The Sky is the Limit: Laura Bush on Conservation
From admiring the Texas sky as a child to passionately advocating for conservation both during and after her time in the White House, Mrs. Laura Bush has been a longtime admirer — and protector — of nature.
As an energy capital on the plains of West Texas, Midland may not seem the likely birthplace of a conservationist. But that is where an abiding appreciation of nature was awakened in future First Lady Laura Bush. Thanks to the influence of her mother, the scientists at work in the oil fields, and the vast expanse of sky and land surrounding her as a young girl, she became devoted to the natural world. That commitment remained with her as First Lady of the United States, from promoting the benefits of national parks to preserving oceans to building a ranch house with native materials.
Once back in Texas, the state’s own former First Lady founded Texan by Nature to emphasize how businesses and conservation organizations can work together. She explains in this interview with Hannah Abney, the Bush Center’s vice president of external affairs, and William McKenzie, editor of The Catalyst, her beliefs in sensible environmental strategies that enhance our oceans and rivers, draw upon surrounding natural resources, and require something as simple as planting native plants in our own yards. But, as she explains, all those beliefs started in a childhood in Midland.
You have said that you learned about conservation from your mother. How so? What impact did she have on your thinking about the world around you?
My mother really was the one who inspired me to be a conservationist. She was my Girl Scout leader when we got our bird badge. She became a very knowledgeable, self-taught birdwatcher and joined the MidNats, the Midland Naturalists, who were all birdwatchers and conservationists.
You think about Midland as an oil town, and it is. But it also has a lot of scientists, engineers, and geologists. They are associated with the oil business but they also are interested in the Earth. That’s their business. So, there was a bigger crowd of MidNats than you might’ve guessed.
A lot of people were birdwatchers with Mother. Because she was like that, I became interested in conservation. I remember when the “Ban DDT” signs started showing up on the telephone poles in Midland. I knew it was Mother who put them up. They came in her Audubon magazine. DDT was a poison that wasn’t just bad for bugs but for everything. That’s when I really became interested.
A lot of people were birdwatchers with Mother. Because she was like that, I became interested in conservation.
And then I’ve hiked in the national parks for 30 some-odd years with Midland friends that I grew up with. We’ve hiked in all the beautiful national parks, from Alaska to Acadia.
How did that come about?
When we were a certain age we thought it would be fun to do a float trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. You camp on beaches along the river and then hike out the South Rim. We did that on our first trip and then again with our girls when George was president.
Before we leave talking about Midland, the city not only has a flat horizon but also big skies. What influence did those have on you?
That’s what’s so beautiful about Midland. It has a sky that is great for bird watching. It’s also on the path of birds that fly up the center of the United States during migratory routes. Along with the big sky, there are a large number of species of birds. The Midland motto when we were growing up was “the sky is the limit,” so imagine growing up in a town where that is the motto.
I used to get a blanket and sit in the backyard with my mother, who loved to look at the stars. She was a knowledgeable star-gazer and Midland has a planetarium that she would go to after I left. But we’d lay on a blanket in the yard and she could point out the constellations. That is something Barbara and Jenna remember about their grandmother. She made great memories for them because we lived there when we had Barbara and Jenna.
You and President Bush were involved in ocean conservation during your time in office. How did you get interested in that challenge?
George appointed Regan Gammon, my friend whom I’ve always hiked with, to the National Park Foundation Board. At the same time, he named the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument, which includes Midway Island and all the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Regan and I flew to Midway after he named Papahānaumokuākea, and while we were there, the Laysan albatross was nesting. It is a great big bird that nests on the ground because they don’t have any predators on Midway Island — except for humans.
The chicks know instinctively to stay in the nest while their parents go fish for squid on top of the ocean and come back and feed them. But their parents ended up with bottle caps, toothbrushes, and other plastic debris. The chicks would die because that is what they had been fed.
Of course, many chicks still survived, but this made us realize how all the plastic we use is out there on the surface of the Pacific. The plastic comes not just from the United States, but from everywhere people throw it out. This made us conscious of how important it is to recycle and to make sure what we throw out doesn’t end up in the Pacific, the Atlantic, our rivers, or whatever place we want to stay pristine.
How do you convince people of this if they might live far from the oceans or don’t see the effects?
Even here in Dallas, the Trinity River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Anything we throw out here that ends up in the Trinity can go into the Gulf.
