Home page Alert Sierra Club Books Committee Members Meetings Membership Minutes Newsletter Related Sites Volunteer Contact Us


Issue 80
April 1, 2004

THE FORGOTTEN RIVER: Bring Back our Rio Grande
Sierra Club Program for April

Mary Kelly, Senior Attorney for Environmental Defense in Austin, will speak on the Forgotten River at the April 15th Sierra Club meeting, to be held at 7 p.m. in Room 300 Lawrence Hall, Sul Ross State University in Alpine. The meeting is open to the public.

Kelly asks, "Are you one of the Big Bend residents who remembers when the Rio Grande above Presidio was bordered by cottonwoods, willows and pastures, instead of choked with salt cedar? Even if you never saw it that way, wouldn't you like to see it that way in the future?" Kelly will tell us about what's happened to the Rio Grande between Fort Quitman and Presidio in the last two decades, and what might be done to reverse the damage and enhance this vital segment of our river. She will also explain what a difference revitalizing the river could make to the water supply.

Prior to joining Environmental Defense (ED), Mary was Executive Director of the Texas Center for Policy Studies, a non-profit research organization working on a variety of environmental issues. Earlier she was with the law firm of Henry, Lowerre & Frederick in Austin. She obtained her law degree from the University of Texas in 1985. In her present position she manages Environmental Defense's work on trans-boundary water, wildlife and other issues in the Ecosytems Program as well as coordinates ED's Texas water policy work.

photograph by Michael Collier

Upcoming Programs: May 21, 2004 Dave Edmond will discuss the results of his field studies on the dung beetle in the Chihuahuan desert.

by Jim Sage

One day last fall, my wife yelled, "Jim, we have a new bird on the patio." I ran to look, asking as usual what it looked like. She replied that it looked like a self-important business man in a dark brown suit, wearing a homburg, and hurrying to catch an elevator. I loved this response with its imaginative stretch, and we quickly identified the bird as a cactus wren. Another wren soon appeared and we have both wrens enjoying our hospitality in their self-important way.

The cactus wren is a true bird of the Southwestern deserts. It has adapted to the desert environment so well that it no longer needs a source of water to survive. It functions very well on the juices of the insects that it eats and I have yet to see the bird on our water dish.

The cactus wren feeds primarily on the ground around vegetation and its diet consists of ants, wasps, grasshoppers, small lizards and I hope scorpions. Unlike other wrens, it eats seeds and fruit. It dines very well on sunflower seeds and the tunas of the prickly pear.

I especially enjoy the loud, raucous call of this bird. It has no musical talents of any kind. It sits on top of the agave bloom and sings by the hour without a trace of melody. Our bird identification book describes it as an "unmusical monotone of low pitched nature." I describe it as sounding like an old Chrysler motor starting on a cold morning.

I have found two nests so far and these nests are an engineering marvel. They are constructed in the densest jumble of cholla branches and appear to be impregnable. The nest is quite large, shaped a little like a football, with a tunnel leading into it. The nest is lined with fur or feathers or some soft material and is so well constructed it looks as if it would be waterproof. The male and female both build the nest and the female lays from 3 to 6 eggs. While she is nesting, the mate builds at least one more nest and often several more. The female can produce three clutches a year and when one batch hatches out, she will move to one of the new nests and lay another batch. The male will care for the young in one nest while the female is incubating the next batch. Other nests are used for roosting.

An interesting side note. Biologists have found the feathers of the masked bobwhite in one of the nests. The bobwhite was thought to be extinct; so biologists are now searching for the missing bird.

The cactus wren is the largest wren in North America and is quite easy to identify. It is also quite beautiful with its pronounced white eye stripe, spotted breast, tawny colored sides and long tail. It must be one of nature's most imposing businessmen.

by Don Dowdey, Chair of BBRSC

Mary Kelly

I would like to personally urge you to come hear Mary Kelly of Environmental Defense on April 15. Mary is a long-time friend of Big Bend, and the Big Bend Regional Sierra Club. Some of you may remember her as a participant in the Hands Across the Border Conference in 2000, or as co-author of the 1998 fact sheet on Air Quality in Big Bend. She has also worked with us on the Lajitas Wastewater permit last year, and was a co-author (with Erin Rogers of the Lone Star Chapter) of the Citizen Guide for Participating in Government Decisions on Pollution Sources. Mary has also spoken at several of the hearings about Rio Nuevo. Because of her position as Program Director for U.S./Mexico Border she has an international perspective on many of our environmental issues.

