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Issue 86     HAPPY HOLIDAYS!      December 2, 2004

Dec. 2 2004 Newsletter

The Big Bend Regional Sierra Club will hold its annual Holiday Party on December 16th at 7 p.m. in the Hospitality Room at the West Texas National Bank in Alpine. (The bank is on the northeast corner of East Avenue and North Fifth Street. Go around to the parking lot accessed off of Fifth Street.) The food will be provided potluck and please bring any kind of offering you wish. We also urge you to invite guests or ask anyone you think might be interested in meeting local area Sierra Club members. There will be no formal program, no grim environmental news—just good folks enjoying each other and being together in common fellowship. Y’all Come!

NOTE THE LOCATION CHANGE FOR THIS MEETING ONLY. We will continue to meet in Lawrence Hall Room 200 next year.

UPCOMING PROGRAMS: The BBRSC does not meet in January but will resume in February. No programs have yet been scheduled for next year. At the BBRSC October meeting members suggested some possible topics: natural history, growth of juniper, growth of tamarisk, the Mexican protected areas, the land owned in Mexico by Cemex, the Rio Grande Institute, beetle control of tamarisk, Chinati Mountains State Natural Area, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and any program featuring John Karges, Linda Hedges, or Lonn Taylor. In addition, on national issues, there was interest in global warming, pollution caused by war, and the environment and military use. Here in the Big Bend possibilities included air pollution and water issues and suggestions for local issues in Marfa, Terlingua, Fort Davis as well as those of Alpine. If you have suggestions for topics and speakers, please contact Don Dowdey at ddowdey@wildblue.net or at (432) 837-3210.

Newsletter: The next newsletter will come out in February.


Every summer we have a pair of ravens that fly daily over the South Double Diamond, constantly cawing to one another as they fly. I always wondered what they could be cawing about and now I know.

After recently discovering some of the mythology of the Inuits, I learned that following four months of total darkness above the Arctic Circle, it is the raven that brings back the sun. Now anyone who performs a feat as important as that has a lot to caw about.

The raven is the most widely distributed bird in the world and perhaps the most adaptable. In northern Canada, far above the Arctic Circle, when other birds have departed for warmer climes, the raven will remain to feed and breed in 45 degree below zero temperatures. He does not have the outer protection of other arctic animals such as the polar bear or the snowy owl but he has a special adaptation of a countercurrent circulatory system in the legs, which maintains a body temperature of 104 degrees although the temperature of the legs and feet drops almost to freezing. He also survives very well in the dangerous summertime heat of Death Valley.

There are two different ravens found here in the Chihuahuan desert. One is the common raven and the other is the Chihuahuan raven. They both look alike but the common raven is larger. This works fine in distinguishing them if the two are perched side by side—but I have yet to have that happen. Also the Chihuahuan raven has white feathers on the side of the neck but again one cannot see the white unless the wind blows aside the covering black feathers.

I know of no other bird that carries so much symbolic baggage as the raven. In some parts of the world, primarily in recent times, he is a bad omen. He is often a symbol of evil as in Celt mythology where the raven escorted the sun through its nocturnal path which the Celts believed was hell.

In ancient civilizations before agrarian development, the raven was a symbol of good. For the Tlingit Indians, he was a major divine character. For many of the Northwest Indian tribes he represents a supreme being. When he flaps his wings, he creates wind, thunder and lightning. He has a magic canoe that he can change from a miniature to a size which will contain the universe.

Often the raven has been a messenger of God with prophetic functions. He warns men when dangers are menacing them. He also guides souls through their final journey. The biblical Noah sent the raven to search for earth after the flood, but the raven failed to report to Noah that the flood had ended. Thus he was considered unreliable and lost his good reputation. It was thought that in paradise the raven had beautiful, multicolored wings but because of his behavior the raven became black feathered.

Even today inside the Tower of London, the Yeoman Raven Master watches over a flock of black birds. In the 1600’s a soothsayer predicted that the British Monarchy would fall if the ravens disappeared. Thus a group of ravens were confined and have been watched over ever since.

Ravens are surprisingly intelligent. Researchers have found that when a raven is given a stack of donuts, he will pass his beak through the hole in one and pick up a second donut by the edge and carry both away. Alvah Simon writes that contrary to the “bird brain” theory, bird brains’ do not function like ours. Birds’ cognizance is centered in the hyperstriatum, which mammals lack. Researchers have found that ravens and crows have a brain-size-to-body-weight ratio similar to dolphins and nearly matching humans.

