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


Issue 81
May 3, 2004


The Big Bend Regional Sierra Club presents Dave Edmonds, an entomologist with a lifelong interest in the natural history and systematics of dung beetles, at its May 20, 2004 meeting at 7 p.m. in Room 300, Lawrence Hall, at Sul Ross State University. Dave holds a BS degree in entomology from Texas A&M (1963) and PhD from the University of Kansas (1968). His publications include works on classification, behavior and morphology of these insects. Dave retired from a 32-year university teaching career in 2000, when he and his wife relocated to Marfa. "Retired" is, of course, a relative term - his research endeavors continue unabated. He will share with us some of the results of his field studies in the Big Bend - results that demonstrate yet again how remarkably diverse the Chihuahuan desert life really is. Dave's presentation will focus on the surprisingly rich dung beetle fauna of the Hip-O Ranch, a 16,000-acre preserve west of Marfa located within the Chihuahuan Desert island grassland biome known as the Marfa Plateau.

Dave's seminar will begin with an overall look at the unique characteristics and biology of dung beetles, which, rather straightforwardly, can be viewed as biotic bulldozers with a taste for the distasteful who take good care of their kids. These beetles spend the majority of their day burrowed in the soil, where they feed, mate and nest. Their lives center on securing enough of a highly perishable food source to live long enough to have a family. Discussion will then turn to the dung beetle community of Hip-O Ranch, where at least ten species - including two recent immigrants - have found ways to coexist. Observations in this context so far fuel more questions than answers, but one thing is clear: the Hip-O Ranch appears to be a kind of dung beetle paradise. Finally, Dave will touch on the recent emergence of dung beetle communities as one of the important "bioindicator" groups - ecological points of reference for monitoring the impact of natural and human-induced habitat changes.

Upcoming programs: The May program concludes our spring programs. We will meet informally during the summer with announcements in the next newsletter. Our fall programs are being planned and will begin in September.

by Jim Sage

When we moved into our house in the South Double Diamond, I said to my wife, "I'm going to look for a plant that will grow in any type of soil, including rock, that does not need fertilizing, is resistant to disease, never needs watering, has beautiful flowers, and is not for sale in the nursery as everyone will give you one." The perfect candidate turned out to be the prickly pear cactus.

I planted three pads in three different locations on the south side of the house and within just a few years they were five-feet tall. In the spring they are covered with hundreds of large, beautiful, yellow flowers. The flowers must be very sweet as they attract droves of wasps and bees.

When the flowers fall off, a fruit forms in the shape of a tube or cylinder about three inches long. As they ripen they turn red and are filled with a sweet reddish juice which is a source of food for great numbers of wildlife. They are gourmet dining for javelinas, rabbits, cactus wrens, curved billed thrashers, mockingbirds, and various other kinds of wildlife.

Last summer all three plants formed a white, mealy substance on the pads and I thought a disease was destroying the plant. One day I pinched off some of the substance and my fingers turned bright red. I soon learned that my dreaded disease was deposited by a female cochineal insect which feeds on the pad. "Cochineal" is used in botanical stains and as a cloth dye. In the 16th century, cochineal was the number two export from Mexico, second only to silver.

The prickly pear is of the genus opuntia and there are about a dozen different species in the American deserts. The ones I am familiar with are the Engelmann's, blind, brown spined, purple tinged, and cow's tongue. Prickly pear cactus grows anywhere from sea level to 18,000 feet and in almost any type of soil and is extremely drought tolerant. I have not watered mine in at least three years.

Many people, including me, believed that the pad of the prickly pear was a leaf; however it is not. It is merely a flattened branch or stem which serves various functions of photosynthesis, water storage, and a base for the flowers. The rather wicked spines are actually the highly modified leaves.

The prickly pear has been used for centuries by Native Americans as a food source, both for themselves and for their livestock. If you drive through northern Mexico, you may see farmers holding prickly pear pads on a pitchfork over a bonfire, burning off the spines so that the cattle will have feed.

If you wish to buy prickly pear as a food you will find the fruit, called tunas. The pads are called nopales or nopalitos. You will also find this food in some of the finest Mexican restaurants. I have eaten it at La Fonda San Miguel in Austin. I have seen the nopales in the Food Basket grocery store in Alpine at about $2 per pound, spines and all.

I have not tried preparing the cactus myself but one can buy a cactus cookbook and the recipes appear to be simple. One can make syrup, candy, jelly, salad dressing, and marmalade, or one can eat the pads raw in salads, boiled and fried like eggplant, or cooked with pork, tomatoes, eggs, garlic, and onions.

If you have never handled prickly pear-a word of warning. The large spines are okay as you can see them and some prickly pear have no spines (the blind), but they all have a tiny, hair-like barbed spine call a glochid, which is almost invisible when it penetrates the skin. I, unknowingly, thought the tunas would not have spines until I pinched one off with my fingers and spent what seemed like hours trying to find the glochids and remove them. I won't touch them now even with heavy gloves on. I recommend using metal tongs and then burning the spines off in an open flame.

For all of my life, I have never lived where there was not some kind of prickly pear growing. Often it is considered a weed or a nuisance; but now, when I drive up the hill to my house, my prickly pear seems to say to me, "You are now home in the magnificent Chihuahuan Desert."

by Don Dowdey, BBRSC Chair

The Big Bend Regional Sierra Club Prepares for the Future

Elsewhere in the newsletter, you will see that Fran Sage is going to step down as newsletter editor at the end of the year. At each year's April ExCom meeting, we think about the future of the Big Bend Regional Sierra Club, and Fran's desire to reduce her commitments certainly helped focus our discussions! One thing we agreed on was for the ExCom members to contact each member to get your ideas about the future of the BBRSC, and to ask if you would be willing to help in some specific ways. In preparation for that, I've been thinking about things I'd like feedback on, and thought I would mention some of them so you can think about them too.

We are interested in your thoughts on such things as the number and types of meetings and activities we have each year. Would you like more social gatherings like the summer social and the holiday party? Is Thursday night a good night for meetings? Would you attend meetings in communities outside of Alpine?

What if we had only six meetings a year, instead of eight or nine - maybe September, October, November, a holiday party in December, and February, March and April, with a summer social? Or meetings every other month throughout the year? What about joint meetings with other organizations like the Native Plant Society, CDRI, or the Nature Conservancy?

There are four specific areas where we will ask you to consider how you might contribute to the BBRSC:

  1. Newsletter
    Editor, formatting help, assembly (taking and picking up for copy shop, labeling, etc.), writing ongoing or one-time material like interview/profiles of members, report on a meeting you attend (like the May 10 Water Conference at Sul Ross), review of a book or article on environmental issues, summarize issues like La Entrada, water planning, wind power, or a Legislative issue, etc.

  2. Membership activities
    Meet and greet at meetings, contact new members/attendees by phone or mail, bring refreshments to meetings, contact members when they need to renew.

  3. Programs
    Do you have any ideas for programs you'd like to give or attend? Could you help contact speakers, make room arrangements, or help with publicity? Help with special programs like the Summer Social, Silent Auction, or a concert? Or help coordinate a BBRSC presence at community events like Earth Day, Fourth of July parade, or Cowboy Poetry? Or represent the BBRSC at a school or community function?

  4. Committees
    We have issue committees on water, air quality, radioactive waste, and international trade and transportation (La Entrada). All of them could use more members. Any of them can take as much or as a little time as you are willing to give them. If you are able to read and report on newspaper articles on the issue, or contact a legislative aide at the appropriate time, you could be a big help. Do you belong to another organization like the National Parks Conservation Association or Public Citizen that is interested in some of our issues? If so, could you summarize what they are doing on a regular basis? Or you could do much more-but every bit of interest helps.
And as always, being a member and coming to meetings is an important commitment. Thanks to all of you for whatever you do.

by Fran Sage

  1. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has sent out its Response to Commitments as of April 29th. Recipients have 30 days to request a contested case hearing or ask for reconsideration. When the 30 days is up the permit request will go on the Commissioners agenda, usually scheduled about 6 weeks from that time. The Commissioners may approve, deny, or request a contested case hearing. If a contested case hearing is chosen, the case will be referred to the State Office of Administrative Judges, which will conduct a hearing (rather like a civil trial). The judges will send their recommendations to the TCEQ Commissioners. The Commissioners will make the final decision. If the permit request is approved or denied the recourse would have to be a law suit filed in district court.

