafeteria.
DT: That’s great.
VE: But that’s the story of the Freeport Count and it’s been a wonderful count. We had some incredible birds–incredible experiences on it and–it’s a great tradition.
DT: Well, thanks for telling about all this, and I know that David probably has some things to ask about …
DR: Right.
DT: –institutions in Houston.
DR: Yeah, I’d like to change tack a little bit.
VE: Sure.
DR: You were executive director of the Citizens Environmental Coalition in …
VE: Sure.
DR: –1974 and 1975?
VE: Um-hmm.
DR: What–why–you were active with the CEC before? Executive director or was it just …
VE: No.
DR: Um-hmm.
VE: I didn’t do that.
DR: Right, that was–well, you were right after Stuart Henry?
VE: Right.
DR: Um-hmm? O.K. Before–in 1971 they developed a platform of–of action to guide their things and it’s kind of–kind of fallen by the way side. Were they still working at that when you were executive director? There was issues on endangered species, pollution control agencies in the state, other governing agencies and–stuff on billboard control as well, which are issues …
VE: No, I don’t remember that. I don’t remember which were imminent.
DR: Another thing that the CEC did at the beginning was have public inquiries, like town hall meetings, like they’re starting to have? Now, you know, in the big–the big range in government, when they would get both sides of the issue to come in and people could ask questions? Were they–did you have any of those here?
VE: No.
DR: O.K. How was your–here? Were the groups friendly with each other? Were they–were there some that were–a different–different tacks, like, say, the Sierra Club, versus–wanting some–a particular stance on an issue and another group wanting a different stance?
VE: This is where I had several–I mean, it’s been 20 years, and it wasn’t–it was something I did–I–I really only remember doing it for a year.
DR: O.K.
VE: I mean, I started, like, in April to April or something, and I don’t–I didn’t have that intense an involvement with the Citizens Environmental Coalition. I remember I was asked to do it by Terry Hershey. They were looking for someone after Stewart left, and I guess I’d met her through environmental groups and politics and groups that we’re involved in. And, I really think I was–and frankly, to be honest, I was a kind of a caretaker executive director. I didn’t–didn’t have a very intense involvement in it. I don’t remember any animosity between the groups. I’ve–it’s funny the things that stick in your mind. What stuck in my mind most were some of the phone calls I answered from people that thought they had seen rare birds in their yard and I had to answer. You know, we were the–and we answered the phone for the Audubon Society. The people would call and say, you know, “There’s–a Wilson storm peffle in my back yard on the television antenna.” Of course I knew it wasn’t, and I had to kinda talk to them about what it was. I went to some conferences, like the local Audubon conference. There was a regional Audubon conference in Beaumont that I attended as the CEC executive director. But I don’t have any strong memories of what–of what, you know, the focus of the CEC was.
DR: O.K. It’s all right. Other–another big issue during the 1970’s was the Big Thicket Preserve?
VE: Um-hmm.
DR: We–did you take any part in that campaign in trying to get that legislation passed, at the national level or at the state level that …
VE: I would assume that CEC did but I don’t remember specifically what we did.
DR: I see. O.K. I recall in the summer of 1960 you worked with Ralph Yarborough at his office in D.C.?
VE: Um-hmm.
DR: At that time he was trying to get a Padre Island National Seashore. Did you in–did you do specific work with that that you recall?
VE: No. I was really kind of a–a lower-level person in the office.
DR: Um-hmm.
VE: In fact, I remember I had some bird books out on my desk, which I hope I was reading after work and–and the Senator would come kind of wandering around the office at night himself and he saw those, and he found out that I was a birder, too. He’d been a birder when he was a kid, and so then we started to–he would always talk to me about birds. But I–as a staff member, that wasn’t my particular focus. But I remember later–we would remain friends throughout his life and I would see him occasionally, and tell him–he was in some very interesting stories about the Padre Island National Seashore. And what he said–my memory of it–this was only five years ago, maybe–is that he was working on trying to get a seashore established–and maybe you’ve heard this story. And he was trying to get the Audubon Society to make it one of their agenda items and they weren’t interested. And they were interested in the Golden Eagle. It’s interesting in terms of what moods people lived. They were more like–you know, this eagle was being killed by people shooting it from the–from the air. And–and they said, basically, “If you’ll carry a bill to prohibit the aerial hunting of golden eagles in Congress, we’ll help you with this off–this Padre Island thing. And we’ll have our annual convention–biannual convention in Corpus Christi,” which it was in ’61, where people can see Padre Island and see whooping crane and kind of focus attention on that area, so it was kind of a–a trade. And he told me that he got more flack about the Golden Eagle Bill from constituents in terms of hostile mail and hate mail and phone calls than anything he did in his whole career.
DT: [Laughs.]
