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The South Padre Island Economic Development Corporation now has an ally in the U.S. Small Business Administration Rio Grande Valley District Office.
The two groups earlier this month signed a Strategic Alliance Memorandum to encourage entrepreneurship and “economic empowerment” on the Island by collaborating on entrepreneurial and financial education for local residents and small-business owners. Affixing their names to the document during the SPI EDC’s Jan. 17 board meeting were SBA District Director Angela Burton and EDC Executive Director Darla Lapeyre.
SBA’s Valley District Office is based in Harlingen and serves 14 South Texas counties including Cameron.
Burton described the memorandum as a working document that solidifies the relationship between the two entities. She acknowledged that the Island’s economy is cyclical, and that businesses sometimes don’t survive the off season. At the same time, things appear to be improving, Burton said.
“I’ve seen the Island just really pick up just in recent years,” she said. “Even during the slow period it seems more busy.”
SBA can still help in a number of ways, Burton said. One possibility is to host “lender panels” to teach business owners about opportunities for financing, she said. Business owners also need to have a handle on day-to-day financial assets versus liabilities — defined as “working capital” — in order to do well in business and, especially, make it through the lean months, Burton said.

Beginning Feb. 1, the $3.00 per vehicle entrance fee at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge will be waived until further notice.
Refuge Manager, Boyd Blihovde, decided to waive the entrance fee due to the condition of the county roads leading to the refuge.
FM 106 is currently undergoing construction and is closed to through traffic, making the trek from Harlingen and Rio Hondo difficult, including several detours, officials said.
The refuge has decided that until the construction of FM 106 makes it easily passable, and the condition of Buena Vista Road improves, there will not be an entrance fee to visit the refuge.

**LEAD**
Lead guide Jim Garrett launches Cynthia Rodriguez and Eric Jaime as they begin a kayak tour on Saturday, Jun. 23, 2012 at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
Paul Chouy / The Brownsville Herald

It’s no secret that the Rio Grande Valley’s best kept secret is its amazingly diverse wildlife. We’ve got elusive ocelot stalking through the thorn scrub beneath a clouded moon, and lemony bright great kiskadees chattering loudly in our backyard bird feeders. There’s zebra longwing butterflies flitting hither and thither among the milkweed, and sharp-eyed osprey giving us some angling competition as they spot their finned food swimming below the water.

You could throw a dart at a painter’s color wheel and easily find numerous examples of plants and animals that display whatever color the dart lands on.
Were the dart to land on ‘blue’ you’d surely have no trouble spending the weekend finding Mexican bluewing butterflies, spotting a splash of cerulean on a green jay, eyeing an indigo snake the shade of a warm summer midnight sky sunning itself in the dirt, or perhaps even finding a bluebonnet blooming among the weeds, if the season’s right.
On another weekend you could find a whole host of things that are red with sightings of cardinals, scarlet tanagers, Turk’s cap flowers, redfish and red-tailed hawks.
And you don’t have to go far to find such treasure either. While our local state parks and national wildlife refuge lands are perhaps the best places of all to spot a glimpse of the best Mother Nature has to offer, the Laguna Madre is unique in that those glimpses can often be caught nearly all around us, no matter where we are.
If you’re willing to have the patience for stillness and quiet, sometimes Mother Nature will come to you. Take a walk around the Lighthouse Square in Port Isabel and you may hear the keening call of a certain peregrine falcon that sometimes like to perch atop the Lighthouse.
Meander around the jetties and you’re likely to see a heron or two probing the shallows for a tasty morsel. Sit quietly beneath a park bench and you could spot a Mexican ground squirrel skipping across the lawn looking for a nibble of food. Drive along Highways 100 or 48 and you’re sure to spot osprey resting on the telephone wires or pelicans relaxing on the Bahia Grande. Sit at the end of a bayside street on South Padre Island at sunset and you’ll hear bait fish splashing their goodbyes to the day as the sun sinks below the horizon.
But even if you’ve lived in the Rio Grande Valley your entire life, you might not know about all these treasures that surround us. I know I certainly didn’t. It wasn’t until I was an adult and had the good fortune to begin attending events that celebrate this land that I began to learn. Events like the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival and the Winter Outdoor Wildlife Expo (WOWE) helped me better appreciate my own home. And there’s still so much more to learn.
Fortunately for me, and for you, WOWE is set to take place this coming week. The expo kicks off at 9:30 a.m. this Tuesday at the Birding and Nature Center (BNC) on South Padre Island. From that moment, until the last presentation on Saturday afternoon, the BNC will play host to numerous local wildlife officials and enthusiasts who will teach us about everything from alligators to ocelots, and from how to catch a fish to how to capture that perfect wildlife photograph.
WOWE will offer something for nature enthusiasts of all ages and experience levels. So come on down to South Padre and learn a little more about what makes this place paradise.

