ARLINGEN — Thousands of acres on South Padre Island and nearby Bahia Grande are now in sight to become federal areas designed to protect nesting sea turtles and bird rookeries.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, announced the two grant awards for conservation projects totaling $11 million. The funds were allocated from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, which was established in 2013 as compensation for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“Conservation of the Bahia Grande, Laguna Atascosa, and Laguna Madre has been one of my top priorities since I was elected to the House of Representatives, and today’s announcement marks an important step forward in the protection of these critical habitats,” Vela said in a statement. “Success in protecting these areas is the product of cooperative efforts by federal, state, and local officials working in partnership with non-profits organizations including the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and The Nature Conservancy.”

The non-profit Nature Conservancy has taken the lead on the acquisition of land at these two sites, although purchase agreements still have to be hammered out. The property involves 3,200 acres on South Padre Island and several hundred acres along Bahia Grande near Port Isabel.

“The Nature Conservancy’s been working for a long while with the private landowners north of Bahia Grande between Bahia Grande and the high school, Port Isabel High School,” said Boyd Blihovde, refuge manager at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. “There is a piece of property we have been working to try to acquire with the Nature Conservancy as the main partner.”

The 3,200 acres on South Padre Island consists of two large tracts, Blihovde said, calling it “really good news.”

“It’s looking very hopeful that all the parties will be in agreement on the price and time-frame to get that purchased and that will quickly transfer to the Fish and Wildlife Service if the Nature Conservancy is successful,” he said.

The Nature Conservancy will receive $6.1 million to purchase land adjacent to the Bahia Grande Unit of Laguna Atascosa NWR. The land will then be transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for inclusion in the Laguna Atascosa refuge.

They will utilize an additional $5 million award to purchase and conserve the 3,200 acres on South Padre Island to protect the habitat of endangered wildlife, including critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer