Home   >>   Ted Williams Archive   >>   2008   >>   Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost

The Rio Grande Valley in south Texas is one of this nation’s most biologically rich areas—home to our largest remaining stand of sabal palms, rare ocelots, and bird species found nowhere else. So why would the United States be planning to build a wall that would do little to stop illegal immigration, do a lot to harm wildlife, and effectively cede much of this land to Mexico?
Audubon    June 2008

In September 2006 Congress responded to national outrage about our grossly porous southern border by voting in The Secure Fence Act. The law mandates the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to construct 854 miles of double-layered fence along 35 percent of our southern border, from San Diego, California, to Brownsville, Texas, complete with roads, clearings, stadium-style lighting, sensors, cameras, and radar—a 21st century Maginot Line designed to repel the invading army of illegals. The Congressional Research Service reports that building the fence and maintaining it for 20 years will cost $49 billion. But there are other, greater costs.

Part of that “something” are the wild animals that depend on the Rio Grande for water and on the thin habitat corridors that thread through these borderlands for food, cover, and genetic viability. Although 95 percent of the valley is cropland, it is still one of the most biologically diverse areas in our nation.

Four climatic zones converge here. The temperate zone brings in species not seen farther south—northern mockingbirds and sugar hackberry, for example. The Chihuahuan Desert supplies species not seen to the east, such as thorny plants, cactus wrens, and pyrrhuoxias. The Gulf Coast contributes shorebirds and wading birds, and the subtropics provide species that don’t occur to the north, such as brown jays, red-crowned parrots, green parakeets, hook-billed kites, and clay-colored robins. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified 11 distinct habitats in the valley. One reason they meet in south Texas is that there are no barriers for hundreds of miles. But that may be about to change.

My first stop was the 557-acre Sabal Palm Audubon Center, tucked against the Rio Grande in Brownsville. The center, a Global Important Bird Area, is visited annually by about 10,000 people who pump $6.9 million into one of the nation’s poorest communities. Each year Audubon educational programs bring nature to about 3,000 children who otherwise wouldn’t encounter it.

The center is part of an intense, 30-year cooperative effort by the Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon Texas, Frontera Audubon, the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Pronatura Noreste (a Mexican NGO), and the Mexican states of Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas to set up a linear system of wildlife corridors to the river and between countries.

Thirty feet from the center’s parking lot I began seeing birds you won’t find anywhere much north of here. Pheasantlike plain chachalacas dipped and bobbed along branches and pathways, drowning out human conversation with their raucous calls. Green jays flashed their spectacular plumage. Couch’s kingbirds hawked insects. And hidden in the dense foliage of willows, mesquite, and acacias, kiskadees shouted their names. The center’s manager, Jimmy Paz, led me through a lush understory of such natives as Turk’s cap, coral bean, castor bean, David’s milkberry, and Barbados cherry growing beneath a canopy of huisache, guamuchil, great lead trees, and Texas ebony. We found buff-bellied hummingbirds, white-tipped doves, ladder-backed woodpeckers, a gray hawk, a Swainson’s hawk, a pair of white-tailed kites, and Altamira orioles.

The esteros—oxbow ponds discarded like empty wine bottles by the reeling river—held coots, pintails, blue-winged teal, mottled ducks, and least grebes so tiny they looked like windowsill gewgaws. Red-eared sliders glistened on floating logs, and solitary sandpipers and northern water thrushes patrolled mudflats. Gray-crowned yellowthroats had been extirpated in the United States, but three years ago they showed up again, and now they nest here. Yellow-green vireos, almost extirpated, now nest here, too. Surviving in this oasis of native habitat is America’s largest remaining stand of sabal palms, trees that, before the riverboat industry razed them for wharf pilings, cloaked the valley and gave the river its first name, Rio de las Palmas. Ocelots and jaguarundis have been seen here, and Paz has found jaguar tracks.

Ocelots, the only one of these critically endangered species for which there is decent data, are probably the most abundant of the three. They used to range through Texas and into Arkansas and Louisiana; now the U.S. population, confined to a thin band along the river, is thought to number no more than 100. By cutting off gene flow and thereby causing inbreeding, the fence will almost certainly eliminate all three cats north of the border, reducing our nation’s native cat species by half. Local cougars and bobcats will suffer grievously but survive. Canada lynx, found only in our northern states, will, of course, be unaffected—unless Congress decides to seal off the Canadian border, too.

