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Remote Texas Beach offers a lesson to Central Colorado

Column by Hal Walter

Geography – June 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

ON A RECENT TRIP to South Padré Island, Texas, I finally came to a realization of why seagulls in Central Colorado hang out at landfills.

It’s because they are homesick.

In some places the Padré Island National Seashore really does resemble a landfill. On one beach between the surf and the dunes I saw all manner of garbage, ranging from smaller items such as used condoms, dirty diapers, and empty bottles and cans, to larger items such as computer monitors, bed mattresses, a Toyota car, and even an entire motorhome mired in the sand. I thought that perhaps if there were more used condoms on the beach there might be fewer dirty diapers, and indeed less of all the other trash that follows.

South Padré Island is an interesting lesson in geography and the environment for a Central Coloradan. The island is really no more than a sand spit running north along the South Texas coast from Port Isabel.

Behind this barrier island lies the shallow Laguna Madré, a sheltered saltwater haven for many fish and birds, as well as mammals such as porpoises. Living here in Central Colorado, I think many of us become insulated. Even when our air is hazed by a duststorm from Mongolia, as it was in April, we still tend to think that our part of the world has no effect on the rest of this planet, and vice-versa.

Though South Padré is more than 1,200 miles from here as the gull flies, this island’s lifestream begins just a few air miles from where I sit writing this essay. Many of the headwaters of the Rio Grande flow from the western slopes of the Sangre de Cristos, and also from the eastern slopes of the San Juan mountains. The river takes a curvy route after slicing through New Mexico on the north-south tangent, and then carving through Big Bend and winding along the South Texas Boarder. By the time it reaches the Gulf it has been dammed several times. It’s water has been sluiced off for irrigation. The river is a mere trickle of its former self.

In another lifetime, the Rio Grande brought floods of water from the high country of Colorado and New Mexico. It picked up steam in Texas, where it slowed and grew heavy with silt before entering the Gulf. It was the sand in this silt that built South Padré Island as the waves washed it toward the Texas shore.

Now that river no longer brings significant amounts of silt to the Gulf, the islands are no longer properly recharged with sand and in geological terms are eroding at a rapid rate. If the island goes, so will the laguna, and so will the birds, fish, and porpoises. This is alarming to someone who cares about the wildlife that depends on the Laguna Madré, but it doesn’t seem to have any effect on the activity of developers, which brings us to another interesting lesson in geography.

Unlike Central Colorado, there is hardly any public land in Texas, and maybe it’s for a good reason. On South Padré Island, for several miles north from the bridge that crosses the laguna from Port Isabel, the beach front is developed with high-rise hotels, condominiums and apartment buildings. The Gulfside beach along this developed area is fairly clean, and is patrolled by rangers and raked by tractors on a regular basis. As you go farther north of the developed area, the amount of trash begins to increase. Still farther north of the private land is the park that many people use as a landfill. I wonder what sort of outrage there would be if people used the Arkansas River State Park as a dumping ground?

On the Laguna Madré side of the island the story is much the same. But since this land is private, landowners have closed off all access to the laguna, probably because fisherpeople, sail-boarders and others using these access points were trashing them out. Now, anyone wishing to access the laguna is forced to use one public access beach near the Convention Center. This access is crowded by sailboarders at one end, and choked with trash at the other.

THERE ARE SIGNS indicating that the private lands north of the developed area will soon be developed into more condos and strip malls, and I began to think of this as a good thing. While development in Central Colorado almost always impacts the land negatively, development on Padré Island may mean more people using litter barrels.

The fact is, if South Padré Island is any indicator, Texans don’t deserve to have public land. They don’t know how to take care of it.

We’re talking about a state that has “Litter Barrels” along highways.

Isn’t that presumptuous? Here we call such things “Trash Barrels.” These barrels are where you put your trash. Not where you put the stuff you would normally throw out on the ground if there weren’t a “Litter Barrel.” Little nuances like that work to build a bigger attitude, an attitude as big as Texas.

For a sidetrip I drove back over to the mainland to visit the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. As I drove up to the overlook from whence you are supposed to be able to view wild alligators, my breath was taken away by a desert, miles across, where the gators once swam.

Where has all the water gone? I don’t think drought is a good-enough explanation. And even if it is, who caused it?

TRYING TO MAKE THE BEST of things back at the Padré Island National Landfill, I paddled my kayak north a good distance from the Convention Center access, where in addition to the litter that never found a barrel — something in the bushes smelled like a rotting carcass. Miles north of this mess, I parked my boat and waded in the clear laguna along a deep channel, casting an imitation shrimp fly. While wading in this shallow water I spotted a small brownish-red stingray, hovering like a UFO over the sand. I stood above this strange fish and watched it. I thought how delicate the balance must be for something like this to be born, live a full life and reproduce. I thought how this ray had no idea how trashed the beach was or how the island that protects it from the Gulf waves is eroding. It’s up to us to look out for creatures like this. Hundreds of miles at the other end of this fish’s ecosystem there are cutthroat trout swimming in clear lakes and streams. I think the fish have a better deal back in the Sangre de Cristos.

And I think we do too. The challenge is for us to keep a “trash barrel” attitude instead of a “litter-barrel” attitude, and to make sure that our public lands don’t become landfills or get sold to developers.

In you don’t believe that it could happen here, you don’t have to drive across Texas on the diagonal to get a new perspective. Just go to the local landfill and watch the gulls. Notice the way they squawk in confusion at the lack of waves and sand, but somehow seem totally at home.

Hal Walter is the Jonathan Livingston Seagull of Central Colorado essayists.