Hunting vs. Birding

Will TPWD Accomodate Those Who'd Rather Watch?

The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) is stuck. Stuck in a time when hunters and fishermen were its only constituents, the agency is witnessing a demographic shift for which one critic says it is "supremely unprepared."

Hunting and fishing are declining in popularity. Meanwhile, birdwatching is surging. And yet, the overwhelming majority of TPWD's budget is focused on catering to hunters and fishermen. Much of the reason for that focus is that hunters and fishermen have paid the bills for many years. In 1996, the agency estimated that hunters and anglers accounted for 42.9% of TPWD's revenues. But hunting license sales in the state are falling. In 1996, Texas hunters bought 990,000 licenses, marking the first time in 25 years that TPWD has sold fewer than one million licenses. In 1997, license sales slipped again, to 930,000 (The season has already ended). Since 1993, hunting license sales by TPWD have fallen by more than 15%, despite an increase in the state's overall population.

According to the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, the number of hunters in the U.S. declined by 12.3% between 1982 and 1995. Fishing declined by 3.8%. During that same time period, birdwatching soared, increasing by 155.2%.

The decline in hunting is due to several factors, including the aging of the hunting crowd. A TPWD report, "Natural Agenda: A Strategic Plan for 1997-2001," spells out the issue in one sentence: "The overall percentage of Texans who hunt or fish may decline due to continued urbanization and less emphasis on these traditional activities." The same report says, "Nature-based tourism, now valued at $23 billion per year, is the fastest growing segment of the Texas travel business." It goes on to say that non-consumptive wildlife users, like birdwatchers, are almost equal to hunters when it comes to dollars spent. In 1991, hunters spent $1 billion in Texas. Birders and other wildlife watchers spent $878 million.

With those figures, it would seem TPWD would be spending more money on opportunities for wildlife watching. The agency gets 8.8% of its revenues from non-consumptive users. Yet, according to TPWD figures, spending on non-game and endangered species at the agency accounted for just 0.1% of the agency's 1996 budget, which totalled $149.2 million.

Ted Eubanks, an Austin-based consultant who specializes in wildlife-related tourism, calls TPWD "supremely unprepared" for the shift away from hunting and toward wildlife watching. "The profound demographic fact is that the vast majority of people don't own land and live in cities." Eubanks says that TPWD has been far too slow in realizing that its future lies not with rural hunters, but with urban dwellers who want to view and experience nature. TPWD is moving to accommodate birdwatching. This month it will be one of the sponsors of the Great Texas Birding Classic, a week-long birdwatching festival to be held along the Texas Gulf Coast, April 19-27 (for more info on the event, call 888/TX-BIRDS). But while the birding event will call attention to Texas wildlife, TPWD's focus remains on hunting. Despite a backlog of run-down facilities in dire need of upkeep and maintenance -- which the agency estimates will cost some $272 million between now and 2001 -- the agency's most important goal, as listed in its strategic plan, is to "increase by 3% public hunting and by 1% public fishing opportunities annually by acquiring, improving, or accessing additional public fishers, wildlife and their habitat."

Andrew Sansom, TPWD's executive director, says the agency recognizes the ongoing changes in the Texas population and the declining interest in hunting. But, he says, TPWD and many other state wildlife agencies were founded by hunters and anglers. He says TPWD is doing as much as it can to attract new park visitors and to "develop programs for new constituencies. But we are not going to back away from the old ones. We are just not going to do it."

Look for a full length interview with Sansom in this column two weeks from now.


Questions on Busang

Can the story of what was supposed to be the world's biggest gold deposit get any stranger? On March 19, Michael de Guzman, a geologist for Calgary-based Bre-X Minerals, Ltd., fell from a helicopter as it flew over Borneo. A few days later, the Indonesian press reported that Busang -- which was believed to contain 70 million ounces of gold, worth some $25 billion -- might hold far less than that. On March 26, New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, which had gained a 15% stake in Busang in February, issued a press release saying its drilling at Busang had uncovered only "insignificant" amounts of gold. After that, Bre-X's share price collapsed and the company, formerly worth more than $4 billion, was worth a tenth of that a few days later.

De Guzman, a Filipino, was buried in a Manila suburb last Friday. Two autopsies were done on his body, one by Indonesian officials and another by Filipino officials. Press reports have said that de Guzman committed suicide due to the fact that he had Hepatitis B.

But Simplicio de Guzman, the geologist's brother, suspects foul play. "Medical reports would show that he does not have hepatitis," Simplicio told reporters, adding that his brother was examined at a Singapore clinic less than two months before his death and had been given a clean bill of health. "For somebody who is on top of the world, for somebody who has got a great family and six beautiful kids whom he adores so much... I don't see any reason... [why] he would commit suicide," he said.

Regardless of whether or not de Guzman committed suicide, his death has left dozens of questions. If Busang doesn't contain much gold -- or any gold at all -- how could de Guzman and his partners at Bre-X have fooled so many people, including some of the shrewdest investors on Wall Street, for so long? Bre-X had drilled more than 100 miles of core samples. If they had "salted," or added gold to make the samples look richer than they were, how could they have done it on such a massive scale? If Busang turns out to be a bust, it could be the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the world gold industry.

On the other hand, if the gold is there, why hasn't Freeport found it? Could it be that Freeport or some other entity is intentionally trying to drive down Bre-X's stock price in an effort to buy the company's interest on the cheap? Bre-X CEO David Walsh has alluded to a sinister motive several times, saying he believes there is a "hidden agenda" at work regarding Busang.

What that agenda is and why de Guzman died are two questions that may never be answered. However, new tests of Bre-X's core samples are underway and the truth about Busang -- or at least some of the truth -- should be coming out soon.

Meanwhile, there's another elephant on the horizon. On April 3, Bernama, the Malaysian national news agency, reported that Freeport has "found another major gold deposit in Irian Jaya, possibly the second biggest after the Grasberg deposit." The brief article says, "Freeport Indonesia, the world's number-one copper and gold mining company, disclosed yesterday the new gold deposit has been named Wabu Project, some 45 km southeast of Tembagapura, lying 2400 to 3100 meters above sea level."

Freeport's current operation lies on the western boundary of the Lorentz Nature Preserve. If Wabu is located 45 kilometers southeast of Tembagapura, then it appears likely Freeport's new discovery lies within an area that is supposed to be closed to mining.

Freeport spokesman Garland Robinette did not return phone calls.


Wildlife Fundraising

The Nature Conservancy still rules the environmental roost when it comes to raising money. According to figures published in Common Ground, a newsletter published by the Conservation Fund, the Conservancy raised $209.5 million in 1995, more than four times more than its nearest competitor, the World Wildlife Fund.

Here are the top nine environmental groups, ranked by cash raised (in millions) and their rank among the nation's top 400 charities:

$ in millions

Rank

Nature Conservancy

$209.5

15

World Wildlife Fund

$43.1

159

Ducks Unlimited

$25.9

267

National Audubon Society

$23.5

288

Natural Resources Defense Council

$23.0

292

Environmental Defense Fund

$22.8

297

Trust for Public Land

$20.3

331

National Wildlife Federation

$18.6

363

Wildlife Conservation Society

$17.3

386


Organic Farming Workshop

On Sunday April 20, Tim Miller of Millberg Farms, an organic dryland farm in Kyle, will hold a workshop on woodchip composting, and other related topics. Admission is free; call 512/268-1433 to reserve a space.

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