Paz shrugged when I asked him where the fence would go. “They won’t tell us, but we think just north of our property,” he said. Later Audubon Texas executive director Anne Brown added this: “One of our huge frustrations has been lack of consultation and lack of any formal process to voice our concerns. That affects how we do our planning and budgeting. From what we’ve heard, we’ll have to close. We can’t figure a way to keep it open, because we’ll be cut off from the rest of the United States. Will we be insured? Will we receive city services? We can’t let Ernie [the caretaker] live here anymore.” The sanctuary and its unique plants and wildlife will be taken from the American people, and what survives will be, for all intents and purposes, ceded to Mexico.

A mile east of the Sabal Palm Audubon Center is The Nature Conservancy’s 1,034-acre Southmost Preserve, part of the same system of wildlife corridors. Here TNC’s Max Pons and Sonia Najera showed me some of the valley’s last Montezuma cypress. The preserve also sustains the nation’s second largest stand of sabal palms. Because the seed-filled fruit is relished by coyotes, the resourceful Pons propagates these trees by collecting coyote scats and planting the seeds he extracts from them.

A merlin flashed over our heads, and bobwhite quail exploded from roadside brush. Many native plants at the Sabal Palm Audubon Center and in the valley’s three national wildlife refuges depend on irrigation. The pumps, which often clog with debris and stop working during electrical surges, need to be checked around the clock, but managers won’t be able to do that if the fence goes up, because they won’t be living there. Perhaps the pumps won’t even be needed. “DHS may just clear all this land so they can see everything,” Pons declared. Most locals expect it to do exactly that, but getting information on the project from the DHS is like soliciting driving directions from a Vermont farmer.

With Wayne Bartholomew, director of Weslaco, Texas–based Frontera Audubon, I canoed the Rio Grande along the 2,088-acre Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge’s southern boundary, enjoying some of the planet’s best birding. Among many other species, we had ringed kingfishers, green kingfishers, a groove-billed ani, and a pair of barn owls that studied us from their bank cavity, then obligingly flew over our heads. We even did our thing for national security by spooking nine swimmers five feet from U.S. soil and sending them back to Mexico like Mark Spitz.

Later we hiked in the shade of Spanish moss, draped like gray tinsel from the refuge’s cedar elms and Rio Grande ash. In the esteros, dozens of scissor-tailed flycatchers, fresh in from Mexico, swarmed around willows. Not a minute passed in which at least one golden-fronted woodpecker did not call or bob over our heads. From the lookout tower we watched a pair of Harris’s hawks orbiting over their two white chicks 20 feet below us, and gazed out over a vast riparian forest marred only by the soot-stained junction of Reynosa, Mexico, and Hildago and McAllen, Texas, far to the southwest. There, where wildlife has already been cut off and illegal immigrants easily blend with crowds, a border fence might make sense.

Next day we explored the 90,000-acre Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, created expressly to facilitate wildlife movement, is a string of 115 wildlife corridors to the river and Mexico, spanning 275 river miles and sustaining at least 83 species of mammals, 484 of birds, 115 of reptiles and amphibians, 300 of butterflies, and 1,200 of plants—all for an investment of about $100 million. The service has been authorized to acquire an additional 42,500 acres, but now that may not happen.

The fence project will destroy most of the refuge’s function—cutting off wildlife from water and food, blocking gene flow, removing wide swaths of vegetation, increasing traffic and other human disturbance with access roads, drenching surviving habitat with light pollution, and creating a no-man’s land (two miles wide in places) that will be unsafe and inaccessible for managers and the public.

On the levee we drove from corridor to corridor, past a dead sea of river-irrigated corn, onions, and sugarcane devoid of wildlife save flocks of great-tailed grackles and red-winged blackbirds that blew across it like incinerator smoke. These are native species, but because they eat crops they occur here in alien profusion.

In the esteros, links in the refuge, we encountered birds and plants excluded by agriculture. Dowitchers, sandpipers, stilts, and herons stalked rooty shoals, while Couch’s kingbirds and kiskadees worked the high foliage. When we came abreast of the 100-acre estero called Monterrey Banco, I parked the rental car, and we walked along the northern perimeter, glassing birds and kicking dust into a desiccating wind.

