Sunday, November 30, 2008

Alone with the Wild Rio Grande

From San Antonio Express News Travel Section
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK — What makes this place special is the opportunity to get away from everything — people, cars and all those annoying signs of civilization. The best way to do that is floating the Rio Grande, so we signed up for a two-day trip through Santa Elena Canyon.

From the moment we launched until our emergence the next day from the far end of the canyon, we had the world to ourselves.

Daily life is an assault on the senses: constant noise, bright lights around the clock, mingled scents of car exhaust and humanity, a never-ending, exhausting input. The wilderness, by contrast, has a subtle, delicate touch. In our evening campsite, the fading sun bathed a cliff backdrop with gold, then a full moon rising from behind rendered it satiny black. We listened to the murmuring chatter of water flowing over rock and an occasional rustle of grass in the wind. The air had a fresh scent, and the cold tingled on my cheeks.

Lying in my tent later, I watched a bright pinpoint of moon dimly visible through the nylon as it tracked across the sky, a kind of reassuring cosmic night light. No other lights were visible, from one horizon to the other. No artificial sounds intruded. The night was quiet, dark and peaceful. That is why I seek out this kind of place.

We started on Wednesday morning, putting in at a small park just outside Lajitas, where the bank is a gentle slope and the waterway wide. The river is too low for rafts, so we use canoes; our family of five gets three. I pair up with my youngest daughter, Bridget, while Holley and her brother Collin go together, and my husband, Corey, takes his own. We load the boats with dry bags holding our clothes and sleeping bags, two-man tents and chairs. The four guides each take individual canoes piled well over the gunwales with gear — tables, ice chests, containers of water, their personal stuff and who knows what else.
Bundled up against the cold of late November, we slip into the gentle current, listening to instructions from Jack, our fearless and experienced leader. The river carries us along at a pretty smart clip, and a little paddling adds to the speed. It's been more than three decades since I rode in a canoe, kayaks being my preference, and Bridget has never been in one, so we zig and zag quite a bit. But the sun is out in a blue sky, tall grasses undulate on the shore and mountains rise in the distance. One side of the river is Mexico, a fact that lends a touch of the exotic to the trip (as part of post-9/11 rules that have drastically changed life along both sides of this stretch of river, passports will be required for these outings starting in June 2009).

At the first series of rapids, which are fairly gentle and unthreatening, Jack leads and everyone follows. There are more daunting sets later on, but our skill improves and no one tips. The thick cane grass and salt cedar on the shores — both, unfortunately, invasive species — are alive with birds, and cliff overhangs are sometimes dotted with swallow's nests.

We pull up on a sandy Mexican beach for lunch, resting or wandering off into the brush to answer the call of nature while Erin, Jack and the other guides, Tim and Wayne, unload gear and set up tables. A snack table of fruit and cookies keeps us satisfied until lunch is ready: cold cuts, hearty bread, a wide assortment of condiments, pickles, sliced cucumber, lettuce and orange slices. We perch on rocks, canoes or sandy ridges on the shore to eat. A rock-skipping contest breaks out while lunch is packed away, then we return to our boats.

The mountains grow closer and larger over the course of the afternoon, the rapids a bit more challenging — more than one canoe ends up crashing through overhanging reeds on the outside curve of the current — until we reach the campsite at the mouth of Santa Elena. The late afternoon sun bathes its cliffs in a warm glow, and we clamber over rocks and around cactus to get a good look straight into the canyon. The narrow passage, high straight walls on either side, curves out of sight, but it is exciting to look in and anticipate going through the next day.

On previous visits to Big Bend, we've walked a short trail into the other end, but the river slashed through the limestone layers of a massive mesa uplift for some 10 miles, so we've barely had a glimpse of the canyon. We'll be in it an entire day tomorrow.

When the sun comes up and we emerge from our tents, coffee is ready and, shortly after that, breakfast tacos. We take down tents, stuff everything back in the dry bags and gather around to admire and photograph a large tarantula Erin spotted on the rocks. Today I pair up with Holley, Bridget goes with her dad, and, with a day of experience under his belt, Collin paddles solo.

We glide into the shadows of the 1,000-foot cliffs rising on each side. Canyon wrens dart through the ribbon of blue sky above. Today's rapids are more serious, and we line the boats through some of them, walking on the rocky shore and holding onto a rope tied to the front. Just before the famous Rock Slide Rapid, which can become a class IV at some water levels, everyone pulls up while Jack scouts out conditions. We line the boats to a rocky wash and are sent one by one through boulders the size of 18 wheelers. Holley and I end up going through backward, but at least we don't tip.

Here and there, caves yawn on the canyon walls, which come as close to each other as 30 feet in some places and top out at an impressive 1,500 feet. We stop for lunch beneath a cliff the color of wet sand, with four large cave openings tantalizingly just out of reach. Tim leads us up a slope to the entrance of Fern Canyon, where we must maneuver around a deep, opal-shaded pool and scramble over rocks. Water seeps from a wall covered in ferns. The kids follow a thin stream upward until the way is too narrow to continue. Tim and Jack have run this river probably hundreds of times and have seen its high waters rearrange rocks, gravel and shorelines, and Tim tells us the mouth of Fern Canyon looked very different the last time he was here.

All four guides have a wealth of experience leading different types of outings all over the country; they currently live in Terlingua in various arrangements from a tent to a refurbished miner's shack. A spartan living, I can see, is a small price to pay for the privilege of spending many of their days on the river. Back at the shore, tables are up and lunch waiting on a grassy area overlooking our canoes, and we dig in, appetites fueled by the cold and the paddling.

A few hours later, we see other people for the first time since yesterday morning, paddling, astonishingly, upstream (these “boomerang” trips allow paddlers to see some of the canyon without spending the night). The mouth of Santa Elena looms in the distance, then there are tiny people scrambling around on the left shore, and I recognize the trail in the national park. Everything looks different from this on-the-water perspective.

We emerge from the canyon, the left side of the river suddenly wide open as the river makes a sharp right to follow the cliff along the front of the mesa. About a mile farther is our take-out point. We've come 22 miles.

The trucks and crew are waiting and load us up in short order. Everyone is tired, my back feels a little sore; I have a crick in my neck from gawking at the canyon walls, and a blister on one finger. But I think instead of the giant snowball moon rising over the cliff, water swirling against a rock wall that has been growing taller for centuries. Up ahead are more canyons, including the 126-mile designated Wild and Scenic River area, so remote that you travel at least six or seven days before there is any place to take out.

Now that would be an adventure.

Austin writer Melissa Gaskill first visited Big Bend National Park at the age of 3. She frequently writes about nature and the outdoors and enjoys getting off the beaten path.

