Archive for the ‘Environmental Education’ Category

billOver 70 people attended the Save RGV from LNG kickoff campaign on Monday, April 11 to learn more about the  liquefied natural gas export terminals proposed for the Port of Brownsville and the negative impacts they could bring to the Rio Grande Valley.

            Sierra Club member Stefanie Herweck presented a dispatch from Lusby, Maryland where people are fighting the Dominion Cove Point LNG export terminal (currently being litigated by Sierra Club).  Stefanie visited the community last month and was able to interview many residents and activists, as well as see the terminal under construction. The Cove Point terminal is being built in a densely populated area, across the street from residential homes, even though the industry standard has required that LNG export terminals be built at least three miles from populated areas.  Despite the dangers of long term pollution from the gas-fired generators and catastrophic vapor cloud explosions, the agency in charge of permitting LNG export terminals, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), went ahead and approved Cove Point LNG and put thousands of people at serious risk.
           Stefanie made the point that if FERC would rubberstamp such an egregious project, they would certainly ignore the health and safety issues posed by the Port of Brownsville projects.  Those proposed export terminals don’t meet the long-time industry standard for remote siting either.  Texas LNG plans to build its terminal within two miles of Port Isabel and within three miles of Laguna Vista, putting those towns in the evacuation zone.  A three-mile evacuation zone would also close Highway 100, which is the only route off of South Padre Island.
          Stefanie said that the health and safety risks of the LNG industrial complex would be unacceptable and urged the audience to fight them.
           Afterward, Sierran Bill Berg presented a timeline of the Save RGV from LNG campaign with some great photos of many of our events and victories so far, and LRGV Sierra Club president Jim Chapman went over the regulatory process and discussed the effort to recruit people who could file motions to intervene with FERC.  Filing a motion to intervene makes you an official stakeholder.  People who may suffer materially from the LNG export terminals and pipeline may file for intervenor status.  We encourage people who are concerned about how LNG will impact their businesses or property values to file online with FERC as intervenors.  (For more information contact rebekah.hinojosa@sierraclub.org)
            Finally, our new organizer Rebekah divided people into groups for a brainstorm about how we can participate in the Earth Day festivities in Brownsville.  The consensus that developed was to have a No LNG March.  Stay tuned for an invitation for Saturday, April 23!
            The campaign kickoff was a great momentum-building experience for everyone involved, and it will be exciting to see what the next stage in the Save RGV from LNG campaign will bring.

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env studies


Our UTPA/UTRGV Environmental Studies Program came about, appropriately enough, organically.  When I attended a campus webinar on sustainability in the fall of 2009, I discovered that several other faculty in attendance had also been teaching environmental-related courses in diverse programs across campus.  We got together right afterwards and realized that together we may have enough environmental courses across the curriculum to start an interdisciplinary Environmental Studies Minor.  So what that webinar did was bring about an exhilarating fusion of faculty bent on making a difference by promoting environmental literacy.

The importance of a program in Environmental Studies is enormous, since it is humans who are causing environmental problems, who are affected by them (not to mention others of our ecological community), and who need to address them.  Environmental issues are social science, humanities, health and welfare, and business issues, just as much as they are science issues.  Collectively our initially tiny group had that expertise to bring it together – or at least we were determined to develop that expertise by finding other environmentally-conscientious faculty across campus willing to develop environmental courses in their fields.  What is needed in our society, we felt, is a deep and holistic understanding of the environment’s profound role in our lives and our profound role in the environment.  This knowledge is for everyone in all professions and spheres of live, not only for scientists.

By Fall 2011 we started our Environmental Studies Minor.  In addition our dedicated and creative Environmental Studies Committee has been hosting guest speakers, Earth Day events, and environmental films for the whole campus and the larger RGV community.  Last year we had our first Environmental Studies Symposium in late October, drawing a huge audience.  We plan on having our second one this Fall.

Our list of courses keeps on growing and slowly but surely our enrollment in the minor is growing.  Some UTPA administrators have made it a point to hire faculty who can teach environmental studies.  Now with the UTPA-UTB merger, we are bringing in environmental studies courses at the Brownsville campus, such as the English elective, “Living, Reading, Writing Nature in Costa Rica,” and helping to start others.

