Border Fence May Destroy Wildlife Habitat

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"If someone can swim a river, they can climb a fence."

— Mike Allen, McAllen Economic Development Corporation

"If you build a ten-foot fence, they're going to find an 11-foot ladder."


U.S. border fence

— Steve Ahlenius, president/CEO McAllen Chamber of Commerce

Father Roy is gunning the bass boat in the hot noonday sun while his pal Mike Allen, an economic development official, urges him on from his perch in the back.

"Go to the pump station, keep going!" he shouts over the engine. We're in a narrow stretch of the Rio Grande, near Mission, Texas, with Mexico so close we can touch it.

Cattle graze close to the shore, rows of corn are prospering and trailers long ago converted to something more permanent crowd the U.S. side. Birds chirp, scream and sweep in and out of the high grass on both sides. We're right in the middle of the Texas-Mexico border when ahead we see a young Hispanic couple in inner tubes paddling rapidly to reach the U.S. side. The Border Patrol guard tower is about a half a mile in the other direction.

In a surreal moment, the young man pauses and gives us a friendly wave. Perhaps he's seen the priest's collar. Then he resumes his progress.

They reach the other side — our side — and disappear into the dense brush. We never see the young man again; the girl returns and collects discarded inner tubes. Is she a waterborne coyote? Was she seeing her brother/boyfriend/husband off?

Last year, the U.S. Congress endorsed a plan to put 700 miles of fencing along the border states. This month, it continues debating the subject, this time with Senate language calling for 370 miles of fencing — although this may not all be "physical" fencing — and 200 miles of pylons that would let people and animals through but stop vehicles.

The proposed fences are said to be ten feet tall; plans call for clearing out a path maybe 50 to 150 feet wide alongside them. No one knows anything for sure. According to a map leaked to South Texas officials a few weeks ago, a fence would go right through this countryside, right along the river through Father Roy's youth camp and right through many of the wildlife refuges that are a chief focus for tourism here.

Part of a $7.6 billion border security package, the fence is designed to stop terrorists, drug smugglers and illegal immigrants of all types, including the couple that just crossed, although truth to tell, neither one of them looked very sinister.

In the last 20 or so years, the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife Services has spent $80 million in taxpayer money buying up old farmland, empty lots and any other property for sale along the Rio Grande. Then, with the help of volunteers — including classes of schoolchildren — they've gone about replanting native vegetation on it to create a wildlife corridor with a series of refuges. The area is about as biologically diverse as it gets.

It's a top birding destination — and when there are birds, there are 150,000 to 200,000 birders bringing an estimated $150 million a year in trickle-down economics to the area.

The corridor is not only home to many bird species year-round, it is a major flyway for migrating birds moving up and down from North America to Central and South America. It is No. 1 in reptiles and No. 2 in mammals, and it is home to some of the few remaining ocelots and jaguarondi in Texas and the United States.

Now much of that same tract of land is going to be handed over for a fence, wiping out years of restoration work, say a chorus of critics that includes environmentalists, conservationists, farmers and city leaders. Yes, they support secure borders with ground sensors, cameras and whatever high-tech gizmos the feds want to trot out. They want more "boots on the ground." They are 95 percent with their federal government on this.

But what they don't want is a "physical" fence, and the construction work and brush-clearing that would accompany it.

They don't like the symbolism, the stay-out message it sends to their No. 1 trading partner, Mexico. They want to know why the Canadian border isn't getting a fence. They are disappointed that their senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, voted for the fence, but say they hope the two will work to temper the plans to something more reasonable.

They don't like its reality. Besides the fact that they believe it's going to wreak devastation on the environment, they say it's bad for business, both for tourists and for the farmers who may be cut off from their pump stations and water sources in the Rio Grande. They compare it to the Berlin Wall.

They don't like the fact that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff can circumvent the same federal environmental studies they would have to undergo if they wanted to put in a road or a bridge. He has specially granted waiver powers, and if he wants a fence, he gets one — no matter how many dead birds and ocelots are left behind to clean up.

They can't stomach the representatives they've met in the Department of Homeland Security, from Chertoff on down, who seem to them to be unreasonable, untrustworthy creatures, arrogant in manner and not always inclined to truthfulness.

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.

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."

Assured that yes, they do say exactly that, Knocke responds: "I would say that's regrettable and inaccurate, because the facts are we have been clear and consistent."

While stressing the DHS commitment to working with South Texas officials, Knocke is not at all reluctant to drop the hammer.

"The fact remains that the federal government is first and foremost responsible for securing our borders, and we have a mandate from the American public and from Congress to get that job done at our borders."

