Border Fence May Destroy Wildlife Habitat

U.S. Fish and Wildlife services spent $80 million to reclaim wildlife habitat in South Texas. Now Homeland Security is ready to wipe that out.

Most of all, Allen and others want to know why the same federal government — the one that for years ignored their repeated requests for an interstate ("We're the only area with 1 million population that doesn't have an interstate"), $10 million to repair their levees ("We'll be like New Orleans when Katrina hit) and money to help them improve their public schools — all of a sudden has untold millions of dollars to plunk down on a fence that none of them want.

Oh, and they don't think it's going to work, either.

Flying down the middle of the Rio Grande, Father Roy thinks the wall is a sign of "a terrible spiritual illness."
Margaret Downing
Flying down the middle of the Rio Grande, Father Roy thinks the wall is a sign of "a terrible spiritual illness."
Martin Hagne starts a tour with a fourth-grade class...
Photos by Margaret Downing
Martin Hagne starts a tour with a fourth-grade class...

Martin Hagne stands in the nonprofit Valley Nature Center in Weslaco, waiting for the 100 students from a fourth-grade class from Pharr, San Juan and Alamo. The hands-on executive director and his coworkers efficiently split the kids into three, more manageable groups to begin a tour.

Hagne is appalled at a fence that he says probably will wipe out the restored habitat. His involvement goes beyond nature tours; he is the Valley broker between Fish & Wildlife, which tells him what native plants it wants to add to the refuges, and the growers, who then bid on contracts to produce the plants.

It doesn't matter that birds can fly over fences — walls will still disrupt them, Hagne says. "It will be one of the largest environmental catastrophes to happen to the Valley in my lifetime if they do what they're telling us might happen."

Or as Scott Nicol of the Valley branch of the Sierra Club explains: "The birds need to take a rest. They need to get some food because they still need to fly down to Central and South America. That's the big problem with the habitat loss...They won't have anywhere to land."

Hagne says most everyone knew the fence law was passed shortly before elections last year, but no one was too scared. There wasn't any money allocated. That all changed a few weeks ago when a copy of a DHS map got to a few public officials in the Valley.

The map from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection division of DHS, dated March 2007, shows plans for fencing along the Rio Grande that becomes almost continuous once it hits the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

It follows almost exactly the wildlife corridor reclaimed by Fish & Wildlife, a corridor that goes all the way from the Gulf of Mexico through Starr County to Falcon Dam.

The problem isn't just with birds, it's with cutting off the other wildlife from their water source and perhaps from each other. "They aren't deterred by a river, but a solid wallÉ" Hagne says.

Local officials also got ahold of an eight-page "request for proposal" from DHS that sets out a plan for border fencing near Laredo, including the statement that "The total value of contract...will not exceed $172 million." Under "proposed corporate structure," it lists Houston-based Kellogg Brown & Root.

Discovery of the RFP sent local officials and conservationists into a frenzy of phone calling. A border meeting has been called in McAllen on June 1. The problem is — as Hagne and others expressed — how do you mount a defense against a plan in which nothing is definite?

"We don't have facts. We have leaks. We have people talking. We're trying to piece this all together," Hagne says.

Initially, federal officials debated the authenticity of the map. That seems to have passed, and the proposed fencing has been accepted as more than just some errant agent's doodling.

At the same time, DHS tightened its control over information. The U.S. Border Patrol, which had been commenting on the border fence, was told to shut up.

"We have an order from headquarters. We can't comment on the fence," Camilo Garcia, public affairs officer of the Rio Grande Valley sector of the U.S. Border Patrol, said last week. "They gave us guidelines earlier on what we could talk about, and now they say those don't apply."

About the only one parceling out information now is DHS at its highest levels. Russ Knocke, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for Homeland Security, is unshakeable in his statements about the wall's worth and in his belief that DHS plays fair. [See "Totally Misconstrued," page 18.]

"There is no question that traditional fencing has incredible value at our borders, particularly in metropolitan areas," he says.

A fence, he explains, slows people down, giving border officers the chance to catch up and arrest. It's too easy for someone entering the country in a congested area to dart into a house, a car or some other type of hiding place that simply isn't there for someone trudging across a remote stretch of desert.

More advanced technologies work in remote areas, where border agents have the leisure of deciding when and where they're going to pick someone up, Knocke says.

DHS has been nothing but "clear and consistent in our communications with officials in South Texas," according to Knocke.

Told that South Texas leaders don't think DHS officials have been very consistent at all, that in fact they've lied to Valley officials, Knocke expresses amazement.

"I think the notion of a lie is a pretty serious allegation, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who actually says that someone lied to them."

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