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TEXAS STATE PARKS

Natural Economic Assets

World Birding Centers, Texas

STATE PARK PROFILES

World Birding Centers
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley and
Estero Llano Grande State Parks,
Hidalgo County
Resaca de la Palma State Park,
Cameron County

South Texas Plains Region

Texas has long been known as an excellent destination for bird watchers. Its location in major migratory pathways, and also in the middle of the country with overlapping bird ranges, resulted in Texas being the only state with its own Peterson’s Field Guide for birds. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) promotes birding as part of the overall wildlife experience available in state parks and nature areas, but in recent years the attention to birds has intensified. In 2000, TPWD completed the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail to guide birders to hundreds of sites along the Texas Gulf Coast. By then, plans were already being put into motion to develop a new concept of nature tourism destination, the World Birding Center (WBC) in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV).

Its location in major migratory pathways, and also in the middle of the country with overlapping bird ranges, resulted in Texas being the only state with its own Peterson’s Field Guide for birds.

Rather than a single location, the WBC is a network of nine interpretive sites scattered along the southernmost edge of the state. TPWD, working in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, local communities and various nature tourism experts, identified the locations along 120 miles stretching from Roma at the western end to South Padre Island at the coast. WBC comprises more than 10,000 acres of land and offers a variety of habitats, reflecting and in some cases restoring the original, exceptional biodiversity of the LRGV.

Ted Eubanks, a well-known birder and nature tourism expert, was involved with the creation of the WBC starting in the late 1990s. His company, Fermata Inc., conducted the original feasibility study for the project, titled Using a World Class Birding Facility for Economic Conservation and Development in Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley.

In an essay about the study, Eubanks discusses the efforts to determine the economic value of “wildlife-related recreation,” especially activities outside of hunting and fishing. Fermata’s biological profile of the area found that the Valley is “the most biologically diverse region in the United States, [but] over 95% of the native habitat has been lost or altered.” Eubanks also points out, however, the socio-economic challenges in the LRGV, and claims that conservation and economics in the region cannot be separated.

“Nature tourism offers the LRGV an opportunity to both restore natural habitats and create critically needed jobs,” he says, citing data showing the economic boost from visitors to previously established wildlife refuges in the Valley that attracted mainly dedicated birders. If “more casual recreationists, those interested in birds, butterflies, bats, historical sites, good food, and a nice bed-and-breakfast” (not to mention comfortable winters) could be lured to locations in the LRGV, the economic impact could be substantial. He extrapolates from existing data to project that each additional 10,000 visitors would provide:

Three Texas state parks are part of the World Birding Center.

  • $3.8 million in direct expenditures
  • $9.3 million in gross economic output
  • 156 full-time jobs
  • $407,543 in state taxes
  • $287,133 in local taxes

The World Birding Center was conceived to be a large part of that “economic conservation” effort in far South Texas.1

Three Texas state parks are part of the WBC. The parks, all in different stages of development, contribute to the Valley’s reputation as a nature destination where visitors come from around the world, some staying for months at a time, to enjoy the climate, culture and access to hundreds of species of winged creatures.

Elevated Walkway in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in Hidalgo County, Texas

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Hidalgo County

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is well-known to serious bird watchers as a top site within this prime birding area. Located just a few miles south of Mission, the existing park became the designated headquarters for the WBC in 2004. As a result, visitors’ vehicles are no longer allowed within the park. Access is now by bicycle, foot or the park-operated tram. Although RV camping in the park was discontinued, there is a new, private RV camping facility just across the road and there are still primitive campsites that can be reserved within the park.

The park features a new headquarters complex that has exhibits, meeting rooms, staff offices and a cafe and store. Future plans are to convert the small, older headquarters into a nature center. Within the 764-acre park the facilities are geared toward birding, with a hawk tower, viewing platforms and bird blinds. The staff includes naturalists and interpretive guides who are knowledgeable about locations good for spotting some of the signature birds and skilled at identifying and pointing out birds to novice birders. As with all parts of the WBC, there is a great emphasis on interpretive programs at Bentsen State Park.

Because park visitors no longer drive past an entry booth, Bentsen is more difficult than most parks for obtaining solid visitor numbers. According to TPWD, there were 52,337 visits in fiscal 2007; understandably, almost all of them were day visits. The area in general and the WBC in particular brings large numbers of what are termed “winter Texans,” people coming from other parts of the country with, perhaps, harsher winters and lacking the fall and spring migration seasons that make Texas famous among bird watching enthusiasts. Even in the summertime, this area has birds that are found nowhere else in the U.S.

