By Courtney Guillen, American Forests

I grew up in the Lower Rio Grande Valley — an incredibly unique area for many reasons, including its rich cultural intersection between Texas and Mexico. However, the most interesting part of the Valley might be its unique natural environment. I spent many formative summers riding around on my bike under the intense sun, looking for interesting worms and turtles to observe, and holding backyard funerals for any dead frogs I found.

Although I wasn’t aware of it growing up, the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) is the most biodiverse habitat in the United States. The area has a subtropical climate that invites thousands of different species of birds every winter. At any moment while hiking around the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, beautiful green jays and Altamira orioles can be spotted. Although the LRGV is a top-notch birding destination, the area has much more to offer. The Valley is home to several hundred different species of butterflies and beetles, and over a thousand different species of plants, including unique plants that can typically only be found in desert and tropical climates. Most notably, though, the Rio Grande Valley houses 18 different endangered species, including the ocelot. I remember being warned while walking around the Laguna Atascosa Refuge to beware of ocelots. The sad truth, however, is that ocelots are now uncommon. While there used to be hundreds of thousands of ocelots in the southern United States, there are now only about 50. This massive decrease in population is largely due to loss of habitat — roughly 95 percent of the ocelot’s U.S. range was converted into land used for agriculture or development.

Through American Forests’ American ReLeaf program, we use reforestation to restore threatened ecosystems and protect endangered wildlife. Since 1997, American Forests has planted over 2 million Texas thornscrub plants in the LRGV, which serve as breeding grounds for ocelots. Although restoring the ocelot population to a safer level will take many more years and thousands more acres of Texas thornscrub, American Forests understands the value in providing habitats to protect threatened and endangered species from going extinct in south Texas and all over the United States.

I am excited to be working for American Forests so that I can be involved with a nonprofit that literally changed the landscape of my hometown area for the better. Working for American Forests also gives me the opportunity to combine my passions for wildlife protection and environmental policy to create real impact for the betterment of the Earth and for our animal neighbors.