Feature

"Good morning, it's a beautiful day at Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary."

As he manages the last forest of its kind in the nation, Jimmy Paz is also teaching children invaluable lessons about nature--and their own future.

By Patricia Sharpe
Photography by Robb Kendrick

Jimmy Paz raises his arms and beckons: "Ven para aca." ("Come over here.") ¿Todos entienden ingles? ("Does everybody understand English?") A chorus answers, "Yes!" Paz says, "Good, okay. Follow me."

On a crisp morning in the Rio Grande Valley at the southernmost part of Texas, the manager of the Sabal Palm Audubon Center & Sanctuary is giving a guided tour to 15 children. Most are Hispanic second through fifth graders from Cameron Park, which is just outside Brownsville, a city of about 160,000 located seven miles to the northwest of the sanctuary. The group moves as one rather twitchy animal along the nature trail until Paz stops in front of a sabal palm. The short tree is only a few years old, but it already has large blue-green, fan-shaped leaves that will eventually form a resplendent crown.

A century ago sabal palms grew along the Rio Grande as far as 80 miles inland, providing habitat for an array of seldom-seen species--from jaguarundis to green jays--found nowhere else in the United States. Since then farms and citrus orchards have largely rendered this part of the Rio Grande Valley's flat, dry landscape as featureless as a skillet. But in the valley's tip lies Paz's sanctuary, a 527-acre island of lush native vegetation that comprises the largest tract of sabal palms left in the nation and includes 32 acres of old growth. The sanctuary was created by Audubon in 1971; Paz has been its manager since 1998.

Paz believes the sanctuary is paradise. "The smells and sounds are a magical experience," he says. "When the fiddle-wood, huisache, and everything else is blooming, it's like breathing beautiful perfume. And you can hear the winds rustling through the palms. You can't find this sound anywhere else. It's why we have prayer groups come here. I tell the kids you can't find this in a mall or at the movies. Maybe you can see something like it in a movie, but you won't ever have those natural sounds or smells."

When the kids from Cameron Park make a commotion, Paz preaches peace. "How would you like it if I went to your house and made a lot of noise?" he asks them. "Would you throw me out? Would you call the police? This place is home to many birds and animals. We need to respect their home and not make noise. You must be quiet and listen to the birds and other animals."

A few minutes later, the distinctive chirrrr of a golden-fronted woodpecker echoes through the forest. "Hey, do you hear that woodpecker over there? And that other one? What do you think they're saying to each other? Are they saying hello? They're saying, hey, look, these are the kids we saw at Cameron Park the other day. The birds fly in your backyards and all over the place." Almost as if on cue, a buff-bellied hummingbird chimes in: tchik-tchik-tchik.

Motioning toward a squat, bushy huisache tree, Paz tells the kids how the native people used to boil its flowers to treat head colds and sinus problems. Pointing at another tree, he says, "See that little hole? A woodpecker made it, but other little birds come and live in it when the woodpecker leaves."

Paz leads the way toward the Rio Grande, its muddy banks on the Mexican side lined with all sorts of debris. "See that trash?" he asks. "What happens when we get a heavy rain? That's right--it goes into the river. This is our only source of water for drinking, bathing, or washing our cars. How many of you brushed your teeth this morning? And how many of you left the water running while you did? Oh, my gosh! You wasted all that water! When this is gone there will be no more water in this area."

 

Paz faces the distinct challenge of presiding over one of the nation's richest ecosystems in one of its poorest regions. Avid birders from across the country--and from as far away as France and China--flock to his grove to gaze at exotic birds, including green jays, with their smart yellow-green vests, and the great kiskadee, a type of flycatcher with gaudy yellow and rufous feathers. Six years ago Gary McBryde, an economist at Texas A&M-Kingsville, estimated that people from all over the world spent $1 million annually on visits to the sanctuary.

But Sabal Palm remains largely invisible to many locals as they struggle to make ends meet. Brownsville is a pleasant community, with a busy downtown, new shopping centers, and galleries, and the city and nearby towns have a sizable educated middle class. Still, with a large population of migrant or seasonal farm workers, poverty is pervasive. As of 1999, 37 percent of the people in the three-county area that includes Brownsville lived below the federal poverty line, compared with 17 percent for the rest of Texas. In the lower Rio Grande Valley, 46 percent of Hispanic adults aged 25 to 34 did not graduate from high school. Poverty is even more endemic in Matamoros, Brownsville's sister city across the Rio Grande in Mexico. There, unregulated, foreign-owned factories spew noxious waste into the air and waterways shared by Mexico and the United States.

