The region of South Texas is diverse and plentiful, with surrounding communities overflowing with pockets of wildlife and natural spaces. For those that live there, the natural beauty of the region is one of its most important aspects. However, many misconceptions prevail due to a number of unique and localized challenges that ultimately put South Texas in a negative light. Political turmoil, inequality, and environmental degradation are just a few examples. These ideas, while they do contain bits of truth, also have ramifications beyond a surface-level view. Eco-tourism in the region is slowly growing and perhaps the reason for its slow progress is rooted in these issues. Namely, some people are hesitant to visit areas near the border and yet cities like Pharr and McAllen rank as some of the safest cities in America. This confusion emphasizes the importance of understanding and avoiding prejudices. The following is a short analysis on how misconceptions about South Texas hurt conservation efforts with a focus on eco-tourism and the border wall.
“In nature, nothing exists alone.”
– Rachel Carson
Re-defining South Texas
Listening to the national news, it isn’t uncommon to hear Texas in the headlines. Unless you live there, a lot of ideas typically come to mind: small towns, deserts, cowboys, and tumbleweeds. Alternatively, in the modern day you may also think of guns, violence, political conflict, and racism. Admittedly, the state might have a small portion of all of these things and thus Americans tend to possess a lot of individual and even polarizing thoughts about Texas. At the same time, however, these thoughts do not necessarily define the state nor do they encompass the cultural and environmental diversity it offers. Even more overlooked, the region of South Texas often sits alone in false narratives. As a student in New England, born and raised in Texas, I frequently hear misconceptions about the “frightening and appalling South.” The South, with a capital “S” sustains a highly negative identity, even to the extent of individuals spewing distaste and exaggerations about Texas in particular. While it could just be banter or jokes on a whim, the act itself says something about the lens through which outside travelers see the state. Analyzing the reason for this popular Northeastern ideology of Southern states and Texas isn’t particularly difficult. Their opinions can easily be traced to the Civil War and resulting racial and ethical inequalities. Nonetheless, South Texas and the general “South” have upheld a different culture and society in the modern day.
South Texas encompasses the lower Gulf Coastal bend, the Rio Grande Valley, and everything else below the central region. The lower Gulf Coastal bend includes cities south of Houston along the only Texas coast. To the right of that lies the Rio Grande Valley – a socio-cultural region that borders Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, states in Mexico. Travelling through the state, many tourists might assume that the large empty fields indicate a small yet quaint population. However, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, over 2.4 million people live in this area, with nearly 84% of them being Hispanic. In terms of politics, South Texas is largely democratic. Similar to the biggest cities in Texas, the southern region is predominantly liberal compared to the rest of the state. In the 2020 election, about half of the counties that resulted in a majority vote for Biden in Texas could be found in South Texas, according to the Texas Tribune. Together, this blend of Hispanic Democrats deeply rooted in Mexican-American culture makes for a highly diverse region of ideas, identities, and interests.
Nonetheless, the region does have its challenges. Economically, the area is still developing. In a 2020 Texas Comptroller report, the region sustains a low income, with “58% of household incomes less than $50,000.” This can further be explained in the top occupations of the region. A majority of people work either in Personal Care/Service occupations, Food and Beverage work, or as Preschool to Secondary Education School Teachers. Notwithstanding these occupations, the region earns most of its income from the fossil fuel industry, collecting and manufacturing coal, oil, natural gas, and petroleum. This is visually evident in the numerous oil wells and smoking industrial plants commonly spotted off South Texas highways. Thus, the region is developing, and the people of South Texas generally live well. With its modernization, more and more people have begun to move to the region, becoming a popular vacation destination for history buffs, BBQ foodies, and the ever-growing “glamping” trend. Simultaneously however, the surrounding natural environment is struggling to compensate for the region’s puzzling road to urbanization.
As dawn approaches in the small town of Combes, Texas, the community begins to wake up. First come the large 18-wheeler trucks, emerging from the pitch-dark highways with drivers ready to munch on gas station breakfast tacos. Then, the early-rising abuelas step outside to water their gardens as the sun’s rays begin to peek through the trees. Suddenly, the whole neighborhood starts to bustle and the day has begun. Synchronously, a world of animals and life also start their day. Hidden from the unsuspecting eye, Javelinas, Green Jays, Jackrabbits, and Horned Lizards scatter about backyards and open fields throughout South Texas. Combes is just one of the many towns that hold a plethora of ecological jewels. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), the South Texas region contains a large variety of biomes and ecological niches. In some regions, brush and plains span miles at a time. In other areas, the Rio Grande River provides shelter for freshwater plants and animals that thrive in the resacas or as the TPWD defines as “former channel[s] of the Rio Grande River that [have] been cut off… creating marshes and ponds.” These important environments help protect the vitality and health of organisms that in turn create a balanced ecosystem for humans to live in. Without South Texas’ biodiversity, the environment could potentially take a turn for the worse – if it hasn’t already.
