The Valley Land Fund: The Beginning

“Okay, so what do we do now?” John asked the hastily convened gathering. 

For those of us who know John Martin, such a question is to be expected when faced with a problem, as was the case that fateful day in October 1986. John, his wife Audrey, Clayton and Lynette Scribner, and Steve Bentsen, had just left a meeting of the Board of Directors of the Frontera Audubon Society where it had been announced that a 4.25 acre tract of native brush in Weslaco was about to be bulldozed into oblivion. This five-some then adjourned to a local pub to try to figure out what they could do to save this increasingly rare piece of native habitat. After all, land is one thing they are not making any more; and native brush is all the more valuable because so many plants and animals call it home. (Unlike our species, they have little choice as to where they can live!)

Actually, this parcel had been on the market for a year, and the owner reportedly had said that he figured clearing it would make it easier to sell. (Although only a couple decades ago, this attitude was common back then. Quite a difference from today, when we are finally starting to realize the value of native habitats. Perhaps this was just another example of how we rarely appreciate what we’ve been given until we have destroyed it.)

The owner wanted $20,000 for the land, so the plan was to offer to buy half of it for $10,000 if the owner would donate the other half.

The owner, a local real estate agent, recognized the value of $10,000 in cash plus a handsome tax deduction for his donation, and accepted the offer. So now our group had to raise $10,000!

Remember, this was not during the stock market bubble years of the 1990s; this was during the much harder 1980s. But to doubt the dedication and resourcefulness of this group would have been to underestimate some of the most creative, hard-working, selfless people in The Valley. Clayton and Lynette contributed the first $2,000, and everyone began talking up the project. Unfortunately, except for Steve, the others had few local contacts. But using the initiative for which they were soon to be known, many contacts were made Valley wide. Not surprisingly, at least in retrospect, the $10,000 was raised and the land was transferred before the end of the year (less than 3 months after the initial meeting!).

Title was eventually transferred to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department . Today, this parcel is the cornerstone of the Llano Grande State Park, one of the World Birding Center’s facilities.

But these are people not prone to sitting on their laurels.

In January 1987, less than a month after the closing of the Llano Grande property, our band of itinerant rescuers of native habitat concluded their actions should not be a one time event, and decided to create an organization “To preserve, expand, and enhance the native wildlife habitat in the Rio Grande Valley through education, property ownership, and the creation of economic incentives.” Thus was The Valley Land Fund formed.

Among the early converts were Tom Koeneke (an attorney), Jack Hart (an accountant), and Carol Rausch (an administrator at UT Pan Am who has a degree in environmental education). Before long the paper work needed to form a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization was filed. But these were mere formalities. If The Valley Land Fund were to become a meaningful force, it needed local support, especially from those who made things happen.

Now support can come in many ways, and not all of them are financial. In July 1987, less than a year after their first gathering concerning the Llano Grande property, the members of the newly formed Valley Land Fund made a presentation to local business and political leaders. The request was to be able to point to them as supporters of The Valley Land Fund’s projects. In exchange, VLF promised that its approach would be non-confrontational (which is the only approach it has ever taken), and that it would keep the community apprized of its activities.

The rest is history. During the intervening years, The Valley Land Fund has partnered with many local groups to help preserve, expand, and enhance thousands of acres of native habitat in our Valley, always utilizing its non-confrontational method. In effect, The Valley Land Fund only works with those who want to work with it.

While conservation of habitat is its mission, VLF is perhaps best known locally, nationally, and world-wide for running the world’s richest wildlife photo contests from 1994 through 2008. How that came to pass will have to be the subject of a future article.

Mike Hannisian