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Big Bend Regional Sierra Club
Regular Public Meeting
March, 2004

Minutes, Big Bend Regional Sierra Club, March 18 -- John King of Big Bend National Park was the speaker.

Don Dowdey, BBRSC president, followed his custom of passing on good environmental news at the beginning of the March 18 meeting:

  1. New Mexico has passed a package of progressive energy bills, requiring all investor-owned electrical utilities to generate 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2011. A former U.S. Energy offficial said New Mexico could be the "Saudi Arabia of renewable energy," with sun, wind, biomass and geothermal all available. The Coalition for Clean, Affordable Energy estimates the law will result in $600 million in economic development for the state and the emission of 1 million fewer tons of greenhouse gases per year.
  2. A report released by the U.S. Geological Survey said Americans used 408 billion gallons of water per day in 2000, a number virtually unchanged since 1985 and lower (down 25 percent per capita) than in 1975. "Conservation is working," the report said. Technological advances in electricity generation and irrigation have allowed total water use to remain steady despite increases in population and electricity use; agricultural acreage has more than doubled since 1950, but the nation's water use remained stable.

  3. U.S. scientists have developed a method to convert raw human waste into electricity, by feeding the waste into a microbial fuel cell that uses bacteria to break it down and diverts the resulting electrons into a power generator. Harmful orhanic matter is broken down in the process, allowing the MFC to serve as a kind of sewage treatment plant. The technology promises extraordinary benefits, especially for developing nations that desperately need both sewage treatment and inexpensive energy. But the process is still 20 to 30 years away from wide use, according to microbiologist Derek Lovley.

Reporting on the meeting in Marfa of Sen. Madla's subcommittee on water, Don said a woman who ranches near Presidio told the subcommittee that she had received a bid proposal for the General Land Office for land sales but the GLO was reserving water rights. Sen. Madla also told the meeting that he would recommend to the Legislature that any science hydrology research be funded by the state, not by Rio Nuevo. 

In his introduction of John King, the speaker at the March 18 meeting, Don noted that King has been superintendent at Big Bend National Park since June 1. 2003, when he came to the area from the Virgin Islands National Park. He earlier was deputy regional director of the Inter-Mountain Park region, also served at Lake Meade, Isle Royale, and from 1979-83 he was a ranger at Big Bend. King received his BS from Mississippi State.

King said he wanted to discuss the resource threats and challenges faced by the park. Calling the park Texas's gift to the nation, he explained that authorization for the lands deeded to the federal government had been made in 1935, then lands were purchased and the park established in 1944. The park will observe its 60th anniversary on June 12 of 2004, "and we'll have an anniversary celebration," he said. Big Bend became Texas's first and largest national park, containing 801.000 acres -- larger than the state of Rhode Island and larger than 72 of the world's countries. The park is the 15th largest in the national park system and 7th largest in the contiguous United States. 

Big Bend is actually three parks in one, he said -- the Chisos Mountains, where Emory Peak in the summer is 15 to 20 degrees cooler than the desert and the mountain range contains remnant forests that predate the desert; the Chihuahuan Desert, which is about 8,000 years old, younger and wetter than other U.S. deserts, with an annual rainfall of 7 to 15 inches; and the Rio Grande corridor, which is the U.S. southern boundary for 118 miles. Park rangers also supervise the Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River which runs 196 miles east of the park. The Rio Grande has 3 spectacular canyons -- Santa Elena, 1500 feet deep and 20 miles long; Mariscal, 1400 feet deep and 10 miles long, and Boquillas, 33 miles long and 1200 feet deep. 

Counting Big Bend NP, which is named for the bend the river makes, the transboundary corridor has five parks, with the Mexican protected areas -- 2.2 million acres of protected Chihuahuan Desert. The idea of making this transboundary area an international park, similar to the Waterton/Glacier Park at the Canadian border, started in the 1930s, and has been discussed on and off again since then. "We're really interested in seeing the discussion resurrected," King said. He said Rotary International is promoting the idea on both sides of the border.

