Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Treasure is Trashed

A liquid drain opener bottle sits in the sargassum on South Padre Island.
 There's a perfectly usable Weber kettle barbecue grill resting amid a modern-day midden heap on the beach ready for the taking--it's right around mile marker No. 4, just north of where the road out of town ends in a trashy dunescape on the Gulf side of South Padre Island.

Apparently, the folks who abandoned it didn't need it anymore. They also left a gently used camp chair and all of their garbage, presumably from a Memorial Day weekend on the island. They just bagged it up and decided they didn't have room in the truck to take it to a Dumpster in town. Since they left it, every raccoon and coyote and jackrabbit has pilfered through the refuse, creatively spreading it across the sand and sargassum. There's a motor oil bottle here. A six-pack ring there. Is that a bottle of liquid drain cleaner?

The only ingredient missing is the the weeping Indian standing atop a dune and surveying the makeshift landfill. There are apparently no consequences for litterers. No incentives to stop it. No precedent to follow. There is garbage everywhere. Not just a Coke can here or a stray water bottle there. It's everywhere.

And it's gross.

Now, a case could be made for much of the refuse coming from the Gulf of Mexico itself--currents and tides being what they are, it's certainly possible that a lot of this trash migrates up from Mexico, like the tarpon that run along the Texas coast this time of year. But it's pretty obvious, after a walk out on the South Padre Jetty at the south end of the island, that the cans and bottles and dirty diapers have been deposited in situ by folks just too damn lazy to pick up after themselves.

I adore this little slice of Texas. It's a wonderful, almost-tropical stretch of the Lone Star state that feels completely unique. It has island town charm, tourist trap kitsch and a stretch of blonde-sand beach that can be as pretty as any in the country. But it's not. Because it's trashed. Every vista a visitor might try to enjoy is spoiled by refuse. Every camera frame is tarnished by rubbish.

This didn't wash up on the beach.

It's so bad, so putrid, that I'm wondering if the cause is lost. The city of South Padre Island, over Memorial Day weekend, launched it's "Treasure It, Don't Trash It" campaign. It's not working. In fact, I believe it's worse than I've ever seen it, and I'm a frequent visitor. The garbage is a disgrace to the city and to Cameron County.

When I was growing up in the 1980s in East Texas, the state launched its famous anti-littering campaign--it featured legendary guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn strumming out a few priceless licks and uttering in a menacing voice, "Don't mess with Texas." Apparently the campaign never achieved any traction on South Padre, where littering appears to be the norm, not the exception.

There's plenty of blame to go around for this travesty. City officials have done a poor job keeping their beaches clean. County officials should be embarrassed. And, frankly, the people who visit and treat it like a landfill should be ashamed. I know, if I wandered off the beaten path on public land near my home in Idaho and discovered such a mess, I'd be angry and embarrassed. The "Treasure It, Don't Trash It" campaign is a bust.

What's the solution? A friend of mine who lives in the area pointed the mayor's house out to me--it's a palatial bay-side estate that gets the best views of the Laguna Madre sunsets every evening of the year.

"He's always had money," I overheard someone say. "But I think he won the lottery, too."

Fresh off a fly fishing hike into the island's backcountry that consisted of wading the sand flats north of town and then humping it over the dunes to the beach where the bulk (but not all) of the trash is located, I looked at my friend, and I said, "If I won the lottery, I'd make sure there isn't a scrap of litter on this island."

Fresh litter. 

And, at the moment, with images of Styrofoam cups and plastic water bottles and Mylar balloons still still fresh in my head, I meant every word of it. No, I don't expect the mayor--or the county leaders--to dip into their own pockets to clean up this mess, but, as a visitor to this place, I'd sure like to see some common-sense enforcement and an effort to clean up after the slobs who aren't motivated enough to clean up after themselves.