The paradox of human want in the midst of nature's plenty makes Sabal Palm a centerpiece of Audubon's master plan to create 1,000 nature centers nationwide by the year 2020, particularly in underserved areas such as Brownsville. "We know that by the year 2050, no one ethnic group will be dominant in this country," says Mike Perkins, Texas Audubon's development director. Places like Brownsville--where Hispanics and Anglos share power in politics, business, and other areas--can serve as models for Audubon's mission. Testifying to Sabal Palm's importance, Texas Audubon's new education director, Penny Hartwell, is headquartered at the sanctuary. And the planned nature center--when it rains, the lack of a sizable building at the sanctuary sometimes forces the cancellation of school trips--is being designed by David Heymann, a well-known green architect, who designed President George W. Bush's ranch house.

Santiago Paz, 59, universally known as Jimmy, is a grandfather eight times over. But this stocky, curly-haired man with the crinkly smile is more like the friendly uncle who takes you on hikes and knows the answers to questions like "Why can't I eat that mushroom?" and tells you, "Be quiet! After this airplane goes over, listen for coyotes--they howl if a high-pitched noise hurts their ears."

Paz's reach extends to all parts of the community. He visits local schools, where he gives talks on birds. "I'll ask, 'Can anybody tell me what a green jay looks like?' Nobody knows. I put one up on a screen. Then they say, 'Oh, wow, I saw one of those, that's really something,' " he says. "It's amazing to me that the local people aren't more familiar with the birds that are around them every day." One scoutmaster asked if his troop could camp overnight in the sanctuary's parking lot. In exchange, the boys still come back to pull weeds, sweep the parking lot, and do other chores. Paz says, "I get things done, and they have a great time."

When school groups from Matamoros visit the sanctuary, Paz tries to send each child home with a seedling of a native ebony tree. It's an apt gift because, as Paz is fond of saying, his goal is to "plant a little seed" of interest about the interconnectedness of the area's plants and animals and the environment. A single morning at the sanctuary for children often results in new visitors. "We'll do a school tour," Paz says. "Within the next two or three weeks the kids will come back with their parents and grandparents so they can show them around."

 

Paz brings a number of helpful attributes to his work, the first of which is fluency in Spanish and English. The second is knowing how to run the sanctuary on a shoestring, which, in part, means cajoling volunteers into donating their time and money. Most important, he has a way with young people. "The kids are eager to get out here," says Ernestina Echavarria of the Esperanta Park Branch of the Brownsville Girls and Boys Club. "It's one of the more special things we do. Jimmy is good about working with the kids. They remember what he says and talk about it afterward."

When Paz answers the telephone with his hallmark greeting, "Good morning, it's a beautiful day at Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary," he really means it. Accepting the manager's job at Sabal Palm in 1998 reconnected him to his roots. Previously, his career had taken him from the U.S. Army to the Brownsville police department and the electronics division at Union Carbide. In the early 1990s he got reacquainted with the sanctuary almost serendipitously when he asked the previous manager to give a talk to the local Optimist Club.

That experience rekindled his old love for the grove, and through a series of events he ended up as the sanctuary's manager. "I was born and raised in Brownsville," he says. "We even had a sabal palm in front of our house. It grew up with me." On Saturdays he and his friends often went to the movies; the price was nine cents to get in, plus a penny for a candy bar. Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan movies were their favorites. Other weekends the kids would play Tarzan, packing sacks of corn tortillas and jars of water and riding their bicycles out to the palm grove. "It was a safari for us," Paz says. "This was in the 1940s, way before the sanctuary was here. There were fewer cleared fields and no trails, so some areas were still wooded." To cool off, they went swimming in the resacas, or oxbow lakes. "This area was beautiful then," he says. "It was really something."

Today, back on the trail, Paz poses a series of questions that thrill his young visitors. "Has anybody seen a bobcat?" They all go "Noooo." Paz then asks what about "a coyote? A raccoon? How can we tell? We need to look for tracks. How else could you tell if an animal has been along here? We look for scat. That means poo-poo." The children then gather around raccoon tracks, measuring them against their own small hands.

