Not even Donald Trump can build a wall as beautiful as what God has built here, says the GOP chairman for Presidio County, in the heart of the Big Bend, the vast, remote nook of West Texas.
The terrain here is stark and inhospitable, and bigger than any wall envisioned by the Trump administration: In Santa Elena Canyon, thousand-foot walls drop off into the Rio Grande, and farther away from the river, on both sides of the Big Bend, treeless mountains offer no succor for the would-be traveler. Gov. Greg Abbott has said he is against a wall here, as has U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, who represents the area.
But hoping to make good on his campaign promise, the president may leave his own kind of mark in this part of Texas, dominated by just the sort of public land — Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Black Gap Wildlife Management Area — that might make for the easiest terrain, logistically speaking, for the federal government to build a wall.
Much of the rest of the land bordering the Rio Grande in Texas is privately owned. Building a wall on private land requires the expensive and often lengthy process of condemnation.
At first blush, the construction of a wall through Big Bend would seem unlikely: Illegal crossings in sparsely populated, unforgiving Brewster and Presidio counties are a fraction of what they are in more populated areas, such as the Lower Rio Grande Valley; wall construction in this undeveloped area would be expensive and key Texas politicians have suggested Big Bend should be off limits.
Todd Beckett, Republican Party chairman for Presidio County, says flatly, “there is not going to be a wall in Big Bend.”
“We’ve got a big, beautiful barrier, bigger than anything even Trump could build,” he said. “It’s called the Chinati Mountains” — one of the ranges that presents a massive barrier for any traveler, on foot, horseback or jeep. “It’s a deadly, rocky, sun-bleached wasteland, and then” — he cackles — “you get up to the artists’ colony of Marfa.”
“It’s not necessary,” he said. “We already have a barrier. God built it.”
And yet, an internal Department of Homeland Security report calls for a second phase of construction of 151 miles to include Big Bend, among other places; a third phase seals off the entire border. The wall could be as high as 30 feet.
“While it may seem like building walls in Big Bend would be completely insane, that could be said about many of the walls that already exist, such as the section that cuts through California’s Otay Mountain Wilderness Area,” said Scott Nicol, a McAllen-based coordinator of Sierra Club’s borderlands initiative. “And the biggest challenge to Trump’s timeline is going to be the fact that Texas, where there are currently 110 miles of wall on our 1,200 mile border, is almost entirely private property. Land condemnation suits will take years, but Big Bend National Park and some remaining tracts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge down here are federally owned.”
“The wrong way to think about the wall is whether it’s tactical or rational,” he continued. “It’s entirely about politics and money: Politicians want a mile count. They don’t care if it works — and contractors just want the money.”
Man-made structures are not absent from the Big Bend: There are roads, of course, and utility poles, and ranching fences, as well as small communities outside the national and state parks.
But fencing through Big Bend could have profound environmental and eco-tourism consequences, according to experts.
A border wall could harm rare and threatened species whose habitat straddles geo-political boundaries, said Louis Harveson, director of the Borderlands Research Institute at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, with a population of 6,000, the largest city in the Big Bend region.
“As a certified wildlife biologist, I can tell you a wall is ill-conceived,” he said.
To get a sense of the consequences, consider the black bear, which was nearly extinct in Texas before making a comeback over recent decades.
“They all came from Mexico,” Harveson said. “If there’s a wall, West Texas would be out of the bear business.”
“If a wall were built to stop human travel, a wall would logically stop animal travel as well,” Jennette Jurado, a ranger at Big Bend National Park, told the American-Statesman late last year — before the Trump administration set new restrictions on communications between officials and the media. “We may have 30 or so bears in the park at this time, but cutting off the flow of new genes to the population could lead to inbreeding and other issues.”
The story is similar for mule deer and mountain lions.
Elsewhere in the Texas borderlands, environmental groups and the federal government have worked to cobble together land as wildlife corridors amid farms and asphalt to allow animals like rare ocelots to migrate.
