Saving Texans from Texans

The highest point in Texas is Guadalupe Peak, 90 miles east of El Paso. A low point was Attorney General Greg Abbott’s February lawsuit intended to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions in the state. There are many other low points in a state that celebrates its Wild West traditions but seems intent on erasing every trace of wilderness. If arborcide were a crime under the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, prosecutors would flock to San Antonio, whose strip malls, parking lots, and soulless subdivisions stand beside 1604, I-10, and 281, where hundreds of thousands of trees once grew. Around here, tree-hugging is a sexual perversion worse than necrophilia. Despite the spectacular richness of its prairies, piney woods, rugged mountains, and coastal wetlands within as many as a dozen distinct ecological zones, and despite biodiversity greater than in any other state except California, Texas is a perennial leader in air and water pollution, toxic waste, and other offenses against nature. For too many Texans, “environmentalist” is, like “socialist” and “Muslim,” a term of abuse.

The Texas Legacy Project comes as a refreshing reminder that not everyone in this state assumes a divine right to hunt whooping cranes and pave over Big Bend. Edited by David Todd and David Weisman, this handsomely designed book consists of interviews with farmers, teachers, writers, politicians, scientists, lawyers, fishermen, and activists who have struggled, though far from successfully given the forces arrayed against them, to ensure that polluters and exploiters don’t mess with Texas. During the past decade, crews from the Conservation History Association of Texas scoured the state for inspiring stories of resistance to a culture that encourages man’s inhumanity to the non-human. Videos and transcripts of 225 interviews are posted at The Texas Legacy Project features excerpts from 67 of them, and they are almost enough to restore one’s faith in a state that prefers Republican red rather than terrestrial green.

Praising “this collection of conservationists,” `p. xiv` Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, nowhere mentions the word “environmentalist” in his Foreword. “Conservationist” is close enough to “conservative” that it might not frighten the horses. The book omits any reference to Earth First!, Earth Liberation Front, or even the Green Party, and to people who chain themselves to endangered trees, conduct guerrilla raids on factory farms, or live off the grid. Al Brothers, a rancher in Goliad County, is hardly a champion of animal rights with his talk about “harvesting” white-tailed deer in order to manage populations, and, like Billy Platt Sr., a poacher turned game warden, the importance of hunt quotas. Gerald North, a physicist at Texas A&M, is the only one in the book who addresses the most severe environmental threat: global warming. But then elected leaders of Texas, too, either deny or ignore climate change.

“I am concerned about people that couldn’t care less about what the end result will be to the environment as long as they make a profit financially,”`p. 57` says Carlos Truan, a state senator from Corpus Christi who expects to accomplish little beyond obstructing bad legislation. San Antonio’s Maria Berriozabál recalls thwarting the Applewhite Reservoir boondoggle but also her failure to block the PGA Village and other development over the imperiled Edwards Aquifer. “The developers are born with a lump of avarice in their heart and nothing can persuade them that they don’t have a right to buy everything, own it, and make it exclusive, because they can’t make as much money off of something that might be utilized by both the public and the private sector,”`p. 44` says A. R. “Babe” Schwartz, a former state legislator who opposes efforts to repeal the Open Beaches Act. Though he describes Texas as “awash in chemicals,”`p. 36` Jim Hightower insists that the majority of citizens “are not the hide-bound, xenophobic conservatives that we are taught that they are.”`p. 36` Who, then, turned Hightower out of office after two terms as the agriculture commissioner, during which he championed organic farming, pesticide regulation, and farmworker protection?

One of this volume’s heroes is Geraldine Watson, whose campaign to protect the Big Thicket subjected her entire family to cruel, continuous harassment. Roy Malveaux, a Baptist minister who seeks environmental justice for those living near petrochemical plants in Beaumont, attacks the “environmental criminals”`p.79` who are in cahoots with officials in Austin. Bill Addington and Susan Curry kept radioactive waste from being dumped in Sierra Blanca, before it was sent to Andrews County. Texas is still run by men in boots and Stetsons who see the wild as a problem to be paved.

Bounteous resources are a Texas legacy, but so is a tradition of conquering nature for private gain. Yet The Texas Legacy Project offers examples worth passing on — Texans who have designed parks, opposed clearcutting, and developed alternative energy sources. The state religion might be “bidness,” but Leroy Matthiesen, the Amarillo bishop who fought against the Pantex nuclear weapons plant and for sustainable agriculture, reminds us that: “You won’t grow any money, you won’t grow anything else if we destroy the land and the air and the water.”`p. 91` •

The Texas Legacy Project: Stories of Courage & Conservation
Edited by David Todd and David Weisman
2010, Texas A& M University Press, 280 pp., $30

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