We don't often have programs by folks from out of town. It represents a big commitment for them to come. Help us welcome Mary Kelly with a big turnout - please come and bring your friends and neighbors.

New Source Review Update

Last summer, in response to a court settlement in a case on New Source Review brought by Environmental Defense, the EPA agreed to propose new rules for cleaning up older power plants and other pollution sources in order to reduce air pollution in national parks and wilderness areas. The goal is for the EPA to require states to put pollution controls in place to return parks and wilderness areas to "natural visibility" over 60 years. The EPA agreed to have a draft of the new rules by April 2004, and after a comment period, to have new rules in place by April 2005. New Source Review is a fairly technical regulation, but the long term desire of environmentalists has been for it to require pollution sources to install best available retrofit technology (BART) whenever they do major repairs on older equipment.

As one example of how strong New Source Review can help clear the air, last year an Alcoa smelter in Rockdale, Texas, outside Austin, reached a settlement in a lawsuit brought by Environmental Defense, Public Citizen, and Neighbor to Neighbor, which alleged that Alcoa had failed to comply with existing New Source Review regulations since the 1980's. Alcoa agreed to pay $4 million in fines and restitution, and to reduce emissions of sulphur dioxide by at least 52,000 tons a year. Sulphur dioxide is a major source of visibility problems in Big Bend.

In preparation for the EPA's draft New Source Review rules due next month, the Big Bend Regional Sierra Club Executive Committee has joined nearly 300 groups who have signed on to a letter from a broad based group of environmental organizations urging the EPA to issue strong guidelines "for some of the oldest power plants and industries to retrofit their facilities with the best available pollution controls to clean up park haze." Over the next year, there will undoubtedly be more opportunities to comment on this process.

by Fran Sage

Big Bend Sentinel reporter Sterry Butcher has been awarded an environmental reporting award by the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. Butcher was nominated by Don Dowdey, BBRSC chair, for her news breaking story on October 9, 2003 on the Rio Nuevo permit request to lease state lands for water pumping and exporting. Butcher's article broke the story statewide. Randy Lee Loftus of the Dallas Morning News also was also honored at the awards ceremony for his career work in environmental reporting. In addition other awards for environmental work were recognized at the ceremony April 3 in Austin.

Butcher is not, of course, an environmental reporter only, but, as a reporter for a small town weekly, she covers stories from junior high volleyball games to state redistricting issues. Although she worked from 1993-94 for the paper, she has been continuously working there since 1998. Butcher is originally from Ft. Worth but received her B. A. in English from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. She is married to Michael Roch and has a three year old son, Huck Roch.

Congratulations to Sterry for her work and its recognition.

by Fran Sage

Many of you know Susan Penney, fun-loving, independent, caring friend to many, many, area people and loving daughter. She is a legal secretary, baker, motorcycle rider, dancer, and, as a few know, barber extraordinaire. She is the fiancée of Matthew Shetrone. She has had many adventures including taking her dog, on a platform made by Hal Flanders, on the back of her motorcycle to San Francisco. That must have been a sight-her long, red hair flying behind her in the breeze and her red furred dog, Emmett, sitting straight up behind her. She told me recently about another experience: the year, 1979, when she pumped gas and made bullets in Harper, Texas (between Fredericksburg on US 290 and I10).

Susan had come over from College Station to work in an apple and peach orchard. Unfortunately, she developed allergies to the pesticides used and had to quit. She stayed around her Harper home for a few days and a former principal and math teacher, Ed Bailey, retired and running a gas station and making bullets in the back, asked her if she would help him with his tasks. She said "yes" as she had nothing else to do. He told her he could pay $8 a day! And she said "okay"as she was just sitting around. Within a week he had doubled her salary. She thinks he was not sure that a woman could do man's work. As anyone who knows her knows, she is always competent and honest. He came to trust her to do it all by herself and sometimes he and his wife went away for a few days or a week. She came to think of them as surrogate parents and says she furthered her interest in cooking thanks to Mrs. Bailey.

