LA FERIA, Texas (Border Report) — The Biden administration has sued in federal court to condemn several tracts of farmland in Cameron County where they plan to build and install an array of border infrastructure along the banks of the Rio Grande. But environmentalists tell Border Report the area also includes a section of a federal wildlife preserve that is home to endangered species.
Papers filed in federal court in Brownsville last month show the federal government taking several area farmland fields near the Rio Grande south of the town of La Feria, Texas. And a map included indicates that the Border Infrastructure Project would go straight through the La Gloria wildlife refuge tract, which is part of the Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Environmentalists Scott Nicol and Jim Chapman took Border Report on a tour of the wildlife refuge on Tuesday. They say the refuge is part of a decades-old corridor that was established to provide a safe place for wildlife. And they worry that animals won’t be able to get to and from the Rio Grande if the wildlife refuge is cut off by new border barriers.
“If they’re going to follow the line of the condemnation, that would run this stretch of border wall behind us through another portion of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge,” Nicol said Tuesday as he walked along the dusty border levee.
Beneath the raised earthen levee are towering cedar trees, marshy wetlands and dense brush, where raccoons, turtles and rare birds nest.
According to court papers filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Brownsville, it is land that the federal government says is being taken “to construct, install, operate, and maintain roads, fencing, vehicle barriers, security lighting, cameras, sensors, and related structures designed to help secure the United States/Mexico border within the State of Texas.”
A 30-foot-tall black metal bollard wall has already been built on either side of the 269-acre wildlife refuge, and some of the wall actually has already been built inside the edge of the refuge, Chapman said.
Now, Chapman and Nicol worry that the Biden administration is going to complete the missing segment — which is just shy of a mile long — and that they will connect the border wall. That would cut off the refuge to the river and dissect this tract of land that was set aside in the 1970s to protect wildlife.
“Part of this tract is forest. Part of it is wetlands,” said Chapman. “And the levee is where they want to put the border wall and essentially it would cut the refuge in two and create an essentially impassable barrier for wildlife either trying to get to the river or either trying to get away from the river.”
He also worries that bright lights and cameras could also affect some habitats and the 150-foot enforcement zone that is carved out around the border barrier will destroy sensitive vegetation in this recharge zone.
Nicol said he is discouraged because when President Joe Biden took office he promised to halt all new border wall construction. But DHS has hired contractors to build what they have called border “guard rails” and to shore up sections of the border wall and levee that were damaged during initial border wall construction.
But Chapman says this part of the levee currently has no border barrier at all, and if they put one up, he says that would be a “new border wall.”
“They’re basically saying we’re not building new border wall, they say we’re just doing remediation and repair, but this would be new border wall because there hasn’t been any construction here for over a year,” Chapman said.
The current border bollards put up to the east of the refuge have a handwritten date of December 2020. And they were one of the last sections of border wall built before Donald Trump left office.
A border wall could be continued to cut through the La Gloria wildlife refuge, which is part of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Lower Rio Grande Valley Refuge south of La Feria, Texas, as seen on Dec. 14, 2021. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)
DHS has given back several land tracks that were condemned during the Trump administration, including a much-publicized riverfront land in Hidalgo County owned by the Cavazos family that was returned just last week.
And that’s what makes this so hard for Nicol to understand, he says.
“It hasn’t gotten any real attention. It should and maybe that would help the Biden administration to have a more consistent policy and when they say ‘not another foot,’ they actually stop doing things that would contribute to building another foot of border wall,” Nicol said.
Border Report has reached out to the Department of Homeland Security and asked if the border infrastructure project includes the construction of a border wall through the refuge and when construction would begin.
In October, DHS announced that it would terminate all border-wall contracts within the Border Patrol’s Laredo and Rio Grande Valley sectors. Additionally, DHS said, U.S. Customs and Border Protection will continue conducting biological, cultural, and natural resource surveys on areas where barrier plans exist. These areas are also within the Laredo and Rio Grande Valley sectors and within the El Centro (California) Sector.
DHS said none of the environmental activities involve border barrier construction or permanent land acquisition and that all actions are consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.