PHARR, Texas (Border Report) — The head of a nonprofit that owns a popular birding preserve in deep South Texas tells Border Report that Texas officials have sought access to their riverfront land for the state’s border wall.
Debralee Rodriguez, executive director of the Valley Land Fund, which owns the Salineño Wildlife Preserve, says they have twice refused to allow state contractors to survey their borderlands in rural western Starr County.
“We were contacted by the state of Texas,” Rodriguez told Border Report on Thursday. “They asked if they could survey the property and we declined. And we did not give anybody access to serving our property for anything of such.”
She says twice within the past six months, the state has asked for access to their land located west of the small town of Roma, Texas.
This is the same organization that two years ago had agreed to sell the 2.5 acre-property to the federal government under the Trump administration for border wall construction. But they suddenly rescinded their offer after a firestorm of outcry from birding enthusiasts and naturalists nationwide.
The State of Texas is trying to build dozens of miles of state-funded border wall in South Texas, as part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star border security initiative.
A 1.7-mile segment already has been built in eastern Starr County, outside the small town of La Grulla. Crews are also building a 1.5-mile border barrier in Cameron County through the small town of Los Indios, Texas.
“Operation Lone Star continues to fill the dangerous gaps left by the Biden administration’s refusal to secure the border,” Abbott said in a news release earlier this month coinciding with the second anniversary of the operation.
But with over 90% of borderlands in Texas privately owned, contractors hired by the Texas Facilities Commission — the state organization overseeing the wall build — must ask for permission to survey and for easements and right-of-way rights.
The Commission declined to confirm whether contractors hired by the state approached the Salineño birding preserve for its land.
“Due to security concerns and protecting procurement integrity, and the privacy of private landowners, we are unable to confirm these data points. Construction Locations: Specific project work locations are not being released at this time,” TFC spokeswoman Francoise Luca told Border Report.
Rodriguez says they won’t be giving up their 2.5 acres of the popular birding and nature preserve, and although the preserve earlier this month closed for the season, they intend to reopen in the fall.
“Yes, we will have a new birding season in ’23-’24,” said Rodriguez, adding they are recruiting new volunteers who might want to work with their organization and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to help manage the property, which is located in a very rural area about 9 miles outside the small town of Roma, Texas.
Lois Hughes for the past 14 seasons has been a volunteer who has lived on the Salineño Wildlife Preserve property and looks after it on behalf of Fish & Wildlife. She says she is concerned because other nearby landowners in Starr County have been approached for their borderland rights.
She worries that if others sell their land rights to the state, then border barrier construction will disrupt the delicate ecosystem, which is an eco-tourism draw for the region.
“It would be significant. The construction disruption would be awful. It would take out an awful lot of habitat in the environment through here,” Hughes told Border Report. “And if they’re doing it in the summer it’s right in nesting season, taking out trees that are food sources for the birds.”
The brown jay is among rare birds that have been sighted in the area, including at the Salineño Wildlife Preserve in December, according to the electronic bird tracking site e-bird.
Hughes said it is a special place for nature lovers.
In the 2022-23 season, which just ended, there were 1,641 visitors, Hughes said, down slightly from 1,740 visitors the season before. But there was an increase in 2020, during the pandemic, when many sought outdoor venues for safer outings. That season they had 2,228 visitors.