Fate of popular South Texas birding spot uncertain as border wall moves closer

The Border Wall

Outcome of presidential election could determine future of Salineño Wildlife Preserve

SALINEÑO WILDLIFE PRESERVE, Texas (Border Report) — A popular South Texas preserve has reopened for the winter birding season, but it’s uncertain how long it’ll remain open to the public since the Trump administration wants the landowners to give up the entire area to build a border wall, those in charge of the land tell Border Report.

Border Report on Friday returned to Salineño Wildlife Preserve, a 2.5-acre preserve tucked away in a remote part of western Starr County. It’s down a dirt road that leads to the Rio Grande. In fact, if one wasn’t paying attention they might drive past the quaint preserve and right into the river, which is about a quarter-mile south from the rustic entrance.

Lois Hughes, left, and her partner, Merle Ihne, watch birds with binoculars on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, at the Salineño Wildlife Preserve in far western Starr County, Texas. The 2.5 acres are owned by the nonprofit Valley Land Fund. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

It was March when the preserve caretakers, Lois Hughes and her partner Merle Ihne, were packing up and preparing to shut down for the summer and head back to their home in Iowa. But then COVID-19 struck and Hughes, 77, and Ihne, 78, stuck around until mid-summer and watched as wooden stakes put in by surveyors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers crept ever closer to the small birding area, where they have set up white plastic chairs on rugs outside their trailer.

At first, they were told the federal government wanted a sliver of the property to erect a 30-foot-tall border wall, but the Trump administration now wants the entire 2.5 acres for its border infrastructure project, Hughes said. And so these fiery retirees have launched a public awareness campaign to try and stop that from happening.

“The Corps has decided they want more land and now they want the whole property,” Hughes said Friday as she peered through binoculars birdwatching under a thick mask, which is quite hot in this sub-tropical climate.

“We were this close to losing this place,” she said pinching her fingers together.

Lois Hughes, 77, on Nov. 6, 2020, shows the area where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have placed stakes marking where the Trump administration wants to build a border wall through the Salineño Wildlife Preserve in Starr County, Texas. The preserve opened Nov. 1 for the winter season but is uncertain how long it will last. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Debralee Rodriguez, executive director of The Valley Land Fund, a nonprofit group that owns the property, confirmed to Border Report on Friday afternoon that “the board was in the middle of discussions with the Army Corps” over the land.

“I don’t know if we will have a full season out there this year. Right now, we are in the middle of, I guess, a negotiations with the border wall issue and I don’t know what the future looks like for Salineño, at this moment,” Rodriguez said via phone.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection in March awarded a $175 million contract for 15 new miles of border wall to be built in Starr County, including through Salineño.

Border Report asked CBP officials for information on recent land negotiations regarding the Salineño Preserve and was told that information would have to come from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This story will be updated if the information is received.

Hughes and Ihne are retirees “hired’ by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to host the public whenever someone wanders to this remote spot of the world in the hopes of seeing some rare tropical birds. They aren’t paid a salary, but are allowed to keep their Cedar Creek aluminum trailer on the property without electrical or water fees. In return, they buy supplies to keep their flying friends coming back to the area. This includes lard, peanut butter and seeds that they mix together in a brown concoction that they slather on nearby trees and which the birds seem to love.

On Sunday, they reopened the birding preserve for their 12th season as its caretakers, but Hughes said grimly she worries that their weeks are numbered.

They left their Iowa home in early October to return to South Texas, got here and spent two weeks cleaning up after a summer of drought and neglect to the area. Then, on Oct. 26, just days before the Nov. 1 scheduled opening, were told by The Valley Land Fund that they might not open this season, she said.

I don’t know if we will have a full season out there this year. I don’t know what the future looks like for Salineño.”

Debralee Rodriguez, executive director of The Valley Land Fund

This preserve started as a birding RV park in the 1970s and in the early 1980s, a couple of birders bought the land and rented spaces during the season. But in 2007 they gifted the land to Valley Land Fund, which works to preserve critical land habitat in deep South Texas.

Hughes, a retired vet tech, says she is furious at the prospect of this renowned birding area closing for good. It’s where colorful green jays, white-winged doves, yellow and black Audubon’s orioles all muck about pecking on seeds and bathe in old hub caps filled with water and tied to trees, while the noisy brown chicken-like Chachalacas eat corn from the ground and try to sneak oranges.

Hughes has gotten several well-known environmentalists, including Jim Chapman, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, to write letters to the board urging them not to sell.

Jim Chapman is president of the nonproft Friends of the Wildlife Corridor. He is seen in May near Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in South Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report file photo)

“Friends of the Wildlife Corridor urge you and your Board to not sell, at least not now. I don’t have to tell you how valuable, beloved and irreplaceable Salineño is. It is one of the top birding destinations in the Rio Grande Valley and is visited by 2,000 to 3,000 birders each winter. A border wall and 150-foot enforcement zone would literally erase it forever,” Chapman wrote.

Both Hughes and Chapman believe that the board should not make a decision until after the presidential election is decided. President Donald Trump has vowed to build 731 miles of new border wall. Joe Biden has promised not to build “one more inch” of border wall if he becomes president.

“Please urge your Board to defer any decision. Condemnation is a legal process and it takes time. If President Trump loses the election next week, time is one thing the current Administration will not have,” Chapman wrote in his Oct. 28 letter to Valley Land Fund Board President Bruce Kroeker.

I don’t have to tell you how valuable, beloved and irreplaceable Salineño is. It is one of the top birding destinations in the Rio Grande Valley.”

Jim Chapman, president of the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor

Alberto Mariscal was fishing on Friday beneath a yellow umbrella attached to the back of his silver pickup. He had two lines in the water and was waiting for gar to bite. He was born in Salineño and said he doesn’t want the border wall to cut off this area, “which would prevent others from getting water for their cattle,” he said.

Alberto Mariscal fishes at the Rio Grande on Nov. 6, 2020, outside the Salineño Preserve in western Starr County, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

The threat of the border wall and the ongoing pandemic has made traffic to the preserve, so far this season “abysmal,” Hughes said. Since opening on Sunday, the most visitors they had on any day was 10, and one day nobody came. Donations also are down and that means less money for the pounds of bird seed consumed by the birds each day.

They also are holding back replanting the butterfly garden, which currently sits in the path of the border wall, according to the location of metal stakes buried in the ground. But if Trump is elected and the board sells the property, then the entire preserve will be walled off and shuttered.

“We don’t want that to happen. We can’t let that happen,” Hughes said.

Merle Ihne puts food out on Nov. 6, 2020, for birds at the Salineño Wildlife Preserve in Starr County, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“Until we’re told otherwise, we open the gate every morning at 8 a.m.,” says Michael Emenaker, of Colorado, who is also a caretaker at the preserve and has worked there for five seasons.

“We’re still in the dark. We don’t know what’s going on but we’ll stay open until we’re told to get out,” Ihne said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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