Border wall may sidestep review and cut off access to wildlife refuge

2:26 p.m Friday, July 21, 2017 Local
A hawk rests on a tree at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge near Alamo, Texas, May 9, 2007. Wildlife enthusiasts fear this site could be spoiled by the fences and adjacent roads the U.S. government plans to erect along the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants and smugglers.

The Trump administration’s push to build a border wall through sensitive wildlife refuge lands in the Rio Grande Valley will face minimal, if any, scrutiny of environmental or other impacts, experts and former federal officials told the American-Statesman.

The Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, a popular birding destination near McAllen that draws more than 10,000 visitors a month, has become a flashpoint in the Department of Homeland Security’s plan to build 60 miles of new border wall in the Rio Grande Valley. About half that, including the barrier in the refuge, is slated to be a combination of flood protection levee walls topped by steel fencing.

Operated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the refuge is federally owned and won’t require potentially lengthy and expensive eminent domain proceedings against private landowners.

Nor, it appears, will construction at the refuge face any serious environmental obstacles. Even as local officials, border residents and environmental activists express concern that the wall will disrupt the migratory patterns of endangered ocelots and jaguarundi, and could block public access to wildly popular birding trails, it’s unlikely the public will get a full picture of the wall’s impact on Santa Ana before construction begins.

“They could do a really good study if they wanted to: they could look at the impact of the walls that are already built (in the Rio Grande Valley),” said Scott Nicol, Borderlands director for the Lone Star Sierra Club. “But that won’t give them the result that they want.”

Homeland Secretary John Kelley is widely expected to waive requirements that the wall project comply with the Endangered Species Act or other environmental laws, a power bestowed on the department by Congress during a round of wall building in 2005. In the Rio Grande Valley, former DHS secretary Michael Chertoff invoked the waiver in 2008, paving the way for the construction of dozens of miles of border fence there.

The Fish and Wildlife Service would typically produce a compatibility report to make sure a project won’t have a negative impact on the refuge and its wildlife, said Gary Mowad, who headed U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s operations in Texas from 2010 to 2013.

But even if DHS does not waive the compatibility study, the agency is unlikely to push back against the Homeland Security project, especially given the experience of former refuge manager Ken Merritt.

As the Department of Homeland Security sought to build border fences in the nearby Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in 2007, Merritt claimed that his supervisor pressured him to rubberstamp an engineering survey. Instead, Merritt presented findings that showed the wall would be detrimental to wildlife and denied permission to build. He was told by his boss his action was a “career-ending decision,” according to an interview he gave to the Texas Observer in June 2008, and he retired soon after.

A 2008 amendment to the border wall legislation required Homeland Security to consult with local stakeholders to “minimize the impact on the environment, culture, commerce and quality of life,” but the amendment does not legally bind the department to any clear standards.

A Customs and Border Protection official could not say last week whether that process had begun. Spokesman Carlos Diaz pointed to the agency’s environmental and cultural stewardship policy, which calls on the agency to reduce adverse impacts and consider environmental factors.

In a longshot attempt to force an environmental study of the wall’s impacts, a Democrat congressman from Arizona and the Center for Biological Diversity have filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security.

As news spread this week that the Army Corps of Engineers was taking soil samples at Santa Ana in preparation for wall construction, birding enthusiasts began sounding the alarm.

More than 165,000 nature tourists visit the refuge each year, most of them birders, injecting about $34 million into the economies of the small city of Alamo and nearby communities.

Nate Swick, social media manager at the American Birding Association, said the project has produced a “great sense of frustration and anxiety.”

“For many birders, including a great many of the ABA Staff, Santa Ana is a very special place, rightly called the ‘crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge system’” he wrote on the association’s website this week. “Much of that anxiety comes from the uncertainty surrounding what, precisely, is going on here.”

So far, answers haven’t been forthcoming.

The wall isn’t expected to have a major impact on the great kiskadees, green jays and ringed kingfishers that lodge at the refuge. But the wall could keep the hordes of birdlovers from accessing the trails of the refuge.