In addition to being smart and clever, the raven also has the ability to talk equal to that of the parrot. Remember in Poe’s poem “The Raven” how the refrain repeats “Quoth the raven ‘nevermore’”? Early in the composition process Poe had considered using the parrot. Imagine what kind of a poem it would have been with “Quoth the parrot, ‘nevermore’.”

Ravens not only follow wolves, bears, coyotes, etc. to scavenge upon remains but scientists believe that the raven takes an active role in guiding these predators to their prey.

So the next time you pass a raven feasting upon a road kill, remember the words of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher: “If man had wings and black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be ravens.”



On Saturday November 13, Lalae and Mark Batista and I represented the Big Bend Regional Sierra Club at the Lone Star Chapter's Legislative Workshop. Arriving only a few minutes early, it was wonderful to be told at the check-in table, "Oh, you're the other one from Alpine".

While the Workshop was structured around four issues: Water for Texas; Land Conservation; TCEQ Enforcement and Permitting; and Radioactive Waste, for space reasons I will focus only on water in this report. Although school financing will be a major focus of this session, Rep. Puente, Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee said that he believes a lot of water issues will be on the plate. He cautioned that there are more friends of business than of the environment in the Legislature, and suggested that using sound science as a tactic might sway some votes.

Water Issues and the Legislature

There are three major areas pertaining to the water issues where the Legislature will probably act: Water Conservation, Groundwater Management, and Environmental Flows. All three will have reports to the Legislature from Tasks Forces or Committees which met over the interim.

Water Conservation

Carole Baker, with the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District reported on the Water Conservation Implementation Task force, which did focus groups throughout the state and came up with 18 recommendations for the Legislature. The Task Force did a poll which found that 98% of the state supports water conservation and 80% think the state should fund an educational program offering advice on water conservation. Its recommendations include coming up with a standard methodology for defining per capita water use, suggesting a 1% reduction a year until a target of 140 gallons per capita per day is reached, requiring municipalities of over 3,300 in population to prepare water conservation plans and using those plans as a factor for awarding grants for water projects.

The complete report is available at the Texas Water Development Board's

Baker explains that the Task Force believes this will be the most important session on water conservation in the history of the Texas Legislature. However, she closed with a cautionary tale from their focus groups, which included folks from 25 - 50 who make over $50,000 a year. She said most of the participants had no idea where their water came from, and told of a comment being made that "Since science has figured out how to make bottled water, there won't be big problems with shortages." The worst part was that no one laughed or contradicted her.

Groundwater Issues

Jason Anderson, Senator Madla's legislative aid, represented the Senator and spoke about the recommendations of the Select Committee on Water Policy on which the Senator served, and the Subcommittee on the Lease of State Water Rights which he chaired. This was the first time I had heard Jason give a formal presentation, and I was impressed. He was aware of Land Commissioner Patterson's comments about moving ahead with the Rio Nuevo Lease, and mentioned that week's story in the Desert Mountain Times about it. He said he had brought the story to the attention not only of Senator Madla, but to all the Senators on the sub-committee, and said that they were all watching Patterson closely, and would "hold him accountable" for any actions circumventing the recommendations of the subcommittee.

Specific recommendations from the subcommittee concerning the General Land Office (GLO) leasing of public lands include expanding the board responsible for such leases, specifically by including political appointees, so that a single person would not have so much authority and requiring that local Groundwater Conservation Districts be notified early in the process and that any lease must obey their rules. He also mention several proposals to strengthen Groundwater Conservation Districts, including allowing the Texas Attorney General's Office to represent them in lawsuits, using Administrative hearings of the TCEQ as a way to create useful regulations that others could use and enforce, allow aquifer-based, rather than county-based Groundwater Conservation Districts, and setting of consistent definitions for terms like "storage, recharge, inflow, and outflow."

The complete Interim Report of the Senate Subcommittee on the Lease of State Water Rights is available at:

Another useful report, prepared by Mary Kelley of Environmental Defense, “A Powerful Thirst: Water Marketing in Texas" is available at: http://www.texaswatermatters.org/pdfs/articles/powerful_thirst.pdf

Water and Environmental Flows

The final water issue deals with environmental flows. The National Wildlife Federation has prepared a report called "Bays in Peril: A Forecast for Freshwater Flows to Texas Estuaries". The report indicates that Sabine Lake, Galveston Bay, Matagorda Bay, San Antonio Bay, and Corpus Christi Bay are all endangered due to lack of fresh water reaching their estuaries. The methodology of its report represents first-ever look taking into account what would happen if all existing water permits were fully used, and all wastewater was reused instead of discharged back into rivers. While the report indicates serious potential problems, it also make specific suggestions such as improving water-use efficiency, setting aside unallocated river flows to preserve fish and wildlife, and developing voluntary methods to allow some existing unused water permits to be converted from their original purpose to a new use for protecting river flows. The complete report is available at: www.texaswatermatters.org /resources-bays.htm

A more complete set of proposals to protect environmental flows, prepared by the National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, and Environmental Defense is available at: http://texaswatermatters.org/pdfs/commission_plan.pdf

Legislative Information

A good way to keep up with environmental issues during the legislative session is to sign up for the Big Bend Regional Sierra Club's email alert list at: http://www.texas.sierraclub.org/bigbend/alert.html

If you have recently changed your email address, you should re-enroll on the alert list.


