Rio Grande Valley Havens Are Preserving Nature -- and Boosting Area Communities

The salty lake located north of Edinburg is part of a 5,000 acre-tract of the wildlife refuge. Shimmering white salt drifts -- which might be mistaken for snow, if not for the 90-plus-degree heat -- ring the shallow brown water. Beyond those lie thousands of acres of dense Tamaulipan thornscrub, a hearty combination of mesquite, prickly pear, shrubs and grasses.

LA SAL DEL REY — The salty lake located north of Edinburg is part of a 5,000 acre-tract of the wildlife refuge. Shimmering white salt drifts -- which might be mistaken for snow, if not for the 90-plus-degree heat -- ring the shallow brown water. Beyond those lie thousands of acres of dense Tamaulipan thornscrub, a hearty combination of mesquite, prickly pear, shrubs and grasses.

The rugged landscape is prime habitat for bobcats, jaguarandi, ocelots and many more creatures that once thrived in the wilds of South Texas.

This 5,384-acre tract is one of the jewels of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife refuge, a 90,000-acre patchwork of forest, scrub and wetlands painstakingly laced together over the past 27 years to protect the valley's natural heritage and diverse wildlife.

It's one of the few success stories in a national refuge system that is increasingly becoming hemmed in by development and whose future is in doubt, according to a study released earlier this month by the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

The report, put out by the Washington-based nonprofit group, outlines the dangers that urban sprawl poses to refuges "woefully ill-equipped to do their job in the face of growing human populations and demands for resources."

Unlike the National Park System, the nation's refuge system focuses on protecting habitat and wildlife, not human recreation. The system was set up in 1903 and now comprises 540 refuges and 95 million acres in 50 states.

Despite the impressive numbers, the association found nearly 40 percent of the refuges are surrounded by housing, agriculture or industrial activities -- making them isolated islands -- and that 20 percent are 1,000 acres or less, far too small to provide beneficial habitat for most species.

"The underlying theme is looming beyond refuge boundaries are the threats to wildlife habitat," association President Evan Hirsche said. "And while natural wildlife refuges are vitally important, most are just too small to accomplish their conservation purpose."

Among the biggest threats is sprawl.

According to the Brookings Institution, an additional 60 million homes and apartments will be built by 2030. By that year, nearly 40 percent of the nation's housing will have been built after 2000.

The Rio Grande Valley is a perfect microcosm of that growth, Hirsche said. The McAllen-Edinburg-Mission metropolitan area is the fourth-fastest-growing in the country, while Brownsville-Harlingen-San Benito is the 28th, according to the 2000 U.S. census.

Yet here in the Valley, amid rampant development, conservationists have found a ripe environment for protecting land through government programs.

The association named the Lower Rio Grande refuge, which mainly follows the final 275 miles of the winding river, one of its six "rescued refuges" because of its success in working with other refuges and conservation organizations to string together a wildlife corridor.

This includes the nearby Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a 2,000-acre natural haven where more than 400 species of birds can be found; and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, a 45,000-acre unspoiled oasis that hugs the sparkling blue waters of Laguna Madre.

Among the refuge's staunchest allies, and one specifically mentioned in the report, is Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison -- who as a staunch Republican might be considered an unlikely proponent of public lands.

The secret in this sun-baked corner of Texas, local bed and breakfast owner John McClung said, is that people have discovered an economic benefit to conservation.

It's a strong engine to an otherwise struggling local economy. This is a place where a single rare bird citing can be worth $100,000, drawing overnight hundreds of well-heeled bird enthusiasts from all over the nation and many foreign countries.

"Now, down here in the country we have a convergence of tree-huggers, cities and farmers," McClung said. "It's because it's a depressed area that doesn't have a lot going for it economically, and everyone knows it."

That's the kind of pragmatic view that has made conservation an easy sell in the Valley and helped build a $125-million-a-year ecotourism industry, McAllen Chamber of Commerce Director Nancy Millar said.

She punctuates the point by proudly displaying her chamber's latest bumper sticker, a colorful collection of avians touting the bold message: "BIRDERS VOTE."

"In this case, not developing land is an economic strategy," she said.

With roughly 500 species of birds calling the area home or using it as a seasonal stopover, the Valley long has been known in birding circles as the best place in the country.

Millar, an aggressive saleswoman for the Valley's natural splendor, said the local business community started catching on to the fact about a decade ago after one of the first birding festivals.

"All of the sudden there were hundreds of people around here and they all had binoculars around their necks," she said.

There are now seven annual festivals focusing on birding and ecotourism, and the Valley also is home to the World Birding Center, a series of birding sites and nature education centers. The pastime has even turned into a cottage industry for local homeowners who have landscaped their yards to attract birds and will charge visitors about $10.

Half a dozen ranchers have taken this approach to a new level, outfitting their land with photo blinds for the Valley's growing legion of nature photographers and renting them out for $100 a day.

That rent can pay off. The Valley is home to one of the country's most lucrative nature photography contests -- the Valley Land Fund's South Texas Shootout, which will offer $100,000 in prize money next year.

Just recently, the area started marketing itself as a butterfly-watching destination. Here again, the Valley is bountiful for people interested in the activity, offering more than 500 species of butterflies, about 80 percent of those found in the country.

This kind of support for conservation definitely has worked in favor of the Lower Rio Grande refuge, refuge manager Jeff Rupert said.

It's likely one of the reasons the refuge has been regularly funded over the decades, while others may have gone without.

The refuge now consists of 115 parcels, making up roughly 90,000 acres. The long-term goal is 132,500 acres.

Roughly half of the existing acres are open to the public, a percentage Rupert expects to continue to grow.

There's no secret why nature lovers are drawn to the land.

"We're in extreme South Texas, so we have a lot of things here that do not exist anywhere else in the U.S.," he said.

At La Sal del Rey, translated to the "salt of the king," that wildlife stays largely hidden this day. The noted exception is a turkey vulture that tenaciously circles a group of hikers crunching its way through the ankle-deep salt encrusted on the lakebed.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service outreach specialist Patty Alexander eyes the swooping creature with a wry grin as she trudges on through the heat of the high-noon sun.

"He's saying, 'Any moment now, I know one is going down.'"

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News