VE: More than Vietnam or anything. But he carried the bill. The bill passed. Eagle–aerial shooting of eagles was prohibited, and the Audubon Society did back Padre Island. Well, the interesting–to me about the story, if–the Senator’s memory is correct, which it probably was, ’cause his total memory is that the Audubon Society was not interested in, like, Padre Island–where is it, you know, who cares. But …
DR: Yeah, I’ve seen some information. I’m looking at the Texas Conservation Council to kind of support that, …
VE: Um-hmm.
DR: –as well as some of that–some of that Nelma and Orec Dexter’s material, [Army and Emmett’s, as well, and they all …
VE: *** Dexter’s?
DR: The Dexters …
VE: Yeah, senators.
DR: –in a trade-off, …
VE: Um-hmm.
DR: –and, getting support for different areas and different things.
VE: Um-hmm.
DR: That’s all that I have then, …
VE: O.K.
DR: –this afternoon. You know, David …
DT: I always have more of it.
VE: O.K.
DT: If you have more time.
VE: I’ve got more time. I’ve gotta be over at Zilker at 5:15, so I’ve got until five.
DT: I need–O.K. Great. Just a few more questions.
VE: Um-hmm.
DT: Talking about the Golden Eagles–you know, we’re sort of extrapolating, talk about birds in general and–you’ve been birding for a good while and in …
VE: Hmm.
DT: –many different places and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about trends that you’ve seen, in numbers and diversity, in–in terms of the successive birds you have seen.
VE: Well, the main thing that–that all of us have noted that have birded for a long time and I’ve been birding almost for 50 years is–the climb in the–in the tropical migrants–the warblers, the orioles, the tanangers. You know, when I started birding, and met Joe Heiser and those people in the–in the early ’60’s–well, in the ’50’s–they would tell stories about being in Kemah. Joe had a weekend place at Kemah, down near Seabrook–a cottage, and he had me and some of these people to go down and spend the weekend and–in the spring, and in the fall–particularly in the spring they would get [a] tremendous number of migrating birds coming through there–warblers and orioles and they just had these stories about what were called then–or now are called fallouts, that when you have a north wind and rain and unsettled weather, these birds that have migrated over the Gulf are tired by hitting the weather and they fall out of the sky and then bushes are just filled with ’em. Well, I heard these stories, and they were, like, legends to me or like tall tales–they were like tall tales. I had the–hard to believe, ’cause I’d go out and you’d see one or two warblers and–and then finally, I hit the conditions right–and it was like they said it. There were birds everywhere. Just–the bushes were filled with them. On Galveston Island, which is where I used to go bird-watching, in ***, Galveston–and I could see there were just thousands of birds. The bushes–you know, orioles–just clouds of them flying up, and so I enjoyed that. I mean, it was tremendous, and I enjoyed–I got to see that numbers of times in the ’60’s. And, we would be bird-watching on Galveston, and the bushes would be almost empty of birds and you’d be down there and the wind would be from the south. And then a thunderstorm would come up, and would just even threaten to rain. You’d see a dark cloud, and birds would start dropping out of the sky. Just a few, but just–even a little threat of rain. And because there were so many going over, that–when they would see that threat a few would decide, well, we’d better head for cover. Now, we have situations–and Ted, you’ve actually talked about this, too, where we have rain, and we have considerable weather, and nothing happens. There are no birds. And we still get fall-outs but it takes more rain, longer–more north wind. It takes conditions–in other words, conditions in the old days that have brought birds down don’t anymore. And so we feel that there are many–and the radar studies show there’s–like Sidney Gotrow, and down in Central America–like, I was just at Chan Chich for ten days. It was fabulous. There were fewer warblers–every year we see fewer warblers in the wintering grounds. So, it’s not scientific. We don’t have counts of what we had ten–you know, ten years ago or how many you would see in an hour and a certain distance you would travel. But our own impressionistic data is there are tremendous decreases in orioles, warblers, thrushes–from what we used to see, and it’s very sad. Very, very sad, and it just–you know, I–I–I was visiting a friend in Miami and he said there are fewer birds in his yard every year. Wintering warblers–fewer warblers coming through his yard, and the people in Austin say that, too. Friends of mine here that have–used to get warblers in their yard, the–Fred Webster. Very, very–very few. So we–that’s where we see the big decline. Geese, there’re more than ever. In fact, there’re probably too many snow geese. And, ducks are up right now. Ducks have come back with the favorable breeding conditions in the north. And, the–you know, there’re other species that are down, and other species–you know, it–it varies species by species. But the big problem area are these neo-tropical migrants.
