On June 13, 1958, Ronnie Dugger penned an editorial in these pages entitled A Public Seashore. Just three paragraphs long, the editorial called on Texas legislators in Washington, D.C., to preserve Padre Island by bringing it into the national parks system. “Gentleman, before it becomes too late, and honky tonks and litter make the matter moot, let us the people have this for the long quiet future,” wrote Dugger.
It was not a new idea. Efforts to preserve Padre Island first surfaced in the 1920s. As Dugger noted, the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1955 had urged that the acquisition of the island be given the highest priority. But something had changed in the interim: the election of Ralph Yarborough to the U.S. Senate.
In Yarborough the people of Texas had a true champion: a rare politician who understood that the public good and business interests didn’t always coincide; and equipped with the courage in such cases to fight for the former against the latter. His press man, Bob Bray, a former Observer associate editor, put Dugger’s editorial into the senator’s hands. An avid outdoorsman, Yarborough latched onto the idea of protecting the barrier island that stretches from Corpus Christi Bay south to the mouth of the Rio Grande. Two weeks later, on June 27, 1958, Sen. Yarborough filed Senate Bill 4 to create Padre Island National Seashore.
It would take four years of fighting property owners, the Texas land commissioner, and members of the Texas congressional delegation to make the national seashore a reality. Along the way, Yarborough decided he couldn’t simultaneously battle both those who wanted to make Padre Island into a new Miami Beach and the men who held the rights to the oil and gas beneath the seashore. He opted to leave the mineral rights in private hands. Yarborough skirted opposition from then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson by waiting until the tall Texan was on an inspection trip of Southeast Asia to push the bill through the Senate and House.
On September 28, 1962, President Kennedy signed the law that created an 80-mile long protected seashore, what today is the longest undeveloped barrier beach in the world. Three months later, Yarborough wrote an essay in the Observer detailing the philosophy behind his environmental legislation. His thoughts are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago.
“Man’s habitat is the outdoors and all living things, and if he destroys a part of it, he destroys a part of himself,” he wrote. “If he recklessly kills off species of birds and animals, he impoverishes the human race forever.”
Johnny French stands on the dunes of Padre Island National Seashore. He’s pointing to the bleached white backbone of a turtle. It’s only a few yards from a trio of wooden stakes that mark the spot where BNP Petroleum plans to cut a road through the dunes. The informal road will run south along the beach next to the dunes for more than 12 miles before it gets to this spot. Down its path will be allowed to travel as many as 40 heavy trucks a day. Once here, they will drive through the gash torn from these hills topped by grasses and sea oats. The trucks will then drive a short distance farther into an area of wetlands that soon will be home to a well head pumping natural gas from deposits offshore.
A retired senior biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, French has been visiting Padre for more than 30 years. He still comes here regularly to fish for pompano. And although the dead turtle was probably tossed onto the dunes to avoid being counted twice by biologists, for French the symbolism of the bones is inescapable: These wooden stakes tied with blue plastic tape mean death for endangered sea turtles. Whether that is in fact the case has already become a subject of litigation, and if environmentalists are successful, it will soon be put before the court of public opinion as well.
A federal lawsuit filed in April 2002 by the Sierra Club against the U.S. Department of the Interior alleges that the Bush administration has failed to uphold the Endangered Species Act. (This, after decades of government sponsored work coaxing a turtle species back from the very brink of extinction had finally begun to pay off.) The group’s lawyers hope to have a decision by springtime when turtle nesting season commences.
Every April the Kemp’s ridley turtle, one of the smallest and most endangered marine sea turtles, swims to shore here to nest. Unlike the majority of sea turtles, they come in the daytime. Once ashore, the female turtle drags herself up the beach to the soft sand before the dunes. There she excavates a pit and lays from 50 to 160 white Ping-Pong-sized eggs before returning to the water. The eggs incubate for 50 to 70 days before hatching at night.
While small numbers have historically nested on the Texas coast, most Kemp’s ridleys go to one site near Rancho Nuevo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. In 1947, an estimated 40,000 female Kemp’s ridley turtles performed this age-old ritual at Rancho Nuevo, but egg collectors, fishing trawls, and coastal development decimated the population. By 1978 there were only 200 observed nesting. In the interest of saving the turtles, the U.S. government financed an effort between 1978 and 1988 to collect eggs in Rancho Nuevo and transport them to Padre Island National Seashore, where they would be safe. After all, other endangered and threatened turtles–greens, hawksbills, loggerheads–also nested there. And the program worked. As of last year, a record 26 nests were found, 23 of them in the national seashore.
