The Thicket’s Early Days

One day recently I was poking around and exploring the perimeter of the Thicket behind the neighborhood pool. I felt like a kid exploring the brushland behind my Grandma’s house, a dense, impenetrable forest. This quiet, seemingly-forgotten area is held back by a wrought iron fence, flanked by neighboring houses and the Thicket trail beyond. I peered through the bars and noticed this sign.

Before Frontera Audubon's Thicket came about, the Chapman's would invite birders to enjoy their two acres of habitat.

Before Frontera Audubon’s Thicket came about, the Chapman’s would invite birders to enjoy their two acres of habitat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following story was originally published in Frontera Audubon’s Newsletter, The Altamira, in 2010. It was written by Jim Chapman and re-submitted to me after I asked him to tell me the story behind the sign. Many of you who have visited recently have shared your memories of exploring these acres donated by Jim and his late wife Cyndy. Cyndy was the first director of Frontera Audubon, and one of the visionaries responsible for the Thicket as we know it today. Without Jim and Cyndy’s contribution and foresight, we would not have this beautiful 15 acres that has come to be known as “The Thicket.” -Sarah Williams-Salazar, Executive Director (2011-Present)

Ten Days to Clear

In the fall of 1989  there was as yet no Frontera Thicket.  In its place was an abandoned grapefruit orchard, a lot of Guinea grass and Mesquite, and in the wet area to the southeast, dense stands of Brazilian Pepper.  The year before, Cyndy and I had taken out a loan to buy the 2 acres behind our house, 1 lot deep and 8 lots wide, that ran from the middle of Charlie and Patti Flores’ yard all the way to the cemetery.  It was a small sugar Hackberry (and Guinea grass) forest that was a magnet for birds and fireflies, and we loved it.  As Guinea grass was pulled out, native brush and tree seedlings went in.  Neighbors were supportive, friends helped, we were making a wonderful place even better.

Then one day came a legal notice from the city saying we had 10 days to clear our 2 acres of its “noxious weeds.”  And weeding meant tractors.  Most towns have what is commonly referred to as a “weedy lot ordinance” and we were in violation of Weslaco’s.  Here is how the ordinance reads:

Public nuisances defined.

Any condition on private property which endangers the public health, safety or welfare including, but not limited to an accumulation of trash, rubbish, debris, carrion, filth, brush or stagnant water on such property or the unsightly and uncontrolled growth of weeds, or any other plant material on private property to the degree that it constitutes a fire or health hazard.   …

Clear our little thicket??!!  We got an attorney to persuade city code enforcement to temporarily back off while we mulled over our options.  Weedy lot ordinances have been successfully challenged in court, but that would be a huge and adversarial undertaking, and, besides, several of the City Commissioners were actually sympathetic to our cause, while pointing out that they couldn’t selectively enforce the city’s laws.  We not only had an “uncontrolled growth of weeds” but were promoting more!  So we borrowed an idea from Brownsville.  They had successfully passed a habitat ordinance the preceding summer to protect brush along several resacas.   On Jan. 29, 1990 neighbor John Fucik convened a meeting to draft a Weslaco Habitat Ordinance.   Present were Cyndy, myself, Clare Caldes, Perry Grissom, Rod Summy and Thea Ulen.  The proposed ordinance was presented to the Weslaco City Commission for first reading 6 weeks later, in a room packed with friends, neighbors and supporters.  The ordinance established a procedure whereby a city-appointed wildlife habitat committee would establish criteria and evaluate habitat applications.  Once approved by the City Commission the habitat area would be exempt from the “weedy lot” ordinance.  On March 20, 1990 again to a full house, the Commission passed Ordinance No. 90-09 and the Weslaco Habitat Ordinance became law.  And shortly thereafter Weslaco had its first designated wildlife habitat area.

Had the 10 Day Notice stood and our little thicket been cleared, there would likely have never been a Frontera Audubon Thicket.  Other good things happened as a result of our joint-effort success.  The city of Weslaco got positive recognition, and became a model like Brownsville for other cities to follow, Harlingen being next.  Weslaco’s Fire Marshal joined us in an early revegetation effort that resulted in, among other things, all of the Texas Ebonys that you see in the Thicket now.  John and Naomi Fucik donated a half acre of their property adjacent to ours.  Terry Pollard  paid off our loan on the property so we could proceed, with the help of the Valley Land Fund, to pass the land to Frontera.  That in turn set the stage for our approaching Bebe James to donate the 12 acre Skaggs property.  With her generous assent Frontera’s Thicket became what you see today.  Not counting the considerable blood, sweat, tears and chiggers during the intervening years!  There are so many heroes, mostly unsung, to this story.  I wish I could name them all.