Crops planted on protected land are part of an innovative approach to habitat restoration.
By Dan Oko
The threat of industrial development and urban sprawl is an oft-told tale, but there are few regions in Texas where the loss of native vegetation has been felt more dramatically than along the imperiled banks of the lower Rio Grande.
Since the 1920s, 95 percent of plant communities have been lost in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. These disappearing ecosystems range from the subtropical woodlands of Boca Chica to the scrub deserts surrounding Falcon Dam. Some native plants have been adversely affected by the agriculture industry, which produces sorghum, citrus and cotton crops and contributes some $500 million annually to the local economy. So it might come as a surprise to learn that farmers also play a major role in preserving what’s left of the native ecosystem.
As land managers from TPWD and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have worked toward preserving and restoring the valley’s original plant and animal communities, they have found farmers positive partners in conservation. “It’s critical to keep these lands clean until you restore the habitat,” says Steve Benn, Las Palomas WMA project leader. Benn explains that crops help prevent species such as Bermuda grass and other exotics from taking over.
This work is urgent because even though only 5 percent of the native riparian communities remain, the Lower Rio Grande Valley still represents one of the most diverse habitats in the United States. Today, more than 1,000 plant species can be found along the river corridor; likewise, 700 varieties of vertebrates have been identified there. These animals include endangered mammals, such as the seldom-seen ocelot and jaguarundi, endemic reptiles like the Texas indigo snake, and 484 species of birds, or three-quarters of the nation’s avifauna.
Nowhere have these eco-efforts paid off more than the 85,000-acre South Texas National Refuge Complex, which includes the popular Santa Ana NWR, as well as about 10,000 acres where crops are grown under collective farming agreements. Under these innovative agreements, farmers don’t pay rent on federal land but instead replant the parcels with native plants when their leases expire. USFWS restores about 750 acres each year. More than 30 native species are being cultivated at the nonprofit Valley Nature Center so that seedlings will be available when refuge land is ultimately retired from agriculture.
Spokeswoman Patty Alexander, who recently left her agency post to join a private conservation group, says that in the face of development pressure, the race to acquire land often outpaces the ability of public agencies to do the necessary ecological work on the ground. The agreements allow the land to be utilized for agriculture until resources are available for full-scale habitat restoration.