Donna and her husband, John, have lived in Alpine for the past two and one half years. She credits John with increasing her awareness in environmental issues and in 1990 they joined the Sierra Club together. After they moved from Los Angeles to Honolulu, they had a wonderful opportunity to expand their participation in the organization. They did trail maintenance and preservation of booby bird habitat which involved them in inter-island travel and exploration. After Hawaii, they moved to Austin, Texas.

One of Donna's personal concerns is animal welfare. She believes the practices of the corporate factory farming industry have impacted the lives of animals, the health of humans, and the environment. These practices include the intensive confinement of animals in an unnatural and cruel manner; the use of hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides on these animals which equals toxins to the humans who ingest the poultry or meat; and the waste from these animals which severely pollutes the land, water and air. She would like to educate people, to make them more aware of the link between the food they eat each day and how this consumption affects them and their environment.

Donna is the Officer-in-Charge for the United States Probation Office in the western district of Texas, Alpine Division. Her major task is to handle pre-sentence background investigations on defendants convicted of federal crimes. Her work helps the federal courts decide on the appropriate sentences for these individuals.

Donna is looking forward to a more involved role with the Big Bend chapter of the Sierra Club, especially with activities which are fun. She has agreed to be the associate editor of the newsletter and would also like to help the group develop activities which would attract a broader range of age groups to our local chapter.


New Members: The most recent new or transfer in or renewed member: Pam Gaddis of Alpine. Welcome! A few memberships have lapsed this month so we are once again below 130 members. Hopefully before the next holiday rush some folks will be able to renew their memberships. If you are one of the folks that needs to renew, please use the link(s) below.

Highway Clean-up: By the time this newsletter goes out we will have had another highway cleanup and I am sure the ‘regulars’ (and maybe a few newcomers) will have come and enjoyed the morning walk and talk while picking up the roadside! I’ll post an update in the next newsletter and also a date for the next opportunity to walk ‘n talk while pickin’ up the roadside!

Membership Renewal: If you wish to renew a membership or become a member you can do so online. The address for renewal is https://ww2.sierraclub.org/membership/renewal/. The new membership address is https://ww2.sierraclub.org/membership/specialoffer/member1.asp.

Financial: None is available this month.

Fundraiser: Thanks to the Railroad Blues in Alpine for holding the Environmental Bash fundraiser on November 27, 2004. No information is available on the results for this newsletter but we are grateful to the Blues and those who attended. ED.


Call for volunteers: Please volunteer for working on a segment of the following two issues: air pollution in the Big Bend and Radioactive Waste. See below.

Radioactive Waste: One of the striking features of the current radioactive waste issues is the continuous evolution as waste production and disposal in Texas may increase. While the main official activity going on in Texas concerns the permitting of Waste Control Specialists (WCS) in Andrews County on Compact waste (Texas/Vermont), there is now major expanded activity in other areas. Richard Simpson of Austin, and New Mexico arranged a conference in Hobbs, New Mexico on November 5th discussing issues of mutual importance and making plans for future cooperation. That grows out of the interest of Louisiana Energy Services to put in a uranium enrichment plant in Eunice, New Mexico just across the border from the WCS site in Texas. The waste from that plant can not be stored in New Mexico because its laws prohibit it. While New Mexico has a number of “hot” issues itself, some of them would involve Texas as a waste disposal site.

In regard to Compact waste the Central States Compact is exploring disposing of its waste in Texas. Down the line will come the Department of Energy waste. In addition another project is underway by Waste Control Specialists for a permit to store very “hot” waste coming from a Department of Energy site in Ohio. While it is for storage at this time, it could be the foot in the door to ultimate disposal. Even state Senator Duncan has written the Department of Health explaining his concerns about that request. [The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will permit disposal but the Texas Department of Health permits storage.] While much of this activity will take sometime to move, you can see how Texas is actively on its way (or would like to be) to becoming the national dump.