Or how about this? Threaten--and mean it--to close beach access to vehicles. There's no way in hell that a barbecue grill, a camp chair and cubic yard of waste made its way to mile marker No. 4 without the help of a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Keep the vehicles off the beach, and I'll wager the garbage problem gets a lot easier to handle.

Too much effort to clean up after yourself?

And, frankly, how much is "too much" to spend on cleaning up the beach? Is it unreasonable to expect this very simple, very basic service from local governments?

Maybe this will help. It'll be awhile before I come back. I can chase reds and specks along the Florida Gulf Coast, or in the marshes of Louisiana, where trash isn't lying around like pickup sticks. I can walk the beach at Pensacola. I can fish from the jetty at Port Aransas. I can take my business somewhere else. Somewhere cleaner.

The city's new Convention and Visitors Bureau Director, Rachel Flores, needs to know that selling her new home to visitors would be so much easier if the resources were allocated to clean up the trash that's piling up on the beach, along the bay and on the jetty. She should know that people who don't live on the island still love it dearly, and that it kills many of us to see it in this sad condition today.

Above all, she and her fellow city and county leaders should know that we have options. I will choose to go elsewhere until the folks in charge of leading their community step up and address this problem.

The island is a treasure. But it's tarnished. It's trashed. I can't bear to see it this way again.


  1. That is extremely sad. I had a similar experience after a holiday last year here in AZ, where someone left crumpled beer cans "Hansel and Gretel" style the whole distance of the trail into a remote creek. To say I was pissed would be an understatement. It's downright embarrassing to be human sometimes.


    PS. I hope you do win the lottery.

    1. Me, too. If I do, I swear on a stack of bibles to give 10 percent to a beach cleanup campaign on SPI. Not only will that help solve a problem, it'll make the IRS a little happier with my winnings :-)

  2. As a long-time SPI resident who has been stubbornly unlittering* its beaches for over three decades, I am sad to have to agree with the author that litter is a huge huge problem in this part of the world. But I also have to point out that parts of this article are somewhat misleading. The writer is clearly describing the county beaches north of town -- not the city beaches of South Padre Island proper. I walk those beaches twice a day, unlittering as the need arises and I will tell you that the town does a very fine job of keeping its beaches clean. The picture you paint of our town awash in trash is simply not true.
    Holidays bring in big crowds, and big crowds bring in trash and leave it here. I'll grant you it looked bad last weekend, but I wish you could see the beaches as I saw them today.... gorgeous and litter free. If you only come here during the busiest times, you haven't seen SPI at its best.
    Trash happens. Particularly on the beaches north of town. We expend tremendous resources on picking up after our guests, but we have 30 miles of undeveloped beach north us... and the task of keeping that much beach free of trash is daunting. One might wish for easy answers -- but having a mayor who won the lottery (twice!) surely isn't one of them.
    Anyway. I hope you will come back. Check us out in October -- come on over to beach access #16 and I'll show you how to build an an amazing sand castle. We've got some of the best sand sculpting material found in nature.

    *"Unlitter" is to properly dispose of more garbage than you generate. Learn more at

    1. Lucinda,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond, and for noting the difference between the county and the city beaches. I would agree--the beaches within the town's limits are a far sight cleaner, and I thank you for doing your part to clean up the mess. That being said, the bay side of the island isn't much better, and when we went to the convention center flats, the trash was just as evident and just as gross (I honestly don't know where the city ends and the county begins). Same with the jetty (city or county?). It was disgusting.

      When I was a newspaper editor many years ago, and my reporters would complain to me about readers taking them to task for failing to meet the objectivity sniff test, all I could tell these folks was "perception is reality." It takes real effort to be objective (and, as you can tell, that is not my goal with this blog). Just as it must take real effort to clean up the trash and prevent the continued littering--it has clearly become culturally acceptable to many people using the beaches.