In August 2000, the National Park Service approved an Oil and Gas Management Plan for Padre that foresaw 18 wells on the national seashore over a 30-year period. The Sierra Club contends the document fails to provide a thorough biological review. But the plan did conclude that “Oil and gas operations would not be allowed to occur in areas or during specified times if there is a potential to adversely affect threatened or endangered species.” It also touched on the impact of drilling to the approximately 800,000 visitors who come each year, noting blandly that “viewing or experiencing oil and gas operations is not one of the primary reasons visitors come to Padre Island National Seashore.”
One year and a new administration later, the Park Service approved the first BNP well. At the time, park officials did not anticipate that BNP would be working to build the well during turtle nesting season. The Park Service did not officially request an opinion from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on how drilling would impact the endangered species on the beach. But through April and May 2002, after the turtles began to arrive on the beach to nest, as many as 149 trucks traveled the beach each week to access the site, according to the Sierra Club’s complaint.
BNP notes that despite the drilling, last season was a record nesting year for the Kemp’s ridley. “We’ve drilled one well and there was no impact,” contends Steve Ray, a BNP spokesman.
Ray casts BNP as a model green company where employees must go through “turtle sensitivity training.”
The drilling became an issue in the state senate campaign between BNP owner Barbara Canales Black and her opponent Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa. Some in Corpus Christi believe that negative publicity from the drilling contributed to Canales Black’s loss.
In November 2002, the Park Service approved two more wells. Responding to criticism, they noted in an Environ-mental Assessment the dangers to nesting turtles from drilling. Ruts made by heavy trucks in the soft sand are difficult for the small turtles to cross. Compacting the sand makes it hard for them to dig their nests. Trucks which fail to detect the nests can crush the eggs or hatchlings. Finally, there are unknown factors. Nobody knows why the turtles always return to the same place to nest. Truck traffic and drilling could foul the imprinting process through noise, vibrations, smells, and light pollution.
But park personnel determined that if BNP trucks drove slowly with a small vehicle in front of the convoy to watch for signs of turtles and Park Service staff members closely monitored the work (at taxpayer expense), “no impairment to wildlife would result.”
“We think that if they are following our measures there is no way that they can run over a turtle or their tracks,” insists Jock Whitworth, park superintendent at Padre Island National Seashore.
Whitworth says that because of these mitigation efforts Interior Department attorneys didn’t believe that they had the right to stop BNP from drilling during nesting season nor was it necessary to ask for a formal opinion from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service before giving the two permits.
The Sierra Club argues that the Park Service broke the law by not consulting Fish & Wildlife. But the club wants more than to simply force BNP to stop drilling during the nesting season. They hope that controversy over the fate of the well-loved turtles and the destruction of the tranquility of a popular recreation spot will force the Bush administration to buy out the mineral rights underneath Padre Island. They point to Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida where the administration did so, in what some viewed as a cynical bid to help Jeb Bush’s reelection effort.
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has come out firmly against a buyout or a halt to drilling. His office has filed for intervenor status on behalf of the Interior Department in the Sierra Club lawsuit. Since some of the planned drilling will come from gas deposits on state land, Patterson argues that to prevent it would deny royalties to the Permanent School Fund. “When it comes to the quality of our children’s education versus protecting turtles, the children of Texas win as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
If, as is likely, the administration refuses either to purchase Padre Island’s mineral rights or to force BNP to halt work during turtle nesting season, retired biologist Johnny French is promoting an alternative: a temporary road behind the dunes. French argues that the wetlands behind the dunes are not critical habitat for any species. A road would also shield the 18-wheel trucks from the view of those who visit the seashore. In an ironic twist, Superintendent Whitworth dismisses the idea as an unacceptable “impairment” to the park.
At press time, BNP had yet to start operations at their two new wells. Ray claims that the company is consulting with the park on when the best time would be to commence. If true, this seems to bolster the argument that the park could make the company wait until after nesting season concludes.
Both to gain public support and to connect drilling on Padre Island National Seashore to a pattern of Bush administration misdeeds in the nation’s national parks, the Sierra Club plans a camp-in and sea turtle sandcastle-building contest at the national seashore the weekend of March 29-30. Former Gov. Ann Richards has agreed to serve as a judge for the contest.
“Sen. Yarborough fought a great fight to protect Padre Island but there is one big piece of unfinished business. The Sierra Club and other Texans are working now to complete his vision to protect Padre Island once and for all from the ravages of oil and gas drilling,” says Fred Richardson, a spokesman for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club interviewed former Yarborough chief of staff Jim Boren recently. The still-active great grandfather vowed to attend the camp-out. “If [Yarborough] was alive today, he would be like the great lion down there fighting,” says Boren. “He would lead a corps of people with the Yarborough battle flag down to that beach.”