Hill Country Road Trip

Growing up in the Houston area, where the land is mostly flat, I looked forward to regular family trips to visit relatives in the famed Texas Hill Country to the west. Once we reached Austin, the road began to rise and fall, and around every curve, new sights greeted me: a blue lake, fields of wildflowers, splashing water running beneath a bridge, rugged granite slopes.
Now I'm a mom, and I've raised my three kids on the doorstep to the Hill Country. Ever since they were babies (they're now in their teens), we've made frequent jaunts to explore this beautiful region, which lies west of Austin and south of Waco. I recently took my daughters, Holley and Bridget, and Bridget's friend Jordan to revisit old favorites and try a few new adventures.


DAY ONE:
A Cool Swimming Hole

Setting off from Austin, it's not long before we're whizzing through the Hill Country along State Highway 29. We're headed for Burnet, where we've booked a cabin at Inks Lake State Park (see Road Trip Resources for all contact information). We could pick up supplies for a cookout on the cabin's grill, but since we're feeling lazy, we opt for burgers on the deck at Storm's Drive-In. Then it's on to Inks, where, first thing, we stash our stuff and don swimsuits to hit the water.

The lake is mere feet from the door of many of the cabins, but the best spot for swimming is Devil's Waterhole. This thumb of water at the far end of the park is surrounded by a jumble of granite boulders that are perfect launchpads for leaps into the deep water (if you have little ones, go early in the day; hotdoggers take over in late afternoon). We also love to rent kayaks at the Park Store (doubles are good with small kids) and paddle toward the Waterhole, scanning the shoreline for turtles and herons. Later, the girls watch the nearly tame white-tailed deer out for their evening meal. We cap the day with a cozy campfire before hitting the sack.
DAY TWO:
A Cave and a Climb

At Longhorn Cavern State Park, a short and scenic drive down Park Road 4, my kids know the tour almost by heart. Tops on their list are the lights-out experience (for 10 seconds, we're plunged into total darkness) and the tales of outlaws using the place as a hideout. With the cave an un-Texas-like 68 degrees year-round, the hour-plus tour is always a nice respite. For lunch, we head to the city of Llano, famous for barbecue. A fun alternative is Stonewall's Pizza on the quaint town square, where they hand-toss the dough and kids can write on the walls.
After our meal, a climb up Enchanted Rock is a welcome workout, and a memorable experience to boot. The drive to the rock from Llano offers tantalizing glimpses of the 640-acre granite dome rising high above its surroundings. It's one of the nation's largest batholiths (an underground rock formation uncovered by erosion). We've learned that by zigzagging on the steep parts and taking our time, we can summit the dome even with little kids. The reward: a jaw-dropping view of the Hill Country. I whip out granola bars, water, and a camera, and we savor our victory.

From here, we head to Fredericksburg, a community that bears the stamp of its German founders in its stone architecture and its expansive main street, which the town fathers made wide enough to accommodate the maneuvers of their ox-drawn carts. The town has many family-friendly hotels; this trip, we opt for the 1940s-style charm of the Peach Tree Inn and Suites. A dip in the pool refreshes us for a few hours of perusing the shops along Main Street. First stop is usually the Clear River Pecan Company for one of 37 flavors of homemade ice cream. Between bites, such oddities as a rack of wacky sunglasses and a singing Elvis vending machine amuse the girls. This is peach country, so peach honey butter is a must-purchase.

When the budget's blown, it's time for dinner at Fredericksburg Brewing Company. Yes, the giant copper tanks hold gallons of beer, but the atmosphere is family friendly and the menu ranges from Tex-Mex to German. After dinner, it's off for an 11-mile drive to a Hill Country-esque nature sighting at the Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area: around dusk from May through October, 3 million bats fly from the mouth of an abandoned tunnel to hoover up insects.
DAY THREE:
Touring the Treetops

A lovely morning drive takes us to the LBJ State Park and Historic Site, where we tour the sprawling, iconic LBJ Ranch, the "Texas White House" of the 36th U.S. president, Lyndon B. Johnson. In nearby Johnson City, we hit El Rancho restaurant for lunch. It serves the state's best breakfast tacos all day (there's a full menu, but we never get past the tacos). Then we head for Krause Springs, a beautiful swimming hole where water bubbles up and cascades over a fern-covered cliff and into a wide creek. There's a rope swing, of course, and lots of shade.
Finally, since I've often (lovingly) accused my kids of acting like monkeys, I can't resist taking them to swing through the towering trees at the nearby Cypress Valley Canopy Tours. In a centuries-old cypress forest, guides help visitors fly from platform to platform on a zip line and teach them a few tidbits about the natural world along the way. Only kids age 10 and up can take the 1 1/2-hour journey, but there's a picnic and swimming area for the younger set (or ground-loving parents). When they finally take off their zip line harnesses, I promise my monkeys that someday we'll sleep in one of the canopy's treetop rooms instead of reluctantly heading home
From Family Fun Magazine
http://familyfun.go.com/family-travel/places/feature/ff1107-texas-hill-country/

Saving Kemp's Ridley

Just before the early summer sun peeks over the Gulf of Mexico, several members of the Padre Island National Seashore staff carry a standard-issue grocery store cooler to the beach. Inside are Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings. At 11/2 to 2 inches long, the turtles are smaller than the palm of one of the gloved hands that scoop them up and carefully place them on the shore a few feet from the surf. The hatchlings immediately scurry over sand and seaweed toward the water, which at first sweeps them back up the shore. With flippers churning like tiny propellers, the turtles try again and again, finally catching a wave that carries them out to sea.

During the summer of 2007, this scene was repeated 128 times on the Texas coast. Following their release, the hatchlings swim for several days, then drift with currents to floating masses of sargassum seaweed or debris, which provide cover from predators and plenty to eat until the turtles grow large enough to navigate the open sea. In the wild, perhaps only 1 in 1,000 turtle eggs survives to adulthood. Shepherding the hatchlings safely to the water after first incubating the eggs in a specially designed lab at the seashore improves those rather dismal odds. Similar efforts protect eggs and hatchlings in Mexico.

In 1978, when the worldwide count for Kemp’s ridleys was barely 900 (not a single one of them in Texas), scientists founded the multiagency, binational Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Restoration and Enhancement Project. For the next 10 years, the project collected several thousand eggs annually from the turtle’s only known nesting site, a beach in northern Mexico. Those eggs were incubated in sand from North Padre Island, where the species had nested decades earlier, and the hatchlings were released on island beaches.

