South Laredo Nature and Birding Center (SoLa) begins to take shape on 20 acres of river vega

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Stakeholders in what will become the South Laredo Nature and Birding Center (SoLa) took a walkabout on the 20-acre river vega property Wednesday, May 9, and also took a look at the remodeled and retrofitted structure that will serve as a learning and information center.

The District III project, which was initiated by City Council member Alex Perez Jr., will be an educational and recreational resource for South Laredo youth to learn about environmental conservation, birds, wildlife habitat, native foliage, and the beauty of the Río Grande. The center will also offer local and visiting birders access to the native and migrating species for which Laredo has now become well known.

The Río Grande International Study Center (RGISC) will lease the area from the City of Laredo once it is completed.

According to City Community Development director Arturo García, the property incorporates what had been the Cadena house, which faces the river and sits on 4.52 acres. The City purchased the property in 2011 for $253,000 and an additional 15-acre tract from A&S Holdings for $232,500. Access to the property is along a caliche road adjacent to Little Caesar’s Pizza on U.S. Hwy. 83 South.

According to John Orfila, City Public Works director, the two-story structure has been rehabilitated with carpentry and window repairs, paint, a new roof, and the installation of air conditioners and ADA compliant restrooms.

Orfila said the land use for nature trails speaks to the diversity of ideas that City Council members want for parkland and green spaces in their districts. “Some want recreation centers and playgrounds, but in this case, Council member Perez wanted to showcase the natural environment of the river and its tributaries.”

Ryan Spates of S&S Trail Services, LLC of Austin, who is completing bike trails south of The Max Municipal Golf Course, was onsite at the walkabout. “I’m really impressed with the water features and the sandstone formations on this property. There are tons of birds here and other wildlife,” he said, adding that his design would be for hiking trails rather than bike trails.

Spates, who has constructed trails for Dripping Springs Ranch Park, Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center and Trail School (including a section of ADA trail), Huntsville State Park and Sam Houston National Forest, the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site, and others, said he could have a design ready in June for an October start date.

He added that his low-impact trail work is done by a four-man team that makes an initial 42-inch cut with a small walk-behind skid steer on rubber tracks. “We follow behind the machine to do handwork,” he said.

In addition to seeing the South Laredo Hiking and Nature Center as a venue for nature exploration for local youth, Council member Perez visualizes it as an asset for ecotourism.

“Just below us the Valley takes in a half-billion annually in ecotourism, including birders. We hope the Center can draw some of that revenue to Laredo,” he said. “The City’s Master Plan calls for a green belt all along the river, and eventually a bike trail that connects the entire city. We hope to find funding to connect the Chacon Creek Trail, about 4.5 miles, and the Zacate Creek Trail, another 4.5 miles. We have completed a study for that possibility, and it was submitted to Congressman Henry Cuellar. Imagine being able to hop on a bike and access the Meadow Bat Park, Slaughter Park, and the trails at SoLa.” Perez continued, elaborating on a trail system that would allow Laredoans and visitors alike a nature experience along the river and through some of the City’s most beautiful areas.

He said that RGISC, with its zeal for nature and longtime stewardship of the river, was the best choice to take on the management of the SoLa Center.

“Our goal with the SoLa Center is to host school field trips, summer youth camps, and weekend activities that focus on outdoor adventures, hands-on science activities, nature art, and environmental education along the banks of the Rio Grande,” RGISC executive director Tricia Cortez said after the walkabout.

“This threatened river is our only source of drinking water, and yet, few Laredoans know it or have easy access to it. For many Laredo youngsters, attending one of the programs there will provide some firsts — hiking along the Rio Grande, holding a fishing rod, planting a Monarch Butterfly garden, getting into a canoe/kayak, and learning why this stretch of river is considered the ‘birdiest’ corridor in all of North America,” Cortez continued.

She said the SoLa Center has the potential to help children develop an awareness of their responsibility as environmentally-minded citizens who will be empowered to impact their own future. “In order for children to imagine themselves as proactive and studious citizens with boundless futures, they must first know what is possible. SoLa will be a wonderful place to experience that,” she said.

Cortez said she anticipates that the SoLa Center could open its doors and trails as early as the Spring of 2019.

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