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May 2009 cover image eastern screech-owl

Rio Reforestation

Volunteers use hardy native plants to replenish the Rio Grande Valley.

By Eileen Mattei

"Bring a friend and a shovel" is the invitation Project Rio Reforestation extends to Rio Grande Valley volunteers. Each year about 1,000 people respond and spend a morning planting native tree and shrub seedlings on selected tracts near the river. Since 1994, the project has restored approximately 525 acres of riparian habitat and native brushland, creating wildlife corridors that provide animals with access to food, water and shelter. Reforestation volunteers plant 40 species of typically spiny native brush — ebony, huisache, retama, catclaw acacia, anacua — across 20 to 30 acres of former crop land acquired by the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The volunteers follow a strategy of planting 600 trees and shrubs per acre in a random assortment. The drought-resistant species receive only rainwater, so some seedlings go dormant while getting established.

"It takes about a year to determine what plants have survived," said Bob Barry, farming and revegetative officer at the refuge. "That tract was a farm field before we planted it, and you didn’t get much wildlife use there. Now, it’s habitat. If it was still in crops, the redwing blackbirds and dickcissels wouldn’t be there."

In a few years, the restored tract becomes a dense stand of native brush which provides quality habitat for birds and butterflies, rare or endangered wildlife like ocelots and jaguarundi, as well as for raccoons, bobcats and coyotes.

When the Rio Grande Valley became a booming agricultural wonderland 100 years ago, approximately 95 percent of the native brush was cleared for farms. Current efforts to expand native brushland coincide with the construction of new houses and malls on the one-time farmland.

Rio Reforestation is a cooperative project of the Texas Forest Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy, Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary and Valley Proud Environmental Council. It mobilizes a volunteer army from school science classes, scout troops, individuals and civic organizations to restore native vegetation. According to Barry, Rio Reforestation is one of the largest, if not the largest, ongoing volunteer projects of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Harlingen volunteer and retiree Dave Moulder has led a Rio Reforestation crew of 10. "This is about putting native plants in the ground and getting the public aware of the value of reforestation," he explained.

His team, like all the others, divided duties to help the speed the planting along. The youngest measured 10-foot intervals and marked the spots for planting. Hole diggers shoveled down 8 to 10 inches, and the plant distributors dropped one of the 4- to- 10-inch tall seedlings, encased in a thin cardboard tube, near each hole. The planter centered the tree-to-be at the proper depth and backfilled the hole before leapfrogging to the next waiting plant.

The hands-on experience with hardy native plants prompted interest in trees tough enough to survive in a challenging setting without man’s help. The seedlings are grown by local nurseries and the USFWS from seeds gathered in the wild. Rio Reforestation expects to reforest 10,000 Valley acres over a 100-year period.

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