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


Issue 63
May 4, 2002

What Have Environmental Issues to do with Literature?

That is the question that Dr. Barney Nelson will address at the May 21st Big Bend Regional Sierra Club, at 7 p.m. in room 204 of the Academic Computing Center on the Sul Ross State University campus. (Take exit 2 off of US 90 & 67, turn left and go over to the next building.) Dr. Nelson believes, along with other ecocritics, that the stories we hear and tell (from Little Red Riding Hood to John Muir's writings) influence our political decisions. So, it is important that we analyze the way nature is represented in those stories and how that representation operates often at a subconscious level. Perhaps today wolves, coyotes, and lions are some of our most controversial animals. Dr. Nelson will discuss some of the many ways the imagination and science represents conflicting "truths" in our stories about predators.

The study of literature as in many other fields has been looked at anew in light of environmental issues. In 1997, Nelson earned her Ph.D. in ecocriticism from the University of Nevada, Reno. During her time at UN Reno, she was involved with a number of groups, conferences and responsibilities, including the Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities, The American Nature Writing Newsletter, and ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment. She currently serves as Environmental Editor for Range Magazine and on the Editorial Advisory Board for ISLE. Nelson believes strongly that environmentalists and ranchers should be working together.

Her books reflect those interests: The Wild and the Domestic: Animal Representation, Ecocriticism, and Western American Literature (University of Nevada Press, 2000); The Last Campfire: The Life Story of Ted Gray, A West Texas Rancher (Texas A&M Press, 1984) a photography/oral interview collection from the cowboy culture called Voices and Visions of the American West (Texas Monthly Press, 1986), and an anthology of cowboy poetry from the Archives of the Big Bend and Bryan Wildenthal Library called Here's to the Vinegarroon! (Territorial Printer, 1989). Her latest book, an anthology of nature writing from the Big Bend area of Texas, should be released this fall by the University of Texas Press.

Please join us for what promises to be an illuminating and enjoyable evening. The meeting is open to the public.

Reminder: We don't schedule program meetings in the summer and we will not have another newsletter out until late June or early July.

by Jim Sage

I was born and raised on a farm in Montana and the prevailing culture dictated that the only good snake was a dead snake. This even included non-poisonous snakes such as the garden-variety garter snake. Thus I suppose you will not be surprised to learn that when I encountered a forty-one inch Western Diamondback rattlesnake on my house building site south of Alpine in the Double Diamond, I rushed for a hoe. The average length of a Western Diamondback is three to four feet but they can attain a length of seven feet and weigh up to fourteen pounds. Such a large snake carries an enormous amount of venom. It is true that the Western Diamondback is the second largest rattler in the United States and holds first place for the most serious bites and the highest fatality rate from snakebites in North America. I have found, however, that he is also a perfect gentleman. In half a dozen different encounters, two where I almost stepped on top of one, he has politely warned me with a heart-stopping rattle.

Like all wild creatures, Western Diamondback rattlesnakes depend upon locating and killing to survive. They have depressions in front of their eyes, which serve as heat sensing organs that aid in the detection of warm-blooded prey. They can locate and kill prey in total darkness. Although they have no hearing organs, their two-parted tongue enables them to smell, aiding their search for prey. They will eat anything as long as it is alive and warm, but they prefer rats, mice, rabbits, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, and gophers. They can even swallow an animal which weighs more than they do. They will then go several weeks before eating again.

It might seem that with the fearful arsenal that the Diamondback carries, he would have few predators but hawks, bald eagles, roadrunners, wild turkeys, whipsnakes, coyotes, fox, badger, and feral hogs are all predators, though the list ignores the death toll from man and high-speed automobiles. Survival is not easy even for the king of rattlesnakes.

In the fall as temperatures drop, the Western Diamondback rattlesnakes head for a community den where they hibernate for the winter. In colder areas, they come by the hundreds; in warmer areas, by the dozens. In the spring, the male emerges obsessed with sex and he pursues the female incessantly. Once the female is inseminated she will bear her brood alive in late summer. The young are born with fangs and venom and the mother abandons them upon delivery.

One of the many myths about rattlesnakes is that the number of its rattles corresponds to its age. This is untrue, as each link of the rattle is the remnant of a molted skin; as the snake molts, the last scale does not fall off. A snake may molt two or three times in a year and often old rattles fall off.