The idea, says Donna Shaver, chief of the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery at Padre Island National Seashore, was to imprint the turtles on the location and establish a second nesting area so the species would not literally have all its eggs on one beach. It was a long wait, but sure enough, in 1996, turtles finally returned to Padre Island to lay eggs, and the number of nests has increased each year. Today, the National Seashore is the most important Kemp’s ridley nesting area in the United States.

The drastic decline in the number of Kemp’s ridleys prior to 1978 was primarily due to two things, according to Shaver: large-scale human taking of eggs from the nesting beach in Mexico, where they are considered a delicacy, and loss of juvenile and adult turtles in fishing operations. Protecting nests in both countries and reducing the take of adults from commercial and recreational fishing through information campaigns and devices that allow turtles to escape nets have contributed to the encouraging rise in nesting turtles. But the species is still far from recovery, which is currently defined as 10,000 nests worldwide in a single season.

Drowning in shrimp nets remains the main cause of Kemp’s ridley mortality, while harvesting of eggs, slaughter for food and incidental capture by fishing operations continue. Propeller strikes, entanglement in and ingestion of marine debris, and dredging are also major threats, Shaver says.

“The current prognosis for Kemp’s ridley is encouraging. But it remains the most critically endangered sea turtle species,” stresses Patrick Burchfield, director of Brownsville’s Gladys Porter Zoo, one of the 30 organizations and businesses on both sides of the border involved in the recovery project. “We cannot relent until we have reached our objective for removing them from the endangered list. We must have the necessary safeguards and strategies in place both in the U.S. and Mexico so history does not repeat itself.”

Scientists emphasize that the public is an important part of the turtle’s recovery. Kemp’s ridleys usually come ashore to nest during the day, when wind is likely to blow away a nesting mother’s telltale tracks in the sand. Reaching 80 to 100 pounds and 2 feet in shell length, Kemp’s ridleys are the smallest and lightest sea turtles. The largest, leatherbacks, reach 4 to 6 feet in length and are 1,000 pounds-plus. When the relatively light Kemp’s ridleys come ashore to nest, they leave only faint tracks on the beach in the best of conditions. They take just 45 minutes to crawl onto the sand, bury their eggs, and return to the water. Park staff and trained volunteers monitor 80 miles of Texas beach from March through July, but beachgoers still find the majority of turtles.

Shaver also recently trained her cairn terrier, appropriately named Ridley, to sniff out turtle eggs. Last summer, beach patrollers spotted turtle tracks, and staff and volunteers searched for her nest in the deep, wind-blown sand of North Padre Island for five hours before calling in Ridley. He immediately found the nest, and the team took the eggs to safety in the lab.

People should report nesting turtles immediately, Shaver says. The public can also help protect the turtles in other ways, including driving slowly and carefully on all beaches, limiting beach lighting (which confuses hatchlings), and not intentionally harming or taking turtles (it is illegal to take home a hatchling, a nesting turtle or eggs).

“Don’t litter or throw trash in the water, especially plastic, since turtles can ingest it, and it has been linked to turtle death,” she adds. “Pick up plastic bags. Recycle. If you’re boating in an area where you see turtles, slow down and avoid collision with them. If you see turtles in the water and are fishing, try to move elsewhere so you don’t unintentionally catch one or snag one in the flipper.”

In addition to Kemp’s ridleys, four more of the world’s seven species of sea turtles are found in the Gulf of Mexico: leatherback, hawksbill, green and loggerhead turtles. All five species nest on the National Seashore now or have in the past, and all are threatened or endangered. Since the recovery project began, the worldwide high for Kemp’s ridley nests in a year has risen to 5,000. While only half the number needed to change the species’ endangered status, the trend is definitely positive.

“It’s a compelling story,” says Shaver, who since 1980 has dedicated her career to helping the turtles. “Humans caused the decline, and now humans are part of the success.”

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SIDEBAR: RIDLEY RELEASE

The public is invited to certain hatchling releases, which are held at dawn at the National Seashore between June and August. Release dates are posted on the turtle hotline, (361) 949-7163, as clutches appear ready for hatching. Visitors from out of town are encouraged to call before coming to the area, and again the night before the release to make sure it is still scheduled. The turtles generally hatch during the night, and must be released soon after so they will have enough energy to swim miles out into Gulf currents, where they can feed. Sometimes hatchlings are so active that their release can’t wait until dawn. Timing a visit around projected release for several nests and spending a few days in the area is the best way to increase the odds of seeing this memorable and moving sight.

Members of the public can also volunteer to patrol the beach during nesting season, April through July. Training sessions are held in February and March at the National Seashore, and volunteers do five-hour morning or afternoon patrols of a designated area. Volunteers are asked to commit to at least one month of service, although some sign up for the entire season. Cynthia Rubio, biologist and volunteer coordinator for the sea turtle program, says, “Finding a nesting turtle is an experience of a lifetime.”

To volunteer for nest patrol, call (361) 949-8173, extension 228; to report sea turtles or nests on the beach, ask for extension 226 or 0.

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See entire article at http://www.texas-ec.org/texascooppower/issues_archive/2008/May/system/feature2.aspx

Saving the Snowbell

J. David Bamberger is on a mission to save the Texas Snowbell (Styrax platanifolius ssp. texanus), a small understory tree native to the western edge of the Texas Hill Country. About 10 years ago he bucked the odds, successfully growing the endangered plant from seed on his 5,500-acre Selah Bamberger Ranch Preserve just outside of Johnson City. Then Bamberger hit the road, driving his dusty pickup gate to gate, suggesting that fellow landowners join his efforts.


“I introduced the point that landowners could get together and prove to society that we care and can do something without government help,” Bamberger recalls. “I’m trying to teach that you should be a traditional rancher and environmentalist at the same time.” Wearing jeans and boots splattered with legitimate ranch mud, and with an earnest smile on his weathered face, Bamberger gained access to more than 100,000 acres of private land never before opened to outsiders.


Some of those acres form Ann and Bruce Hendrickson’s Choya Ranch near Campwood, Texas. The Hendricksons already had found snowbell plants on their property, but like many ranchers they worried about outside control. “You hear so many bad stories about endangered species changing the whole program someone has on their land,” says Bruce Hendrickson, noting particularly that in this part of Texas requirements for the protection of endangered birds sometimes have sidelined development plans.
Well aware of those fears, Bamberger took it slowly.

“At first, I just said I wanted to discover that there were more of these plants than people thought. Then, I went back and said that I had plants from the seeds I picked and wanted to plant them.” Some who initially were opposed to propagating snowbells for replanting have turned into cheerleaders, he says. Most of them credit their change of heart to the time and resources that Bamberger devoted to the project.

