Natural access: Proposal would open Bahia Grande to public - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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Natural access: Proposal would open Bahia Grande to public

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Posted: Wednesday, October 9, 2019 7:30 pm

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge officials want to hear from members of the public on a proposal to expand public access to the Bahia Grande and Laguna Atascosa units of LANWR.

The public comment period is Oct. 15-31, and an open house is scheduled for Oct. 16 in Los Fresnos.

The two-phase proposal would give access to hike-and-bike trails at Bahia Grande near S.H. 48, with trails ranging in length from one to seven miles. Although it’s currently accessible to the public, the Laguna Atascosa unit could get more trails plus improvements to wildlife viewing structures, composting restrooms, parking lots and rest areas under the proposal.

Such improvements would make it easier for visitors to take advantage of refuge-led fishing clinics, wildlife tours and educational programs, according to refuge officials. The proposal likewise discusses future improvements that will require additional planning and public comment, including improved bike routes, visitor contact stations, and public access for fishing and kayaks/canoes.

Refuge Manager Boyd Blihovde predicted that opening the Bahia Grande unit to fishing would be quite popular. The proposal also calls for the unit to be opened to hunting as early as 2021, he said, noting that Bahia Grande has been almost completely restored since being transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2000.

Phase one can be implemented sooner, once an environmental assessment is done, Blihovde said.

“The first phase is just hike-and-bike,” he said. “That’s what we feel can be implemented fairly quickly, because most of the infrastructure is already in place. We’ve been talking to our regional office. This planning process that we’re soliciting comments for is sort of the first step in about a six-month process. We’ve been told they think they can potentially get the property open as early as late winter or early spring.”

Public fishing at San Martin Lake along S.H. 48 via the Zapata Boat Ramp is allowed and won’t change under the proposal, Blihovde said. Aside from that, there’s currently no other self-guided public access to Bahia Grande. The tours and clinics LANWR has hosted have been challenging due to the refuge’s small staff, though things will get even busier for staff if the unit is opened to the public, Blihovde said.

Sonny Perez, acting project leader with the USFWS South Texas Refuge Complex, which includes LANWR, said the public access proposal was included in a refuge comprehensive conservation plan drafted years ago, which stipulated the need for sufficient staff to “do it right.” Staff shortages have always been an issue, he said.

“We’re still trying to meet that and still provide access,” Perez said. “Boyd is doing a tremendous job. Hopefully we’re going to get there real soon. That’s why it’s a phased approach. We didn’t get a lot of extra staff, so we’re trying to do what we can with the resources we have.”

Blihovde said it’s important that the public is involved in planning.

“The main thing we want to get across to the public is what we want public feedback,” he said. “We want to get comments. None of the proposals are set in stone. We have to convey our ideas and how we want to improve visitor access, but none of it is final.”

Public comments will be accepted from Oct. 15 to Oct. 31 and can be emailed to christopher_quezada@fws.gov, or mailed to Laguna Atascosa NWR, 22817 Ocelot Rd., Los Fresnos, TX 78566.

Comments may also be submitted at an open house scheduled for Oct. 16, 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Los Fresnos Fire Department, 100 Rodeo Drive. For more information call (956) 748-3607.

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com

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