"One way that we do that is through border infrastructure, be it through traditional fencing, be it through vehicular barriers, or be it through advanced technologies."

It is standard policy to do environmental assessments in Texas, unless, of course, Chertoff decides the fence is more important, Knocke says.

Every October, Kenneth Merritt, project leader for the South Texas Refuge complex with the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife Services, oversees the Rio Reforestation Project. For more than ten years, anywhere from 1,000 to 1,600 volunteers have come in to put more native plants in the wildlife habitat. They have restored 1,000 acres of brush land per year.

Merritt doesn't know what final form the federal plans will take, but says, "I don't think anybody thinks that the fence isn't going in."

He would rather see it placed away from the river and north of the levee system that runs along the lower Valley where there isn't as much habitat.

He says he tries to explain to people that the habitat areas in South Texas are very small — others estimated them at 5 to 7 percent of the land — and surrounded by residential and business development. When you lose a habitat along the Canadian border, there's still hundreds if not thousands of square miles of habitat remaining.

In South Texas, "you don't have much to begin with, and when you cut it in half with a fence, you're going to have some definite wildlife problems," he says.

Asked if he's protested the fence plans, Merritt says, "We don't protest because we're part of the federal government, but we've had a meeting last week with Border Patrol, Department of Homeland Security. We've expressed the issues that we have."

Usually, if there's a request for an activity or facility on the refuge, Fish & Wildlife goes through a process called "compatibility" that's tied back to the refuge purpose, Merritt says. "It would be kind of premature for me to say there is no way this is compatible. I might be thinking that, but at the same time I have to go through a process."

He's been told that it is likely that Michael Chertoff is going to waive any environmental studies. If the fence is approved, Fish & Wildlife would retain title to the land but issue a right-of-way permit to DHS that would allow it to operate on the land.

The area has three national wildlife refuges. Laguna Atascosa is not on the border. Santa Ana is on the river. And the Lower Rio Grande Valley Natural Wildlife Refuge snakes along the river from Falcon Dam to Boca Chica, which, depending on whether you're following the river or the road, is somewhere between 150 and 275 miles.

Neither Laguna Atascosa nor Santa Ana is likely to be touched by a fence, Merritt says. But it still would affect Santa Ana, a pivotal birding refuge, because that refuge will get more foot traffic east and west of fences extending out from the international bridges, Merritt says. He doesn't see the number of illegal crossings decreasing, just the whereabouts, and he dreads the "tons of trash" that he says crossers leave behind.

"I don't know any wildlife manager — just from the wildlife perspective now — fences are not something that any of us are for."

John McClung works for the fruit and vegetable industry with the local produce association, and he's a board member of the Friends of Santa Ana and the Wildlife Corridor. He's not a fan of Homeland Security.

"The Department of Homeland Security has been so reticent, so unwilling to share accurate, complete plans, that all of us are operating in something of an informational vacuum. We had been assured that the Department of Homeland Security would get input from locals...and they have been thus far just supremely arrogant in not doing that."

Two issues seem likely to be dominant for the farmers and shippers.

One has to do with water access. Almost all irrigation is done with water out of the Rio Grande. "If we can't get access to that water, then we have a huge problem. Because almost all fruit and vegetable crops are irrigated. Most places in the country, a lot of the irrigation is done with well water. That's not the case here," McClung says.

"I heard one plan from one Border Patrol guy, a low-level guy, well, he said we'll put gates in the fence, we'll open them at 8:30 in the morning for an hour or two. Well, jeez, Louise, all that reflects is a wanton lack of understanding of how agriculture works."

The other issue is land condemnation. Most of the land in South Texas, even down to the river, is privately owned.

"There is a deep emotional resentment at the notion of land condemnation. Secondly, there's questions about fair value, about how it would be done, and there's many people who simply do not want to part with their land under any circumstances," McClung says.

"There is so much negotiating to be done. My understanding is that DHS has at least 40 versions of what a physical barrier might be."

McClung isn't sure he's sold on a virtual or "smart" fence either, although he still likes it better than a physical fence.

"If it means lighting and additional roads and, most importantly, if it means Border Patrol running up and down those roads every five minutes 24-7, then you may have just as big a problem in terms of environmental damage and agricultural access."

By profession, Steve Ahlenius, president and CEO of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, is a pretty upbeat kind of guy. The fence really bothers him, though, and like a dog with a bone, he can't let it go, even as his wife cautions him not to come across like some kind of radical.