“Few people could do what he has done,” says Paula Smith, who with husband Ernest and son Carter owns Dobbs Run Ranch in Texas’ Edwards County. “He’s the first one out there along with Steven Fulton and dedicated volunteers digging the holes and figuring out the best place to put the plants.”

Colleen Gardner, assistant executive director of Selah, watched her boss gently win over landowners to approaching endangered species from a practical and economic standpoint. “He isn’t telling landowners they can’t have goats or make money on their land,” she says. “He’s saying they can have that and still have these snowbells. He speaks to people in a way that makes sense, that protects the land and considers the legitimate needs of landowners.”

The man is also living proof that one person can make a difference, says Gardner. “The greatest threat to conservation, to any social change that needs to take place today, is apathy. People say, ‘I’m just one person and can’t make a difference. I won’t even bother.’

“This ranch was the most rotten piece of real estate in the county, and now it is a showcase, an award-winning model. Now people can say, ‘This is realistic; I can do something.’ He has shown that nature can repair itself. We don’t hear that enough.”
His efforts may well be the model for future conservation as well. The government agencies charged with helping endangered species recover are understaffed and often underfunded. “Recoveries will only be possible if private landowners cooperate with the agencies and help monitor recovery plans,” says Smith.

Hendrickson agrees. “You’re working with the help of agencies, rather than
worrying about them stopping you from grazing cattle or other things,” he says. And while landowners are likely always to have a little concern about government involvement, “most take a lot of pride in having some of these plants and helping them grow.”

In fact, according to Smith, nothing in the Endangered Species Act threatens landowners who find or plant endangered plants on their property. “I think that is a complete non-risk as far as landowners are concerned,” she says. With the snowbell project, at least, landowners’ fears haven’t been realized.
Foraging by animals such as deer and goats is the major threat to the endangered snowbell. “You see a seedling one week, and it’s gone the next [if there is no protection like a cage],” says Jackie Poole, a botanist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department who has worked with the snowbell for two decades. She believes it’s a combination of non-native ungulates, feral ungulates (such as goats) and an overabundant whitetail deer population.

Surviving colonies of snowbells have been found mostly on cliffs generally inaccessible even to nimble goats, although not to an 80-year-old rancher who has rappelling equipment and isn’t afraid to use it.
When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote a recovery plan for the snowbell in 1987, no one was collecting the seeds or raising the plants for the recovery, says Bamberger, who began visiting ranchers in the early ’90s and started collection efforts in 1997. He retained the San Antonio Botanical Garden to propagate seeds he collected, then returned the plants that grew to the properties from where the seeds came, as well as to new ranches within the same watershed.

It was hard work, sometimes taking up to six days to get all the plants in the ground at a particular site. Each snowbell was surrounded with a corral sturdy enough to protect it from predators, and most corrals are large enough that its seeds would drop inside the protective circle. “We had to carry all this equipment including materials, plants, sledgehammers, fence posts,
fertilizers and buckets a long way and sometimes down into steep canyons,” Bamberger says. The amount of work daunted even the irrepressible rancher, so he began to recruit volunteers to help.

After investing $30,000 of his own money, Bamberger also sought financial help, securing a $17,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Foundation for fencing materials and mileage expenses for volunteers. Some landowners now provide lodging and meals or the help of ranch staff, all of which qualified for matching grants where required. Additional funds came from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Landowner Incentive Program, which gives private landowners funds to help with recovery of listed or rare plants and animals in their historic range. This funding carried the project through spring of 2007 and was extended to the end of January 2008, fueling the rancher’s commitment to 750 plants.
“The pure cost, not counting my labor, is more than $100 for each plant in the ground,” Bamberger says. “An executive at the Parks and Wildlife [department] said this is the least expensive recovery program he ever witnessed. When the government does it, the cost is two or three times more. I don’t think conservation and preservation will ever be done by the government. The government can lead, but we – private landowners and volunteers – have to do it.”

Seeds are now propagated in a specially built greenhouse on the ranch. Bamberger keeps meticulous records on where each seed and plant originated and every October and November returns plants to the same watershed from which the seeds came. His group has collected and replanted throughout the Nueces River watershed and around the Devils River Watershed and in November had 682 plants in the ground and protected. Roughly 80 percent of the plants have survived, and those that do not are replaced in the planting season the following year.

Now, says Gardner, they are seeking grant money to do another five-year plan. “David is going to keep going until he is physically unable to do so,” she says. “The landowner relationship is what it’s about now. People run out to check on these plants after a rain. Once you get people excited about one thing, it can carry over into others – maybe wetland habitat restoration or cedar clearing. It doesn’t stop with a few plants in the ground.”

But there is a vast difference between putting out plants cultivated in a greenhouse and plants reproducing in the wild, says Poole, who rewrote the snowbell recovery plan for the USFWS in the mid-’90s. She explains that plants cultivated in a greenhouse have received regular watering and usually fertilizer. Plants growing in the wild, however, depend on nature for water and fertilizer. The draft plan, not yet approved, calls for 10 population centers of snowbells scattered throughout its historic range, each containing a minimum of five populations, at least one of which should contain 1,000 plants. That’s a bare minimum of 10,000 snowbells.

Bamberger believes that the protected centers where the plants will grow that he is establishing and the new attitude of landowners will help carry his work into the future.
“My idea is to accomplish species preservation through incentives rather than regulation and legislation. Instead of saying, ‘You can’t do this or that,’ say, ‘If you’ll develop x number of snowbells, there’s a reward.’ Use a reward instead of
a fine.”

Gardner worries about the strings attached to federal money. “It is difficult to develop relationships with landowners when you bring in all the rules. They are afraid they’ll be told they can’t put a fence somewhere, for example. A lot of it is just education, and that takes time. There may be more the feds could learn from landowners than vice versa, when it comes to practical conservation. These people have been living on that land for generations and probably know more than anyone.”
Rancher Hendrickson, for example, works hard to control the deer population on his 5,000 acres. “Deer can destroy native vegetation, particularly young oaks and favored brush. We’ve lowered our deer numbers to about one-third of what they were when we bought the place, and we’re seeing some native plants coming back. With overgrazing you end up with mostly cedar, no young oaks, no young redbuds. Goats are also very destructive to the young, good trees, and proper rotational cattle grazing can be beneficial. Loss of diverse, native vegetation, and not just the snowbell, is a real concern throughout the Hill Country.”

Bamberger has created a good model, supporters say. “The snowbell project could serve as a model for other conservation efforts, where federal and state agencies and private landowners work together,” says Smith, the Edwards County rancher. “We need to work together to prevent the complete defragmentation of the Hill Country and loss of valuable habitat.