      It's certainly possible that the city does far more good than the county does, and, as you note, it's not fair to lump both the city and the county into one "filthy beach." But put yourself in a visitor's shoes--it doesn't matter where the trash is, because it's all one island. While I appreciate the effort to keep the city beaches clean, I have to call BS on some of this stuff--in my head, it's all South Padre Island. Noting the cleanliness of one political entity while the other looks likes a scene out of Mad Max doesn't hold water with me. I hope Cameron County can make the needed investment to clean their stretch of beach and their stretch of bay, because I can't imagine ANYONE wanting to spend their vacation dollars in a place that is clearly not cared for (remember, perception is reality).

      And I don't buy the "come when we're not busy" argument. I was there in January and the beach was filthy, the dunes were trashed and I brought back a garbage bag (that I found floating in the bay) full of trash from my hike to the flats to fish. It's a very real problem, and since I can't address it from Idaho, I can "vote with my wallet" and just go somewhere else, as, honestly, I would advise others to do until the city/county get their poop in a group and clean up the mess.

      Finally, even more importantly, there must be enforcement. Fine the litterers. I also understand that Texas' beaches are open to vehicles, but I don't believe the county is obligated to provide the access points to vehicles. Judging by how quickly the road sands over near its end, I would suspect that the access points would not be navigable if they were simply left to Mother Nature's devices. I'm not saying this is a solution, but extreme problems sometime require extreme measures--if you can't love the beach without trashing it, you don't get to drive your monster truck on it. Simple as that.

  3. I wrote about the same thing last year, but North Padte Island. It's disgusting...and why we moved away from the coast.

  4. We disgust me. As we traveled about the island, Brandon made the comment that we treat this earth like we had somewhere else to go. We don't, people.

    Thanks for calling the South Padre leadership (and all of us) to task, Chris.

    We should all be weeping.

  5. Environmental education campaigns rarely work. They exist on the premise of "maybe people were never taught to not throw toxic waste in a stream." It's a false premise. Everyone knows littering is wrong. It won't change until the behavior is policed AND judges uphold the fines. $500 fines, not $25 fines. The town can say they care about litter but until they're willing to make tourists mad by fining them. I know, scary big government. But the feel good approach also costs tax dollars and doesn't work.

  6. The flats are part of the county. I know there is a lot of trash out there. However, the city does do a great job of cleaning the beaches, as do many citizens like Lucinda and myself. When I walk my dog on the beach I take a trash bag and clean up what I see. There are also numerous groups, including Surfrider Foundation, Boys & Girls Clu of Laguna Madre, and many of the turtle patrol folks who work to pick up trash that gets left between times the city comes through. However, city crews starat early in the morning and are very thourough in their pick-ups. Typically they get out of their trucks and walk until their hands are filled with trash, throw the trash in the back of the truck and start again, so it bothers me that the post was critical of the city, the mayor and the fact that he has money, and the city council.

    This is a county commisioners' issue, not an SPI issue. I, too, have been on the beaches to fish north of the city, and typically bring home quite a bit of trash. We need to be speaking with our commissioners, rather than being critical of people who don't have jurisdiction over the area. I agree with you that it is trashy up north, and wish to see something done about it.

    1. Michael... My point wasn't to be critical of the mayor who won the lottery--I was simply remarking that the problem was so bad, in my mind, that I could find something to do with some lottery winnings to help my community (not saying the mayor hasn't or won't). It was the lottery thing that made me speak up--the mayor's involvement, other than as a civic leader who, frankly, SHOULD be vocal and involved in this issue, regardless of where the litter turns up, is incidental.

      I don't buy the "blame it on the county" line, though. That's a cop-out--when was the last time finger-pointing ever solved a problem? I'm sorry the post bothered you (that was kind of my point, though). I'm delighted to know the city work crews bust their butts to keep the beach clean, and I'm grateful for their help. As I said to Lucinda--put yourself in the shoes of a visitor--it's all one island, and the political boundaries mean nothing to them. City leaders should be up in arms that Cameron County can't manage trash on the beach as well as the city can, and they should be insisting that the county do something to keep up. I don't think it's a "county problem." It's an island problem.

