From the Pen of Carter P. Smith
My love affair with the Lower Rio Grande Valley is a multigenerational one. It began, I am quite sure, with my maternal grandparents, who were “winter Texans” of a sort. Each January or so when the temperatures dipped and the winds spiked in North Texas, they would pile into their motor home and gleefully head south, seeking refuge in some palm-lined trailer park in deep South Texas.
Some years they would land in Harlingen, others it was Weslaco, and still others it was Mercedes, Brownsville or McAllen. I don’t know how they selected their ultimate destination. It didn’t matter. As far as I was concerned, they were headed to the exotic Rio Grande Valley, and I couldn’t wait to join them for a weekend or longer if my parents would relent.
My grandmother was a great lover of nature, and of birds in particular. Rest assured she was never so presumptuous as to call herself a “birder.” She would have demurred at being called a “nature tourist.” But, in essence, that is what she was. Like the throngs of wildlife enthusiasts who make their seasonal pilgrimages to the Valley, she particularly loved all the brightly colored, subtropical species for which the region is well known. Brilliantly hued Altamira orioles, great kiskadees and green jays were among her favorites.
Just as she loved the birds, I think she enjoyed the habitats that supported them just as much. Santa Ana and the Sabal Palm Grove, Laguna Atascosa and the Laguna Madre, Bentsen-Rio Grande and Boca Chica were all on her proverbial bucket list on each trip to the southern reaches of Texas. Thankfully for me, she and my grandfather were always more than happy to take their wide-eyed grandson along for the ride.
She’s long gone now, but I have no doubt she would be thrilled to know that other destinations such as the wetlands of Estero Llano Grande and the resacas of Resaca de la Palma are there to see and discover as state parks. She’d love the concept of the World Birding Center and the opportunity to explore a host of destinations spanning the Valley, from the towering Roma Cliffs overlooking the Rio Grande to McAllen’s magical Quinta Mazatlan to the shorebird-rich bayside flats on South Padre Island.
She’d be just as pleased to know that there are ample other destinations in Texas that beckon the nature-inclined. In this edition alone, the magazine features stories about eagle watching on Lake Buchanan, hawk viewing at Hazel Bazemore Park in Corpus Christi, historic rock art viewing at Hueco Tanks and the restoration of that most famous of multigenerational family destinations, Aquarena Springs.
The nature of this tourism business is nature. And, in that category, I can proudly say, Texas is second to none. We were the first state, back in 1996, to offer a public birding trail along the coast, attracting tourists to birding hot spots from Bolivar Flats to Boca Chica. We now offer similar trails all around the state, including the Far West Texas Wildlife Trail, officially completed in 2011. Forty other states have now followed our lead. And we didn’t stop with routes along the land. There are now nearly 50 different public paddling trails encompassing more than 430 miles of rivers, streams and lakes around the state for canoeists and kayakers to enjoy.
Wildlife watching and nature-based tourism have become big business for communities across Texas, generating more than $5 billion in economic impact each year for the state. Just as importantly, it allows families to reconnect, not only with one another, but also with the nature that sustains us all. As we like to say, Life’s Better Outside!
Thanks for caring about our wild things and wild places. They need you to get out and enjoy them now more than ever.