That’s one of the reasons we started Texan by Nature. We wanted to encourage Texans to conserve and to inform people about what happens when you throw things out and they end up in the Gulf of Mexico. You can walk along the Trinity River in Dallas and see the trash that has accumulated from upstream and that will keep going downstream to the Gulf.
That’s one of the reasons we started Texan by Nature. We wanted to encourage Texans to conserve and to inform people about what happens when you throw things out and they end up in the Gulf of Mexico.
That’s part of it. One of our first big efforts was the Monarch Wrangler program. We wanted to encourage people to plant the native antelope horn milkweed that monarch butterflies depend upon.
They migrate across a fragmentation of lands from down in Chiapas in Mexico all the way up to Canada. The prairie that they would’ve lived on as they flew back and forth in their migration is now part of a big agriculture belt. We get our food from there, which is important. But people can contribute to the monarch by planting antelope horn milkweed in their backyards or on their properties.
We have done that on our ranch. We have a Monarch Wrangler sign outside our ranch. We’ve made a big effort there to both plant the antelope horn milkweed and restore the prairie.
Our ranch had coastal Bermuda grass when we bought it. It had been an asset for feeding cattle. We weren’t going to have cattle, so we wanted to restore the prairie. A conservationist friend told me about Michael Williams, who could help restore our prairie.
So, for five years, he had to plow up the coastal Bermuda and it wasn’t easy. Then he would use a little weed killer judiciously on the sprigs that came up. Finally, he brought up these little pieces of intact prairie that he’d found. He could take seed from those prairies to sow.
In the fourth year, he was ready to sow them but he didn’t because we had a drought. The fifth year we had 36 inches of rain. That restored about 100 acres of prairie. It was that time consuming to restore what would’ve been there.
What’s the value of restoring lands to their native habitat?
The value is that we have quail again because they are ground nesters. The quail attract the other wildlife that depend upon the prairie. For us, it was nice to have it be the way it was, or the way it would’ve been when the first farmer bought it, farmed it, and plowed it.
There once was a belt of native prairie grasses from Central Texas up to Kansas.
It was high grasslands the whole way. They say Midland at the bottom of the great prairie was grassland flank high on a horse.
While we are talking about natural materials, you all have used local materials in building your ranch house.
My friend Deedie Rose recommended David Heymann from the University of Texas architectural school. He talked about setting the house in the environment, which we wanted to do. We used limestone from Lueders, Texas, which is not that far from the ranch. It is a pretty, rougher-looking limestone.
The house is low to the ground like an old ranch house but it has high ceilings inside. The two breezeways in the middle of the house are based on the idea of the dog trot that Texas architecture used to have. People would sit out and collect the breeze from the north to the south and it was called the dog trot because that was the air conditioning. That was how you escaped the heat.
What would you say to people around the country about how they can make creative uses of water, energy, and local materials either in their homes or communities? And why does that matter?
First, I would say that people ought to research what was their neighborhood like before people came there. What were the attributes that you would’ve inherited from the people that came before you in your own neighborhood? What are the environmental assets that you can restore or build upon?
Then, if you are building a house, study the local materials that are just easier to get because they don’t have to be brought in and might cost less. Texas, for example, has a lot of brick yards as well as other kinds of limestone.
Texan by Nature recently partnered with Texas A&M University and Houston Methodist to create the Center for Health and Nature. What is that partnership about?
We all know that we feel better if we get to go outside. Many Texans at least remember our mothers saying go out and play and you’d do that until they called you in for dinner. But there’s no research that proves that being in nature makes you feel better. So we partnered with the Center for Health and Nature at Houston Methodist to start doing some researc h on whether it actually makes you feel better to go outside. And, if so, what are the benefits of being in nature?
We all know that we feel better if we get to go outside. Many Texans at least remember our mothers saying go out and play and you’d do that until they called you in for dinner.
They have some research that says you will feel better if you’re in a room where you can see nature from your office. And that it is a more productive place to work if you can see outside. But they’re just in the beginning of doing the research.
We are fortunate to have a beautiful nature park at the Bush Center. When did you know you wanted to incorporate a park into this presidential center?
I knew right away. I had worked with our landscape architect, Michael Van Valkenburgh, on Pennsylvania Avenue. I knew he had done the Wellesley campus in an all native landscape. I picked him because I wanted this to be all native.
I wanted the park to look how Dallas would have looked when the first settlers came. Plus, I think it’s a great example of what you can do if you plant native plants in your own yard.
I wanted the park to look how Dallas would have looked when the first settlers came.