By DINA ARÉVALO

This year’s Air Fiesta will feature modern military aircraft for the first time in six years.
That’s according to Air Fiesta Chairman David Hughston, who said two A-10 “Warthogs” are scheduled to appear at Air Fiesta 2017, Feb. 11-12. Modern military aircraft are very popular with the public, he said, though all branches of the military stopped sending aircraft to air shows around the country as a result of budget cuts triggered by federal sequestration.
The A-10, officially called the “Thunderbolt II,” was designed for close-in support of ground troops, close air support, and providing quick-action support for troops against helicopters and ground forces.
Hughston said Air Fiesta may also have a line on a pair of Harrier Jump Jets, which can take off and land vertically, and hopes to bring in a C-17 Globemaster cargo plane.
“It looks like we’re going to have good modern military, at least for static display if they don’t all fly,” he said. “We’re kind of excited about that. It’s been a long time.”
This year’s headliners include a Soviet-era MiG-17F flown by Randy Ball.
“It’s a big crowd pleaser,” Hughston said. “He comes across the field at just under (the speed of sound).”

BY STEVE CLARK | STAFF WRITER

United Airlines has completed its transition to larger aircraft on Harlingen flights, and all the jets to and from Houston and Valley International Airport are now Embraer 175s.
What that means for travelers is a lot more room, and not just with the seating, but the overhead bins are larger, allowing passengers to store luggage with wheels there instead of checking the bags.
“It’s a 76-seater and within that you have 12 first class seats and a number of economy block seating,” Jose Mulet, director of marketing for Valley International, said yesterday.
“If you’re buying a ticket business-class to New York, Chicago, Paris or whatever, you’ll be able to start that seating in Harlingen,” Mulet added.
He said the Embraer 175 flights to and from Houston will offer two-by-two seating (two rows of two seats) for economy class passengers, a step up from the 50-seat Embraer Regional Jet 145, which has a two-by-one seating configuration.
“The Embraer 145 is a great airplane, however it is late 1990s technology and worked well when the major airline pilots’ contract did not allow their regional carriers to operate any regional jet aircraft larger than 50 seats,” Mulet said. “The new contract allows up to 76 seats, which is what the Embraer 175 and the Bombardier CRJ-900 hold.”
The new Embraer flights are operated by regional carrier Mesa Airlines under contract with United, and there are three round-trip flights per day to and from Harlingen and Houston. Phoenix-based Mesa also provides regional flights for American Airlines.
Mulet said Mesa could add more daily flights to Harlingen during high-traffic periods.
“We hope that during Spring Break they might find me a couple more frequencies a week, but who knows?” Mulet said.
“It’s up to the carrier of course,” Mulet said. “We’ll fill them up.”