  2. The Legislative Interim Advisory Committee on Rockcrushers and Quarries will hold its next meeting at 9 a.m., in Room E.012 at the state Capitol Building in Austin. Public Testimony will be taken. The Big Bend Air Quality Group will present its recommendations at that time. Please keep in mind that the Legislative activity is not on the U. S. Clay permit but rather on recommending any changes in state policy (legislation) on the entire permitting process.

by Fran Sage

Luc Novovitch, a fine arts photographer, spent many years as a news photographer. Originally of French citizenship, and now proud to be a U.S. citizen, he was based in France and covered France, former French colonies and other places around the world for Agence France-Presse and Reuters. His work forced him to carry two suitcases filled with equipment. In those days, he took the photos, developed them, edited them and transmitted them. Working in the field required setting up the darkroom in bathrooms and other makeshift places and using sometimes inadequate phone lines for transmission.

All that work was done in competition with other agencies. Time was important. Photo journalists needed to strike a balance between quality and speed. (A color film took 45 minutes to transmit and a black and white 15 minutes.) He needed to beat the competition under time constraints but with quality photos. He tells about one year, when covering the Paris Roubaix one-day bicycle race over cobblestone streets and in the rain, he had to wait a long time for the film (long time in the context of deadlines and beating the competition) because a darkroom technician was inefficient that day. He knew other photographers had sent in their pictures, probably the usual racing shot. He thought his only chance was to risk a different kind of picture---to make up for the lateness. The task always is to find the shot that will sum up what is going on. He took the pictures riding as a passenger on a motorcycle, twisting his upper body to shoot what was behind him. A shot taken near the end of the race was of the man who became the winner, gripping the handle bars, his head covered with dirt and mud and his face showing the strain of the race. Luc took that shot and cropped it to just the head and sent it in. He said he was worried because if the picture didn't work, he thought he'd be back in the office working from the desk. It was his shot, however, on the front page of the papers the next day.

Now the digital camera has changed the whole landscape of photo news. By the time he quit news photography, he says the news photographer was becoming an endangered species. Where there used to be 20-40 photographers and three or four television cameras at a news conference, now the numbers are reversed. And technology allows an image to be "grabbed" from the television and used. The equipment is actually called a grabber.

In 1998-99 Luc, and his wife Barbara, moved to Marathon, leaving behind careers in news photography and in reporting, though Barbara is keeping her hand in with occasional assignments. Luc said he had become weary of news photography, especially sports and entertainment and conferences and welcomed the change to fine art photography, with its deadlines self-imposed rather than competition driven. But it is a difficult way to make a living.

Photo essays are another way of approaching his work. Luc says he had been missing somewhat the risk-taking of photo news and has been branching out, combining fine art with photo news techniques. He says, however, that such pictures, or photo essays, are hard to get published. The days of Life Magazine and Paris Match are gone, replaced by special interest magazines. For example, he had the opportunity to photograph "The Last Lepers in Japan." It was not a subject of interest to U.S. magazines, so he sold it to a British publication called Foto8. He has also shot a series of pictures on vanishing railroads in the United States, but when a publisher wanted to make it a history rather than a photo book, he declined the publication offer. The limited market and the high cost of publishing photo books makes it hard to break even. Grant money used to be a possibility but that money is drying up.

Luc says that some days he feels like a dinosaur. But photography is fundamental to him. He cannot imagine a life without photography at the center.

His Roping Series currently on display at the Sotol Gallery in Marathon reveals a new type of photography, combining some elements of digital manipulation to emulate time-consuming darkroom techniques of blurring elements of the image.

by Fran Sage

Dear Friends and Fellow Big Bend Regional Sierra Club members,

At the end of this year, I plan on retiring from being the newsletter editor. By that time I will have put together 86 newsletters, starting in mid 1995, when Jim and I along with six other Sierra Club members decided to organize a local group. While I no longer wish to edit the newsletter, I would like to submit an article(s) each month on environmental issues. I plan to continue to write (in my own voice) the monthly column for the area newspapers and I want to continue to work on such issues as air quality and radioactive waste and the like. At one time I wrote the entire newsletter and formatted it and put it out. That is no longer true and has not been true for some time. Other people have contributed regularly, have formatted, and have put out the newsletter at various times. I have maintained an electronic list of non-Sierra Club folks that want the newsletter e-mailed to them. We have a webmaster and the newsletter is put on the web each month. What I am tired of doing is having the responsibility for seeing that it gets done and gets out.

