Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Texas: Rio Grande Valley faces a big threat

Posted on Sat, Oct. 31, 2009

We call it the Rio Grande, but the folks on the other side of the river named it the Rio Bravo Del Norte.

It rises from the north high in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and meanders across the magnificent San Luis Valley. It then spills into New Mexico and cuts rim-rock into canyon lands and broad valleys all the way to Gulf.

The last 200 miles of the great river flow through some of the best birding habitat in North America, the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve come to love this stretch of river in despite the degraded banks that are dim shadows of the thorn and palm forests that the Spanish found here. Despite the miles of riverside thickets called ramaderos lost to row crops, despite the fact that this once-mighty stream now sloshes sluggishly in a concrete-lined ditch before dying in the sand short of the Gulf.

You see, for 20 years I’ve witnessed a nature renaissance in the valley. I’ve watched state parks transformed from parking lots for campers into nature preserves. I’ve seen new private preserves like the Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve sprout and grow in former vegetable fields. I’ve seen county and municipal parks establish native plants and nature centers.

I’ve seen the Chambers of Commerce climb on the bandwagon and start advertising the Valley as an ecotourism destination.

I’ve seen private citizens open their ranches, their yards, even their trailer park spaces to bird-watchers for a donation to the birdseed kitty and some good conversation.

And I’ve seen the National Wildlife Refuges in the valley broker and support a plan for a natural corridor running along the River for he length of the LRGV.

For 20 years things have been getting better, and I fully planned to write this column on how great a wintertime destination the LRGV can be.

I planned to tell you about the Green Jays, the Great Kiskadees, the Chachalacas, and the Beardless Tyrannulets. I would then tell about rare birds like the Blue Buntings, the Brown Jays, and the Tropical Parulas.

And after that I would tell you about the truly rare birds such as the Blue Mockingbird, the Crimson-collared Grosbeak, and Stygian Owl. I planned to tell you about the fantastic food and the friendly and proud people of the Valley.

But when I sat down to do just that I found that I could not. A quick Internet search for LRGV news returned this headline. DHS seeks to condemn nature preserve land. That’s DHS as in the Department of Homeland Security.

The Associated Press article by Christopher Sherman goes on to explain that the Border Fence is now threatening the Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve, home to the ocelot and jaguarundi.

It’s one of the Valley’s greatest natural triumphs. The neighboring Audubon Sabal Palms Sanctuary is already in limbo, facing DHS plans that would put the entire 537-acre sanctuary on the south side of the fence and completely isolated.

From the first day that plans for the LRGV Border Fence were leaked, conservationists, Valley business leaders, mayors, and Texas legislators have all protested that the fence will seal the Valley and its people from the river they have worked so hard to restore and preserve.

This valley shared by two countries and united by a river will be rent by what the Valley people are already calling The Wall.

Even worse, the fence will block wildlife corridors that the US government has spent millions of dollars to restore. DHS was given waivers by congress in order to avoid environmental laws, so studies on the impact of the fence have been few and largely ignored.

Make no mistake. A secure border is needed in South Texas. No matter what your opinion on illegal immigration, the increase in drug traffic and the accompanying violent crime has made the entire Texas border a dangerous place.

But to think that 60 miles of 18-foot-high fence along a 200-mile stretch of river will seriously address the problem seems naïve at best.

But now, I’m unsure of myself. Maybe the opposition to the project is just sour grapes. Not many of us like to be told what’s best for us. I could be wrong about this fence. The birders and hunters and nature preserve managers could be wrong. The ranchers who have lived in the Valley for five generations could be wrong. All the mayors, city council members and business leaders in the Valley could be wrong. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

I think the border fence is a bad idea for the Lower Rio Grande Valley. As Robert Frost warned us long ago in Mending Wall, Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

Ronnie Blackwell, is a writer and bird watcher living in Hattiesburg.


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