Next year we plan to propose an Environmental Studies Major and perhaps some small graduate programs – a graduate certificate in Environmental Studies and a minor “course cluster” for the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies.  For more information about our programs and events go to www.utpa.edu/env_studies.

Would you like to support our efforts to grow our UTRGV Environmental Studies Program and educate our students for a world in which environmental understanding is increasing critical?  You can donate to the program or to the Environmental Studies scholarship fund here.

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When the Exxon Valdez struck a reef on March 24, 1989, spilling at least 500,000 barrels of crude oil into pristine Prince William Sound in Alaska, the entire world took notice. I was a first-grade teacher just starting out in Weslaco. My little students and I read the newspaper and magazine articles about the spill and the ensuing clean-up efforts from our elementary classroom. The children were dismayed at the photos of the oil-drenched otters and birds in their Weekly Reader magazines. In Science, they attempted to wash oil from plush toys with Dawn dishwashing liquid to see if it really worked. It did.

My Uncle Jack had been a meteorologist in Valdez for many years. He described it to me as the most beautiful place in the world. The water was so clean and pure that he could see clear to the bottom.

The April 1989 Earth Day would soon be here, and the children were looking forward to a reading of The Lorax and baking, decorating (and eating) an Earth Day cake. We planned to pick up litter in a nearby park and have a picnic afterwards. It was a wonderful day. The children’s hopes were renewed. They believed that such a terrible thing as the oil spill would never happen again.

Then we received the announcement that the annual Just Say No to Drugs week-long activities would begin in two weeks. The culminating event would be a balloon release. Over one thousand bright red helium-filled balloons would be sent soaring over the skies of Weslaco. Coincidentally, (or was it?), my little students found some pictures in a National Geographic Magazine of sea turtles and seals being strangled by plastic six-pack rings and choked by balloons that had been floating in the sea.

Once again, the children were dismayed and hurt, even tearful to such a degree that I had to remove the pictures from the magazine. They wanted to take action. The most timely and easiest idea was to make posters that would educate the rest of the student body, teachers and administrators about what can happen when balloons end up in the ocean. Poster-making became the focal point of every day. The energy and excitement in the classroom was palpable. Children who were not ordinarily interested in academic learning suddenly couldn’t wait to get to class and didn’t want to go home at the end of the day. We put the posters up all over the school. It never occurred to me to ask for permission.

To sum it up, the balloon release was canceled to the dismay of our counseling staff. I was called into the principal’s office (he was actually delighted by it all) and walked out smiling. The children were filled with joy. They were astonished that six-year- olds could affect real change in the world and make it a better place. I’ve been training tiny activists ever since, but it has never been as effective as that spring in 1989 when my first graders prevented over 1,000 bright red balloons from potentially choking a sea turtle in the Gulf of Mexico.

(Several years ago I visited Prince William Sound. To my untrained eye, it is still a stunningly beautiful place, and nature has come a long way towards healing itself, but 25 years later there are still traces of that terrible day.)

Karen is a member of the LRGV Sierra Club Executive Committee. 





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Mark Pena with members of Ciclistas Urbanos in Edinburg

We congratulate Julia Jorgensen and Mark Pena as the new co-chairs of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club.  By way of introduction, we’ll be running their stories about how they found their way into the Sierra Club. We talked to Mark Pena about cities, cycling, and Valley environmentalism.

What are the formative experiences that shaped you as someone who cares deeply about the environment?

My memories growing-up in the Valley are filled with a lot of time spent outdoors.  As a child, I remember my father frequently taking us hunting, fishing, hiking and camping.   I developed an even deeper appreciation for the environment through my love of gardening.  I owe this to a beloved aunt who taught me a lot about plants, trees and gardening.   She was a lifelong native of the Valley.  She grew up on a ranch near San Manuel, north Edinburg, and she imparted her wonderful love and respect for nature to me and my siblings.  I spent a lot of time outside with my aunt and through her came to appreciate the simple beauty and wonders of nature.