      Thanks for your thoughts... I really appreciate them, and I hope, somehow, someway, that a solution can be found to this problem.

  7. I'm a big fan of what you do, Chris, and have a couple of comments on this post.

    I think the city vs. county jurisdiction has been addressed. I will just note that had you driven in to the beach, as opposed to hiking over (likely private property), you would have paid an entry fee and a trash bag fee. The attendant at the access point would have handed you a trash bag and informed you that you would get the trash bag fee back if you brought it back full of litter (yours or someone else's).

    You suggest in your article limiting access to vehicles. I can tell you that the Texas Open Beaches Act is cherished by surfers, anglers, beachcombers and lots of other folks who just like to get away from crowds. It's also the only reason any of us can enjoy the length of that great national park just to the north of South Padre Island -- Padre Island National Seashore. Texas Gulf Beaches are the best public land in a state where something like 94 percent of all land is privately owned (and increasingly high-fenced). To paraphrase Aldo Leopold, no one will ever love what they do not know.

    I think it's fair to say -- and should be said -- that this is a cultural issue more than anything. I suspect that much of the trash left on beaches by visitors is left by folks who cross the river to spend their tourist dollars in deep South Texas. God bless them for that. But the culture vis a vis natural resource use and protection in Mexico is very, very different than it is in the United States. Not because Mexican nationals are bad people, but because their land use history, political climate and stage of economic development is different than ours in the U.S.

    I disagree that education does not work -- it works best when coupled with enforcement (see the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department effort to educate boaters about sea grasses on the middle Texas coast). The "Don't Mess with Texas" campaign, coupled with enforcement, also has had a significant impact on roadside litter in the state. I'm just old enough to remember when it was not uncommon to see empty beer bottles and Whataburger bags flying out of car windows on state highways.

    A volunteer beach cleanup is a terrific idea. It may already happen -- you should check. Perhaps it could be undertaken in conjunction with the Laguna Atascosa NWR, which has a management stake on the island, as well as with the Cameron County Parks Dept. Google Capt. Billy Sandifer's annual beach cleanup on Padre Island National Seashore -- that event removes literally tons of refuse every year and does much to raise awareness.

    Finally, and as an aside, while most of the migratory tarpon (we have resident, non-migratory tarpon as well) do originate in Mexico, they do not migrate up the Texas coast, south to north (at least not this time of year and not so we'd notice). Instead, the fishable migration travels counter-clockwise around the Gulf, reaching the South Padre Island area in July or August (or whenever the anchovies they're feeding on get there) and staying often as late as November.

    You can take your money, and your fly rod, to Louisiana or up to my hometown of Rockport -- and redfish and speckled trout are plentiful in both places -- but you'll be missing out on the wildest, least-peopled, most beautiful stretch of skinny saltwater this side of the Everglades ... not to mention a robust population of snook (at least three species) and both resident and migratory tarpon.

    I have spent hundreds of days on Padre Island -- both north and south of East Cut -- and I feel your pain and deeply appreciate your love of the place. As a former fishing guide and certified wildlife guide based in Port Isabel, I also know without a doubt that the fine folks at the Cameron County Parks Dept. -- and many local citizens who rely so heavily on tourist dollars to put bread on the table -- care deeply about this issue.

    Tight lines, and thanks for raising an important issue.

    1. Aaron... thanks for this... particularly the details about the tarpon migration--for some reason, I thought they traveled clockwise from Mexico to Florida and back again in the fall. That's good information for a rabid angler.

      Listen, I completely understand the vehicles-on-the-beach issue. My point is the trash gets in there one way or another, and if folks are being given a garbage bag to fill up with garbage, that effort quite simply isn't working. I love one of the suggestions above--get license numbers and give out GPS devices that keep tabs on folks visiting. Sometimes, tough love is the best approach.