Temperature, rainfall (7 to 22 inches) and the ecosystem vary by elevation in the park, which ranges from 1800 to 7800 feet. Big Bend has 75 species of mammals, including big horn sheep and elk, 450+ bird species, 56 reptile species, 40 different fish, 1200 plant species and 60+ kinds of cactus. The park offers varied ways to sped the night -- lodging in the Chisos Mountains, camping, an rv campground (more are planned), car campgrounds, backcountry camping, backpacking campsites and off-road zone camping for cross-country hikers. "This is the busiest spring break we've had in the park in many, many years," he said.

The park also has a variety of ways for visitors to get around -- scenic motorways, dirt or gravel roads, 200 miles of hiking trails over desert or mountains, mountain biking, unpaved roads and horseback. The park's river canyons "are wonderful even at low-water levels," and the lower canyons and the wild and scenic river offer other activities. Big Bend is noted, he added, for panoramic views, sunrises and sunsets, great rainbows and stunning night skies. "Without question Big Bend is the crown jewel park for star gazing and night skies."

But there are troubles in paradise, he added: air quality, with pollutants from East Texas, Mexico and the Ohio River Valley, is "one of the more vexing challenges we face," and water quantity and quality. "There are days in summer when Big Bend has the worst air quality of any national park," he said, adding that the water in the Rio Grande remains at about 1/6th of historic levels, and in May 2003 the river dried up in Mariscal Canyon "for the first time in 50 years."

Challenges at the border include littering, drug-smugglng, car break-ins. Boquillas was dependent on American tourists, he said, and because of the border closing, those villages are now depopulated and repopulated with criminal elements. There's been a significant increase in break-ins, he said. Salt cedar or tamarisk has invaded the area called the 'forgotten river' and the river channel has disappeared beneath huge tamarisk forests, permanently altering the ecology of the Rio Grande corridor. Feral hogs and audad are other problems in the Big Bend.

The park budget is also challenging, King said. Management consultants sent by the National Park Conservation Association had developed a business plan using current resources and discovered that the gap between "what we had and what we needed" amounted to $1.6 million, which meant BBNP could either double its budget and hire 2/3 more staff or reduce facility maintenance, visitor services and rely on volunteers to provide interpretive services.

To combat the break-ins at trail head parking lots, the park has tried to step up advisories to visitors and urged people to lock articles in trucks. On a new visitor center, King said it was desperately needed but any plans to build one are sometime in the future. For the interim, BBNP will expand its Panther Junction center, enlarging the front to triple the space, with contributions from the BB Natural History Association and Friends of Big Bend, and the balance from campgroundfees. "We have to jump through more compliance hoops," he said, "and it may be 2006 before we do it." He planned to "make the pitch" to U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla for more park funds, but there would be cuts in park staff, he warned, adding that "endangered rangers" is the plight of all national parks.

It was ironic, he said, that the business plan said 69 more people were needed, but the park can only reduce the deficit by reducing the salary burden. Fran Sage asked if there was a kmove afoot to outsource federal park jobs into the private sector. King responded that the park has had to justify its federal jobs and that the park has to compete against private business to perform park services. "I would expect we'll see a continuation of this," he said, "it's part of the ideology of Republican administrations." But he said with 36,000 hours of volunteer service, the park has been able to compete effectively.

Asked about the park's closing of the overflow area for campers during busy periods, King said it was still closed and "we won't reopen it while I'm there." The closure had "created opportunities for gateway communities," he said. The campground in the Chisos Basin will be renovated, perhaps by 2006, he added, with power lines places underground, the comfort stations rehabbed, and the picnic shelters replaced. Plans also call for the RV park at Rio Grande Village to be improved. King said the volunteer campground hosts at the Basin and the Rio Grande Village are paid a small stipend for their work in dealing with the new program of advance reservations from November through April.

Praised for the quality of his PowerPoint presentation, King said Dave Elkowitz and his wife had prepared it.

Dowdey said that Mary Kelly of Environmental Defense would be the speaker for the April 15 meeting, and she would speak on the "Forgotten River" portion of the Rio Grande.

Submitted by Barbara Novovitch, Secretary


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