Laguna Atascosa conservation projects get $11M in grants

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, announced the allocation of more than $11 million to fund two conservation projects, according to a news release.

The funding, through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, is in part going to the Nature Conservancy, which will receive more than $6 million to buy land near the Bahia Grande Unit of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, and will then be transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to be added to the Laguna Atascosa NWR, the release states.

The Nature Conservancy is a nonprofit environmental organization purporting to “conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends,” according to its website.

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

In 2013, a federal court approved two plea agreements resolving criminal charges against British Petroleum — BP — and Transocean related to their roles in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent spill.

As part of the agreements in the cases, $2.5 billion was awarded to NFWF to fund projects benefiting the natural resources of the Gulf Coast that was impacted by the 2010 spill, according to the NFWF website.

To date the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, which awards grants to state and local organizations with “boots on the ground, boats in the water expertise,” has supported nearly 150 projects worth nearly $1.3 billion.

Vela said protecting the Bahia Grande, Laguna Atascosa, and Laguna Madre has been a priority since his election to the House of Representatives.

“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,” Vela said in a prepared statement. “I thank The Nature Conservancy and Tanner Johnson of the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund for prioritizing these land acquisitions which will protect native and endangered wildlife throughout the region.”

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, covering more than 45,100 acres of land, is the largest protected area of natural habitat left in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, according to the wildlife’s website.