“David said looking for snowbells is just like being a kid on Christmas morning,” she adds. “He has infused the entire project with his enthusiasm, his interest in the plants and determination that it is possible to work toward the goal of [removing the plant from the endangered species list]. I certainly hope this is a trend.”

As he loads the pickup with seedlings, fencing and tools and heads down another dirt road through the middle of nowhere, David Bamberger hopes so, too.

See entire article at http://www.wildflower.org/pastissues/?id=111

Friday, October 3, 2008

Restoring Louisiana's Broken Ecosystems

By Melissa Gaskill

A special NWF program is helping to restore Gulf Coast marshes and woodlands damaged by the 2005 hurricanes


LOUISIANA RESIDENT Mike Dever spent much of his childhood in the 1970s exploring Sam Houston Jones State Park on the banks of the Calcasieu River in the western part of the state, and his two sons in more recent years often walked and rode bicycles there. Then, in September 2005, the park’s 1,087 acres of mixed pine and hardwood forest were drastically changed when Hurricane Rita roared through. “Trees used to be so thick that you couldn’t see very far,” says Dever, an environmental consultant in Lake Charles. “But the storm blew over so much of the old growth that you could see hundreds of yards, clear to the other side of the river, where you couldn’t before.”

Last fall, Dever volunteered to work for the Coastal Louisiana Habitat Restoration Initiative, an NWF program designed to restore ecosystems damaged by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. The state park was one of the sites where he worked, removing invasive Chinese tallow trees, which had proliferated in the newly opened areas. Dever pulled smaller seedlings mostly by hand, using an axe as necessary. Other volunteers cut larger tallows with chain saws. “The smaller seedlings had come up by the hundreds,” he says. “I could pull up two or three at a time.”


When Katrina and Rita struck Louisiana in summer 2005, they washed away some 217 square miles of coastal Louisiana, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. Katrina alone killed or damaged an estimated 320 million trees across an area the size of Maine, stretching from eastern Louisiana to the Florida panhandle. “Louisiana’s coastal habitat and wildlife still have not recovered from the onslaught of the two hurricanes,” says Susan Kaderka, regional executive director for NWF’s Gulf States Natural Resource Center. “High water and winds from the storms pushed animals out of their habitat and destroyed many nesting sites. Tidal surges swept over coastal islands and brought saltwater into freshwater marshes. Wildlife food sources were destroyed.”

Hurricanes are nothing new on the Gulf Coast, but decades of human alterations to Louisiana ecosystems affected the ability of plants and wildlife to withstand the two storms. Levees along the Mississippi and industrial canals that cut across much of southern Louisiana had shrunk the coastal marshes that might have kept storm surges from rushing inland. Fast-growing nonnative plant species—such as Chinese tallow trees and cogon, a Japanese grass, brought into the area by human activity—are crowding out native species in areas where the storms knocked down woodlands. “Had we not changed the dynamic nature of this system, there would not have been such dramatic scenes of devastation,” says Denise Reed, a coastal geomorphologist and professor at the University of New Orleans. “In their natural state, these are hardy, resilient systems that have been around a long time.”

Because development has crippled nature’s ability to recover from storms like Rita and Katrina, people have stepped in to help repair the damage. NWF launched the coastal restoration initiative in summer 2007, funded with a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and with additional money from Shell Oil. This project seeks during its first year to revegetate 500 acres of marsh lands, clear invasive species from 6,000 acres of wetlands and remove 10 tons of trash and debris.


One of the initiative’s goals is to sign up 2,500 volunteers for a total of 65,000 hours of work, NWF project manager Rebecca Triche says. As of this writing, more than 1,100 participants have come from all over the nation. Some help without even visiting Louisiana. A group in Illinois built some 300 wood duck boxes for shipment south—a major contribution toward the project goal of 350 to 400 installed boxes that are vital, Triche says, because the hurricanes knocked down many of the dead trees the ducks use for nesting. Volunteers also have planted 14,000 plugs of cordgrass, 15,000 native longleaf pines and 25,300 bottomland hardwood trees, and the NWF team that runs the project won the 2007 Coastal Stewardship Award from the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.

The project also addresses the lack of native seeds and plants needed for future restoration projects, such as grasses in the coastal prairie. Native plants ensure ecosystem and genetic integrity, but seeds and plants native to this diverse habitat usually are not commercially available, says Scott Edwards, coordinator of Acadiana Resource Conservation and Development Council in Louisiana. Through NWF’s initiative, volunteers have collected nearly 50 pounds of seeds on Louisiana’s 1,000 acres of grassland—isolated remnants squeezed between highways and railroad rights-of-way. Heather Doney—a resident of Slidell, near New Orleans, whose home was under 5 feet of water after Katrina—volunteered for the restoration project after learning about it online. “Collecting seeds was very beautiful,” she says. “I didn’t even know Louisiana had prairie like that.”

Organizers hope the initiative’s volunteer program can be used as a model for restoring other damaged ecosystems. “I think we are learning lessons that can be put to use in the future,” Triche says. “We’ve highlighted the interest of people in doing this kind of work, being out in nature and doing something productive and meaningful.” Doney, who also helped to remove debris and invasive plants and to install wood duck nesting boxes, found that working on the project helped her cope with the effects of the hurricane. “I live next door to someone who hasn’t done anything to their house, hasn’t been here since the storm. I have no control over what my neighbor is doing, but at least I can go clean up elsewhere.”

Dever, too, found personal satisfaction in his commitment to the restoration initiative. “I could definitely tell a difference after doing the work at Sam Houston park,” Dever says. “I had a real sense of accomplishment. There is still a lot of work to be done, but you can tell the park is coming back.”

Triche hopes the project not only demonstrates the value of using volunteers but also complements larger trends in ecotourism and service projects. “It is great to see people test themselves and learn something new,” Triche says. “We’ve had city people who have never even camped. They comment on how quiet it is, or they see wildlife for the first time. That’s a really powerful experience. This project provided that opportunity to enjoy nature. They’ve made a strong connection.”

Making that connection may be one of the project’s most important developments, says Kaderka. “These people have turned an interest in nature into a partnership with nature. Once you’ve forged that link, you never really lose it. It becomes a promise to future generations that we will not let nature languish without our help.”

Melissa Gaskill is a Texas writer

http://www.nwf.org/nationalwildlife/article.cfm?issueID=123&articleID=1619

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Between the Mountains and the Deep Blue Sea

El Santuario Eco-Retreat, Baja California Sur
by Melissa Gaskill

In a flash of orange and black, an oriole landed on the windowsill of my casita, then flitted to the thatched palm roof, serving as a wake-up call timed perfectly with rays of sun rising over the mountain peaks. A clear Baja California Sur sky turned deep blue as leaves rustled in the breeze over an ever-present whisper of waves.

