becoming, as he puts it, a “wandering cowboy”sailing the seas or traveling South Americahas been postponed time and again as new battles beckon. Things have improvedthey don’t laugh at him at city hall anymorebut he’s grown weary of the struggle. The fight to save the wetland is probably his last rodeo, he says. Nevertheless, Earhart feels optimistic that at long last his side has a fighting chance. “I think to win this, to stop the filling of the wetland, could be a real catalyst for organizing the community,” he says. “I mean, 12,000 signatures on a petition in Laredo is historical. I’ve never heard of that before. I think it could open up real possibilities.” It helps that the wetland’s fate has become inextricably linked to that of 1,656-acre Lake Casa Blanca. Once a drive into the country for Laredoans, the lake and the Chacon Creek watershed that feeds it are swiftly becoming engulfed by subdivisions and businesses. “The wetland plays such an important role for the lake as far as acting as a biological and mechanical filter from the airport:’ says George Altgelt, a young attorney who makes his living suing developers who build in floodprone areas. “Saving the wetland is a component of saving the lake itself.” In a town that has a pitiful number of parks and recreational facilities, but a large number of poor people, the lake is a beloved natural asset. “Lake Casa Blanca is where the working guy gets to take his family, meet his compadres on the weekend, do a little carnita, maybe do a little fishing with his kids,” says Richard Geissler, a community activist. Laredo’s reformers and environmentalists share Earhart’s view that stopping the bulldozers is about more than this small patch of wetland. “For a lot of people, this wetland is their Waterloo,” Altgelt says. “They’re saying this city has slashed and burned long enough and it’s got to stop?’ Remy Salinas says, “This community needs an environmental victory. It really does?’ Salinas, a bearish man who returned to Laredo in 2005 after a 30-year absence, swept back into town with a plan to shake up the old guard. A former commercial pilot, he got himself appointed to the city’s Airport Advisory Committee and then landed a spot on the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee. Salinas is also a regular on a popular radio talk show, the Jay St. John Morning Show, which airs on weekday mornings. Salinas speaks in martial terms of his planned minirevolution. “If we fight, we can win this war, one battle at a time Salinas says, sipping a cappuccino at Starbuck’s. “But you have to have a victory. You can’t just lose, lose, lose, because otherwise, in a community this fragile, people will throw up their hands and say, what can we do?” The wetland protectors hope to win this round by convincing the Corps of Engineers to force developers to shield the unique ecosystem. Barring that, Salinas hints at a “legal smear campaign” to scare potential retailers from the shopping center. The Rio Grande International Study Center is also raising money for a legal defense fund. There are longer-term plans, too. Earhart and the reformers are gathering signatures for two citizen initiatives that could go before the City Council. One would put teeth into a 2004 green-space ordinance. The law was supposed to limit development around bodies of water, but has so far done little to change old habits in Laredo. The city claimed a grandfathering exemption on its own land in the case of the Laredo Town Center. The other initiative would call on the city to set the wetland aside as a park. The reformers are also thinking about offering themselves up as “back-to-basics” candidates in the next municipal elections. If this is an environmental and civic awakening, it comes deep into Laredo’s boom times. Fueled by international trade and immigration, Laredo has for more than a decade been one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. Inevitably, such growth has proved to be double-edged. “NAFTA is really the root cause of a lot of the environmental problems we’re experiencing, but it’s also produced our economic prosperity;’ Salinas says. He faults city government for failing to manage the trade agreement’s effects. Local officials, he argues, have rubberstamped developers’ plans without asking for anything in return. “The developers are planning our city, and they have for a long time he says. One result is that the watershed has been drastically altered. Creeks are routinely filled, rerouted, or lined with concrete; homes and businesses are then built on top or nearby, leading predictably to worse flooding. “Dr. Earhart has seen this coming for 10 years, and they’re thinking they need to build an ark,” Salinas says, laughing sardonically at the council. The wetland imbroglio ignites anger because it squares with the perception that politicians are unresponsive to citizens. But the trick is showing people in a town with very low voter turnout and an atavistic indulgence of the old patron system that civic activism can work. Salinas has a brutally utilitarian view of how to do that. “If we lose this battle, I want people to see the blood,” he says. “If we lose, people are going to watchwhether they like it or notthem bulldoze the wetland. That’s when the pain’s going to come JULY 27, 2007 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
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