DT: I guess a–a linked question would be the changes in habitat around the–the Houston area and southeast Texas. Have you noticed any significant changes in how the coastal prairies has changed or the east Texas piney woods or …
VE: Well, I think it was happening when I was a kid, that the tree farms–you know, the conversion of–of mixed forests into a monoculture is certainly gonna reduce the breeding area and the species diversity. I think that happened a lot during the ’70’s and ’80’s. So that’s bound to’ve had a big impact. I think the second–the people moving into Montgomery County–a tremendous population increase in Montgomery County–must have put an enormous change in terms of the habitat there, because people tend to clear all the land around their house. So instead of being brush and woods you’ve got St. Augustine grass, and maybe a mocking bird where before you had a rich mixture of species. You also have lots of cats and dogs, particularly–the problem is cats–that–that will kill birds, and–they kill millions and millions of birds. So, second home development on–not second home but, you know, suburban development in Montgomery County is bound to’ve destroyed a lot of habitat. And that’s the threat now in Brazoria County along the–along the Brazos River. It’s been a big area that hasn’t been developed and now the–that’s starting–there are threats to that. That sinking development of Lake Jackson along the Missouri is kind of spreading out–the whole sprawl–and the same thing happened to Katy Prairie. I mean, when I was growing up, you went west of Houston, right at spring Branch the Katy Prairie started. Now you’re practically to Katy, and there’s housing about–let’s–all out–certainly in 1960. I remember on 1960–I would drive out 1960 north from Interstate 10 to–my nephew and niece lived with my sister, out near Cypress. And there was a place called Wolf Corner, where a man would hang the skins of what he called wolves, and some of them might’ve been real wolves–it must’ve been they were coyotes. When you see nine or ten skins hanging there along with the–the heads of catfish that he had caught, big catfish–on the fence there. Now it’s all shopping centers. So that area has been tremendously impacted–that Katy area, by western movement of Houston. The Montgomery area has been impacted by northward movement. So all that’s reduced the number and diversity of birds there.
DT: I guess one segue way from that would be of all–of all the many places you’ve been, do you have favorite places or special spots that you think are somehow–you know, beautiful, poetic, places that you …
VE: Well, I have a real attachment to East Texas, growing up there, …
DT: Um-hmm.
VE: –to the Little Thicket and the Big Thicket, and now–all those days I spent there I never get over there very much. High Island is very spiritual–special for me because of the migration that I grew up seeing. And, to be there in the spring and see any kind of warbler, even though there’re not as many. You know, one of my dreams is to spend a whole spring there, and a lot of people feel the same way–is to watch it all happen, from the first warbler coming back to the last warbler passing through. If you were there from about the first of March to the middle of May, you would see the whole show, and some year I’d–I’d love to do that. So in the United States those are two–Big Bend’s always been very special for me. I first went out there in 1960 when I was a student at Rice. There was a field trip I went on to Big Bend. And–but in the United States the area that’s become the most–I’ve become the most attached to, that I–I view as sacred ground is the Chirikawas, because that’s where–I first went there in 1970, just on a birding trip with a friend from Houston, Fred Collins. But–then I went back and did tours there but that’s where–when I started my camps, that’s where we had the first ones and every year we do them there. And they were the sacred grounds of the Chirakawa Apache, and of Cochees. That’s where he lived. And they are the most extensive range in the United States of Mexican-type mountains, mountains of the Sierra Madre. They’re a northward extension of the Sierra Madre, they’re not Rocky Mountains. They’re Sierra Madrean. Not so much–their geology isn’t–isn’t so different from the Rockies, although, like Big Bend, they are–they were formed from a caldero–in other words, a gigantic volcanic explosion larger than any that’s occurred in the time of man, where, you know, a huge whole area was blown up. Created Big Bend and created the–the Chirikawas. But in terms of their biology, they are Sierra Madrean in terms of the plants and animals that are there or have a tropical influence. And what’s so exciting about them is that they’re vast, they’re 30 miles or 50 miles or maybe even a hundred miles, I don’t know, north to south. They extend north almost to Interstate 10 from the Mexican border, and they’re probably 20 miles across. There’s a lot of wilderness in them. They’re not heavily developed, and they rise up to–from the desert, at about 3,000 feet, up to 10,000 feet. And so in going from the base of the Chirikawas to the top is biologically a journey like going from Mexico to Canada, ’cause as you go up, it’s getting cooler. And so the plants are changing, and so you go through all these different zones that–that Miriam named, called life zones. The whole life zone concept was developed in Arizona. And–so you start with the lower Sonoran Zone, which is desert, and–Chihuahuan desert, in that area. And then you go to the Upper Sonoran, and then you go