Magazine article American Forests

A South Texas ECO-WONDERLAND

Magazine article American Forests

A South Texas ECO-WONDERLAND

Article excerpt

In this place of saltwater and desert, jaguars and butterflies, a range of climates collide to form an oasis that's nothing short of amazing. -Story by Karen Fedor, photos by Larry Ditto

It's about a five-hour drive due south from San Antonio to McAllen, in Texas' Lower Rio Grande Valley, and the scenery is flat, dry, and monotonous, with mile after mile of brush. Step out of your air-conditioned car, and the first thing you notice is the air. It smells of gulf saltwater, a smell you'd expect near the beach in southwestern Florida, surrounded by mangroves and baldcypress. Instead, I was surrounded by trees with thorns and small leaves-trees adapted to desert conditions.

When your senses try to acclimate to conditions you've experienced nowhere else in the United States, that's when you'll know you're in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. South Texas is a crossroads for various climatic conditions-warm, humid air flowing east from the Gulf of Mexico converges with dry air from the Chihuahuan Desert to the west. Subtropical climate from the south meets the Texas Plains from the north.

The melding of all these different surroundings makes the Lower Rio Grande Valley an ecological wonderland. The subtropical vegetation of the Rio Grande delta region includes riparian forest, dense forests, and shrubland; savanna, freshwater, and tidal wetlands; and a variety of types of coastal habitat. It's a bird superhighway as well, with thousands of winged wildlife from the Central and Mississippi flyways passing through on their way to and from Central and South America. The area is also home to 15 national Big Tree champions, the biggest being a 375-point Montezuma baldcypress.

I went to south Texas to tour AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf reforestation projects with Chris Best, plant ecologist for the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge (LRGV NWR). I left with a greater understanding of the challenges the Refuge has faced and the accomplishments it has achieved.

"Since 1997, our revegetation program has received funding for 326,000 seedlings through AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf Forests, enough to restore native vegetation on 1,185 acres-nearly two square miles-of refuge cropland," says Ken Merritt, project leader for South Texas Refuges Complex, which includes the LRGV NWR and Santa Anna NWR. "Places that were bare dirt five years ago are now inhabitated by large numbers of white-tailed deer, javelina, bobcat, chachalaca, and white-winged doves."

The name "Rio Grande" evokes images of a wild, flowing river, but in this area it's hardly enough creek to support a kayaker. During the drought of 2002, the Rio Grande south of Falcon Dam was reduced to a dry sand bar. The Lower Rio Grande Valley, known to locals as just the "Valley," is not really one at all; it's a delta of the Rio Grande, a tract of usually triangular land formed by river sediment and enclosed between two or more mouths of a river.

The Rio Grande used to flow freely from the headwaters in Colorado through arid regions of New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico out to the Gulf of Mexico. Jaguars and ocelots roamed freely under the branches of subtropical riparian forests. Now, the animals are on the threatened and endangered list and sightings are a rare occurrence. Over the past 100 years riparian forest along the lower Rio Grande has been cleared to build dams and reservoirs for flood control, agriculture, and municipal uses, destroying the wild cats' habitat.

In fact, since the 1920s, about 95 percent of riparian vegetation has been removed from the U.S. side of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. With a median temperature of 72 degrees, farmers realize they can get two growing seasons out of the rich delta soils if they irrigate their land. Today, the Valley produces more than 40 crops, primarily sugar cane, cotton, citrus, sorghum, and vegetables. Agriculture is big business here, providing more than $500 million annually to the local economy. …

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