Starting next year, we need someone to take over the editing. If that person can or wants to work in a program like Microsoft Publisher, that would allow him or her the pleasure of design and layout. I think whoever takes over the work will have frustrations, of course, but will have great satisfaction in seeing a fine newsletter being produced in a small group. I have seen other newsletters and I am proud of our work and want it to continue. But I will plan on stopping, regardless, as of completion of the December 2004 newsletter.


by Fran Sage

"Hot Off the Press," a showing of cartoons by Tom Curry (Alpine) and Gary Oliver (Marfa) were featured in a show sponsored by the Arts Alliance Center at Clear Lake City, part of Houston midway between Houston and Galveston near NASA on the Texas Gulf Coast. Gary's cartoons are carried in the Big Bend area by the Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa (where he has been submitting cartoons for over 20 years) and the Desert Mountain Times in Austin since it began last fall. Tom's cartoons can be found in the Big Bend Gazette (Terlingua) and the Desert Mountain Times. Gary and Tom both draw political cartoons, usually on local, state, and national political matters, often with an environmental focus. (See below for recent samples of their work.) The Big Bend Regional Sierra Club is proud of the cartoonists (both members) and wish one of us could have gone to Clear Lake for the opening April 2, 2004. I have, however, received a report from Richard Simpson, a former BBRSC member now living in Austin, who attended the opening and said the cartoons were well-received .

Gary has contributed a number of times over the years to The Texas Observer, a biweekly state magazine. His cartoons will be part of an exhibit of art, photography and cartoons opening in Austin May 13th.

by Matthew Shetrone

I often get asked, even by other astronomers, what exactly I do up at McDonald Observatory. The main part of my job is to run the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at night. The HET is the third largest telescope in the world and has three instruments for doing spectroscopy (the analysis of the components of light). The HET also is the only telescope in the world whose use is entirely queue scheduled. This means that we run the telescope for the benefit of other astronomers' observations but which astronomer's observation is underway may change from hour to hour. This allows us to take advantage of changing conditions such as the rising moon, a bank of thin clouds or increasing atmospheric turbulence. At this point I often get blank looks from other astronomers who wonder why I would enjoy taking other people's scientific data and not getting the excitement of the actual scientific discovery.

I suppose this blank look is simply because they don't quite see what we see. A few weeks ago we got an excited e-mail from Dr. Bill Cochran at the University of Texas at Austin. We have been taking spectra of nearby stars for him to search for evidence of planets orbiting these stars. The mutual gravitational pull between the planet and the star causes the planet to stay in orbit but also causes the star to wobble, with a period the same as the orbital period of the planet. This type of research requires amazing instrumental precision and lots of patience since the orbital period can be days, months or even years. Bill's e-mail indicated that he would like us to observe one of his targets, HD 37605 an 8th magnitude star between the shoulders of Orion, again as soon as possible. I observed it that very night and, as usual, sent Bill his data the following morning, just before I headed off to bed. That next afternoon I had another e-mail from Bill; he was now certain that we had the HET's first extra-solar planet discovery. He was pretty sure that the planet had a period of 60 days but we needed to better define the shape of the orbit by observing it every 3 days for 30 more days. This was actually more difficult than it might seem since Orion was setting in the west at sunset, with sunset occurring later and later each night. After just 9 more nights we received another e-mail from Bill with an update to the orbit of the planet. The orbit was not round it was eccentric, much like a comet's orbit. During the last few days when we took data for Bill, the observing control room was packed with day time and night time staff to watch as we were getting ready to observe the target before the sun even set. In the end we were able to document the orbit of the planet as being 54 days long with the planet being about 4 times more massive than Jupiter but closer to that star than Mercury is to our own Sun. My name will not go on the discovery paper but I do get to share in the excitement of the discovery.

Dr. Matthew Shetrone is a resident astronomer at McDonald Observatory north of Ft. Davis.