I have now lived in west Texas for eight years and my attitude toward snakes has changed. I am not so driven by fear and paranoia. I have a very healthy respect for the Western Diamondback, but I have found him always the gentleman; so now when we meet, I tip my hat and wish him a good day.

Where do we go from here?

As a person who lives in academia, I have a sense of May being the end of something-a time to look back. Looking at the last year of the BBRSC, I see 100+ members. Progress on BRAVO (Big Bend Regional Aerosol and Visibility Observational) study is slow but steady. The BART (Best Available Retrofit Technology) hearings and National Parks Conservation Association putting Big Bend on the most endangered list gives me a sense that we aren't alone in our fight. Maine pulling out of the Nuclear Waste Compact provides an interesting dimension to that issue, while movement toward a state-wide group dealing with nuclear waste is another sign of bridge-building on an issue important to West Texas. Our web site is a useful resource. I've gotten emails recently from people who have found it and several have joined our ALERT lists through it.

Of course, for me, thinking back over the last year reminds me of Hal Flanders' passing. And, as Fran Sage said at his memorial service, I find myself asking "What would Hal say or do about this issue?" He liked to talk to me about ideas he had about how the BBRSC could be an even more effective advocate for the environment. In that spirit, I'd like to share with you some thoughts I've had (some from Hal) on things we could do, or do better, if anyone was eager to work on them:

  • Outings -- For lots of Sierra Club groups, outings are a major focus, and a major way of attracting new members. The National Sierra Club has regular training sessions (BBRSC has a budget to pay for you to attend), and lots of ideas and help for anyone who wants to work in this area.

  • Earth Day - Last year we had a booth, but this year we did not. Anyone interested in coordinating this next year?

  • Petitions at the National Park - Clear the Air and the Izaac Walton League have nationally coordinated events concerning pollution at national parks. Part of their efforts is to collect petitions from Park visitors all across the country during a publicized period during the summer. It's easy, it's legal, and it's been effective.

  • Summer social - These have been very successful in giving folks a chance to get to know other members and in attracting newcomers. It doesn't take much work, but has a big payoff. Anyone want to offer his/her home this summer?

  • Refreshments at meetings - Want a chance to show off your baking skills, or just call and ask others to bring something?

  • Programs - Could you contact a speaker for biographical information and a program description? Would you be willing to write it up for the newsletter or the papers?

  • Issues - are you interested in some environmental topic? Volunteer to chair a committee on it!

  • Make a donation or a pledge - Regular pledges or one-time donations of financial support make a big difference in our budget.
And I'm sure there are lots of other things. If you have any ideas along these lines, please share them with me.

And finally, to end with a look to the future, is there a topic you would like to present to the Big Bend Regional Sierra Club? Or, do you know someone who would be good for a program next year? If so, send their name and contact information to Don Dowdey at 837-3210 or ddowdey@wildblue.net.

By Fran Sage

Nothing is certain about the final fate of the energy bill. It passed the Senate WITHOUT THE AMENDMENT TO OPEN UP THE ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE. It now goes to Conference Committee to be reconciled with the House version passed May, 2001. Senate and House conferees will meet and, if they are able to agree on a single version of an energy bill, will eventually make recommendations. Both houses would then have to pass that bill in order for it to go on to the President for signing into law. That may be difficult as there are many important differences; the most notable would be whether to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. The Senate bill does not have that provision but the House bill does. Both the House and the Senate versions have money for development of the oil, gas, and nuclear industries. The money for the nuclear industry has not gotten much press nor seemingly run into much opposition.

The Senate leaders have appointed their conferees. There will be nine Democrats and eight Republicans. The most notable and surprising appointment is that of John Breaux, Democrat of Louisiana. He voted for opening the Refuge to drilling. Why Tom Daschle, Senate Majority leader, appointed him is a mystery. His inclusion could allow the Refuge drilling to have enough votes in Conference to have it in the final Conference version.

I have not yet seen any announcement of the House conferees and assume that they have not yet been appointed. Exactly when the Conference session will begin and how long it will take is anyone's guess. It may be settled by the time you receive this newsletter though that is dubious. It could take five weeks, five months, or never be reported out of Conference if compromises cannot be reached. Predictions run on both sides on the drilling issue with predictions that it will be put into the Conference report and predictions that the bill will not come out with the ANWR drilling issue in it. Even if it is in the Conference version, it is not clear the Senate would then accept the Conference recommendations . Nor is it clear that Bush would sign the bill if drilling were not in it. The whole matter remains speculative as of now. We will try to keep you posted on e-mail through the alert list, and on the web page and, if it remains unsettled a long time, in the upcoming newsletters.


