By MELISSA McEVER - The Brownsville Herald
May 17, 2007 - 10:32PM
Texas and Rio Grande Valley environmental groups have banded together in their opposition of the proposed border fence.
Several nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups issued a statement this week calling for the Department of Homeland Security to "slow down" plans to construct 70 miles of fencing from Roma to Brownsville and consider the environmental consequences.
"They're rushing ahead and steamrolling a 30-year effort to protect habitat and the most biologically diverse area in North America," said Jim Chapman, president of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Group of the Sierra Club's Texas chapter. "They need to seriously slow down."
Groups that signed the statement include Audubon Texas, Defenders of Wildlife, Environmental Defense, Sierra Club, the North American Butterfly Association and Friends of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and the Wildlife Corridor.
The groups wanted to present a united front to federal officials, said Karen Chapman, water and wildlife analyst for Environmental Defense.
"We are hoping the amount of noise generated by the conservation and business communities, as well as private landowners will be sufficient to at least make (DHS) pause," Chapman said. "Maybe they'll reconsider the idea of a wall and look at other alternatives."
Private property owners say they've also been contacted by federal officials about placing fencing in their back yards.
Raising the fence on refuge land and along the Rio Grande will cut off wildlife's access to water and habitat and destroy decades' worth of effort to restore brushland, environmental groups and U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have said.
"With all the work conservationists have done in the last few decades to protect habitat along the river … no one was doing that with the idea it would someday be stuck behind a wall," said Chapman.
The Rio Grande Valley is home to a diverse array of birds and wildlife, including the endangered ocelot and jaguarundi. With the construction of a fence, wildlife no longer would be able to cross the river to reach habitat in Mexico, and the construction process itself could diminish existing habitat, environmental groups say.
"We don't even know what type of fence they're going to put up — if it's going to be metal, chain-link, or where they're going to put it," said Jimmy Paz, director of the Sabal Palm Audubon Center and Sanctuary in Brownsville. "It's a waste of money, and it's going to affect our wildlife."
Conservation groups also say that a fence would hurt ecotourism and discourage birders from visiting the area.
"We'll all be impacted by people not wanting to come to a place where the habitat is gone," said Martin Hagne, director of Valley Nature Center in Weslaco. "Birders … might choose to go elsewhere."
Under the Real ID Act, the Department of Homeland Security has authority to waive federal environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, while building the fence.
U.S. Border Patrol officials met with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service representatives this week to discuss environmental concerns. A Border Patrol spokesman said he would forward those comments to the Department of Homeland Security.