Last April I visited the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas, where I followed the future path of the fence from Brownsville, near the Gulf of Mexico, to Alamo, 60 miles to the west. When I brought up the subject with environmental leaders, educators, birders, wildlife officials, farm advocates, private landowners, or politicians, the response was always the same—visceral outrage. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” as Robert Frost observed in his poem “Mending Wall.”

The onions were ripe in south Texas, and I asked McClung if he knew what percentage of pickers I’d seen were illegal immigrants. “In the Rio Grande Valley and nationally, it’s 70 percent for field workers,” he said. This economic incentive for a porous border may have something to do with why the DHS locks up all illegal immigrants it catches except Mexican nationals, whom it transports back to their homeland. Prior to December 12, 2006, this catch-and-release policy applied to illegals from other countries, too, although they were given a slip of paper and instructed to report to a judge within 30 days. Of course, they didn’t, and the document became a passport north. Once the DHS started locking up these illegal immigrants, apprehensions in south Texas declined 34 percent. If Mexican nationals who enter illegally faced the same sanctions, the decline could be even more dramatic and, coupled with the increase in Border Patrol agents, which has also helped, there wouldn’t even be make-believe justification for the fence.

“I have just as many friends in Piedras [Mexico] as in Eagle Pass,” Mayor Foster told me. “We grew up together. I’m in Piedras at least once a day. Putting a wall up between brothers does not have a positive connotation. You have a kitchen sink with the pipes broken. Instead of us fixing the pipes, which is immigration reform, we just keep sending in mops.”

Despite its heroic work and strong advocacy for wildlife, the Texas Border Coalition doesn’t quite get it when it comes to  habitat, and the group is vulnerable to federal seduction, occasionally advocating alternatives to the fence that are even more deadly to wildlife. The coalition, for example, describes the 22-mile cement wall approved for Hidalgo County as a “win-win” because the DHS will toss levee repair into the deal. (At least a fence can be taken down.) And Ahumada touts the plan for a section of “virtual fence” by which a new dam on the Rio Grande will (in addition to providing more irrigation for his constituents) widen the river by 300 feet, back it up for 42 miles, and drown thousands of acres of wetlands and riparian forest.

What’s more, now that Chertoff has waived the National Environmental Policy Act, his agency won’t release any of the comments on the draft environmental-impact statement (EIS).

“Surveyors,” reads the draft EIS, “walked the entire length of the proposed project corridor for each tactical infrastructure section, and examined in more detail areas containing unique species compositions of habitat that might be conducive to sensitive species.” Either this is an untruth or they violated government regulations, because Ken Merritt had denied them access. The draft EIS goes on and on about how the fence will “reduce the flow of . . . terrorists, and terrorist weapons into the United States.” But because no terrorists or terrorist weapons have ever entered from Mexico, such reduction is impossible.

Even the powerful, arch-conservative property-rights community is lining up against the fence, and for once it’s not on the wrong side of an environmental issue. When property owners and communities, following the lead of the Fish and Wildlife Service, have declined to allow surveyors on their land, the DHS has hauled them into court.

The fence, claims the DHS, needs to go through refuges, sanctuaries, farms, college campuses, city parks, and front yards. But, reports the Texas Observer, it will end abruptly at the 6,000-acre Mission, Texas, gated golf community of Dallas billionaire Ray L. Hunt, a close friend of George W. Bush who just donated $35 million to help build his presidential library.

All blame, however, cannot be assigned to the administration. It was, after all, Congress that gave us this ruinously expensive non-solution purely to cover its butt. Voting in The Secure Fence Act were 283 representatives and 80 senators (including John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama).

Our legislators and the White House would have done well to heed these other lines from Frost’s poem: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out / And to whom I was like to give offence.” But they evinced not the slightest curiosity, and instead of solving a serious problem, they have given us another.


You can send the Bush administration a strong message by joining thousands of other wildlife advocates in signing our online petition to save the unique ecosystems of south Texas. Click here for details. Urge your representative to support Representative Raúl Grijalva’s Borderlands Conservation and Security Act (H.R. 2593). For current information on the fence, visit No Border Wall and The Rio Grande Guardian.


Page:      1      
Ted Williams Archive
Christianity & the Environment
Climate Change
Global Warming Skeptics
The Web of Life
Managing Our Impact
Caring for our Communities
The Far-Right
Ted Williams Archive