Which environmental issues do you find yourself engaging with most?  Why?

Over the years I have come to love and appreciate cities and urban life.  So these days, I find myself engaging most on issues of urbanism, livability and the overall sustainability of our communities.  It’s our human habitat and the environment that affects us directly each and every day of our lives.  Cities can be wonderful place and offer inhabitants with great choices and opportunities that inspire happiness and creativity.  The auto-centricity of our cities has deprived us of many of these benefits.  I believe we can create better communities, and it’s simply a matter of developing political will and strong leadership.  It’s a challenge I welcome and enjoy.

How did you come to found Ciclistas Urbanos?

In 2008 I was serving as the Chairman of the City of Edinburg’s Environment Advisory Board.  At the time, the board was exploring and formulating recommendation to make the city more bike-friendly.  Part of the solution was to encourage more cycling in the community, and one of the ideas that came about was to create an organization that could be a part of this effort and be an advocate for cycling and cycling facilities and amenities in the community.  It sounded like a fun way to achieve something positive for our community, so it was an effort I decided to take on.  The rest is history.

Talk about the role of cycling as a pro-environment choice.  What’s so great about it?

I believe cycling is a key to improving the livability of our communities.  One of the major challenges for many of our cities, especially in the U.S., is their auto-orientation.  With livability and sustainability as our goals, we’ve got to discover ways to make it easier and more fulfilling for people to get around their communities using various modes of transportation.  This not only involves automobiles, but also includes bikes, public transit, and walking – the most basic form of transportation.   A bike makes it possible to get somewhere a little faster than walking.  This is especially attractive in our cities which tend to be overly spread-out.   When a city begins to improve things for cyclists, it has a domino effect of making the community better for everyone.   Of course, aside from being a healthy and clean form of transportation, riding a bike is tremendous fun.

What role should environmentally-aware people play in local policy of the RGV?  What role do you feel like you play?

The Valley continues to experience tremendous growth.  Like most of the country, suburban sprawl is the predominant growth pattern of our communities, gobbling up precious farmland and perpetuating an unsustainable built environment which taxes both the natural and financial resources of our communities.  For the health and economic success of our region, it’s imperative that environmentally aware people play a major role in formulating the local policy of the Rio Grande Valley.  Having the fortune of educational opportunity, I feel obligated to do my part to help make a difference in our community.  Also, as a parent I feel a responsibility to impart to my children an appreciation and respect of the environment and an obligation to help improve our community for everyone.

Do you think there is a native Valley environmental ethic?  Do you think that there are shared values inherent in RGV culture that we can tap into in order to nurture that ethic and a more sustainable way of life?  What are those values and where do they come from?

Because of our ranching and agricultural history and tradition in the Valley, I’ve always felt that Valleyites have a special connection with the environment.  Even if we haven’t experience life on a farm or ranch, many of us have grandparents, parents, or other family members who have.  I do sense however that over the last 40+ years, this special connection is disappearing.  So few families and children now ever experience and develop an appreciation for nature.  For this reason, it’s important we ensure that cities include parks and other natural areas, so that people never lose this invaluable sense and connection of being a part of natural world.

What are the most hopeful things you see happening here the in the RGV?

Although growth in the Valley is posing economic and environmental challenges for our area, it has also brought about new opportunities for cities to develop better, more sustainable ways of do things.  Livability and quality of life are now greater priorities in our communities.   Brownsville, McAllen and Edinburg, the 3 largest cities in the Valley, each have active urban forestry programs.  Making streets safer for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians is a conversation happening more frequently among our local governments and transportation agencies.  Complete Streets and Road Diets, ideas which ensure that roads are designed for everyone, are now part of the vocabulary of our city leaders and transportation officials.  Cities have either adopted or are considering adopting Form Based codes to improve the quality of the built environment and make our cities more walkable and appealing.  Our public transportation systems are being expanded and offering a sustainable, alternative mode of transportation for everyone.  Wonderful things are happening, and I’m glad the Sierra Club is a part of it.