It wasn’t easy to get to El Santuario Eco-Retreat, six small dwellings scattered discreetly among the desert’s gnarly torote blanco trees and many varieties of cacti, overlooking a crescent of beach lapped by the multi-hued waters of Mexico’s Gulf of California. But that’s part of its appeal. After a flight to the growing village of Loreto, it’s 30 or so miles south by taxi or rental car on narrow paved road, then another unpaved mile to the gate, little more than a gap in the trees with whale bones arching over a sandy path.

More paths of deep, fine sand wander the property to the casitas, each hidden from view of the others. Names like Sueno, Danzante and Escondido, carved on wooden fish with bright glass-bead eyes, point the way. The complex, rounded out by a communal yurt, bath house, and open air kitchen, is framed in on three sides by the steep, rugged slopes of the Sierra de la Giganta and on the fourth by the water, where tall Isla Danzante and long Isla Carmen seem to float in the air just off shore.

It would have been perfectly satisfying to relax on my porch the entire week, emerging only for generous meals cooked by women from the nearby villages of Ensenada Blanca and Ligui, featuring fresh-caught fish, fruits and vegetables from the farmer’s market, and a variety of delicacies such as handmade empanadas and fresh tortillas. But the wealth of activities proved too tempting for that. Blue Waters Kayaking, which handles booking for El Santuario, offers planned group tours and guided activities รก la carte for solo guests (some require advance booking). I shared my week here with a group tour, led by a pair of personable and astonishingly knowledgeable guides, Eli Shostak and Erin Bohm. Running down the list of options that first night, Shostak summed it up well: “There are no poor choices here.”

The first day, I walked south on the beach to a series of jutting rock shelves. At their edges, small fish swam in three or four feet of gin clear water. Gulls, pelicans, frigate birds, and a pair of osprey flew overhead, while herons and pipers waded along the sandy part of the shore. Later, I followed the group on a hike up a mountain ridge for a stunning view of island-dotted sea stretching to the east and south horizons. After a gravity-powered shower and dinner, everyone relaxed around a roaring fire and listened to Shostak’s animated reading from Almost an Island, a book by Bruce Berger about the peninsula. After dark, I snuggled into my blankets (desert evenings can be cool almost year-round) under a moon so bright it threw black shadows and made my flashlight unnecessary for a late-night bathroom run. The eco-resort lies so far from signs of major civilization, under such clear air, that stars are visible despite the moon.

The next day I elected to ride horses with another woman retreating at El Santuario. Phillipa and I were picked up at the whale-bone gate by Jorge, who lives in Ensenada Blanca with his wife and two kids. The use of locals is obviously a recurring theme here. Jorge brought two nice-looking horses wearing comfortable saddles, and led us by a different route to the same “vista del mar” as the previous day’s hike. Riding proved much easier than walking on the loose scree and in the deep sand, and our guide pointed out various plants along the way, including pitahaya dulce and pitahaya agria, fruits that are, respectively, sweet and sour, and whose early summer ripening has been eagerly anticipated by Baja California residents for centuries. According to Shostak’s reading, in fact, early Spanish missionaries reported that locals liked the dulce version so much that they sometimes tied a string to the fruit before eating it, so they could pull it up and enjoy the experience all over again, and were also known to pick the seeds out of weeks-old human scat. Fortunately, those missionaries introduced to Baja California a variety of other fruits that are readily available today.

Horseback riding seemed the perfect excuse for a massage, provided in my casita by a very competent local woman with six years of experience under her smock. Her touch was perfect, light and soothing where it needed to be, firmer where required, strong hands softened with refreshing oil. A cool breeze through the open windows and the ubiquitous sound of waves lulled me into complete relaxation. I slept even more soundly that night.

Guests at El Santuario can opt for longer hikes, including those that start off-site and explore canyons where waterfalls or ancient cave paintings await, or boat rides to Cosme, a natural tidal hot springs and a great snorkeling spot. Other options are exploring the coastline by panga, snorkeling around the shore or nearby islands, kayaking, fishing and scuba diving. All are dependent on weather conditions, of course, as well as availability of guides and local services, but there are always plenty of options.

Denise and Bill Jones, a veterinarian and psychotherapist in San Luis Obispo, Calif., started El Santuario in 1999 as a way to step out of the rat race they no longer enjoyed. They wanted to get closer to nature and provide a place for others to do so as well; simple living close to nature became their theme. The retreat was designed to blend in with the natural surroundings, built largely with indigenous materials by local laborers, and crafted to minimize use of water. The couple intentionally bought supplies locally where possible and trained and employed residents of the nearby villages. El Santuario is also solar-powered, and while there are lights, hot showers, and refrigeration for the kitchen, there are no phones, televisions, or computers to disturb the tranquility.
“It is a wonderful feeling living off the grid,” Bill says, “and while we’re far from self-sufficient, we’re very self-reliant, with the help of the community. We were thrilled to get away from all the consumption of LA and become part of the Ensenada Blanca community.”

For decades, if not centuries, little has changed in Baja California, but today change looms for even the most remote places on the peninsula. A steadily increasing trickle of visitors is turning into a torrent. FONATUR, an agency founded by the Mexican government to create infrastructure and promote tourism, seems to have a single-minded view of what that tourism should be, and it isn’t places like El Santuario. The agency has invited U.S. firms, primarily from California, to develop choice spots. Even Donald Trump is in on the rush. This creates the very real possibility that every beach in Baja California will, before long, sport rows of high-rise hotels and condominiums with incongruously green golf courses carved in the desert scrub. Heavy equipment recently appeared not far up the beach from El Santuario. A slick Baja publication aimed at potential real estate clients in the U.S. — thousands of Americans already have purchased high-end second homes here — is liberally sprinkled with words like “exclusive” and “luxury.”

But Baja California and places like this retreat offer singular luxuries no development can ever create: That of a peaceful night with only the gentle lullaby of waves falling on your ears. Serene bays of water in shades of blue defying description, punctuated with hazy, pointed islands marching to the horizon. Sunrise over rugged mountains whiskered with stately cardon and wild cholla cacti, and that same sun setting over a different ridge, neither horizon marred by the hand of humans. In between, the music of birds in the air — or on the windowsill — and the sigh of whales and splashes of dolphins in the water.

So come to El Santuario now, while these luxuries are still available, no extra charge.