At the April 16th Big Bend Regional Sierra Club meeting, Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen of Texas, discussed both diesel emissions and the relationship to the opening up of the interior of the United States to Mexican diesel trucks. Both in his talk and in the question and answer period there was discussion of Entrada al Pacifico, the proposed route to the Pacific Ocean Mexican port of Topolobampa.

Let us start first with the diesel emissions.

While diesels emit a mix of over 450 different components including toxic gases and fine particulate matter, the ones of interest in particular are nitrogen oxide (NOx) and the fine particulate matter. For us in the Big Bend Region, the key diesel pollutant is fine particulate matter. While nitrogen oxide is a major pollutant from the diesel engines it is probably not the major health problem for us. Nitrogen oxide is the common air pollutant in the large urban areas. Motor vehicles are a major contributor.

Let us focus instead on the fine particulate matter. While the EPA right now defines particles as airborne particles less than 10 microns in diameter, its definition is changing and the EPA rules will now be concerned with even smaller particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns. Smaller is unhealthier. The problem is that the larger particles settle to the ground rapidly but the finer particles remain in the air much longer, even for weeks, and can travel by wind hundreds of miles from their source. (When the BRAVO, Big Bend Aerosol Visibility Observational study on Big Bend National Park air quality is released later this year, we will want to pay attention to the fine particulate matter as those can truly affect our health.) The fine particulates go deep into our lung tissues and need to be cleared out by our immune systems, a process that takes months or years. While they cause reduced lung function and other problems for anyone, the young and the old and those with deficient immune systems are at the most risk. Children are particularly vulnerable because their systems are not fully developed and because they play outside a lot. In addition, children riding diesel school buses breathe those emissions both inside and outside the bus.

While under NAFTA, Mexican trucks are required to meet United States and Canadian standards, Smitty made clear that they do not. Smitty says that Mexico has not instituted a truck safety program seven years after NAFTA went into effect. Mexico has no requirements that its trucks be maintained, no weight limits, no requirements for safe brakes, and no limits on driving times. He added that the United States has neither facilities nor personnel to inspect every truck. Violators of safety rules in Mexico are given 20 days to fix problems; no Mexican agency is authorized to remove dangerous trucks from roadways. Of course the long-haul trucks coming from the interior of Mexico and going, say, to Chicago, may be better trucks than the ones coming across the border now which are having their loads transferred at Presidio. Newer trucks spew less pollution. In the United States, lower sulfur fuel will be in use by 2005 and by 2010 emissions will be 1/10 of 1995 levels, but there will be no similar reduction in Mexico. But the key point is that we are going to have an increase in diesel truck traffic and with it increased diesel pollution. In Alpine there are two places where the trucks will stop and pollution will come from idling and then acceleration, and in Marfa, at least one.

How soon and how much is just speculative.

Smitty went on to say that long term, we need to develop clear air corridors that include natural gas vehicles (natural gas is as dirty as the highest quality diesel fuel). We need to look for the rail system in Mexico as by rail there are 1/10 less emissions per ton of freight as compared to trucks. Hybrid locomotives are even more efficient. He discussed inter-mode transfer points with cleaner drayage vehicles. If Alpine becomes a rail hub there could be increased emissions unless technologies such as natural gas and fuel cells are used. He said that freight needs to be taken off of trucks and placed on rail in a clean and safe manner.

In the discussion after his talk, several points came out. The people out here need to get the issue plugged into the election campaigns, educating the politicians, the public, and the media. He also discussed such issues as city zoning laws, establishment of a "city investment zone," restrictions against idling, and expansion of the city limits to give Alpine more control over the effects of Mexican trucks. The county will have little authority.

Where is Entrada now?