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We congratulate Julia Jorgensen and Mark Pena as the new co-chairs of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club.  By way of introduction, we’ll be running their stories about how they found their way into the Sierra Club.

Dwelling in a House of One Room

By Julia Jorgensen

How did I become an environmentalist?  This kind of thing is never a simple story.

I spent much of my childhood in a big yard and garden on the outskirts of a small town in Texas, but I proceeded to live in seven other states before returning to Texas.  I got graduate degrees in Cognitive Science and Anthropology, and I’ve taught for nearly thirty years.

One important thing I learned from Anthropology is that our early ancestors did not view their own lives as existing separately from the lives of the forests, grasslands, deserts, streams, and oceans that surrounded them.  As John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, said, “we all (men or beast) dwell in a house of one room – the world with the firmament for its roof – we are all sailing the celestial spaces without leaving any track”.  This ancient view of life was functional – it led to respect for nature’s limits and an appreciation that plundering would prevent the regeneration of the resources human life required.  This planet is our only possible home.

As a child living in rural Texas and playing every day under big trees and starry skies, I, too, felt this connection, deeply and strongly, and I was moved by the beauty of my green world.

I still believe that the non-human creatures living on earth are not only the source of our well-being, but they are our kin and almost persons in their own right.  I believe it is genuinely immoral to destroy a species or ecosystem.

After Anthropology I became a Psychology teacher.  Teaching teaches the teacher:  One of the most eye-opening courses I’ve taught is Environmental Psychology.  I first taught this around 1994, before climate change was a well-known issue, but the teaching forced me to learn my stuff.  I learned about the greenhouse effect,  and I was startled to discover that the basic theory of the effects of fossil fuel burning on climate had been worked out all the way back in 1895 by a Swedish Nobel Prize winner, Svante Arrhenius!

So I first got worried about climate ninety-nine years after Arrhenius did!  And it has continued, and my concern has expanded:  How have we gotten to be a species that has “overpowered in a century the processes that have been slowly evolving and changing of their own accord since the earth was born”? How is it that “the noise of the chainsaw will (now) always be in the woods”? Why does even the rain carry the debris from our cars, factories, and explosions? (Bill McKibben)

And why has our global atmosphere changed so much, putting our planet in “imminent peril” from climate change, a potentially mortal danger for all species on the planet? (James Hansen) Wasn’t Arrhenius’ warning in 1895 enough to get us to change our ways?

Bill McKibben’s succinct answer is that no, it wasn’t.  He says, “Over the last century a human life has become a machine for burning petroleum”.

The significance of this became vivid for me when I learned, from Alfred Crosby that: “Fossil fuels are the tiny residue of immense quantities of plant matter. An American gallon of gasoline corresponds to about 90 tons of plant matter, the equivalent of 40 acres of wheat—seeds, roots, stalks, all.  Coal, oil, and natural gas are the end products of an immensity of exploitation of sunshine via photosynthesis over periods of time measured by the same calendars used for tectonic shuffling of continental plates.”

Of course we can’t see the carbon dioxide produced by burning a gallon of gasoline, but maybe it would help if we at least try to imagine the smoke it represents. Imagine how a fire of 40 acres of wheat would look.  Imagine this multiplied by all the citizens of your state or country for all the gallons they burn over a period of many decades.   The US Energy Information Administration tells us that in 2012, about 133 billion gallonsof gasoline were consumed in the United States.*   Is it reasonable to believe this massive amount of burning would not affect our atmosphere?  At the very least we should figure that out!

We do not need to live this way.  As Dr. James Hansen says, “The tragedy is that the actions needed to stabilize climate…are not only feasible but provide additional benefits as well.”  The benefits include the end of much death and disease caused by air and water pollution, and the preservation of clean groundwater and natural habitat, farms, and homesteads scarred by coal mining, fracking, and pipelines.

These are some of the reasons I’m an environmentalist, and why I cared enough about the LRGV Sierra Club to become a co-chair this year.

The Sierra Club is the only US environmental organization that encourages grass-roots activism in local groups.   That means that the Club supports our efforts to do all we can in the LRGV to fight for clean water, clean air, habitat for our fellow creatures, green environments for humans to enjoy, and an end to the policies that promote fossil fuel use.