In addition to responding to the ting-a-ling of the bell when someone wanted gas and the oil checked (those were the days when full service was the only service in small towns), she worked all day in the back making bullets. The casings were purchased, but the bullets were made of lead melted down from used wheel weights from car tires. Susan said it was the beginning of her recycling experiences. The lead was poured into molds of various sizes. After it was cooled, she would bang the bullets out of the molds, lubricate them, clean the used casing, put in the powder and the new charge and slide in the bullets. She would make hundreds of bullets a day.

She did not know that she was rather famous in the area until she went to the dance hall in Guerne, some distance away, and, when dancing with someone she had just met and explaining what she did for a living, he said, "Wow, you're the redhead who works in the gas station in Harper and makes bullets."

After a year or so she returned to College Station and worked for the Forest Service for five years.

by Johnson Waters

While hiking along the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park, I become enthralled with the great botanical diversity. As I hike to a higher elevation, I notice a particular component of the natural world that is inconspicuous to most: lichens. The higher I go, the more I notice their subtle coloring and texturing all around: on rocks, hanging from trees - even, in the distance, tinting the face of Casa Grande green.

Lichens grow in several different forms: foliose (leaf-like), fruticose (shrubby or hair-like), crustose (crust-like). They grow in a variety of environments from lush forests to deserts to alpine tundra, and at elevations from below sea level to above 24,000 feet in the Himalayas. Lichens contribute to ecosystems by breaking down rock and creating soil; in some areas, they take nitrogen out of the air and eventually transfer it into soil, making it available for use by the entire botanical community. Also, lichens are important sources of forage, shelter, and food for insects, birds, and mammals. Humans use lichens for, food, dye, decoration, and medicine.

Lichens are a composite organism, the product of an algae (sometimes cyanobacterium) and a fungi that grow together to create a new organism, the product of a mutually beneficial relationship. The fungus provides the physical structure while the alga provides the food via photosynthesis.

One of the first proponents of this relationship was Beatrix Potter. Though best known today for her work as a prolific writer of children's' books such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, and Miss Moppet, in 1894 Potter was an avid mycologist who attempted to present her findings of lichen symbiosis - along with her detailed watercolor drawings - to both the prestigious Linnaean and Royal Botanic Societies, but was refused entry by the chauvinistic all-male membership. In 1997, the Linnaean Society made a posthumous apology to Potter for their rude treatment and recognized her significant contributions to the science of lichenology.

While this mutually-beneficial symbiosis is the commonly-accepted view of lichen biology, some lichenologists now consider the relationship to be somewhat parasitic, though the fungi-algae combination is not in doubt.

Lichens are, on the whole, intolerant to air pollution, with some species sensitive to specific pollutants. Because water and gases are exchanged over the entire lichen body, and because lichens lack roots, they are dependent on what is deposited from the air for their entire nutrient intake. Lichens accumulate matter from the environment much as sponges absorb water; whatever is in the atmosphere will end up in the lichen. Lichens may experience several episodes of moist and dry conditions within a single day; during the dry periods contaminants may become greatly concentrated. Studies of fluoride pollution have found lichens concentrations of 200 times the level in ambient air.

Pollution affects lichens adversely: decreased size, decreased reproduction, and mortality. Levels of stress, quantities of pollutants and/or mortality of the affected lichen are easily monitored and quantified. Recently, lichen researchers in Brigham Young University in Utah found that lichens are as precise and accurate in determining air pollution as are human-devised instruments for measuring the same. Lichens have been used as "bio-indicators" of air pollution in Europe since the late 1850's and by federal agencies in the U.S. since the 1980's.

Several air pollution studies utilizing lichens have occurred elsewhere in Texas (in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Big Thicket Preserve), and while none are currently underway in the Big Bend, they may play a crucial role in future air quality studies.

Johnson Waters is publisher of the Big Bend Gazette and a field biologist who has worked for the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.

by Fran Sage

The Advisory Committee on Rock Crushers and Quarries began its work March 29. The Committee is chaired by Senator Troy Fraser, with committee members Senators Ken Armbrister and Frank Madla, and House members Representatives Dennis Bonnen, Bryon Cook and Edmund Kuempel, as well as James Oakley, of Spicewood, a Burnet County commissioner, John V. Lattimore Jr., President and CEO of Lattimore Properties, Inc. in McKinney, and John Richard Weisman, president of Hunter Industries Ltd., San Marcos. The committee heard invited testimony from Mark Vickery, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Amadeo Saenz, Texas Department of Transportation, Lisa Hatzenbuehler, Lower Colorado River Authority, and Nelvin Hodgkiss, Director of Surface Mining at the Railroad Commission. All meetings will be held in Austin due to travel budget constraints. There will be future meetings at which the public may testify but the dates have not yet been set. The Committee is studying the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's authority to adequately address citizen concerns about the construction and operation of rock crushers, including rock crushers operating in association with quarries.