Radioactive waste disposal has been of concern to the BBRSC almost from its inception in 1996 and is a priority issue also of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. The national Sierra Club, itself, has concerns about nuclear issues.

Sometimes the extent of expansion and its complexity staggers one, but that does not mean we should just throw up our hands in despair. We could use volunteers to become involved with parts of it. While it all fits together in some ways, one can work on it with smaller focuses. Please contact Fran Sage (432-364-2362, sage@brooksdata.net) or Don Dowdey (432-837-3210, ddowdey@wildblue.net) if you are interested in exploring possible work on the topic. Much of the activity is going on with little public awareness. That is another way one could help—by raising awareness. WE NEED TO DO OUR PART.

ABC’s of Air Pollution: Some years ago, the now defunct Wray Trust Fund awarded the Big Bend Regional Sierra Club money for a publication on the ABC ’s of Air Pollution. The focus was to be the air pollution in the Big Bend set in the larger context of air pollution. Its purpose was to be mainly educational. The BBRSC decided to delay development until the BRAVO Study was completed. That turned out to be a long wait but the day has arrived. Fran Sage and John Bell had made a start on it but put it aside. Now we can rethink and move forward. We are looking for help in developing such a document. WOULD ANYONE BE WILLING TO HELP? Contact Fran Sage at sage@brooksdata.net or give her a call at (432) 364-2362. We need to determine audience, content, format, and production. Ramon Alvarez would be willing to give us some assistance on checking content as he is a scientist specializing in air pollution. He served on the BRAVO Technical Committee.

Dr. Alvarez is with Environmental Defense in Austin and has developed a website focused on air pollution in Big Bend National Park (http://clearbigbendair.org/) which he hopes will provide links and information. We need to determine our direction in fighting to reduce air pollution. Again there are a number of ways to participate. Please help with some part of the planning and execution of the air pollution fight. Contact Sage (See above.)

Well, I just can’t resist mentioning our most recent trip to the Bosque Del Apache to see the wintering birds. I have told you about it before and I suspect many of you may already have visited over the years, but Jim and I and our son, Steve, just returned from a visit over the Thanksgiving Holidays. The weather was crisp but sunny and we saw the usual great birds in massive numbers: 37,000+ ducks, 31,000+ snow geese, 11,000+ sandhill cranes, 386 Canadian Geese, and many more wonderful birds including bald eagles, great white egret, both yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds, merlins, to name a few. The highlight was on the north side of the refuge where many of the big birds were feeding on the remains of corn and grain fields. We were standing beside the car when all the snow geese in the area rose and flew directly overhead in wave after wave, honking and flapping in massive numbers. I will never forget the white wings, the sounds, and the blue skies with the mountains in the distance. The refuge is just south of San Antonio, New Mexico, which is about 8 miles south of Socorro. The season runs from late October through early February, though the Refuge is pleasant anytime of year.


I did not have room last month to mention a short visit to Big Bend National Park in October and a brief time spent at Dugout Wells, a picnic area just off of the road going down to the Rio Grande Village campground. It is about 6-8 miles east of Panther Junction Park Headquarters. It is a low key place to have a picnic near the old windmill and springs and cottonwood trees, to sit in the quiet and hear the creak of the windmill and the wind in the trees, and, at the right time of year, the chirping and rustling of the birds. Nearby is also a desert nature trail, which has its own subtle delights. You might enjoy the historical sign near the picnic ground that claims Dugout Wells was once the cultural center of the Big Bend! In earlier years, the school house that had once been down by the river was moved to the area. Many activities besides learning took place in that schoolhouse, now vanished. If you don’t already know of it and like low-key places, I’d recommend you check out Dugout Wells.


This December issue of the Big Bend Sierran will be the last under my editorship. I thank all of you for your support and interest. My philosophy on the newsletter during the last eight years has been fivefold: to provide information on environmental issues in the Big Bend region, to keep members informed of club activities, to introduce members to other members through profiles, to provide articles written by knowledgeable people on interesting nature subjects, and to provide some humor through cartoons (though given the state of the environment today, all the cartoons are black humor). Our membership is spread over a three county+ region and relatively few of the members attend the meetings. I have seen the newsletter as a vehicle to bind us together in common concerns. We do not have much ready access on a broad range of environmental issues beyond our area in our media outlets, and would not expect to. I have therefore tried to bring news also of some of those issues that I learn from the state and national daily press and from articles that others have forwarded to me. I look forward to the fresh ideas and approaches of our new editors and am grateful for their commitment to the Big Bend Regional Sierra Club. I will continue to write environmental updates for the newsletter.


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


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