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Whale Camp
One of this area’s most popular diversions is whale watching in winter, when lagoons on the Pacific side of Baja California are home to hundreds of gray whale mothers and calves. The baleen whales, which grow up to 50 feet long and 40 tons, migrate here from summer feeding grounds in the far-north Bering and Chukchi seas. Calves are conceived during the previous year’s migration and born in the lagoons during winter after a 13-month gestation. Fifteen feet long and 1500 pounds at birth, the calves nurse on milk that is 53 percent fat, gaining 200 pounds a day and sufficient blubber to travel thousands of miles to the cold, Arctic waters in late spring.

One of the lagoons, Bahia Magdalena, or Mag Bay, is a two-hour drive from El Santuario. You can rent a car or taxi to go there yourself and hire a panga (boat) guide for whale watching, or sign up for whale camp, all-inclusive excursions that feature sleeping in tents on uninhabited islands along the bay, whale-watching by boat several hours each day and from shore other times, kayaking, bird watching, and hiking in the dunes. Blue Waters offers camps as an extension on either end of your stay at El Santuario.

Baja Expeditions, the first outfitter to offer Bahia Magdalena whale-watching tours way back in the 1980s, has whale watch and kayak excursions originating in La Paz, a four-hour van ride away. Guests stay in cabin-style tents with cots. The company also has five-day whale-watching trips out of San Diego to San Ignacio Lagoon, north of Mag Bay.

Sea Kayak Adventures has a Mag Bay whale camp on Isla Santo Domingo, a barrier island with more than 12 miles of beach and wind-sculpted dunes. A typical day begins with coffee at 7 a.m., followed by a hot breakfast, then loading into pangas for whale watching. Grey whales come quite close to the boats, sometimes near enough to touch, and calves often spy-hop, raising their heads high above the water for a good look around. The pangeros, or boat drivers, from nearby Lopez Mateos have an organized rotation for taking out groups, and the best among them have a real eye for spotting surfacing whales and a sense of a respectful distance from the big animals.

After whale watching, lunch is ready, and the afternoon may be spent walking along the beach, hiking the ever-changing dunes, or paddling kayaks to mangrove areas, excellent places to bird watch. You may spy dolphins and sea lions from kayaks or the beach. Happy hour at 5 p.m. is followed by a hearty supper, then socializing or a talk on whales before everyone retires. Sea Kayak offers itineraries with three, four and five days of whale watching, sightings guaranteed. After spending a few days in such close proximity to these whales, so huge and yet so gentle, it is hard to say goodbye. The sights and sounds of the grays remain with you, and the urge to return, just as the whales do, is strong. Perhaps annual migration is a good idea for all of us.

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If You Go

El Santuario Eco-Retreat
Ensenada Blanca
Baja California Sur, Mexico
El-santuario.com
Casitas start at $80 per person in high season (Thanksgiving to April 30). One night stay includes three meals per day and snacks. Some guided activities extra. Children and pets welcome.

Sea Kayak Adventures
PO Box 3862
Coeur d’Alene, ID 83816
208-765-3116
seakayakadventures.com
Magadalena Bay whale-watching wilderness camps, January through March, start at $895, not including airfare. Sea of Cortez kayak tours offered October through April.

Baja Expeditions
2625 Garnet Avenue
San Diego, CA 92109
800-843-6967
bajaex.com

Delta, Alaska, and Continental Airlines serve Loreto. Rental cars and taxi service available at the airport. Loreto is 700 miles from San Diego on Baja’s paved Highway 1. Passports are now required for travel to Mexico. Bank services (ATM, money exchange) available in Loreto, and most places accept U.S. dollars.

Gray Whale Facts from the American Cetacean Society, San Pedro, California, acsonline.org/factpack/graywhl.htm

Gardens of the Gulf

A mass coral spawning event is just one of many marvels at the Flower Garden Banks.

By Melissa Gaskill

The Jell-O blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico undulate like a shaken carpet, a few boats rising on swells that roll from one watery horizon to the other. From the surface, the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, roughly 110 miles from the Texas shore, looks no different than the miles of gulf surrounding it.

But on this August night, some 60 feet below, a frenzy of activity begins — a mass coral spawning, or simultaneous release of eggs and sperm into the water column by millions of coral organisms. First documented here in 1991, the phenomenon occurs annually between seven and 10 days after the full moon in August. Spawning times for individual species are extremely consistent, often predictable within a few minutes. With a single exception, each species has a unique window of time in which it and no other species spawns, the chain of reproductive events filling the water with clouds of particles from tiny round pearls to irregular blobs, rising above the reefs like slow-motion rain in reverse.

"The reef is typically very quiet at night, except on the night of the spawn," says Peter Vize, professor of biological sciences at University of Calgary in Canada, and lead author of a research paper on the event. "All of a sudden, a large percentage of one species starts blowing out these giant clouds. When that species is finished, they all shut down and there is a little gap, then the next species goes off. It is an incredible transition over hours of crazed activity, quiescence and back to crazed activity, until after midnight. It is so intense that the water gets murky, and in a good year, the entire surface of the ocean is covered by a slick."

Three factors trigger the activity: water temperature cycles, phases of the moon and time of sunset. While research suggests that water temperature sets the month, moon phase the day and sunset the hour, scientists don't know how coral can tell water temperature, phase of the moon or time of day, Vize says. There are good reasons, though, for them to do so.

"Eggs and sperm have a limited life span, so fertilization has to happen within a limited window," says Vize. "In the ocean you also have diluting effects, and currents and waves carry things off, so if a coral spawns more than half an hour off from its reef-mates, it won't have much chance of reproducing. "As different species of coral developed, the triggers for spawning couldn't change much if the species was to survive, ultimately producing this chain reaction — which also occurs on coral reefs throughout the Caribbean and on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. A number of other Flower Garden Banks residents, including fish, brittle stars, sponges and Christmas tree worms, join in the reproductive frenzy. One advantage to piggy-backing on the coral's show could be protection from predation. With such a lavish buffet served all at once, predators fill up and simply can't eat it all.

The Reef Ccosystem
The frequency and volume of the annual spawning event are important indicators of the robust health of this reef ecosystem, according to Emma Hickerson, research coordinator for the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary is actually three separate areas taking in the northernmost coral reefs in the continental United States. The 100-acre West Flower Garden Bank and 250-acre East Flower Garden Bank grow on the caps of salt domes rising from the gulf floor 450 feet below and include some 21 species of coral. Stetson Bank, 30 miles closer to shore, is a 1,500-foot-long ridge of pinnacles jutting from the sea bottom, populated by fire coral and sponges. The closest coral neighbors lie off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, 400 miles away and the likely source of polyps that initially populated the Flower Garden Banks, and the Florida Keys, 750 miles distant.

