UPDATE: Nonprofit decides ‘no sale’ on ‘paradise’ birding preserve in South Texas

The Border Wall

Lois Hughes, a volunteer with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, looks out at the Salineno Wildlife Preserve in remote Starr County on Nov. 6, 2020. The preserve’s 2.5 acres have been acquired by the Trump administration to build a border wall. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

STARR COUNTY, Texas (Border Report) — The head of a nonprofit that owns a coveted birding preserve in remote western Starr County told Border Report on Friday afternoon that its board has decided not to sell the land to the Trump administration for border wall construction.

Debralee Rodriguez, executive director of The Valley Land Fund, said that the nonprofit’s board of directors held an emergency meeting on Friday and decided not to sell the Salineño Wildlife Preserve despite the organization having already agreed on a “set price” with the federal government.

“At this point in time, all negotiations with the U.S. government are off the table,” Rodriguez said via phone.

All negotiations with the U.S. government are off the table.”

Valley Land Fund Executive Director Debralee Rodriguez

The board’s emergency meeting came after Border Report on Thursday was first to report that a deal had been reached for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to acquire the Salineño Wildlife Preserve’s full 2.5 acres. The news brought outcry from environmentalists nationwide and prompted the meeting, Rodriguez said.

“With the outcry of the community, the flooding of information coming into our office, the board of directors called an emergency meeting and discussed this and decided that we would walk away from any deal that was being presented to us,” Rodriguez said.

Valley Land Fund on Friday afternoon also posted on Facebook it was “rescinding any and all agreements.”

The president of the American Birding Association had posted Border Report’s story on social media and on Friday morning told Border Report that his 12,000-member-strong organization of birders was devastated to learn that a coveted birding preserve in South Texas that he calls “hallowed ground” had been acquired by the federal government for border wall construction.

Jeffrey Gordon is president of the American Birding Association (Courtesy Photo)

Jeffrey Gordon, who leads the Delaware-based ABA, said his members sent “hundreds of letters and emails” to the Valley Land Fund in recent weeks urging its board not to sell. The ABA is against border wall construction, saying it is harmful to birds, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, which he says “is one of the top two or three destinations on the continent of North America” for birders.

“It is for us absolutely hallowed ground because it is so rich. It is so good. Species that are hard to find elsewhere can be found there and it’s just a wonderful opportunity to enjoy them,” Gordon told Border Report on Friday via phone. “We look at it like paradise.”

Rodriguez said Friday that “there was an agreement signed by the Valley Land Fund” to convey the land, but she said that no money was exchanged, nor closing documents generated. And she disputed a statement from CBP to Border Report that said the sale had been finalized on Nov. 3, which was Election Day.

CBP via email on Thursday told Border Report: “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with the Department of Justice, have acquired a tract of land owned by the Valley Land Trust Fund (VLTF) on behalf of U.S. Customs and Border Protection for enforcement zone.  The Offer to Sell was signed voluntarily by the VLTF on November 3, 2020, for a total of approximately 2.5 acres.”

Bird feeders, oranges and food are placed on trees in the Salineño Wildlife Preserve in remote Starr County to attract birds, as seen on Nov.6, 2020. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“I think the CBP official was premature in releasing that statement because we have not signed any closing documents,” Rodriguez said Friday in response to the CBP statement.

“It was not signed on Election Day. It may have been executed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Election Day but it was not signed by us,” Rodriguez said. “With that said, that was just an agreement to sell.”

Rodriguez said she would not disclose how much money the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had offered for the land, which sits near the Rio Grande about 9 miles outside the small town of Roma, Texas.

The nonprofit Valley Land Fund owns the Salineño Wildlife Preserve in remote Starr County, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Border Report last week returned to the preserve, where green jays, great kiskadees (which sing their own name: “kis-ka-dee”), Northern cardinals, Altamira orioles, Eurasian collard doves, bee-eating golden-fronted woodpeckers, and loud waddling chicken-looking chachalacas have for decades resided peacefully — with exception of the occasional hawk that swoops in and tries to eat some of the birds.

Volunteer caretakers employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service keep watch on the area and open it up daily for public viewing from November through March, which is the typical birding season.

Lois Hughes, a volunteer employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, looks at the Rio Grande on Nov. 6, 2020, near the Salineño Wildlife Preserve in remote Starr County. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Gordon calls the area a birding “paradise” and among the top three places on birders’ bucket lists to visit in the entire North American continent.

“There was a huge outpouring for support for keeping Salineño as the birding hot spot and paradise that it is,” Gordon said. “It’s an area that has meant a lot of to a lot of people and has brought a lot of tourism dollars to Starr County.”

Tiffany Kersten, a board member of the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor said that birders contribute an estimated $463 million to the local economy in the Rio Grande Valley each year, according to a 2011 study by Texas A&M University. And she called Salineño “a birding hot spot.”

In 1998, a portion of the Salineño Wildlife Preserve was donated to the Valley Land Fund to manage. In 2011 the remaining lands were purchased by the nonprofit. Kersten said the expectation was that the nonprofit would never sell the land and she said the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor was attempting to reach the original owners who gifted the land to Valley Land Fund to ascertain what their wishes for this area were.

Following Thursday’s story, many environmentalists in social media posts questioned why the land would be sold right around the presidential election, especially after Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden has promised not to build “one more inch of border wall” once in office.

Lois Hughes and her partner Merle Ihne are hired volunteers with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service who open the preserve daily and regularly slather nearby trees with a concoction of seeds, lard and peanut butter, which the birds love. They sprinkle corn on the ground in the back area for the chachalacas, who otherwise would eat all the bird food, they say.

Lois Hughes, 78, eyes birds through binocular on Nov. 6, 2020, at the Salineño Wildlife Preserve in remote Starr County. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

The back and forth this week came during the annual RGV Birding Festival, which this year is being held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Upon hearing the news that the preserve would not be sold, Kersten reacted: “It’s great! Even though it took a fair bit of community pressure and pressure from conservationists across the country, I think it’s great that they’re doing what is right and I commend them for that.”

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

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