National Sierra Club Election results: The slate of candidates, nominated by the nominating committee, endorsed by GroundSwell, a group created to fight outside influence on the Sierra Club election, won the five seats on the national board: Lisa Renstrom (141,407); Jan O'Connell (132,262); Nick Aumen (123,332); Sanjay Ranchod (123,332); and David Karpf (110,756). Below are the votes for the other nominating committee nominees and for the petition candidates in vote-getting descending order: Michael Dorsey (42,401); Ed Dobson (35,825); Chad Hanson (29,104); Robert Roy van de Hoek (15,700); Phillip Berry (15,492); David Pimentel (14,527); Dick Lamm (13,090); Kim McCoy (9,765); Karyn Strickler (8,333); Frank Morris (8,247); Morris Dees (7, 554); Barbara Herz (7,525). There were 331 write-ins, 14,257 unexercised votes, 4,550 multiple marks [on invalid ballots because more than 5 votes cast]. Total returns by Internet were 45,559 and total returns by mail 126,016. There were also 41 faxed for a grand total of 171,616. The SC had mailed out 757,058; the percent returned 22.67%. While 22% may not seem like a large number, the usual return rate is about 8%.

by Fran Sage

And now for the scary stories media attention span barely mentions:

The search is on: On April 22, 2004 the New York Times carried for a day on its web page an Associated Press story on the search for missing parts of a fuel rod at the nuclear power plant Vermont Yankee. Keep in mind that the fuel rod is high level waste, highly radioactive, capable of killing anyone who comes in contact with it without being properly shielded. The search started when the pieces of the rod were not in the large pool used to store the rods. The nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan says the spent nuclear fuel could be used for dirty bombs by terrorists. He went on to say, "We do not think there is a threat to the public at this point. The great probability is this material is still in the pool." The article says "The pieces could also have been sent years ago to a testing laboratory or a low-level nuclear waste disposal facility." So look around folks, they could be anywhere, but be careful. They could kill you wherever they are.

Highway nonplanning. The Dallas Morning News carried a story on April 24, 2004 about Entrada al Pacifico and its effect upon the area. Apparently we can just wait until the trucks are clogging Marfa and Alpine streets before we can expect any planning for a bypass. Tom Mangrem, Alpine area engineer for the department, said officials "try not to speculate" about the future traffic patterns. It is not clear to me then how the highway department does plan ahead. What that quote sounds like is that we don't plan for increased traffic until we actually have it. Thus I conclude any planning will come too late to help alleviate the problem. An interesting theory of how to plan roads, don't you think?

These are the sorts of articles that make one shudder, not just because of the situation they describe but because they may be just the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to environmental stories out of rural areas no story seems big enough to allow continuing focus. While I am pleased to have at least been given the information in the two stories referenced above, I wish more news outlets covered them. Or maybe it would become unbearable to learn what lies ahead as what we do know from the past does not augur well for the future.

by Lue Hirsch, Membership Chair

New members this month are Jill Goodwin in Alpine; John King in BBNP; James Martin in Marfa; Russ Tidwell in Marathon. WELCOME TO ALL! Our total membership at this time is at 126.

Highway Clean-up: We had a great day, once again, for picking up the highway on April 3rd as we joined dozens of other folks during the 17th Annual Texas Trash Off. Thanks to Jim Sage, Audrey Painter, Lalae and Arah Joe Battista, and Joe and Ginny Campbell who joined me in cleaning up our section of Highway 90!! Our next cleanup will be in the Fall. Hope to see additional folks at that time.

Backpacks and t-shirts: Contact Lue Hirsch (364-2307) or lffhirsch@msn.com about t-shirts or backpacks. The t-shirts and backpacks available are: 100% Organic Cotton Sierra Club t-shirts $12.00: Featuring the Sierra Club logo on the front and the Hiker image on the back. T-shirts come in three sizes (x-large, large and medium) and in natural, black, blue and green. Convertible weekender bag $6.00: Versatile forest green bag with embroidered Sierra Club logo. Folds into its own pouch. Expedition Backpack $10.00: This black backpack has 3 zippered compartments, padded shoulder straps, a cushioned back and two large mesh pockets. Excursion Bag $7.50: Designed in gray with black trim, this waterproof bag is ideal for shopping or camping/beach trips and according to one satisfied customer "It's a great bag!". Urban Backpack $10.00: This two-color backpack will appeal to urban hikers and wilderness warriors alike.

Reminder: If you need to renew your membership you may do so online at https://ww2.sierraclub.org/membership/renewal/ . Or you can become a new member through this address https://ww2.sierraclub.org/membership/specialoffer/member1.asp

Financial News: Thanks to Marilyn Brady and Don Dowdey, Mary Helen Lomax, Peg and Dave Mattison, and Jim and Fran Sage. Total for pledges and donations for April is $279. Total for the year is $489.

Chair: Don Dowdey,
50 Sunny Glen, Alpine, TX 79830
(432) 837-3210

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