These sessile inhabitants of the Flower Garden Banks — corals, algae and sponges — provide habitat, protection and food for a vibrant community of mobile creatures, including worms, crabs, shellfish, sea urchins, at least 280 species of fish, 20 of sharks and rays, loggerhead and hawksbill sea turtles, marine mammals and birds. Large schools of jacks congregate here. Surveys also indicate that this is important habitat for spawning aggregations of grouper and for juvenile red snapper. And while many reefs in the world are more diverse, the Flower Garden Banks are a healthy, well-populated marine environment that plays a vital role in the larger ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico.

Threats to the Flower Garden Banks
Data have been collected on the Flower Garden Banks since the 1970s. One of the most sensitive biological communities in the gulf, its exceptionally good condition is largely thanks to geography. A northern location in waters cooler than most reefs offers protection from common coral diseases, and its remoteness reduces some other threats. The sanctuary is not, however, completely immune to damage. It is near oil and gas operations and shipping lanes and is affected by outflow from the Mississippi River basin, which carries runoff from cities, industry and agricultural operations in roughly two-thirds of the United States. A major oil spill in the gulf could have drastic effects, as could discharge of pollutants from ships.

Coral reefs globally are in decline due to disease, pollution, increased extraction and increased use, Hickerson says. "In comparison, the coral reefs of the Flower Garden Banks are very healthy, evidenced by high coral cover of between 50 to 70 percent. However, warning signs of declining health have been observed."

The principal threats to the Flower Garden Banks are climate change, pollution and fishing, says Jack Sobel, Ocean Conservancy senior scientist. Any type of stress, even slight changes in water temperature, can cause coral polyps to bleach, or expel their symbiotic algae. Without the photosynthetic algae, taking in enough food is difficult for coral and they usually die. Hickerson reports that temporarily elevated temperatures were documented at the Flower Garden Banks in association with a bleaching event in 2005, with 45 percent of coral in the sanctuary affected. Once temperatures returned to normal, the majority of bleached coral recovered. But that year, Hurricane Rita caused serious mechanical damage to the reef, tumbling coral boulders, causing loss of large barrel sponges and flattening fields of delicate finger coral. For the past four years, Hickerson and her colleagues also have been studying a condition suspected to be coral disease.

An invasive coral native to the Indo-Pacific was documented at the East Bank in 2002. Likely brought in on a ship's hull or discharged in ballast water, the species is common on oil and gas platforms in the gulf, which played a role in its spread. Invasives can upset the balance of delicate ecosystems like coral reefs.

Recreational scuba divers are the largest user group in the sanctuary, with around 3,000 divers visiting each year. Potential negative impacts of this activity include sound from boat engines and generators, light from underwater photography and the introduction of pathogens from other dive sites carried on diving equipment such as wet suits. Coral reefs in other parts of the world have suffered ill effects from increased recreational use.

Helping the Reefs
The Flower Garden Banks NMS is one of 14 underwater areas protected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Sanctuary Act. Eight full-time employees, based in Galveston, monitor the health of the reef and manage activities that can affect it. Marine sanctuary designation provides certain protections, with regulations prohibiting taking or injuring coral or coral reef organisms, discharging pollutants or disturbing the sea floor in the sanctuary. Oil and gas exploration and development are prohibited in "no activity" zones, but these do not include all of the sanctuary. Anchoring is also prohibited; one boat anchor can destroy thousands of years of reef growth in minutes. Spearfishing and trawling are prohibited, but conventional hook-and-line fishing is still allowed.

A Texas Parks and Wildlife Department program has created 30 artificial reefs, mainly from obsolete oil and gas platforms, between Stetson and the East and West Banks. These provide additional habitat that may take some of the fishing pressure off the banks, says John Embesi, diving safety officer of the TPWD Artificial Reef Program.

Protection would be greatly enhanced by additional restrictions, Sobel says, including prohibiting the taking of anything from the area. But enforcement of even existing regulations is difficult in an area located between 70 and 110 miles from shore and with limited staff.

Activities outside the sanctuary boundaries affect the reefs as well. "Through satellite imagery, use of tracking devices and anecdotal observations of freshwater vegetation floating near the sanctuary, it is generally accepted that freshwater from shore reaches far offshore," Hickerson says. Analysis by Kenneth Dunton, professor at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, confirms ties between estuarine sources and the Flower Garden and Stetson Banks, with Stetson showing a higher connection. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, satellite imagery clearly showed plumes of discolored water extending from the shoreline to the Flower Garden and beyond.

"Coral reefs are groups of organisms that live and work almost as a single system." Sobel says. "Having all the parts of that system in place and intact makes them much more resistant to pollution, climate change and other issues, and we have good science to back that up.

"We need to protect the area surrounding the sanctuary as well," he says, "including other reefs and hard bottom areas that attract the same life." Boundary expansion is, in fact, one of six priority issues identified by sanctuary staff and members of the sanctuary advisory council. Currently, staff is developing a list of nominated sites to be considered for inclusion. The other priority issues are law enforcement, education and outreach, and the impacts of fishing, pollutant discharge and visitor use.

"The banks are little storehouses of biodiversity, key areas that sustain and replenish the gulf as a whole, even though they take up a relatively small area," Sobel says. "They are truly the jewels of the gulf." Jewels that need protection, for the enjoyment of future generations and the overall health of the Gulf of Mexico.

Year of the Reef
The year 2008 is International Year of the Reef, a worldwide campaign by the International Coral Reef Initiative to raise awareness about the importance of coral reefs and the things that threaten them, and to motivate people to take action. Coral reefs, often called the rainforests of the sea, are some of the oldest and most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Reefs provide resources and services — from food to storm protection, medicine and recreational opportunities — worth an estimated $375 billion a year, even though they cover less than one percent of the earth's surface.

According to Status of the Coral Reefs of the World: 2004 (published by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and the International Coral Reef Initiative), 70 percent of the world's reefs are threatened or destroyed, 20 percent of those damaged beyond repair. In the Caribbean alone, many reefs have lost 80 percent of their coral species. Individuals can help protect coral reefs without ever leaving land, though.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Conservation Program offers a number of ways, including ensuring that sewage from boats and homes is properly treated, avoiding use of pesticides and fertilizers (even if you live thousands of miles away), buying marine life for aquariums only from suppliers that collect in an ecologically sound manner, recycling and conserving water. Those who visit reefs can help by supporting reef-friendly businesses, hiring local guides and never touching coral or anchoring on a reef. Find more information at .