In an April 24, 2002 Odessa American article, Don Wood, head of the Midland-Odessa Transportation Alliance (MOTRAN) reports that there is only about 19 miles of highway remaining to be built between Chihuahua City and Ojinaga/Presidio. That will probably be completed by this November. What is not clear is how much increased traffic will flow with that completion. What the Chihuahuan officials and MOTRAN people are really aiming for is a route to the west through or more likely around Copper Canyon (itself bigger than the Grand Canyon). The article says, "The only serious snag in construction of La Entrada remains the implacable Copper Canyon in north-central Mexico. Mexico has built a four-lane highway on both sides of Copper Canyon and is now studying possible routes using satellite imagery. "It's an ongoing, $200 million problem," Wood said, referring to the estimated cost of building La Entrada through the rocky canyon . . . . But they believe they're going to get through Copper Canyon. They're absolutely committed to it." What is not clear is who "they" are in Mexico. If any of that money has to come from the Mexican federal government, then the federal government will have to generate the same enthusiasm that Chihuahuan officials have. In a much earlier article that I read, such support was not there. Of course attitudes may have changed and money may become available for such a project.

In this country, according to the Odessa American article, a reliever route is being built around Midland. Wood is quoted as saying, "Everything on this side looks good. Quite honestly, the only problem is Alpine." The article states that Alpine officials oppose La Entrada because it will mean increased truck traffic on the town's main thoroughfare, US Highway 90. "They don't want to talk about a reliever route. They don't want to talk about a bypass, "Wood said. "So they'll have to come to their own conclusion." In my opinion, if the Copper Canyon problem is resolved, the increased truck traffic coming from Topolobampa would be great enough as to back up tremendously both in Marfa and Alpine, perhaps hopelessly so. It would not then be just the enormous health issue of the diesel emissions, and the major safety issues. It would be the bottleneck. It is not clear that rights of way could be secured in any kind of a timely manner for bypasses, and that the money will be made available.

So that is where we stand as of today.

One postscript: Public Citizen, the Environmental Law Foundation, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the California Federation of Labor AFL-CIO and the California Trucking Association filed an emergency request to keep the government from ending the moratorium on Mexican truck border crossings. That emergency request was denied by the 9th United States Court of Appeals on Thursday, May 2nd. It is not known whether there will be any more legal action taken at this time. According to Smitty the moratorium on Mexican trucks coming on into the interior United States will be lifted on June 1, 2002. We can then discover how much more traffic we will see in the early days. Many variables make it hard to speculate on what the final increase may be.


On April 9, 2002, the BRAVO (Big Bend Aerosol Visibility Observational) study Technical Committee posted on its ebsite http://www2.nature.nps.gov/ard/bravo/ an update on the analysis of the 1999 fieldwork for the BRAVO study. If you wish to read the entire Preliminary Data Analyses go to the website and click on 1999 BRAVO Study Compilation of Data Analysis. It is available in a pdf format which requires Adobe Reader (available free on the Internet). It does take a while to download (and printout if you are so inclined), but it is worth the effort.

The BRAVO completion schedule is printed on the third page. Right now the air quality modeling is underway. In June the reconciliation of data analyses and modeling will be done, with the draft project report scheduled for July. August is allotted for comment/review and the final report is due out in September. Please note that the comment/review is not a public hearing. The review will probably be twofold: 1) a complete internal BRAVO Technical Committee-Steering Committee NGO (non-governmental organizations-on which Ramon Alvarez of Environmental Defense and Mary Kelly of the Center for Policy Studies serve as official members), and 2) another part of the ongoing scientific peer-review process, where invitations sent for scientific reviews from the academic community outside the BRAVO researchers.

The preliminary remarks make clear that "The major goal of BRAVO is to identify the source regions and source types responsible for the haze at Big Bend National Park. Because of the Park's location on the United States-Mexican border, it was surmised that emissions from both countries contributed to the haze, but the degree of impact due to such source regions and types was unknown."

In the report are papers by the researchers divided into four categories: Emissions, atmospheric tracers, particles, and source attribution. Emphasis is made that those papers are preliminary discussions, in some cases even contradictory, and will have to be reconciled for the final report. Following are some preliminary results from several sections that may be of interest to those of us in the area.

Under emissions:

  • On average, sulfates, which result from SO2 [sulfur dioxide] emissions, account for almost half of the visibility impairment at the Park and, thus, are the largest contributor. Although the U. S. totals are considerably larger, the Mexican totals represent a sizable 31% of total SO2 emissions within this emphasis area

  • Geographically speaking, the Big Bend area is not so much isolated from pollutant emissions as it is surrounded by them.

Under atmospheric tracers:

  • Tracers were released from July through October 1999 at Big Brown power plant approximately 100 miles southeast of Dallas, at the Parish power plant near Houston, at San Antonio to represent urban emissions, and at Eagle Pass, which was the closest U. S. point to the Carbon 1 and 2 power plants in Mexico. Samplers collected the tracers at 20 different locations throughout Texas and in Oklahoma, including at Big Bend National Park. (Tracers show where pollutant emission came from and what pollutants arrived but tracers cannot indicate the concentration of them due to chemical transformation and deposition of the pollutant enroute.