The experience of the previous round of fence building may provide some clues: After sections of fencing were built over the last decade, two major wildlife refuges were hemmed in by border wall, with very different results.

In Brownsville, the Sabal Palm Sanctuary was left south of the wall in the so-called no-man’s land created when fencing was built as far as a mile from the Rio Grande. But a gap in the wall, guarded by Border Patrol agents, allows visitors to dart through and reach the sanctuary’s picturesque trails, which host one of the region’s last remaining groves of towering sabal palms, as well as endangered ocelots.

American-Statesman Staff
The sign for Sabal Palm Sanctuary which is on the south side of the border wall just southeast of Brownsville, TX, states “No Passport Needed”, in case visitors think they are going into Mexico. Friday, Jan. 17, 2014.

But 70 miles upriver, the World Birding Center at the Hidalgo Pumphouse suffered a much different fate. It also once had a gap that provided access to hiking and biking trails in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. But after a large gate plugged the gap several years ago, visitors and birders were chagrined to find the gate rarely, if ever opened, as some bird enthusiasts say they were promised.

As a result, the refuge behind the fence became a dead zone as trails became overgrown and returned to their natural state, according to officials at the center.

American-Statesman Staff
Illustration of how the border fence has impacted the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse. Google Maps image.

While technically open to the public, visitors must walk several miles around the fence edges to reach the trails. This spring, a Border Patrol agent posted at the gate warned reporters against trying to walk the trails, saying that smugglers could easily be lurking there.

Asked if a levee border wall would allow access at Santa Ana, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman would only say that the new round of wall planning is in “preliminary stages” and has not yet been funded by Congress.

But the recent funding of 35 border wall gates, at a cost of $42 million, could signal that border officials won’t tolerate any more gaps in the wall. The Rio Grande Valley has exactly 35 gaps in its existing fencing.

An official at Sabal Palm said Border Patrol officials have said that if a gate were put in front of the sanctuary it would remain open during operating hours.

Since the soil testing began, Hidalgo County officials have denounced the planned levee wall at Santa Ana and other areas of their county.

“It makes no sense,” Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia told the Statesman. “It’s a bad idea.”

But critics say Garcia and county commissioners set the stage for construction at Santa Ana by sending a letter in February to the Department of Homeland Security proposing a 90/10 cost sharing arrangement if DHS built 30 miles of combination levee/border walls.

A decade ago, Hidalgo County entered into an agreement with the federal government to combine 22 miles of border fencing with new levee walls. Officials said the county would get flood control and prevent homes from being knocked down or land appropriated.

The February letter called for the completion of that effort and included a design plan by Dannenbaum Engineering, as well as an estimated cost of $379 million.

Dannenbaum, whose offices were raided by the FBI in April in connection to contracts in the Laredo area, had overseen the 2009 construction of the existing levee wall system, a $217 million project.

The letter claimed the new construction would lead to $500,000,000 of economic impact and over 5,000 new jobs. “Needless to say, this would be a tremendous economic stimulus and jobs program for Hidalgo County and the Nation,” Garcia wrote.

Garcia told the Statesman the letter was an acknowledgement of the political realities after Trump’s election. “It looked like there was no way of stopping it,” he said. “If they were really insisting, then we ought to do it in a way that can benefit by helping our comprehensive drainage system.”

“But it was by no means an invitation.”

The letter came under furious criticism from residents who complained that the levees that would be rebuilt into border wall had recently been repaired with federal stimulus money.

Noting that the proposed levee wall would cut through Santa Ana as well as the Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park, a coalition of environmental and resident groups wrote: “We already lost some of our parkland to the levee-wall when the Hidalgo Pumphouse hike and bike trail was walled off. Proposing a plan that could cut off these special places is irresponsible.”

The officials wrote a follow up letter in May, emphasizing their general opposition to a border wall in Hidalgo County. “We clarified that we didn’t consider that first letter an invitation,” Garcia said.

But Nicol remains angry about the county’s initial proposal: “This got on the Trump administration’s radar because of that letter.”

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