About two weeks ago the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) broke the law by destroying forest growing along the Rio Grande in Audubon’s Sabal Palm Sanctuary.
Although the central old growth palm forest was untouched, the agency cut down and reduced to mulch Sabal palm trees, Texas ebony trees and mesquites growing along the river, leaving a 200- to 300-foot-wide swath of devastation all along the more than half a mile long stretch where the Sanctuary fronts the river.
Where a forest once grew, there is now nothing but wood chips, scattered broken logs, and the green points of invasive cane sprouting in the newly opened space.
Where it was once possible for Rio Grande Valley residents to imagine what the wild Rio Grande was like before the coming of agriculture and urbanization, when it was thickly vegetated and bristling with palms, the land is now skinned bare.
Where bobcats and javelina were once able to make their way to drink at the river under cover of brush, they now must run a gauntlet.
The IBWC is the binational agency that oversees treaty obligations with Mexico, but it is also tasked with managing flood control on the Rio Grande and the distributary channels of its delta such as the Arroyo Colorado. The agency told Sanctuary staff that they would be clearing a strip along the river to facilitate flow during flooding. Staff also said that IBWC agreed to leave the Sabal palms and mature ebony trees. Instead they cleared acres of forest along the river, leaving only a handful of lonely palm trees, while grinding many others down to stumps.
This devastation should never have happened. In 2003 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rendered a Biological Opinion under the Endangered Species Act that limited IBWC to mowing only 75 feet on the river bank and trimming vegetation that overhangs the river. It also requires “the establishment of a minimum 33-foot wide mature/climax vegetated wildlife corridor adjacent to the Rio Grande or mowed areas.”
This restriction recognizes how important the river is as a wildlife corridor, allowing ocelots and other animals to move from one patch of forest to another along its wooded banks. It also reveals how devastating this destruction is in one of the few protected areas of riparian habitat near Brownsville.
IBWC knows this. The 2003 Biological Opinion is posted on IBWC’s own website.
It is not clear why the Sanctuary staff were not aware of the Biological Opinion and its requirements, or why IBWC chose to radically and negligently expand their clearing and take out even large trees and Sabal palms. What is clear is that this is a loss to the community and another blow to our dream of restoring a contiguous wildlife corridor along the Rio Grande.
Editor’s Note: Based on feedback the author of this guest column has received, some readers were confused by the headline and opening paragraph. The headline and opening two paragraphs have been changed at the author’s request.