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South Texas Birding Preserve Rescinds Offer To Sell Land To U.S. Government After Community Outcry

Birder watchers look for birds at a birding preserve in Salineño, Texas
Reynaldo Leaños Jr.
/
TPR
Birder watchers look for birds at a birding preserve in Salineño, Texas

A group of birders gathered one Friday morning at a birding preserve in Salineño in Starr County.

The birders sat on lawn chairs and looked around with their binoculars at the trees that surrounded them.

Thousands of birders visit here every year.

“We get up in the morning and put out the bird food and the water and just make sure that we’re ready to open the gate at 8 o’clock, and then we welcome in the guests and make sure they see all the different birds that are coming and going,” said Mike Emenaker, a volunteer who lived on the birding preserve.

He said he was recently in disbelief when he heard the news that the 2.5-acre birding sanctuary, which belongs to the Valley Land Fund, was going to be sold to the federal government for part of a border wall project.

“We were led to believe that we were going to be open for the season,” Emenaker said. “We never had any communication from Valley Land Fund. It was just one of those things, personally, that was pretty shady the whole way it happened and really disappointed that the Valley Land Fund didn’t have the decency to come talk to us face to face as volunteers.”

President-elect Joe Biden has said no more border wall will be built under his administration. Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to expeditiously build and acquire land for wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“There will not be another foot of wall constructed on my administration,” Biden told NPR’s Lulu Gacria Navarro.

One of the areas where the Trump administration is trying to acquire land before the end of his term is the world famous birding sanctuary in the Rio Grande Valley.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed in a statement to TPR last Friday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with the Department of Justice, acquired the tract of land owned by the Valley Land Fund for a CBP enforcement zone.

“The Offer to Sell was signed voluntarily by the VLTF on November 3, 2020, for a total of approximately 2.5 acres,” said the statement.

Debralee Rodriguez is the executive director of the Valley Land Fund. She said CBP’s statement was premature.

“I am the type of individual that believes that it wasn’t fully executed,” she said. “Although there was an agreement to accept, there was still a process that we would have to go through thereafter in order to officially convey the land over to the U.S. government.”

When news got out about the Valley Land Fund’s 11-1 board decision to accept an offer to sell, environmentalists, birders and locals took to social media to express their frustration. One of those people was Tiffany Kersten. She’s on the board of directors for Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, an organization dedicated to protecting habitat in the region.

“It’s infinitely disappointing to me that Valley Land Fund didn’t decide to look into selling to another conservation organization before turning it over to the government,” she said. “If they didn’t want to fight in the court battle, then that’s fine, but give it to someone else who’s willing to fight that battle.”

Kersten and others felt that the Valley Land Fund had sold out and was not protecting the land.

“Conservation is a fight, and I know from my membership on Friends of the Wildlife Corridor and traveling to Washington D.C. to protect Santa Ana and a lot of our other nature sites here in The Valley,” she said. “Our board put in so much work, so much time, traveling to D.C., local protests, local rallies, all kinds of different things and then this other conservation board, that claims to be a conservation board, did outwardly nothing and the community had to be the ones screaming, the community had to be the one rising up and the community had to be the one sending emails upset.”

Valley Land Fund director Rodriguez said they had pushed back against the federal government for months and they declined several offers.

“Valley Land Fund never wanted to be in a situation of having a particular piece of property behind the border wall,” Rodriguez said. “Our job is to protect native habitat and it just so happened that our piece of property neighbors federal land and I truly believe that that particular route was chosen because of the surrounding federal land around us.”

Fast forward to later this fall Rodriguez said she recalls a conversation she had with the government asking if they could further delay because of the presidential election.

“I mean is there a possible way that you could kind of shuffle us under some paperwork and look the other way,” she said recalling the question she posed to the government. “They reminded me, ‘Look, we’ve been working with you since January, and we’ve come 10 months down the line.’ And it was told to us, ‘You either agree to this, or we’re going to condemn your property.’”

That’s when the board decided to enter into an agreement with the government.

“Now, some people may say that we should have never been in this position, why would you allow them to come onto your piece of property?” Rodriguez said. “I really believe the reason we allowed that to happen was because we were confident that they were going to see the value of this piece of property and for what it was and that we were going to supply them with the information that would give them a reason to go back and say this is not the place that we should put this.”

She said any money they would have received from the selling of the land would have gone back into conservation. Following community backlash, they ended up rescinding any and all agreements with the federal government.

“I think what we have learned is that if there is any land currently owned by Valley Land Fund that has the ability for public use, then we need to go to our public and our community and ask what they would like for us to do, she said. “I keep going back to the 2.5 acres, we’re such a small little dot on a very big stage, we had no idea that the outcry was going to be this loud.”

CBP said in a statement that the government has not received any formal communication regarding the board’s decision to rescind the offer.

“CBP continues with the construction of new border wall system with funding that has been received through Fiscal Year (FY) 2020,” said the statement. “The majority of contracts have been awarded and construction is well under way for the approximately 738 miles funded to date.”

Rodriguez said she’s been in communication with the Army Corps of Engineers. She also said they’re gearing up for the upcoming condemnation lawsuit from the federal government, and hopes their community will support them through this process.