Water scarcity, environmental degradation, monocultures, and hurricanes all threaten the stability of the South Texas environment, each in a different way. According to the Border Report, South Texas faces several environmental challenges including an “aging water system meet[ing] a rapidly growing population.” Writer Suman Naishadham explains how old irrigation systems and water waste make drought-prone cities like McAllen even more vulnerable to change. Furthermore, water shortages are predicted to continue, harming both the local population, visiting tourists, and the surrounding environment. In terms of environmental degradation, concerns lie in farming and fossil fuel production. Large swaths of land in South Texas have been converted to farmland over the decades, reducing the number of green and natural spaces in the region. Not only are animals forcibly removed from their habitats but in turn the farmland creates a monoculture of one type of plant, eliminating any resources that originally sustained wildlife. The production of fossil fuels also introduces large environmental hazards. Oil spills off the Gulf Coast have plagued the region and the frequency of air pollution has worsened. (Environment Texas)
Despite efforts to solve these environmental challenges, both the local Texas government and the South Texas community still struggle with effecting a turnaround. For instance, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is a state government-based environmental protection agency. Every state in the US has a similar agency whose primary function is to oversee water, air, and waste quality. In the current Texas government system, the TCEQ operates scantly, following the bare-minimum requirements issued by the EPA. If in the case local/regional headquarters of the TCEQ desire to move beyond those requirements, it would ultimately be up to the Governor, Greg Abbott, and his appointees to make such a decision. Their broad-reaching influence negates local conservation efforts, especially due to the Governor’s strict conservative views in every sense. Forbes quotes Abbott on threatening to sue President Joe Biden over his climate change orders saying, “Texas is going to protect the oil and gas industry from any type of hostile attack launched from Washington, D.C.” With this mindset, change can sometimes seem unlikely, however, an increase in development, especially in the South Texas region, has pushed communities to advocate for stronger conservation efforts.
“When you build walls between nations and people, you make every life smaller.”
– Gregory Scott Katsoulis
Bordering the Border Wall
Walls, by definition, create a physical divide between spaces. In many ways, the border wall between Mexico and the United States has created a division for policy-makers, families, the environment, and travelers. Progress of the border wall during the Trump era was fast-tracked. Yet Donald Trump has not seen a completed wall – only portions of the border do in fact have renovated and “improved” sections. Under the Biden administration, the construction of the border wall has been set to a halt. This has led to a series of lawsuits and legal disputes from conservative Texas lawmakers but the reality of Trump’s envisioned border wall was slim. The Texas Tribune states that “Trump tried to build 280 miles of barrier in Texas. He completed 55.” Overall, the biggest challenges to building the wall were the cost and the issue of building through private property. While the reality of the effectiveness and necessity of a border wall is political, it is scientifically proven that a border wall would damage the environment.
Throughout South Texas and along the border are nine individual World Birding Centers. These parks are protected spaces dedicated to preserving the natural environment, especially for the over five hundred bird species that migrate, mate, and hatch there. The Rio Grande Valley, a portion of South Texas, is a special location because it happens to be where two major flyways for migrating birds converge. The World Birding Centers not only act as a sanctuary but also as a tourist destination. Bird watchers from around the United States and the world travel to these locations to see tropical and Mexican-native birds migrate and thrive. Spaces like these are crucial to preserving the beauty and biodiversity of South Texas. A border wall would be both impeding to protected spaces and according to National Geographic would also, “exacerbate, flooding, disrupt seasonal migration for animals, and divide waterways.” To learn more about the environmental effects of a border wall, Scientific American excellently outlines the biological costs and damage.
Eco-tourism in South Texas has slowly been developing, and with the help of local communities and a push from the tourism industry, environmental conservation has been gaining traction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices in the region have created wildlife crossings, culverts, that allow endangered species like the Ocelot to safely pass busy roads and highways. More recently, a ginormous portion of land in South Texas, sizing up to about 17,000 acres, is beginning the process of being converted into a new Texas State Park. The park will protect the coastal prairie environment that is home to many birds and other wildlife species. Movements such as these are encouraged and developed through philanthropists, environmental advocates, eco-tourists, and of course, the individual voice. To create change and revitalize the beauty and passion South Texas already has, local individuals should vote and stay active in their community and travelers should not give in to misconceptions. The region of South Texas is waiting! If you would like to learn more about these issues or see beautiful places to visit in South Texas, check it out below!
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Want to learn more?
The South Texas Region – Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
How Texas Wildlife Crossings Are Saving Lives and Money – Texas Monthly
Texas Ranchland to Become New State Park – Star Telegram
6 Ways the Border Wall Could disrupt the Environment – National Geographic
South Texas – The Hidden Gem of the Lone Star State – The Travel Channel
The Most Beautiful Places in Southern Texas – Thrillist