We are a core group of around twenty active and friendly people, surrounded by a lot of Sierra Club members who don’t join in our local meetings.  We wish you, out there, who care about the environment, would join our efforts, our hikes, and our parties!  We would love to meet you! With you we could do so much more.


Here are the books cited in my essay or recommended as background:

Anderson, E. N.  Ecologies of the heart.  Oxford University Press, 1990.

Christianson, Gale E.  Greenhouse:  The 200-year story of global warming.  Penguin, 1999.

Crosby, Alfred W.  Children of the sun:  A history of humanity’s unappeasable appetite for           energy.  W.W. Norton, 2006.

Hansen, James.  Storms of my grandchildren.  Bloomsbury, 2009.

McKibben, Bill.  The end of nature.  Anchor Books, 1989.


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Plastic bag on a South Padre Island beach

By Madeleine Sandefur

Co-Chair, LRGV Sierra Club Sustainability Committee

What do Honolulu, Austin, Brownsville, South Padre Island and Laguna Vista have in common?  “Laguna what?” you might say–and that would be completely understandable, as our little town is not even listed on most Texas maps. We don’t even have our own zip code; we share one with our neighbor, Port Isabel.

However, we do have this in common with the more recognizable cities mentioned above: we recently banned plastic bags from our community!

I’ll be the first to admit that it is much easier to get plastic bags banned in a smaller community than in a large city.  What helped our cause is that I asked our city manager a year and a half ago to form an Environmental Quality Committee.  Initially, our aim was to have Laguna Vista declared a “Cool City,” when the Sierra Club was working on that initiative, and we did get that accomplished.  On the very evening when the town council voted affirmatively on that item, I was enormously lucky to meet two very dedicated “greenies” who agreed not only to serve with me on that committee, but they later joined the LRGV Sierrans:  Yolanda and Walter Birdwell.

At first, progress on some of the Cool City goals was painfully slow and oftentimes frustrating.  I believe what helped us was patience, persistence, and showing our willingness to help with other projects the city wanted to accomplish.  For example, we volunteered to organize Earth Day events for two years running.  We helped with a youth workshop the city manager co-hosted with another environmental organization.

Little by little, the city manager realized that we didn’t just talk the talk, we walked the walk; we were DOERS.  In meeting after meeting, we brought up the subject of a bag ban, and we encountered resistance.  We argued that it would be a lot easier to put a ban in place now, when there were very few active businesses, rather than waiting for what surely will be a flurry of new development when the Second Causeway will land practically at our doorstep.  In fact, that’s where some of the resistance came in; they were afraid that it would keep businesses from setting up shop.

Finally, we took the initiative and did a survey.  It was in three parts: two in-person ones (one at the recycling station on a Saturday morning; the other going door-to-door in a neighborhood), and one was conducted by e-mail.  It showed that 87% of those questioned were IN FAVOR of a ban.  We also knew that the only convenience store in town, Stripes, was already subject to a ban in Brownsville and South Padre Island, and we had been advised that we would not encounter any resistance on that front.

Armed with this knowledge, and with support from the chair of the Parks Committee and her husband (who happens to be a city councilman), we again approached our city manager and asked him to put the item on the agenda.  The clincher was when apparently, our city manager contacted the Stripes’ area manager and asked him how he would feel about a ban, and he apparently told him “Do it!”

And so it was that the ordinance “banning the use of plastic carry-out bags within  the corporate limits of the Town of Laguna Vista” was approved unanimously on first and second reading, and will be in effect on a voluntary basis from today until January 1, 2013, when it will become mandatory.


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Children were given free t-shirts at a 2011 Earth Day event sponsored by Shell Oil at UTPA.

By Stefanie Herweck

Every year more Texas communities add an Earth Day festival to their calendar.  But among the presentations on household energy efficiency, the wildlife on display, the recycled fashion shows, homemade birdfeeders, and festival food, something critical has been lost: the political action of the original Earth Day.