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer

Marion Mason is the lead ranger at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. So how many follower rangers are there? “There are none, so I guess I need to adjust my title,” Mason says with a grin. “I am the ranger. You can call me the Lone Ranger.”
Despite her allusion to riding the trails of the High Lonesome alone, Mason is a central figure in one of the most important operations at the wildlife refuge — the visitor services program.
That means she oversees infrastructure such as trails, parking areas, tour vehicles, educational programs and habitat and birding tours.
“We also go off-site to do outreach,” Mason said. “We visit schools, we go to community events and we have a lot of outreach in education as well as within the facilities on-site.”
Due to budgetary considerations, the popular visitor center at the refuge cut back from being open seven days a week to five. She says she couldn’t manage even that without the help of approximately 50 active volunteers. The refuge consists of about 45,000 acres, and it maintains 74 miles of trails.
“I’m not personally out there maintaining them, I just have to make sure it gets done,” Mason said. “We all work together as a team, so our maintenance crew has to mow and things like that — there’s a lot here to maintain, and we have a lot available to the public.”
Mason, who has a degree in wildlife management, will mark her seventh year at Laguna Atascosa in February. In all, she’s worked for 16 years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the nation’s refuge system.
“Originally my career goals were to be a biologist,” Mason recalled. “I started volunteering at a refuge after college and was working with their hunt program — l processed the deer — and an opportunity arose when they were opening to the public.”
Mason says it was the right place, right time, and she got the Maryland job that started her service with USFWS.
Biology degree or no, Mason said once she began working in visitor services she realized how crucial it was to the overall message of conservation which the refuge system embraces.
“Biologists do great things but they can’t do all that’s needed for conservation alone,” Mason said. “You have got to have the public involved in that.
“I kind of see myself as the link, I guess, between what the biologists are doing and what needs to be done in letting the public know about it and find ways the public can get involved,” she added.
She says it’s a message which is communicated on refuge tours. “If you’ve ever been on our tours, you’ll see that we’re stressing — ‘Here’s what we’re doing and here’s what you could do if you want to help, too.’ “Everything from reducing pollution to buying ocelot license plates.”
Most land in Texas — 97 percent by some estimates — is in private hands. For Mason, it makes the refuges even more important since they allow people access to wild areas which otherwise might be off-limits.
“If someone’s fortunate enough to own property, they can be out in nature,” Mason said. “But more and more people aren’t able to own land, or big tracts of land … so a place like this gives everybody the opportunity to experience nature.”
Mason concedes that, even at a preserve like Laguna Atascosa, it’s not the virginal wilderness one might have found in South Texas prior to the 20th century.
“But as you drive around, you can definitely see prairies and forests and significant chunks that are representative of how it used to be,” she said. She says she’s happiest when locals visit Laguna Atascosa, perhaps on a tour, and learn something they didn’t know about where grew up. “Everyone looks at their own backyard and says, ‘Oh yeah, I already know everything about this,’ or ‘this isn’t that significant.’ “Yet people come from all over the country and all over the world to visit here because it is so unique in terms of the wildlife and habitats, so when the locals realize, ‘Wow, I live in a special place,’ that gives them hopefully the motivation to protect areas like this and/or maybe add some habitat in their yard or get more involved. “That’s really the spark that is needed to make wildlife conservation work.”

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer

Roin Khurami had never been hugged by a female who wasn’t related to him.
And yet here she was — a woman he’d just met — embracing him at the BrownsvilleSouthPadre IslandInternationalAirport. She was there to pick up Khurami for a friend, South Padre Island resident Will Everett, who had secured a visa for the Afghanistan native to come to the United States to pursue asylum.
Khurami, 20, arrived in Brownsville 13 months ago after being forced to flee the country for his safety. Everett, who spent five years as an aid worker in Afghanistan, had befriended and employed Khurami, who comes from a poor family and used the money to attend the AmericanUniversity of Afghanistan and learn English.
But in associating with a foreigner and attending an American school, he was violating strict social taboos. Khurami was ostracized by his friends and even some family members who accused him of rejecting Islam.
Ignoring warnings to keep away from the Americans, he was ambushed and badly beaten. Khurami’s brother accused him of bringing down trouble on the family and said he’d likely be killed. His mother and father feared for his safety but lacked the money to get him to safe haven in Europe.
“They said we can sell the house and you can go to save your life,” Khurami said.
Everett, back in the United States, succeeded in securing a visa fairly quickly. Now Khurami is an Island resident in limbo, worried about his parents and sisters and doing what he can to stay occupied until his asylum hearing, which might not happen for another year.
In Afghanistan, a place with few career options, Khurami hoped to become a journalist. Here in the United States, however, the sheer number of potential career paths is mind-boggling, he admitted. Khurami now wants to become a doctor or a dentist.
For now, since he can’t legally attend college for credit or get a job, he keeps busy by volunteering for Sea Turtle Inc., the SPIBirdingCenter and Whiskers resale store, and by helping Everett build Adirondack furniture in his garage.
Despite feeling much safer in the United States, Khurami said he still has bad dreams most nights and can’t fully shake a sense of looming danger.
“If I wanted to walk at night by myself up the street, I have the feeling that someone will attack me,” he said.

By STEVE CLARK | Staff Writer

 

Out of the 191 sea turtles that washed up to shore this past weekend, Sea Turtle Inc. released about 50 Atlantic green sea turtles back to their habitat Thursday at Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island.
The sea turtles were found on the Laguna Madre, Boca Chica beach, Dolphin Cove, GaymenBridge in Port Isabel and the Arroyo Colorado, officials said.
Hundreds of people showed up to Thursday’s turtle release. Many took video and photos of the event. Some even took selfies with the sea turtles as they were being carried to the waters for release.
“The bay temperature dropped very quickly with the recent cold front, and so they went to into a state of shock due to cold,” Assistant Curator Kat Lillie said. “When they go into that shock they can’t swim, and so the wind pushes basically them onto a lower mud flat on shore area and they just basically sit there and wait to be rescued. They really are helpless when they’re in that state.”
Of the 191 sea turtles, most of them were released Wednesday and the rest were released back in the Gulf on Thursday.
“There are a few that have additional injuries, (and) they might stay for a little while longer,” Lillie said.