For six months out of the year, 70 RV parks in the region are home to thousands of winter Texans who shop, eat and entertain themselves in Mission, McAllen, Weslaco and other towns nearby.

The same is true of other flying creatures that have their own enthusiasts, namely butterflies and odonates, or dragonflies and damselflies. Butterflies, in particular, have a growing following among Valley visitors. Mission hosts the Texas Butterfly Festival on the third weekend of October, and the North American Butterfly Association has an International Butterfly Park that is adjacent to the state park. Just as with the birds, there are hundreds of butterfly species to be seen in the LRGV, including some that are only seen there or outside the United States.

The Mission Chamber of Commerce understands the impact that Bentsen State Park, and other nature-tourist destinations in the Valley, have on the community. For six months out of the year, 70 RV parks in the region are home to thousands of winter Texans who shop, eat and entertain themselves in Mission, McAllen, Weslaco and other towns nearby. According to Arlene Rivera, president and CEO of the Mission Chamber, 85 percent of the RV slots there are already reserved for the winter, although the pace of the reservations has been somewhat slower this year, probably due to high gas prices. “The Chamber typically has about 80 people a day asking about the park,” Rivera says. She conjectures that perhaps many winter Texans may not bring their RVs with them this time, which would raise the challenge of finding a place to rent.2

Wetlands in Estero Llano Grande State Park in Hidalgo County, Texas

Estero Llano Grande State Park, Hidalgo County

Tourism has been an important part of the region’s economy for many decades, and eco-tourism is a rapidly growing segment of that industry.

Less than 30 miles east of Mission is the city of Weslaco, home of the second of the WBC state parks, Estero Llano Grande. This 200-acre birding site opened in June 2006 and is located adjacent to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuge of an additional 46 acres, as well as a private 40 acre camp. Estero, which is Spanish for marsh, has several wetland areas, some restored from agricultural fields, and is the largest wetlands environment in the WBC network. It also boasts open scrub, woodlands and butterfly gardens. There are boardwalks, trails, an open-air pavilion and observation decks among the numerous water features, including a lake that is home to a family of alligators. The headquarters has a store, a large classroom/meeting room, and staff offices.

Perhaps even more than Bentsen, Estero has a strong interpretive and educational focus. Its six full-time and five part-time staff include several naturalists. There are multiple programs with weekly schedules, family-oriented events such as campouts and Junior Ranger Club and special occasions such as the Spooky Science Fest. The visitor count for the first full year of tracking (fiscal 2007) for this new park is low at slightly more than 7,300, according to the park superintendent. But the word is getting around about this excellent birding and wildlife-viewing location. From September 2007 through April 2008, the visitor count was nearly 10,400.

Open Prairie in Resaca de la Palma State Park in Cameron County, Texas

Resaca de la Palma State Park, Cameron County

The last of the WBC state parks is a 1,200-acre site just outside the city of Brownsville, called Resaca de la Palma. Resacas are oxbow lakes or ponds, leftover pieces of the river that, in the past, were often created by spring floods. Since the Rio Grande has been dammed, the natural cycle of those floods has changed and all three of these parks use irrigation water to supplement limited rainfall and maintain their features. Resaca de la Palma is not yet officially open, although visitors can schedule a park visit. Staffing is complete, and in July the large resaca that curves through the whole park was filled with water. The park superintendent, Pablo de Yturbe, says that the “soft” opening of the park late this spring was delayed while equipment was installed to control the water levels in order to better mimic the river’s pre-dam patterns. The park’s grand opening is set for December 6, 2008.

The WBC continues to evolve as a world-class bird-watching destination.

De Yturbe says that, in many ways, Resaca will serve as a “city park” for Brownsville, in addition to being a WBC destination. The park offers a critical opportunity for education and offering access to and establishing a connection with the natural world in the rapidly growing, increasingly urbanized Valley.3

The connection between natural areas and economic development is well understood here. Tourism has been an important part of the region’s economy for many decades, and eco-tourism is a rapidly growing segment of that industry. The Rio Grande Valley Partnership is a collaborative Chamber of Commerce that includes the four counties of the LRGV–Starr, Hidalgo, Willacy and Cameron. One of its publications is a large Birding and Butterfly Map that lists dozens of locations and methods to partake of the region’s environmental features. In addition, the Web site www.SouthTexasNature.com aids tourists in their quest for a glimpse of the special winged inhabitants of the Valley. According to Martha Noell, president and CEO of Weslaco’s Chamber of Commerce, the marketing efforts for nature tourism in the LRGV extend all the way to Europe. She has articles from foreign periodicals touting the Valley. “I don’t know what it says,” she comments, speaking of an article written in Japanese, “but I know it’s talking about this area.”4

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park contributed $2,854,704 in sales and $1,259,157 in personal income to Hidalgo County
in 2006.

The WBC continues to evolve as a world-class bird-watching destination. The collaboration between numerous private entities and various levels of public agencies meant bringing the concept to fruition. Marketing the result was an interesting challenge. Indeed, at the planning stage of the WBC and its headquarters, there was a bit of competition between the cities with state park locations to get the headquarters established at their park. One businessman who has become increasingly involved with Bentsen State Park over the years was involved in that competition. Mike Rhodes owned 2,500 acres of agricultural land around the park as investment property. But when the plans for the WBC were being made, Rhodes and his wife became interested in developing that land as a community with a close connection to nature in general and the park in particular. As part of that vision, Rhodes donated 270 acres of his land to be added to the park, a contribution he says was valued at $2.5 million.

During the campaign to bring WBC headquarters to Bentsen, Rhodes committed to building an RV campground on his property across the road from the park, despite the fact that new RV parks are expensive to build and not generally considered a very good investment. Now, though, he has a large development project, Bentsen Palm, adjacent to the park. In addition to the RV campground, this development will have 4,500 home sites making up 11 sub-communities, a charter school, community parks and all-native common area landscaping. He promotes the presence of the park in all the marketing of his development and continues to be closely involved with building the nature tourism industry in the area as a means to a successful business venture. “All the trails, bike paths, everything is connected to and related to the park,” Rhodes says. ”The park is the gel that ties the whole community together.”5

The Bentsen center had expenses of $860,735 in fiscal 2007, against revenues of $141,352, for a net operating loss of $719,383. Because of Resaca’s relative newness, it reported only $38,756 in expenses and no revenue that year. No data were available for Estero Llano.6

According to a study conducted by John Crompton and Juddson Culpepper of Texas A&M University, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park contributed $2,854,704 in sales and $1,259,157 in personal income to Hidalgo County in 2006. The park also created 78.7 jobs and generated $14,274 in sales tax revenue for the county in that year. Estero Llano Grande State Park and Resaca de la Palma State Park were not included in the study.7

Summary Economic Impacts
Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park, Hidalgo County

2006 County Sales 2006 County Resident Income 2006 County Employment (Full-Time Equivalent) 2006 County Sales Tax Generated
$2,854,704 $1,259,157 78.7 $14,274

Source: Texas A&M University.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Direct Spending (Fiscal 2007)

Revenues Operating Expenses* Net Income
$141,352 $860,735 ($719,383)

* Includes salaries, operating expenses and minor (non-capital) repair.

Source: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Summary Economic Impacts
Resaca de la Palma State Park, Cameron County

2006 County Sales 2006 County Resident Income 2006 County Employment (Full-Time Equivalent) 2006 County Sales Tax Generated
N/A* N/A N/A N/A

* The Resaca de la Palma State Park is not yet open.

Source: Texas A&M University.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Direct Spending (Fiscal 2007)

Revenues Operating Expenses* Net Income
$0 $38,756 ($38,756)

* Includes salaries, operating expenses and minor (non-capital) repair.

Source: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Endnotes

  • 1 Ted Lee Eubanks, Using a World Class Birding Facility for Economic Conservation and Development in Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley, (Houston, Texas, Fermata, 2003), pp. 2-3, http://www.fermatainc.com/feas_birding.html. (Last visited August 26, 2008.)
  • 2 Interview with Arlene Rivera, Mission Chamber of Commerce, Mission, Texas, July 14, 2008.
  • 3 Interview with Pablo de Yturbe, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Brownsville, Texas, July 16, 2008.
  • 4 Interview with Martha Noell, Weslaco Chamber of Commerce, Weslaco, Texas, July 15, 2008.
  • 5 Interview with Mike Rhodes, Rhodes Enterprises, Inc., Edinburg, Texas, July 24, 2008.
  • 6 Data provided by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, “Revenue Less Operating Costs, FY 2006-2007,” with Texas Comptroller’s office calculations. Amounts may not total due to rounding.
  • 7 Texas Coalition for Conservation, The Economic Contributions of Texas State Parks in FY 2006, by John L. Crompton and Juddson Culpepper, Texas A&M University, Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences, (Austin, Texas, December 2006), http://rptsweb.tamu.edu/faculty/Crompton/Crompton/Articles/3.10.pdf. (Last visited August 26, 2008.)
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