May 1, 2010
by Laura Tillman
When you drive down the pot-hole flecked road leading to the Sabal Palm Audubon Center & Sanctuary, a field of silky green stalks of maturing corn sits to your left, the brown expanse of the U.S.-Mexico border fence stretches out in front.
At the end of the road there’s an opening in the rust-colored fence, which allows vehicles to motor over the levy to a vista of the lush wildlife sanctuary beyond. But when you arrive at the gate for the Sabal Palm Audubon Center itself, there is no moving ahead into the brush.
Instead a stop sign hangs here — and a lock.
Sabal Palm closed in May 2009 for the season with hopes of re-opening that October. But October came and went, and one year after the center initially closed it remains locked up. The center has been unable to secure the funding it needs to pay employees, thanks in part to a decline in donations after the recession began.
Owned by the Audubon Society, Sabal Palm is one of the last two remaining protected groves of sabal palm trees in the country. The other is next door at The Nature Conservancy, a private nature preserve generally closed to the public, which may also end its tenure in the Rio Grande Valley. In the case of The Nature Conservancy, the issue isn’t funding — its liability issues posed by the path of the U.S.-Mexico border fence, which places upwards of 90 percent of its property on the south side of the fence.
At the Sabal Palm Audubon Center, the fence has also raised concerns. Bob Bentson, the vice president of Audubon Texas, said that he didn’t know if the gap at the entrance of the preserve, for example, would be filled with a gate or just more fencing.
A spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers told The Brownsville Herald that a gate would fill the spot.
"New hours of operation," reads a sign on the closed gate of Sabal Palms, hopefully. But then the next line, "the Sanctuary is currently closed," destroys that hope.
Bentson says the Audubon Society is optimistic that it will soon be able to secure funding to re-open the center, though he declined to specify where such money might come from.
"Unfortunately the economy hit us hard," Bentson said.
You can still drive to the entrance of Sabal Palm and, gazing over at the sanctuary, see kiskadees, mockingbirds, lizards, and the famous sabal palms themselves. The shaggy trees have not lost their rough tropical luster. But Bentson says that if and when the center re-opens, it will need some sprucing up.
"She doesn’t have on her Sunday best right now," he said.