Review by Christopher Dow
The extensive and complex watershed systems of the Texas Gulf Coast are home to an incredible diversity of wildlife, recreation, and commercial and industrial development. On any one of Texas’s major bays, it is not unusual to see nesting birds in the foreground, vacationers’ sailboats in the near distance, commercial fishing boats heading for deep waters, and towering petrochemical plants silhouetted against the sky.
These disparate elements may occupy a single scene, but their coexistence is not always an easy one. Environmentalist, recreational users, and commercial interests have engaged in numerous battles—both verbal and legal—to determine how Texas’s precious and fragile coastal resources should best be utilized. And right in the middle of it all has been Jim Blackburn.
Blackburn is an attorney who earned a master’s degree in environmental science at Rice University in 1974, putting him at the forefront of the then-new field of environmental law. Since that time, he has litigated significant environmental issues, served as an adjunct professor in civil and environmental engineering at Rice, and received the 1998 Bob Eckhardt Lifetime Achievement Award from the Texas General Land Office and the 2001 National Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation. Now he shares his intense love and deep knowledge of the Texas coastal ecosystem in his recent book, The Book of Texas Bays (Texas A&M University Press, 2004).
Working his way from Sabine Lake, near Beaumont, to Laguna Madre, near the southern tip of Texas, Blackburn talks about each major coastal area, relating the stories each has to tell about its plants, animals, and people. Interwoven throughout are details of the effects of freshwater inflows, deep port construction, disappearing oyster beds, beach resorts, industrial pollution, and more.
The Book of Texas Bays may be an environmentalist’s book, but it also acknowledges the practical aspects of life that must be considered in areas beset with population pressures as well as economic concerns. And while its focus is on the legal battles the author has engaged in, Blackburn never loses sight of the reasons he has worked so diligently to preserve the coast: its ecological importance and its wealth of beauty.
Both these can be threatened by industry and coastal development, but other conditions that one might not normally expect to affect the coastal ecosystem can have devastating consequences as well. One example is drought in the interior of the state, which has had a negative impact on oystering. “The [oyster] harvest in Texas in 2000 was over 6 million pounds of oyster meat valued at over $14 million,” Blackburn writes. But that same year was the third year of a drought, and “almost every oyster reef in Galveston Bay had a life expectancy of zero. The problem was lack of fresh water.” Oysters, Blackburn relates, need a mix of fresh and salt water. “Too much fresh water can inhibit their ability to feed, but too much salt makes them vulnerable [to parasites and predators].” The key, he says, is periodic freshwater flooding to flush out the parasites and predators.
It would be difficult to imagine another book on the Texas coast that is so comprehensive, informative, and accessible. Or as colorful. More than 100 photographs by Jim Olive capture the visual character of the state’s coastal waterways, from wildlife to industry to the people who work and play there, and each chapter leads off with a satellite image of the particular bay or wetland being discussed.
The Book of Texas Bays is a fine book by someone who has a deep spiritual connection to the Texas coast and all it has to offer, reminding us of the grandness, importance, and frailty of our coastal treasures.
This review originally appeared in the spring 2006 issue of Sallyport: The Magazine of Rice University.
The Book of Texas Bays