"We keep hearing DHS talk about possible terrorists' attacks coming from the southern border, and I finally went back and said, ‘Okay, I'm going to look [at] historically since 1999 what's been the things that happened in the United States. Did we have someone coming in from the southern border and planning a terrorist attack?'"

What his research shows, he says, is that since 1999, all known terrorist activity has involved U.S. citizens, naturalized citizens or citizens who are here on visas or alien residents — or who have come in from Canada.

Reflecting on the burgeoning Muslim population in Canada, Ahlenius thinks the greater threat for terrorist attacks on the United States is going to come from the northern border.

He is also frustrated by hints from the federal government about all sorts of threats from the south. "We have these threats, and yet they don't want to share those with us, tell us what they are, so that reasonable people can make reasonable decisions about, well, is this legitimate?"

His office spends an average of $250,000 a year promoting McAllen as a retail and weekend destination for folks out of Monterrey. "They make up 35 percent of our retail trade. They're a big part of our market here. If DHS thinks that there are terrorists coming in the United States, they need to tell us. You need to tell us and be up-front with us."

Nancy Millar is vice president and director of the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau for the McAllen Chamber of Commerce and an ardent wildlife supporter. She opposes the fence on all sorts of grounds.

"This sends such a horrible message to Mexico especially, but all of Central and South America really. Here we are trying to build bridges, and the government is building a wall instead.

"We are the No. 1 shopping destination for the country of Mexico in the United States. There's more money spent here than in Dallas, New York, any city you can name. Those of us who've been marketing all along the border to Mexico to come here, shop here, spend your money here, we love you and now we're saying: But we're going to build a wall to keep you out."

Bridge crossings for the past year are down close to 10 percent. Ahlenius says that's not because of the new laser US visa IDs for Mexicans (which the Border Patrol has admitted it isn't often checking because doing so would cause too many delays), but because of the perception that Mexicans are not welcome.

In the current climate, legitimate business people are staying away, he says, carefully distinguishing this from the illegal immigration issue. In a few months, he expects to see this reflected in retail sales.

His initial reaction at seeing the fence map? "They were lying to us again. Because they told us they would meet with us, that we'd have discussion about this before anything was decided.

"We've gotten to such a point that no one from this area is trusting the federal government."

Although the fence was initially talked up in terms of protection against terrorism, Ahlenius is one of many South Texans who believe it has morphed into something else.

"I honestly believe it is a backlash against the illegal immigration and not about terrorism. The fence is not going to stop illegal immigrationÉThis is bordering on being a racist issue. It's a sad day when this country, founded on immigration, has to build walls to stop people."

Allen and others have talked about filing lawsuits against the federal government over the fence. "I think everything's in play," Ahlenius says. "I wouldn't be surprised that we'd see cities along the border saying that they're sanctuary cities. That they're not going to enforce the immigration laws of the United States. I wouldn't be surprised if I saw that happen if the fence is built.

"This is being driven by folks in the Midwest and East Coast who don't understand the dynamics of two cultures, two languages, how interwoven everybody is."

The belief that outsiders don't understand the South Texas border is one constant in any conversation down here.

Mike Allen, who is retiring from the economic development corporation and the Texas Border Coalition (made up of border officials) and who was Border Texan of the Year in 2006 (sharing the honor with Sen. Cornyn), certainly thinks so. He goes back and forth across the border for business all the time, setting up maquiladoras, starting manufacturing plants, mustering up fairly serviceable Spanish as needed.

"Ninety-five percent of the people who live in our community are Hispanic or Mexican-American. Fifty-four percent of the people who live in McAllen have family in Mexico. So would you want a wall separating your family?

The Sierra Club's Scott Nicol makes the same point. "A lot of people outside of the area think of it as being like the [sparsely populated] Arizona border." Besides the fact that there's one million U.S. citizens living there, the ties with their sister border cities are long-term. The sister cities used to be a single city, built around a river, Nicol says. "When the river became the border, they split."

"It's a shame that our destiny is destined by people who don't even live in our community, who don't understand what they are doing. Who certainly don't understand how to stop illegal immigration," Allen says.

"The Border Patrol is busy chasing gardeners and maids across the river," Allen says. He has little use for a Republican Congress that he says has put its whole emphasis on building a fence. At the same time, he points out that Hillary Clinton also voted for the fence.

As little faith as he has in politicians, he has less in DHS.

"I think we have not been dealt with honestly, and it would have been better for Homeland Security to say, ‘We don't care what you think. We're going to build the wall and that's it.' It would have been much more honest to say that."

Keith Hackland is a devoted birder who makes his living operating Alamo Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in Alamo, and by guiding birders. He is one example of the infrastructure both public and private that has grown enormously in the last 20 years in the Valley to support birding.

