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UTPA volunteers unite in service to make a difference in the RGV environment
Contact: Office of University Relations (956) 665-2741
Posted: 11/12/2010
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Volunteers from The University of Texas-Pan American joined hundreds of other residents from the Rio Grande Valley Nov. 6 in an effort to replant and conserve a valuable and scarce habitat in South Texas - the Tamaulipan Thornscrub brush, one of the few native habitats left in the Valley.

Two UTPA students who volunteered for Make a Difference Day are pictured digging holes for planting during the Rio Reforestation project held Nov. 6 at the La Sal Del Rey in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The reforestation project seeks to replant native RGV vegetation important to endangered species and migratory birds.

The Rio Reforestation project, hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Valley Environmental Council, was chosen as UTPA's sixth annual Make a Difference Day event, attracting more than 60 students and staff members along with volunteers from UTPA's Office of Sustainability and the Environmental Awareness Club (EAC). They travelled to La Sal Del Rey, a tract of land north of Edinburg and west of Raymondville that is part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, where the project took place. There, a total of 400 volunteers worked together to replant the natural vegetation that had been removed to use the land for agriculture.

Erica Lopez, program coordinator for Student Life and Transition Services, said this project provided an opportunity to take a large group from UTPA to a volunteer service activity they had not participated in previously.

"We also wanted to choose a project that would aid in the sustainability efforts that UTPA is putting forth," she said.

The volunteers began their planting at 8 a.m. and before noon had covered about 16 acres, planting roughly 13,000 plants or 800 per acre. Bob Berry, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service representative, said the purpose of the Rio Reforestation project is to not only conserve the Tamaulipan Thornscrub but to also build stronger communities that are knowledgeable about the earth.

"We're trying to educate people about re-vegetation projects, getting people to learn about native plants and why we do these projects," he said. "Volunteers will be able to return to this sight in years to come and watch as their work returns land to its native habitat, attracting wildlife and securing the earth from erosion."

Pictured is one of more than 60 UTPA students, staff and faculty who helped plant approximately 13,000 native plants Nov. 6 during the Rio Reforestation project hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Valley Environmental Council. The project was chosen as UTPA's 2010 Make a Difference Day service event.
According to Quina Rutledge, program coordinator in UTPA's Office for Sustainability and a volunteer at the event, there are only about 5 percent of thornscrub habitats left in the Valley. She described these habitats as important to endangered and threatened species such as the ocelot. The brush land also serves as a resting place for migratory birds that need the vegetation for water and protection during their journey south, she said.

Barry said the turnout of volunteers exceeded his expectations. In addition to the UTPA volunteers, participants from Texas A&M Kingsville, Girl Scouts, conservation organizations and community families made the event extremely productive, he said. Rutledge said it was great to see the commitment and enthusiasm the students from UTPA displayed.

"Our students served as role models to the many high school, middle school and elementary school age students volunteering. For these students to see college level students volunteering sends them a positive message," Rutledge said.

Jorge Trujillo, a UTPA student and co-president of the EAC, said he enjoyed all aspects of the day and contributing his time and effort to protect local habitats.

"It was really fun to see all the people from South Texas -from all aspects of life-rehabilitating the vegetation," Trujillo said. "It was a lot of fun for everyone, doing good for the Valley."

Make a Difference Day is an annual event celebrating neighbors helping neighbors. Throughout the day of service, which was created in 1980 by USA Weekend Magazine and typically the fourth Saturday of October, millions of Americans unite in a common mission to improve the lives of others.

The Make a Difference Day project has become one of the many service projects UTPA's Office of Student Life and Transition Services organizes for and with students.

Earlier this year, the office arranged for a group of University students to participate in a day of service at the Veteran's Memorial Park in McAllen. Last month, student volunteers from UTPA worked as a group at an Adopt-a-Beach Clean-up and the World Day of Play Day at the Edinburg Boys and Girls Club. During Jan. 9-14, 2011, students from UTPA will participate in the Winter Alternative Break program by welcoming a group of student volunteers from Grinnell College in Iowa to work together over the hiatus between the academic semesters on community service projects in the Valley.

For more information on sustainability and reforestation project volunteer opportunities, contact Rutledge at (956) 665-3030. For more information on UTPA service projects for students, faculty and/or staff, contact Lopez at (956) 665-2492.