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nest of sticks lodged high in a treethe once and perhaps future home of the regal Swainson’s hawk, a migratory raptor that winters in South America. Blue herons, white pelicans, cormorants, and egrets ply the muggy air. Over this landscape looms its potential destruction. A mountain of soil, four stories high, waits for bulldozers to shovel it into the wetlands and create a clean, flat surface for a $120 million shopping center. City officials sold 88 acres, including the wetland, to Mission, Texas-based Merchants Holding Co. and are on board with its plan to build the Laredo Town Center. The city initially leased the 88 acres to the company for 40 years in 2005. Two years later, when a decadelong moratorium on the sale of airport land expired, the city decided to sell. Merchants Holding was the sole bidder, offering $15.86 million, just $5,000 over the city’s minimum asking price. In a strange twist, the developers are suing the city for failing to deliver clear title to the property. Merchants Holding claims that controversy over the wetland destruction is jeopardizing its chances of obtaining a needed permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Once it gets that permit, local environmentalists fear, there will be no way left to save a small but precious oasis. The Everglades this is not. The Casa Blanca wetland is all of 20 acres and lies but a stone’s throw from a busy highway and the Laredo International Airport. On a satellite-generated map, it looks vulnerable and insignificant. On the ground, the hubbub of a border city’s explosive growth is within earshot. In fact, the wetland owes its existence to humans. The construction of Lake Casa Blanca in 1951 and the diversion of storm water from the airport into a detention pond created this riparian environment. Now nature has taken hold here. In turn, the wetland has taken hold of Laredoans. Saving this meager, man-made wetland in a dry stretch of the country has sparked the closest thing Laredo has seen to an environmental movement. Teachers, fishermen, bloggers, doctors, and college students have gathered thousands of petition signatures, packed public meetings, taken to the local airwaves, and bugged lawmakers and regulators to halt the bulldozers. The outcry has given hope to both environmental advocates and reform-minded citizensa usually frustrated lot in Laredowho believe it is time to shake up the city’s business-as-usual political culture. “The whole city is waking up. It’s amazing; it’s beautiful,” says Berta “Birdie” Torres, a middle-aged woman with a gaptoothed smile who lives with her elderly parents and runs a pet-sitting business. Faith drew Torres to the wetland cause, she says. A visiting priest from Chicago stirred her soul with his teachings on the Catholic concept of Earth Care. “He changed the way we thought,” she says. “He said God gave us the Earth. It’s our mother, and we need to take care of its’ In March Torres and fellow members of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church formed the Greens of Guadalupe and began the slow task of educating themselves about the environment. JULY 27, 2007 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17