Other mammals that range across the Rio Grande in the Big Bend include mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, pronghorn antelope, javelinas, and gray fox. Especially rare species are the kit fox, white-nosed coatimundi, and desert bighorn sheep — which were long ago extirpated from Big Bend and have been reintroduced for hunting and ecological purposes, slowly expanding into the park and need large territories to survive.
Of the 78 sheep one of Harveson’s graduate students radio-collared between late 2010 and early 2014, about 40 percent crossed the Rio Grande at least once.
“All large and medium sized mammals would have their territories restricted and their gene pools compromised by a wall,” says Lynne Weber, who, with her husband, is the author of the new Texas A&M University Press book, “Nature Watch Big Bend: A Seasonal Guide.”
“Needless to say, wildlife pays no attention to international boundaries, and the Rio Grande is a life source for many animals that need to reach it on a regular basis,” Weber said.
The Mexican company Cemex has bought massive land holdings on both sides of the river as a nature preserve, precisely because animals pass across the river.
“I really don’t think it’s going to happen in this area,” said Bonnie McKinney, who runs the preserve. “It’s too cost prohibitive. Over my 35 years here, lots of things have been suggested, but it’s a big country, a harsh country.”
The wall forecloses any possibility of a binational park, long discussed by officials on either side of the border, as part of a hope to reintroduce the grizzly bear and American bison, once native in these parts.
“The construction of a wall would disrupt the very fragile desert ecosystem, one that is still recovering from ranching and overgrazing almost 100 years ago,” Weber said. “This construction would no doubt disturb and possibly eliminate many rare plants, (amphibians and reptiles) and small animals.”
‘The best view in Texas’
A wall also would have a scenic impact. Weber calls the vista from the south rim of the Chisos Mountains, a sweeping scene that makes you feel like you’re on the surface of a far-away planet, “the best view in Texas mainly because you can see no human impact whatsoever, as you gaze across the desert expanse toward the Mesa de Anguilla far into Mexico.”
The remoteness of Big Bend Ranch State Park and Big Bend National Park has long been a key to its draw; Austinites, the most common visitors to Big Bend, might be less likely to make the eight-hour drive to the region if the best views are intersected by a wall running adjacent to a dusty Border Patrol road.
“We feel that the border needs to be kept secure via technology and manpower, not a wall,” Weber said.
In a statement about how it will implement the president’s border security order, the Department of Homeland Security said it is “leveraging years of U.S. Border Patrol’s institutional operational knowledge and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ border infrastructure construction subject matter expertise to ‘construct a physical wall or similarly contiguous and impassable physical barrier’ in the vicinity of the U.S. border with Mexico.”
Border Patrol is currently “directly soliciting industry input for conceptual wall design(s) with the intent to construct multiple prototype(s),” the statement said.
In 2016, the U.S. Border Patrol stopped 6,366 people suspected of crossing into the country illegally in the Big Bend Sector — the least of any sector along the Texas border— and seized nearly 42,000 pounds of marijuana and 16 pounds of cocaine, leading to 2,392 prosecutions; Border Patrol also rescued 42 people and two people died. Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley, by comparison, cover about three-fifths the river frontage of the Big Bend Sector, but they apprehended 186,830 people.
Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson, a Democrat, said he opposes the wall because of the construction cost and because of the “river I’ll be kept from fishing in.”
“There are natural walls here already,” he said, adding that if a wall gets built, the government will have to pay personnel to guard it.
In theory, border wall construction would trigger the mother of all federal environmental impact statements, a requirement of federal law for any major federal project.
An impact statement would require the government to describe the environmental impacts of the wall – and an analysis of alternative courses of action, including no action at all.
But in 2008, citing his authority under federal immigration law, then-U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived environmental protection laws as he ordered construction of border wall segments. The George W. Bush administration found that a border fence “would not significantly increase impediments” to wildlife movement and migration.
“The ecosystems are not defined in this way,” said Nicol, the Sierra Club activist. “There’s not a U.S. ecosystem and a Mexico ecosystem. Species are meant to move back and forth: You cut off that river, you disrupt the whole ecosystem.”