Interested persons may listen to the meetings on the internet at http://www.senate.state.tx.us/bin/live.php . Some of the problems encountered by those raising concerns about the permit request of U. S. Clay to operate a bentonite rock crusher east of Alpine include environmental issues not considered in the permitting process, such as noise, traffic safety, economic impact, and pollution caused by trucks.

by Fran Sage

We are still awaiting the Response to Comment required from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The agency had 375 statements to respond to and the agency lawyers are still working on the Response. We expect the response will go out by the end of April. Once that has happened we will have 30 days to request a contested case hearing. Then there are several scenarios that might happen: 1) U. S. Clay could request a direct referral to the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) or U. S. Clay could fight the hearing requests at TCEQ and wait for the Commissioners to set a date for the Commission Agenda meeting in order to make a decision on the hearing requests. Depending on which option U. S. Clay chooses, the hearings could be this summer or in the early fall. If the permit request does go to the Commission Agenda, it could decide to approve or deny the permit, though a contested case hearing seems, at this point, the more likely decision.


Press Release from Big Bend National Park

As the next step in an on-going planning process, the National Park Service will hold public meetings associated with the release of the draft Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River General Management Plan. The meetings will be held in the following locations:

All meetings will begin at 7:00 PM and are expected to last about two hours.

The draft General Management Plan has been released and the park is accepting comments until Tuesday, May 25th. If you would like to be added to the mailing list to receive a copy of the draft plan, and subsequent editions, please contact: Superintendent POB 129 Big Bend National Park, TX 79834 (432) 477-1101. The draft plan is also available on the Internet at http://planning.nps.gov/plans.cfm .


The Senate Committee on the Leasing of State Lands, chaired by Senator Frank Madla has completed public hearings and is now developing recommendations. Sen. Madla plans to let the public know what those recommendations will be and consider responses to them. Contact Jason Anderson, aide to Sen. Madla for more information. (512) 463-0119 or JASON.ANDERSON@senate.tx.us .

by Lue Hirsch, Membership Chair

Please welcome the three new members this month. They are: Mark Kirtley in BBNP and Arthur Sayre and Gayle Turner from Alpine. If your membership is soon to expire (or has expired) you can renew online at https://ww2.sierraclub.org/membership/renewal/ or become a new member through this address https://ww2.sierraclub.org/membership/specialoffer/member1.asp .

A brief note about volunteering. According to Webster, volunteer means one who enters into or offers oneself for a servvice of his own free will. According to the U.S. government the volunteer rate grew to 28.8 percent in 2003, up from 27.4 percent in 2002. Our club is in great need for more members to become involved. You've heard or read the pleas before, so I won't go into them again. If you've thought about volunteering please call someone on the executive committee (see below) or contact someone you know who is involved and ask what you could do. Many of the things needed to be done don't take a lot of time. Call someone now. As my mother use to tell me, "Better late than never."

Financial News: Thanks to Don Dowdey and Marilyn Brady, and to Joe and Virginia Campbell for donations and pledges in March totaling $52. That brings our year's total to date to $210. Please consider sending a donation or pledge to Ginny Campbell at P. O. Box 474, Marathon, TX 79842.

Chair: Don Dowdey,
50 Sunny Glen, Alpine, TX 79830
(432) 837-3210 ddowdey@wildblue.net

Newsletter: Fran Sage

ExCom: Don Dowdey, (See above)
Scott May (432) 729-8105 randall359@yahoo.com
Barbara Novovitch (432) 386-4102 bnovo@overland.net
Bennye Meredith (432) 364-2266 bmeredith@llnet.net
Jeanne Sinclair (432) 729-4207 sinclair@llnet.net
Treasurer: Virginia Campbell (non-voting member of ExCom (432) 386-4526 jokeambl@overland.net

Another good contact: Luanne Hirsch, Membership Chair, (432) 364-2307 llfhirsch@msn.com


Home page Alert Sierra Club Books Committee Members Meetings Membership Minutes Newsletter Related Sites Volunteer Contact Us