Earth Day began as a serious bid to bring environmental issues to our politicians’ attention.  In 1970 Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson and Republican Representative Paul McCloskey helped create the day as a way to counter the fact that, “The state of our environment was simply a non-issue in the politics of the country.”  

The first Earth Day events were not festivals, but grassroots protests.  After years of fighting in isolation, and with little national attention, against polluting factories in their communities, against power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, oil spills, pesticides, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife, 20 million Americans banded together on April 22, 1970 to make their voices heard. 

This movement didn’t stop when people left the streets.  Capitalizing on the networks created by the protests, student organizers released a “Dirty Dozen” list of U.S. House members whose voting records ran counter to the goals of protecting and preserving our nation’s natural resources.  When the next election cycle rolled around, thousands turned out to educate voters about the “Dirty Dozen.”  Two of the representatives lost their primaries.  Five more were defeated in their re-election bids. 

The environment quickly became an important national issue in the eyes of Congress.  As a result, in 1970 Congress amended and strengthened the Clean Air Act.  The Environmental Protection Agency was born in December of that year, and the National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law soon afterward.  The Marine Mammals Protection Act was passed in 1972, along with legislation which came to be known as the Clean Water Act.  In 1973 Congress passed the Endangered Species Act.

These were historic advances, but in the intervening years Earth Day has moved away from propelling legislation and holding politicians accountable, and has become a superficial celebration.  We nostalgically don our tie-dye t-shirts and visit festivals, complete with corporate sponsors and fast food vendors, while our country’s commitment to environmental protection erodes away.

The first Earth Day featured teach-ins to educate people, not just about interesting wildlife and how to be a “green” consumer, but about how industrial practices and the extraction and use of fossil fuels were destroying ecosystems and threatening human health. 

In the new millennium, Earth Day is failing to teach these things.  Even as Earth Day festivities have spread, public understanding about issues such as climate change has decreased.  A recent Gallup poll shows a decline in the percentage of people who are concerned about global warming, down to 55 percent this year from a high 72 percent in 2000.

Earth Day has also lost its original political edge.  Under the influence of industry lobbyists, and with campaign coffers filled with money from polluters, the environment has become once again a “non-issue” for our politicians.  They are working for polluters instead of for the people and the environment that we depend on. 

Our Texas Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison are doing their part for the fossil fuel industry by consistently supporting legislation that goes against science and blocks the EPA from regulating pollution.  They also support extremist cuts proposed by the Ryan budget that would leave us without any funds whatsoever to protect our environment.   

At the state level, Governor Perry and his appointed commissioners at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) are waging a legal war on the EPA, insisting that Texas’ pro-polluter, anti-community regulatory process is better for business than a science-based process that protects human health.

Earth Day has been successful at getting people to stop and think about our environment.  But if we truly want to preserve our planet, its diversity of life, and ourselves, we need to educate ourselves about the environmental threats we’re facing and use concrete political actions to address those problems.

What can you do to recapture the political activism of the original Earth Day?  Hold policymakers accountable, by keeping up with the impacts their proposed policies will have on the environment and the health of our communities and natural areas.  Call or write Senators Cornyn and Hutchison and tell them to support the EPA in their mission to protect public health and the environment.  Contact your state elected officials and let them know that Texans deserve a voice when it comes to allowing polluters into our communities.  If your elected officials are consistently voting against the environment or champion destructive, pro-pollution policies, work to get them voted out of office.

Keep tabs on corporations and educate yourself about their practices.  When a corporation proposes a development in your community, find out everything you can about the plan.  If you have concerns take them to your elected officials and regulatory agencies. 

Your actions will have greater impact when you work with others who share your goals.  Joining a national environmental organization will allow you to be a part of a political force to turn the tide and make the environment a political issue once more.  Become active in a local group or simply come together with people in your community around local projects like protecting a park, cleaning up a body of water, preserving native habitat, or lobbying city officials to shift to renewable energy, establish bike lanes, and plant trees.

When the Earth Day festivals are over, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work to protect our environment.  Life literally depends on it.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Rio Grande Guardian in April 2011. 


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