October 23, 2019|By Jena Thompson Meredith| Partnerships

One Tree at a Time

Every fall, hundreds of thousands of shrubs and tree seedlings are planted at national wildlife refuges across the Rio Grande Valley at the southern tip of Texas. To kick off the planting season, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hosts Rio Reforestation, a community tree-planting event now in its 28th year. Participants in Rio Reforestation plant thousands of native seedlings. These spindly young plants don’t look like much now, but they will eventually grow into a verdant mix of granjeno, coyotillo and Texas ebony that become so thick as they mature, you can barely walk through it. This native vegetation type dominated by spiny shrubs, trees, grasses and succulents is called Tamaulipan thornscrub, and its thick brush shelters endangered ocelot, migratory birds, butterflies, deer and other native wildlife species.

RioReforest Ocelot cub c ValerieThe ocelot is an elusive and solitary wild cat with markings similar to a leopard or jaguar. Due to widespread habitat loss throughout the southwest, there are only 80 ocelots that remain in the US. The Conservation Fund and its partners are working to restore ocelot habitat in Texas. Photo by Valerie/Flickr.

But this reforestation effort is about more than trees and furry friends – it’s also about the collaboration that takes place to make it happen. Since the first Rio Reforestation, students, teachers, scouts, church groups, grassroots organizations, ranchers, farmers and neighbors have joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in planting nearly 300,000 tree seedlings across 775 acres of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. 

Rio Reforest frame photo cUSFWSVolunteers planted 32 species of trees and shrubs on 17 acres of refuge land on the La Sal Del Rey tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge during this year's Rio Reforestation event held Saturday, October 19, 2019. Photo courtesy Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

“Rio Reforestation brings the community together; this is an event for the community to come invest in their own future,” says Gisela Chapa, Refuge Manager of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. “By planting one after another, row after row, we not only create future habitat for wildlife to enjoy, but we also create green spaces to improve our own quality of life through the fruit of our own labor. Our habitat has value to wildlife, it has value to us. We are extremely proud of all we’ve been able to accomplish together over the years.”

RioReforest Dr. Long Elementary School cSandra Gonzalez PSJA ISD

Participants from Dr. Long Elementary School. Students participated in classroom activities to learn about native plants and habitat in the weeks leading up to the event, and then they got hands-on learning out in the field. Photo by Sandra Gonzalez, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District (PSJA ISD). 

And, believe it or not, there’s still a lot more work to be done. Unfortunately, about 95 percent of the native vegetation that once covered the Valley was cleared for agricultural use and development decades ago. There is now an incredible opportunity to bring much of this landscape back to its original glory as one of the most biologically diverse places in the country.

It’s a tall order, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working alongside elected officials, landowners and nonprofits, including The Conservation Fund, to rise to the challenge. With support from public and private partners, The Conservation Fund has protected more than 24,000 acres of land within the Valley over the past 20 years. Financial support from innovative companies like Dell helps restore many of those lands once they are conserved. Through its Plant a Tree and Plant a Forest programs, Dell supports restoration and community events like Rio Reforestation throughout the South Texas Refuge Complex.

“Investing in nature is good for everyone,” says David Lear, Vice President, Corporate Sustainability at Dell Technologies. “We launched the Plant a Tree and Plant a Forest programs to engage our customers, clients and employees in doing something positive and powerful for climate, water and wildlife. The results have been inspiring. After more than a decade, we’ve planted over a million trees with our partners, with even more to come.”

Acre by acre, seedling by seedling, we’re making progress, and along the way we’re demonstrating that everyone has a role in the health of our environment—it’s the strength of diverse partnerships and the ability to creatively leverage resources that will lead to success in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond.

Written By

Jena Thompson Meredith