Under particles:

  • At the Park, coarse particles (with diameter averaging approximately 3 microns) were dominated by Saharan dust in July and August. Smaller diameter aerosols (volume median diameter averaging .26 microns over the study) were apparently dominated by secondary particles from east Texas, the eastern U. S. and the Texas-Mexico border area.

  • Fifty % of the fine particulate mass concentration at the Park was due to sulfates, 20% due to soil, 20% due to organic carbon, 4% due to sodium nitrate, and 3% due to elemental carbon."

Under source attribution:

  • Highest average sulfur concentrations during the BRAVO study were in northeast Texas, lower towards the southwest, except an area near the Carbon 1-2 plants where there was a local maximum; the four dominant spatial patterns indicate sources of sulfur in northeast Texas and areas to the northeast as well as the Texas Gulf Coast and the Carbon 1-2 plants.


The report indicates again that results are tentative. In the conclusion, the report provides the following assessment: "Perhaps two of the most noteworthy of the tentative findings thus far are that (1) while it appears Big Bend's haze is due to contributions from sources in a large domain including part of the U. S. and Mexico, the Carbon 1-2 power plants are perhaps the largest single contributor and (2) sources outside Texas in the United States may be impacting the Park in a more sizable way than previously thought. Several researchers have presented information suggesting large coal-fired power plants and other industrial sources to the east of Texas, particularly in the Southeast United States, are sizable contributors to the haze. Confirming this notion and determining the proportional impacts of the various contributing source regions and source types will be prime goals for a successful study completion."



Highway Cleanup Crew Needs Volunteers

We still need volunteers for highway cleanup. Please offer to spend May 19th (a Sunday) from 7 p.m. to dark to help keep our stretch of US 90 clean. We will meet at the Y eight miles east of Alpine, where the rest stop is. Give Liz Hightower a call at 837-0100 and volunteer. Please make the commitment now. We NEED YOUR help.


Virginia Campbell announces that the BBRSC received $153 in donations and in pledges for April. Year's contributions to date are $535.07. Thanks to John and Brenda Bell for their donations as well as thanks to our pledgers.

Radioactive Waste Report

Don Dowdey and Gary Oliver attended the Anti-Nukes Conference the end of April, at a statewide meeting held near Comanche Peak nuclear power plant, southwest of Ft. Worth. Don and Gary will update us on that meeting in the next newsletter.

A Personal Note from Fran Sage:

I just can't resist singing the praises of an art show that Jim and I saw over in Phoenix the later part of April. Dale Chihuly is a glassmaker, (many of you may know his work). We saw the most beautiful objects in glass I have ever seen. Their point was their color and their beauty; as far as I can tell there was no message or meaning beyond the beauty of shape, color, glass, and reflection. The shapes were living shapes, nothing geometric, all in their abstract way part of our lives. Jim very kindly pushed me in a wheelchair around the exhibit and museum and hence I was able to see this wonderful museum show. There were also mysterious and beautifully displayed masks by Gwynn Popovac. They too were vibrant pieces that had a living quality all their own. The Chihuly show closes June 23rd and the Popovac show June 30th.

We stayed in Tucson and visited the Saguaro National Parks while there. Most enjoyable. In many ways, though, the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum was the highlight of the Tucson area for us. It was a version of a zoo but in habitat so natural it seemed more like a trip through the desert than a zoo. Again I was lucky: the Museum had motorized carts and we rented one. They turned out to be easy to operate (I didn't hit anyone or go off-trail once!). Even the restaurant where we ate had its special interest as a canyon wren strolled inside from the patio, leisurely walked around the room cleaning up the crumbs and strolled out when done. He seemed at home, and we expect he was a frequent diner.

Big Bend Regional Sierra Club
50 Sunny Glen, Alpine, Texas 79830


Chair: Don Dowdey (see above address) (915) 837-3210
Vice-Chair: Luanne Hirsch, HC 65, Box 37, Alpine, TX 79830
Secretary: Linda Hedges P. O. Box 2103, Ft. Davis, TX 79734
Treasurer: Virginia Campbell P. O. Box 474 Marathon, TX 79842


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