      I also may have wrongly assumed that by hiking over the dunes to the bay from the end of the road, I was traversing public land--goes to show you what a Rocky Mountain gringo knows about the area. How can I find out more about that?

      Finally, I'm all for education. I understand the cultural differences in play here, and while I think there might be merit there, I've been to numerous fishing destinations in Mexico, and the litter is not an issue--at least not like it is on SPI. I don't believe the education programs in place right now are working, and I think you're right--they must be accompanied by firm and unforgiving enforcement. That's a local issue, and I would think the details can be worked out locally.

      Your point about the reliance of tourist dollars makes perfect sense to me, and that's what I'm trying to point out. How many tourists like me have seen this mess and simply decided to go somewhere else without letting anyone know the problem is so out of control (and I don't think I'm exaggerating that)? I figured, the least I could do after I put in six miles of wading, hiking and fishing in a place I really do care about, is to let community leaders know why I won't be back for the foreseeable future. I would imagine that I'm not alone, and if my livelihood depended on tourists, I'd bust my butt to make sure tourists NEVER had to look at what I saw this week--it literally turned my stomach. It's up to the folks who live there to put the right political pressure on the folks who CAN do something about his problem but are clearly falling short of satisfactory on it now.

      I appreciate what you're saying Aaron, and I know how good the fishing can be down there (of course, the wind quit blowing the day we left), and what I'm going to be missing. But for me, fishing is a lot about the wallpaper. I have no desire to cast a fly next to a landfill.

      Thanks a ton for your comments--I truly hope folks can find a solution that works. And... if it comes to a community beach clean-up on county land, count me in. I will make the trip down to participate, just to show you where my heart really is.

      Thanks again.

    2. Your'e absolutely right that it's a real problem. I guess if there were an easy solution, then it wouldn't be a problem, right?

      As bad as it is, it has been worse. Brownsville's plastic bag ban -- the first in the nation back in 2011 -- has noticeably reduced the number of Wal-Mart and HEB shopping bags adorning mangroves, for instance.

      In Texas, submerged lands and periodically submerged lands up to the mean high tide line are public. On the Gulf side, there typically also is a public easement from the high tide line to the vegetation line. I don't know an easy way to tell if the area you crossed was public or private ... there's a mix of county and federal land at the north end of SPI, along with some privately owned parcels. So long as it wasn't posted or fenced, you're probably okay. I think my comment was due to the number of "for sale" signs I've seen at the north end of Park Road 100.

      And check that tarpon migration -- I may have mispoke; Jerry Ault at the University of Miami has the best and most recent data, so far as I know; I just glanced at his "Project Tarpon" page and see he does show a counter-clockwise migration from the Bay of Campeche for at least some fish.

      I am unaware of a significant spring/early summer northward movement that is observed and fishable, but have long been aware of the mature fishes' southward travels in the Fall.

      Of course, we also have an annual Fall "flounder run" as flatfish move out of the bays and into the Gulf to spawn. It stands to reason there should be a corresponding Spring return, but I never hear anyone talk about or see a mad rush to fish that.

      Anyhow, thanks again for your passion about the topic.

  8. Chris, this is some of the best writing I have encountered in ages...and for a great cause. It's indeed sad to see what many of our parks, beaches and river fronts look like. I also like the idea of "If you trash it, they won't come." It only works if you hit people in the pocketbook!

  9. It appears as if my first comment was eaten. I'll try to paraphrase.

    I don't know how I missed this particular post of yours Chris, sorry about that. I have been fighting against the rising tide of trash for a while now, and I have to say that it's my least favorite part of living on our beautiful Texas coastline. I don't know what to do about the issue; the mode of thinking that it takes to willingly toss trash out on a beach is totally foreign to me. I guess I was just taught (read as 'spanked until I got it') to pick up after myself, as well as taught to have a deep appreciation for the wild places. Beaches are some of the most easily accessed truly wild places we have left in Texas, and people do Not appreciate what they have. How does one change that? I'm not sure.