Consider the Lower Rio Grande Valley (known as the LRGV, or just “the Valley”). The southeasternmost 150 miles of borderlands, from Falcon Dam downstream to where the Rio Grande spills into the Gulf of Mexico, is a vital natural resource that deserves to be nurtured and preserved — which, if done properly, can also help to boost it economically. And that sinuous green sliver of natural habitat along the river’s floodplain continues to support a stunning wealth of biodiversity.
The Valley is home to dozens of species of gorgeous Central American butterflies as well as colorful orioles and parrots in subtropical woodlands also inhabited by ocelots, collared peccaries and white-nosed coatis. More than 300 species of butterflies, 500 birds, 55 mammals and 34 fish have been recorded. This is one of the very few places where the United States enjoys a share of the natural wealth found in the subtropical wild spaces south of our border.
The Valley has long been overlooked. This is because it is mainly rural, relatively poor and populated largely by residents who trace their heritage back to Mexico. The three counties on its U.S. side are under-resourced and underfunded. The Valley has, in fact, done great things with what little it has. Think of what it could do with some real assistance. The United States should be able to do better.
We can start by thinking about economic development that is founded on leveraging the opportunities the Valley offers. It already features the attractions of South Padre Island, a hugely popular beach destination. Now it is time to restore the environmental integrity of the region and transform it into a world-class tourist destination for naturalists, sightseers and those who love fishing or the outdoors. Here is an obvious target for serious infrastructure funding — whether it be from redirected border-wall expenditures or new appropriations from the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure program.
A bold border-restoration plan must address border security, water issues and the welfare of the natural environment. That is a big task, and it has to include the participation of our southern neighbor. A congressional commission should prepare a comprehensive overview to start a substantive discussion with Mexico. No matter how it is done, one critical outcome of this process must be the re-greening of the Lower Rio Grande.
Right now, only small patches of the ox-bowed course of the river remain in native woodland vegetation, and very little of the floodplain is formally protected. What is needed is to expand the existing wildlife corridor project of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service into a bi-national greenway along the river — a forested buffer zone at least a half-mile wide on either side of the river for the entire 150 miles from Falcon Dam to the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, this would be a challenging proposition, but the long-term benefits of creating this green corridor would pay major dividends.
The re-greening would greatly improve the functioning of the river’s ecosystem, substantially cool the borderlands and contribute to ameliorating local climate change. That would benefit the local fish, bird, mammal and butterfly populations at a time when they all face existential threat. Moreover, the green corridor would become a destination for lovers of nature and the outdoors from around the world. Border fencing, where and if necessary, can be situated strategically to avoid restricting the movements of wildlife.
So, you might ask, how does a green corridor address the issues of border-crossers and the drug trade? In fact, a mile-wide woodland corridor would serve as a real barrier to both — anyone who has tried to penetrate a South Texas spiny thornforest will understand that. And those sites used chronically by border-crossers can be fenced, monitored using available technology and better surveilled by the U.S. Border Patrol. Similar technology can be deployed to monitor the corridor’s populations of threatened wildlife to gauge progress in the re-greening process.
The creation of a greenway would also have to take into account Texas’s long-established reverence for private land ownership. The builders of Donald Trump’s border wall used federal powers to seize private land, providing penurious compensation. Any greenway must be based on voluntary partnerships, smart land-use easements with private landowners who agree to reforestation of portions of their land, generous compensation for any lands that must be purchased, and the full and fair participation of local landowners in the process.
Why don’t we focus on a green and prosperous future for the Valley while we also address the migration issue? The United States is the richest and strongest nation on Earth. It should be able to achieve both objectives. Re-greening the Rio Grande is an investment in a more prosperous future for the Valley, for Texas and for the United States.