A Spanish renewable energy company’s first wind farm in Texas came online this month between Bayview and the Laguna Madre.
Acciona Energy announced Dec. 12 that its 93-megawatt San Roman Wind Farm had begun commercial operation. The facility is able to power more than 30,000 Texas homes, according to the company, whose U.S. subsidiary is based in Chicago.
The project also is expected to generate $30 million in tax revenue for local school districts and other public services during its 25-year lifespan in addition to $25 million-plus in lease payments to landowners.
The first components for the project arrived at the Port of Brownsville in late May and were delivered to the site via 18-wheelers. Acciona said it had hired a team of local employees to manage the facility’s long-term operations and maintenance.
San Roman consists of 31 wind turbines mounted on towers 287 feet tall, with rotors 410 feet in diameter.
Ilya Hartmann, CEO of Acciona Energy North America, said the company was “proud to complete this latest addition to our U.S. renewable energy portfolio and become a part of the community here in CameronCounty.”
San Roman is Acciona’s eighth wind farm in the United States, bringing the company’s total U.S. wind capacity to 721 megawatts, including wind farms in Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Acciona also has a 64-megawatt concentrating solar power plant in Nevada, 181 megawatts of operational wind power capacity in Canada and 556 megawatts in Mexico.
The electricity that San Roman generates will be delivered to the grid operated by AEP Texas.

By STEVE CLARK Staff Writer

 

 

The Port of Brownsville’s plan to deepen its ship channel by 10 feet to accommodate larger vessels received congressional authorization earlier this month, with President Barack Obama’s signing of the Water Resources and Development Act of 2016.
The authorization also makes the dredging project, with an estimated cost of $200 million, eligible for federal funding. The “Brazos Island Channel Improvement Project” was among 28 infrastructure projects nationwide included in the WRDA and submitted to Congress by the U.S. Army Corps for approval.
USACE Chief of Engineers and Commanding General Thomas Bostick endorsed the project two years ago in his annual “Chief’s Report,” making the case that dredging the channel to 52 feet from its current depth of 42 feet would create significant economic advantages for commercial navigation in South Texas.
The endorsement, the last step of a years-long feasibility study, came too late for the project to be included for authorization in the Water Resources and Reform Development Act of 2014, which delayed the project’s eligibility for federal funding.
Eduardo Campirano, port director and CEO, said getting congressional authorization at least means clearing “another hurdle in the process.” On top of $200 million for dredging, the port will need another $50 million or so to upgrade docks for the deeper channel, he said.
Campirano said Annova LNG and Rio Grande LNG, two of three liquefied natural gas companies seeking permission from the federal government to build LNG export terminals at the port, have budgeted $3.3 million to pay for engineering and design for the deepening project. Assuming any of those facilities are actually built, special vessels for transporting LNG will use the ship channel on a regular basis.
“Although the project is not designed for the LNGs — they’re not included in the feasibility study for the project — the additional draft would obviously help them,” Campirano said.
As for where the $200 million in construction funds will come from, the port will explore federal funding, private funding, or possibly a combination of the two, he said.
“On the actual construction side we’re obviously going to look at every opportunity,” Campirano said. “Nobody said it was going to be easy.”
Deepening the channel is essential if the port is to remain competitive, he said.
“It’s for the sustainability of what we do,” Campirano said. “The vessels are getting larger. Cargo vessels — whether they’re the dry bulk cargo or the liquid cargo — both are getting bigger.”
A deeper channel is also critical for Keppel AmFELS to be able to service larger, semi-submersible offshore drilling rigs, he said.
“Right now, these large rigs with thrusters, we don’t have the draft to be able to accommodate them,” Campirano said.
The deepening project could commence within five years, depending on how much success the port has rounding up funding, he said.
“It’s all about what we do now,” he said. “There’s about five projects in Texas that are all on the books,” he said. “Everybody’s going to 50 feet-plus. If (vessels) don’t come here they’re going to go elsewhere, so it’s important we look at those opportunities.