to the Transition Zone, and then you go to the Canadian Zone, and then you go to the Hudsonian Zone, which is the highest, and has little trees like you would have in–around Hudson Bay, in terms of Santas Spruces, and each level has its own plants and animals and lizards and birds and everything associated with it, so it’s incredibly rich. And, when I drive west from El Paso, and you come over the last hill and you see the Chirikawas spreading out there in front of you, *** and mysterious in the distance and you see Cochees’ hat, this mountain that is shaped like the hat of an Indian lying on the side, you just–it’s incredible. It is just a fabulous experience so that’s my favorite there. And then my favorite–my favorite place outside the country is this El Triunfo area in Mexico, but that we can’t go to this year, this area near the border of Guatemala, El Triunfo. E-L and then T-R-I-U-N-F-O. It means it’s faced a triumph, because it’s a ridge of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas that gets up to almost 7,000 feet, and borders–and runs parallel to the Pacifics, right near Guatemala. And people would hike over it to get from one side to the other, and when they’d get to the top they would say, “Triunfo!”, that–that they–“We’ve triumphed, we’ve made it over the top.” And so that’s why that valley is named El Triunfo. I’ve been going there for 20 years. And it’s a cloud forest with tree ferns that are 70 feet tall. Seventy-foot-high ferns, and 125-foot-high trees, and resplendent Quetzals, this sacred bird of the Maya that–the headdress for Montezuma was made from the tail feathers of the Quetzal. All of these wonderful things. And, I’ve been going up that trail for 20 years now, and it was one of the areas that my mentor, Armand Yrmanetegui, most wanted to go to. And he was going in March of ’70, and he was killed in January. And so it was kind of like an area that he always wanted to go to. I heard about it first from Armand. And then I went in 1977, I believe it was, seven years after he died. And, I’ve been working with the same horsemen who’d carry our–that stuff up the mountain for 20 years now–well, almost 20 years.
DT: Uh-huh.
VE: Nineteen seventy-seven, yeah. And I’ve gotten to be very close friends with these families of horsemen, of ***. And–so there’re a lot of reasons that area’s become very, very special to me. The birds–and see, again, like the Chirikawas, as you hike up the Sierra de Chiapas. We used to start at 500 feet, now we start at 2,000 as the road goes further. From 2,000 feet up to almost 7,000 you go through these different zones. And so there’re, like, 10 different species of thrush, and 10 different species of wrens, all with wonderful, beautiful songs, that as you climb the mountain you go from one to the other. From the clay-colored robin at the bottom to the black robin at the top, with all these ones in between, and so you’re walking–like walking from one room to another with different music playing. From one species of Thrush and Wren to another species of thrush and wren. So wonderful. So–but we can’t go there this year because of this unrest.
DT: Guatemala.
VE: Guatemala.
DT: The great place to go while your …
VE: Yeah.
DT: –your clients ***.
VE: Oh, it’s gonna be a neat place. ***, it sounds like a wonderful place. We had someone scout it last year and it sounds like–as magnificent as El Triunfo. But El Triunfo, like ***, Minas, the other thing experienced that since you’re at the top of the mountain, as the guy that went there described at Minas, you’ll be there and you’ll have this forest all around you and then all of a sudden, the fog will swirl in, and you can’t see hardly your hand in front of your face, and you can’t see any of the tops of the trees and there’s fog swirling all around. And then 30 minutes later it’ll be crystal blue sky, ’cause the clouds just kind of sweep over the mountain, you see. You’re, like, on the top. If the cloud sweeps over, you’re enshrouded. And then it moves on, and you’re back in–like this. All the …
DT: Well, it’s more diversity, because of the …
VE: Oh, yeah. All the trees are covered with epyphites and orchids and vermiliads because of all the moisture.
DT: Yeah. So …
VE: So that’s my favorite place, outside the country, and really my favorite place of all. And I’ve been kind of very involved in–trying to help preserve it and caring about it. There’s a lot more to be done there.
VE: Well, I–I had one more question. I know you–you need to run on. In a–in a sense this is like a–a letter in a bottle. We don’t really know what’s …
VE: Um-hmm.
DT: –going to come of the videotape and the audiotape and I’m curious if you’ve got any sort of message to pass on to people who’d be interested in–in the things that concern you and you’re passionate about.
VE: Well, I–I think that–message is what I mentioned earlier, and that is that Nature is one of the most powerful–forces that people can get in contact with in their life. And that–it can be incredibly healing, it can be incredibly invigorating, it can be incredibly spiritually renewing, and a source of just tremendous enjoyment and satisfaction. It’s wonderful sharing it with other people, and it’s–by getting–by people that–that come to feel that way about Nature, then they care about preserving it.
[Tape 2, Side B.]
DT: O.K. Well said. Thank you very much.
VE: O.K.
DT: This has been a real pleasure for me. Thanks for coming in ***.
VE: Good. Well, I’m–appreciate y’all coming in. I’m glad to have a chance to talk about these things.
End of reel 1007
End of interview with Victor Emanuel