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A common treasure by Kelley Reese
Spring 2004      

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"Yon't pie?"

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Caddo Lake Institute

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Business Fun

A New Rose From Lima

A Common Treasure

The Weather Dude


There's a place in East Texas where time stops.

Off the shores of Uncertain, where the Big Cypress Bayou flows into Caddo Lake and the water is lined by moss-draped bald cypress trees, modernity has no place.

The lake's surface is dotted with lily pads and coated with duckweed. All around, brilliant water hyacinth blossoms.

Along the shoreline a dense forest of hickory, ash, oak, pine and sweet gum trees grows.

Within the water and surrounding woods a menagerie of wildlife — including some endangered and threatened species — flourishes. Alligators and panthers add to the wild, remote ambience.

Yet, modernity seeks to invade this timeless area.

World of trouble


Don Henley


The pristine wilderness of Texas' only natural lake is threatened by an array of utterly modern-day problems — exploitation and pollution chief among them.

"Every living system on this planet is in a state of decline, and that's not just my opinion but scientific fact," says international rock star and environmentalist Don Henley.

That's why in 1992 the Eagles' drummer and East Texas native created an organization — the Caddo Lake Institute — to study, protect and improve the lake he grew up loving as a child.

Over the years, institute director Dwight Shellman has aided Henley in warding off many "ill-conceived schemes to exploit the lake."

Their involvement started more than a decade ago with opposition to the Daingerfield Reach — a plan to build an inland waterway connecting Shreveport, La., to Daingerfield, Texas — and continues today with a battle against the city of Marshall.

The city's leadership wants to use the lake as an economic boon, pumping and selling its water to industry. And although two years ago the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission approved a permit for the industry pumping, a trial court overturned the permit when the city was sued by a loosely combined coalition of lakeside locals and the Caddo Lake Institute.

In October, the state appellate court upheld the trial court's decision. The case is now in federal court.

Best defense

Caddo Lake"This lake is always under threat from exploitation of some kind," Henley says. "Our whole economy is based on exploiting natural resources, but we're not doing it wisely."

Fighting off threats to the lake is not all Henley and the institute do.

They have trained hundreds of students, teachers and locals in wetland management science, collected significant scientific data about the health of the lake, and secured an international designation of importance for Caddo by having it included as the 13th site in the United States on the Ramsar Convention's list of significant wetlands. The Ramsar Convention is an intergovernmental treaty that provides a framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.

Doing that work is where the pleasure of victory is found.

"I have a lot more victories as a musician — I win every night — but the satisfaction in this is in the doing," Henley says. "It's getting to come down here and be on the lake, bringing the kids here, fishing and learning, and building community."

Lovely place

"The idea of rugged individualism and personal freedom has eclipsed and subverted the idea of community, and we have spat upon something called the doctrine of the commons. Nature doesn't recognize fences or national borders, and as everybody from Thoreau to Muir told us, everything in the universe is connected — what one person does upstream has consequences for a lot of people downstream."

— Don Henley

Born and raised in Linden, a town of about 2,300 today, Henley has long been part of the East Texas community, and in his own childhood he spent plenty of time on Caddo Lake.

The memories and lessons from that time have guided him throughout his life.

"My daddy passed on his great love for the outdoors," Henley says. "And he taught me that my obligations did not stop at our property line — I was obligated to vote and I was obligated to do things for people in the community besides my family."

That love of nature and sense of community obligation was cemented during his years at North Texas, where he was an avid English student.

"North Texas had a very, very good English department," he says. "I mean, it was extraordinary, and I really loved it.

"The literature classes I took had a great deal to do with nature and the spiritual or mythical element of nature, and those years were very formative. My professors, including Marsue Johnson, Richard Sale and James Giles, were a big influence."

Henley left North Texas in the spring of 1969 to spend time with his father, who was dying from heart and arterial disease.

"I was very disturbed about my father's illness," he says. "I was asking a lot of the big questions — 'Is there a God? Why do good people suffer? What does old age mean? Why do bad things happen to good people?' — because my father was really suffering and he was only in his early 60s."

Henley says the church didn't offer the answers he needed, so he began re-reading the works of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

"I started connecting divinity with nature, which made me see nature in a whole new light. It wasn't just a place to have fun on dirt bikes or hunt or fish — it was a place that had a lot of inherent spirituality."

In February 1970, Henley and his band (a group from Linden, not yet the Eagles) went to Los Angeles to record at the invitation of Kenny Rogers. And his music career took off.

"And there went nature and spirituality," he says jokingly, with a glint in his eye.

A mission

But while the public may be well versed on the success of Henley the drummer, singer and searching poet, many may not know he has always maintained a great love for nature.

"I became an activist somewhere in the '70s," he says. "That was part and parcel of being in a band back then."

At first, he was reactive, joining other people's causes, he says. But in 1981 he started his first nonprofit called Mulholland Tomorrow, which was dedicated to protecting the open space and wildlife habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains and foothills in the Mulholland Scenic Corridor in California.

The organization was recently disbanded but still has one lawsuit pending against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

In 1989, when he heard on CNN that developers wanted to build condominiums on Thoreau's Walden Pond in Massachusetts, Henley founded the Walden Woods Project to raise public awareness and the funds necessary to purchase and preserve the endangered areas.
At that time, only 60 percent of Walden Woods was protected. Today, nearly 90 percent of the 2,680-acre ecosystem is preserved.
And a thriving institute dedicated to research and education based on Thoreau's literature and philosophy provides programming for high school teachers and students, researchers and scholars.

Working on the Walden Woods Project inspired Henley to go in search of his own Walden.

"Everybody has a Walden of some type," he says. "It might not necessarily be a pond. It might be an entire wetland. Or it might be a forest or a vacant lot. But every town, every city, every community has a Walden."

Caddo LakeHis search brought him to Caddo Lake.

"This lake, as Thoreau would put it, is a common treasure — a treasure that belongs to the citizens and is not to be exploited by or for the few," he says.

As an ecosystem, Caddo is a nearly 30,000-acre wetland with more than 400 species of plants and animals.

In the last 12 years, in addition to buying more than 170 acres surrounding Caddo Lake, Henley has spent nearly $2 million from his own pocket and used his fame and talent to raise additional funds for the fight to protect the lake.

In the long run

Even if he wins the latest skirmish, Henley says Caddo will not be without its troubles.

"This lake, as beautiful as it is, has many problems," he says. "This water is so polluted with mercury you can't eat the fish — well, you can, but you do it at your own risk."

Other heavy metals, namely lead and titanium, are also recorded at dangerous levels. And, because the lake is actually a bald cypress savannah swamp, it's naturally shallow. Thus, the sediment that washes in on a regular basis makes it even shallower and speeds up the process of eutrophication — sunlight reaching the bottom causes more plants to grow in the water, which sucks out the oxygen and suffocates the fish.

"It's a delicate, interconnected ecosystem that requires constant vigilance," Henley says. "The watershed for this lake comprises 13 East Texas counties. It cannot be managed fragmentally. It needs to be thought about as a whole."

He says the ideal plan would be to acquire all the land on each side of the bayou to create a buffer zone to filter out the sediment and pollutant runoff.

In the real world, Henley says he'll preserve the lake through legislation, education, public outreach and, if necessary, litigation.

"I like to bite off more than I can chew," he says.


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