What he offers birders is the chance to see one rare species of bird after another, in an area roughly 40 miles wide and 140 miles long. That area has more than 300 butterfly species, more than 120 dragonfly species and more than 1,200 plant species.

"Without doing a lot of driving in a day, you can pick up 50 to 100 species. For many birders, these are birds they've seen for the first time," he says.

Steve Alhenius of the Chamber says that in the last six to eight years, a lot of cities have invested in putting together their own birding centers.

McClung says as a result, there's more infrastructure in place to support birding than anywhere else in the country.

"Ecotourism here is 90 to 95 percent birding. $150 million a year birding," McClung says. "I'm a hard-core birder, and I know that's true. $150 million. That's big money in a place as economically depressed as the Rio Grande Valley is."

"So it isn't just a matter of loving the birdies. It's a matter of money, too."

Hackland, who was raised in South Africa and first came to Texas as an exchange student in the late 1960s, says in terms of biodiversity, South Texas has everything that Africa has except for the big mammals.

There will be a worldwide outcry from conservationists if the fence is built, he says.

"It's a political problem that needs a political solution because there's nothing rational about it. It's stupid. It's the dumbest thing I've ever heard of."

Lack of habitat will probably force the birds to move south 200–250 miles into similar habitat in Mexico, Hackland says. "We would lose the birds. We would lose the birders."

The appeal of birds goes deep into our psyche, into the time when humans lived off the land, Hackland believes. "We used birds for food and to tell us where danger lies."

There's another appeal. "If you pluck a bird and look at it, it's a dinosaur. Birds are the survivors of the dinosaur age."

As with most endeavors, there is not complete unanimity in the anti-fence group.

Some, such as Allen of the economic development group, are ready to clear the brush, at least right along the river, to give border agents a clear line of sight — something opposed by environmentalists.

Several environmentalists in turn suggest moving the fence up to the levees or Highway 281. Allen and others reject this, saying it will isolate the people and businesses in the lowest part of the valley by placing them on the wrong side of the fence.

And again, McClung is not as certain as others about the benefits of a virtual fence.

One thing they are united about is their distrust of Homeland Security.

Chad Foster, mayor of Eagle Pass and chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, repeats the oft-told tale. Told their input was vital and necessary, they found out the Border Patrol had been negotiating with private landowners in Roma. "Well, that's kind of going through the back door."

McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez says city leaders sat down with the federal representatives to discuss the fence. "We want to stop illegal immigration," he says he told them. "But you haven't fixed it in five decades with an enforcement-only policy." He also notes that "a fence cannot arrest anyone."

Cortez confirms that the Border Patrol has said the fence is coming in, and if they don't like it, to take it up with Congress.

"Our position has been very consistent. We live on the border. Our economies are interdependent. We go through legal ports of entry. For years and years and years, our economies have grown with that trade. We've been battling our federal government to invest in legal ports of entry. The problem is, the government has always continued to apply an enforcement-only policy."

And now the government is fast-tracking a fence.

Hagne of the nature center says, "They are hell-bent on building a wall somewhere. Maybe we can get them to put it in a less sensitive area. If the wildlife disappears, then so will the ecotourists who come to see that wildlife."

Ahlenius says, "It's almost like a rush to action. We've got to move now. We've got to demonstrate action now, without anybody stepping back and saying, ‘what are the consequences?' We're going to pay the price when everyone realizes this was a big mistake."

Roy Snipes, already knows this is a mistake.

Ordained in 1980 in San Antonio, Father Roy describes himself as a "simple country priest." He's the pastor of a nearby church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and runs a youth camp accompanied by his ever-present black labs, Diddly and Augie.

Before he became Father Roy, Snipes was a Texas A&M graduate in agriculture who taught science for many years in nearby San Isidro in Starr County.

For several years now, he's operated a youth camp as a religious retreat where boys and girls can fish, sit by a campfire and reflect on their spirituality. He's afraid a fence would tear right through his camp.

Beyond that, he is heartsick about the wall itself, seeing it as a sign of "a terrible spiritual illness." The money would be better used to feed people, he believes. "Putting up a wall around yourself to keep away the poor people. The wall is going to be like a tomb."

There are a lot of people who swim across, he says. "I usually give them a little wave and a blessing, wish them well."

He is disappointed in President Bush, in whom he had such hopes. "When he was governor, he wouldn't put up with anything like that. He came down here last summer on the banks of the river. He didn't say anything about the wall. He talked about human dignity.

"I can't believe I applauded him. Whoever would think of putting a wall around this country?"

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