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The Border
No-Man’s Land

In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, on the border between Texas and Mexico, water and warmth fortify birds, butterflies, and two endangered wild cats, the ocelot and jaguarundi. In the river’s oxbows, a string of public and private preserves protect about 90,000 acres of native thornscrub and sabal palm forest, and each winter they draw flocks of birders from all over the world.

But the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has other plans for this vital ecological habitat. As part of its effort to build about 200 miles of new pedestrian fencing along the U.S.–Mexican border by year’s end, the agency intends to put up 70 miles of fence through the valley. Department documents say the fencing will stand at least 15 to 18 feet high and, with an associated patrol road, occupy a corridor 60 feet wide.

State and federal wildlife agencies and conservation groups, including Audubon and The Nature Conservancy, have spent decades assembling the series of preserves along the river floodplains. The Sabal Palm Sanctuary and Audubon Center, along with numerous other public and private reserves, now comprise some of the last remnants of native habitat in a landscape dominated by irrigated citrus groves and agricultural fields. People from all over come to see hummingbirds, kingfishers, great kiskadees, and other species, injecting about $125 million into the struggling local economy each year.

“This is a linear series of refuges, and they’re talking about putting a linear wall right through the middle of it,” says Audubon president John Flicker. “It’s hard to imagine something more destructive.”

If the fence goes up, it may very well further isolate south Texas’s two tiny, highly endangered breeding populations of ocelots—which together include fewer than 100 individuals—and make it harder for many species to slake their thirst in the waters of the Rio Grande. In part because of the international agreements that govern the river corridor, the DHS is planning to route the fence north of many of the conservation lands, placing the preserves between the fence and the border. That, in effect, says Flicker, will create a virtual “no-man’s land, trapping people and wildlife between the river and what amounts to a new border.”

With preserves suddenly located behind barriers and locked gates, he and other conservationists fear, visitors would stay away, management and restoration efforts would stall, and preserve managers holding the keys could even find themselves in physical danger. Flicker warns that if the fence is constructed as planned, these and other concerns would force Audubon to close its Sabal Palm center.

The Department of Homeland Security is completing environmental analyses of the proposed fencing in Texas, but under the 2005 REAL ID Act, Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff could waive environmental laws for the projects, something he’s already done in California and Arizona. In the meantime, this latest phase of a border wall is meeting resistance and legal battles in Texas, for its route would not only isolate river preserves but also cut through private land, require the relocation of homes, and even bisect the campus of the University of Texas at Brownsville. “Of course, we believe in protecting our borders,” says university president Juliet García. “Of course, we believe in strong immigration policy. But we also understand that a fence, no matter how high or how wide, is no substitute for either.”—Michelle Nijhuis
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