After making the mile-long circuit, they inspect the raised beds that will eventually make a "nature garden" to attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and other wildlife. Paz has volunteers planting verbena, evening primrose, scarlet salvia, Mexican hat, shrubby blue sage, tansy aster, Indian blanket, and betony leaf mistflower. By now the children are getting a little squirmy, and they're eager to dig holes and help plant Texas frogfruit. They turn shy when they're asked what attracts them to the sanctuary. Jessy Sanchez, an eight-year-old in a Kansas City Chiefs jacket, volunteers. "I have a leaf I found here. I also found a tooth. I think it's a coyote tooth. I like the color," he says, removing it from a plastic container. It's gray and very rough, like a cat's tongue. "I like finding tracks," Jessy adds. "I found a coyote one. I also saw a bird that looked like an eagle but wasn't." Sharing his enthusiasm is Letty Zubieta, also eight, who is wearing a gray hooded shirt and pink pants. "I've been here lots of times," she says. "We went catching butterflies, and we watched chachalacas [a garrulous, crow-sized bird]. Sometimes Jimmy makes us laugh. I want to be a teacher when I grow up and teach drawing. I like to draw animals."

With the last hole dug and the last Texas frogfruit planted, Jimmy rounds up the kids and they all pile into the van for the trip back to town. "One of the reasons I wanted to get a really big van for the sanctuary is so that we would have a way to bring these children out here for free," Paz says. "Some of the schools just don't have the money to rent a bus for after-school activities, and most of the parents work. These children need programs just as much as the ones whose folks can afford it, probably more so.

"They're all our future," he continues. "One day a group of us at the sanctuary were sitting down, discussing how we can get kids involved in ecology, birding, and other things. Some quiet guy in the back suddenly said, 'Why don't we grow them?' That's a good idea of what we're trying to do--grow them."

Patricia Sharpe has been an editor at Texas Monthly for 26 years. She has made many visits to the Sabal Palm sanctuary over the years, and wrote about it for Audubon in 1992.

 

Volunteer Army

Among the more unlikely recent volunteers at the Sabal Palm Audubon Center & Sanctuary was a crew of naval officers from the minesweeper USS Shrike. The officers, who were stationed in the area, wanted to do some community service. Says sanctuary manager Jimmy Paz, "In one day they did a huge amount of work on our wetland bridge."

Something about the beauty and vulnerability of the grove makes people want to protect it. At any given time volunteers might be busy hammering, sweeping, clipping, or leading bird walks. They have helped widen and deepen the dry riverbed that cuts through the forest, built a boardwalk over that riverbed, and planted at least 150 acres of native plants. One group has started tests to eradicate an invasive vine, and a university professor is installing wireless "steady cams" near the sanctuary's birdfeeders so that people in the visitors center can see what interesting species have landed. All told, Jimmy Paz relies on an army of some 500 volunteers, from senior citizens to the border patrol. "If it weren't for them, I couldn't do it," he says. "The community has really responded."

The sanctuary needs all the help it can get, not only because its funding is limited but also because it is about to begin two large projects to apply first aid to parts of the inner forest where the palms are turning brown and looking sickly. No one is certain about the reasons for the decline, but a prime suspect is lack of water. During the past several years Texas has been scourged by droughts. On top of that, the floods that used to deluge the area at least annually no longer occur, because of the construction of two huge dams far upriver. To help restore natural water patterns, Paz intends to create wetlands and to regularly pump in water to flood the sanctuary's low-lying areas. As always, much of the work will fall to volunteers.

Nearly 20 years ago, when I first stepped into the sabal palm grove, I felt as if I had wandered into W.H. Hudson's novel Green Mansions. Just as in that fantasy of natural innocence lost, the air itself seemed green and moist, the vegetation prehistoric. That an ocelot or a jaguarundi might be napping only yards away was a distinct possibility. If I had lingered until evening, I might have seen the Mexican free-tailed bats that make their homes behind dead palm fronds. Returning from time to time since then, I have seen some of the nearly 300 bird species that live in or pass through the sanctuary, including such Mexican and Central American species as the big black groove-billed ani. The miles of trees that in 1519 inspired the Spanish explorer Alonzo Alvarez de Pineda to call this part of the river the Rio de las Palmas may be gone, but a bit of their magic endures in this small, enchanted forest.

For information on the Sabal Palm Audubon Center & Sanctuary (956-541-8034; www.audubon.org/local/sanctuary/sabal/) or to contribute to the nature center's construction, write Sabal Palm Audubon Center & Sanctuary, P.O. Box 5169, Brownsville, TX 78523-5169. Donations are tax-deductible.

--P.S.


© 2001  NASI

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