EDINBURG, Texas (Border Report) — Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez admitted that before Friday he had never been to the Edinburg World Birding Center, which is located at a popular municipal park near the South Texas border with Mexico.

But thousands of birders from outside the region are very familiar with the place.

This realization has prompted him and other border officials to launch a partnership between local, state and national parks and wildlife refuges to encourage more local residents to get out and enjoy the stunning nature that is the Rio Grande Valley region.

It’s called the Explore Hidalgo County initiative and the timing of the program was released to coincide with Earth Day on Friday.

(Hidalgo County Graphic)

Cortez says the goal is to encourage local residents to discover nine nationally-recognized state and national parks and wildlife refuges that are located in Hidalgo County. These areas have been drawing thousands of visitors from across the nation and world for decades, but now he says it’s time for locals to take advantage of what’s in their own backyards.

“It’s an effort to really to try to continue to publicize the natural beauty that we have. I believe that our nature tourism has been an under-utilized industry and I felt that we really needed to jump-start it and to celebrate it and also use it as a teaching tool for our children. We want our child to be able to protect our environment,” Cortez told Border Report on Friday.

Eco-tourism brings in $300 million annually to Hidalgo County, but most of it is from tourists.

Cortez said he believes that amount could be doubled — to add $344 million more annually — if more locals discovered all that Mother Nature offers on the South Texas border, and then they tell their friends and family.

“We want people from the outside to see it and we also want our people here to enjoy it,” he said.

Visitors on Earth Day, April 22, 2022, explore the Edinburg World Birding Center and Wetlands in Edinburg, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

That includes Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a 2,000-acre preserve south of Alamo, Texas, that is so well known it has been exempt from border wall construction by an act of Congress.

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is a lush 2,000-acre refuge located on the Rio Grande south of Alamo, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

But Santa Ana Refuge Manager Imer de la Garza told Border Report that those living on the border don’t often visit the park.

Imer de la Garza is refuge manager for Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge located south of Alamo, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“We’re internationally known, nationally known, a lot of people in the birding community want to come down here to Santa Ana, it’s a very popular place. Lots of birds. I think it’s the local community that needs to know where we are and what we do and that’s where this partnership with Hidalgo County is wonderful and can get that word out to everyone here,” de la Garza said.

“Everybody else knows about us except we don’t really know about us,” said Roy Rodriguez of Bentsen State Park in Mission, Texas. “People are coming to our backyard and they have been for several years.”

The county has launched a website to promote the nine locations, which in addition to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Bentsen State Park, also include:

  • Anzalduas Park
  • McAllen Nature Center
  • Quinta Mazatlan
  • Sal de Rey
  • Estero Llano Grande State Park
  • Old Hidalgo Pumphouse Museum and World Birding Center
  • The Edinburg Wetlands

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com