LOS FRESNOS — Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge’s horrible, no-good entrance road has been repaved into a smooth-as-glass thoroughfare.
To celebrate, the refuge is planning a blow-out week for visitors beginning Oct. 12 which includes birding walks, bus tours, tours of the remodeled visitor center, food trucks, arts and crafts and biking.
“It’s not a road that we have control over because there’s a county easement through it,” said Boyd Blihovde, refuge manager. “But despite that, we still got more complaints about that than anything else, complaints about the condition of the road.”
Buena Vista Road is just one of several roadway improvements made to the access routes into Laguna Atascosa, and the jaw-rattling ride was responsible for about a one-third reduction in the number of refuge visitors over the past several years. Buena Vista has been repaved to the south all the way to FM 510, and construction work on FM 106 to the west of the refuge is complete and has dramatically improved access from that direction.
“It’s taken, in my opinion, way longer than it should have, but we’re trying,” Blihovde said.
Buena Vista Road, the access road into the refuge, has a 25-mph speed limit to protect wildlife, including endangered ocelots, which cross the roadway. Contractors are about to add bike lanes to the road so cyclists can view animals and birds while riding.
“We’re getting the word out about Oct. 12th through the 18th having a grand reopening of sorts,” Blihovde said. “So on the 12th, we’re having a reopening event of the visitor center and the road, because at our visitor center we’ve done some improvements and the road as you can see has been improved greatly.”
The week’s events will include guided bird walks, nature talks on mammals, birds and reptiles, photo walks and participant events such as screen printing your own ocelot T-shirts, yoga with birds and basket-weaving.
The rest of the week will feature birding bus tours, nature walks, photography bus tours and a sunset watercolor class.
Loop work suspended
Not all the road news coming out of Laguna Atascosa is good.
Blihovde said construction on Bayside Drive has been halted. This is the popular loop road inside the refuge which was closed to visitor vehicle traffic in 2013 to protect endangered ocelots after two were killed by vehicles.
“That’s the only bad side of this story is that the construction company is not going to complete that,” Blihovde said. “We’re going to have to re-advertise that and … it will be some time before it’s complete.”
Construction on this road began last year and was to be finished this year. Now, the refuge manager says, it may take a year to even re-bid the suspended project before construction can re-start to finish the job.
“They completed the new parking lot base at Redhead Ridge, that was an expansion of that parking lot,” Blihovde said. “They have done some widening of the drive near Redhead Ridge and they probably got about two miles of that done, but there are still six or so miles left.”
Access to improve
For the past year, access to Bayside Drive for hikers and bicyclists, as well as the refuge’s tram tours, has been suspended while construction proceeded.
“We are going to re-open it this winter to hiking and biking and our tram tours as well,” Blihovde said. “I think people were upset because they couldn’t bike or even hike around it, so at least we’ll be able to open that up to those activities. And our tram tour — we didn’t even have a tram tour last year — we’ll start that back up again sometime this winter.”
Blihovde said he has applied for a federal grant which he hopes will help re-establish previous visitor numbers to the refuge.
“I put in for a grant from federal highways called a FLAP grant, federal land access program grant, partnering with the county just because of that reason,” he said. “I expect that the visitor numbers had been depressed because of the road conditions and it will greatly improve.”
Planned events at Laguna Atascosa
8-9 a.m.: Guided bird walk
9:30-9:45 a.m.: Talk: What do our biologists do at Laguna Atascosa
10-11 a.m.: Talk: Skins and Skulls of South Texas
11 a.m. to 2 p.m.: Screenprint your own ocelot T-shirt (bring a shirt)
12-12:15 p.m.: Talk: What does it take to manage a refuge, recent land acquisitions
1-1:15 p.m.: Talk: Visitor programs at Laguna and how you can get involved
2-2:30 p.m.: Talk: Reptiles and amphibians
3-4 p.m.: Nature photo walk
8-11 a.m.: Bilingual birding bus tour
9-10 a.m.: Yoga with birds
2-4 p.m.: Weaving in nature basket-weaving class
Birding bus tours, nature walks, photography bus tours, sunset watercolor class, conchas and chachalacas guided bird walk. On Oct. 19, Rio Reforestation event will be held at La Sal del Rey. Laguna Atascosa will be closed for this Saturday but those interested are urged to join refuge staff at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge near Alamo.