Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Border fencing threatens critters — and eco-tourism

Web Posted: 06/19/2007 01:14 AM CDT

Anastasia Ustinova

MISSION — With a row of red dots and bright yellow tips on its wings, the red-bordered pixie butterfly is a darling of the lower Rio Grande Valley, helping attract hundreds of thousands of people to the environmentally rich region.

It's the reason Sue Sill, the executive director of a butterfly park in Mission, purchased and planted several Guamuchil trees, a tropical evergreen that can reach 20 feet tall and produces sweet fruit that looks like a bean.

"Our property was all farmland. We started with just plain fields," Sill said of the 100-acre facility. "And now we are restoring the natural habitat, trying to put in rare and endangered plant communities that will attract some of the rare and endangered species of animals" and butterflies.

The North American Butterfly Association's park is one of the pearls of wildlife refuges strung along the lower Rio Grande Valley in a multimillion-dollar effort by the federal and state governments to preserve the area's diverse habitat, making it a top destination for eco-tourists.

It's the reason Sill and other local environmentalists are dismayed that the federal government wants to fence parts of the nearby border. They fear the fence, designed to keep undocumented immigrants and drug smugglers out, would cut large swaths through sensitive habitat and harm rare or threatened species, crippling a lucrative eco-tourism market.

"In the last 25 years, the federal government has been in the process of purchasing large chunks of land to create an extension of the wildlife refuge," said Gilberto Hinojosa, an attorney in Brownsville and a former Cameron County judge. "It would be completely inconsistent with that policy to cut the big section of that area out in order to put the border security fence."

Environmental concerns

Though no decision has been made on the fence's location or size, environmentalists fear the government would use portions of its own property along the Rio Grande. They say the fence would destroy the riverfront patchwork of refuges stretching from Falcon Dam to the Gulf of Mexico.

Last month, local officials got hold of a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol map that showed plans for about 86 miles of fence running through riverfront stretches from Roma to Brownsville.

Border Patrol officials, who have since conducted several impromptu meetings with area mayors, businessmen and environmentalists, said the map was outdated and the plan informal.

But it's the larger fences already in place in California that alarm Rio Grande Valley residents.

In San Diego, there are two barriers, each 10 feet tall, separated by a wide, clear path.

The overall footprint could be as wide as 150 feet, environmentalists say, based on the California experience and what's spelled out in the Secure Fence Act.

However, even smaller physical barriers such as those in Arizona and New Mexico would require the Border Patrol to clear habitat and use herbicides to keep the fences clear.

"From the environmental standpoint, the fence is a very, very disturbing thing," said Karen Chapman, water and wildlife analyst for Environmental Defense in Brownsville. "You are taking the entire ecosystem and you are drawing a line through it, making it impossible to function as a whole."

Valley ecology

At the juncture of subtropical, temperate, coastal and desert influences, the Valley is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the United States, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency estimates it has spent close to $90 million lacing together the scattered pieces of coastal barrier islands, riverside wetland, brush land and other South Texas plant communities into the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Roughly 90,000 acres of native brush and trees, including mesquite, sabal palm, Texas ebony and prickly pear, provide refuge to endangered species such as ocelot and jaguarondi, which could lose access to the Rio Grande because of the fence.

"It is not just that they can't get to the water or to the food," said Martin Hagne, executive director of the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco. "If you have two populations that are cut off from each other, their genetic pool will shrink and eventually they will disappear."

Though the Border Patrol has vowed to conduct a series of environmental assessments, one Fish & Wildlife Service official who has done studies for other border construction projects said the agency might be running out of time.

"If they go through all the environmental hoops, they won't meet the 2008 deadline," said Field Supervisor Allan Strand, adding that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has waived environmental studies in other states for national security reasons.

Eco-tourism threatened

The destroyed habitat also could mean less money for the local economy.

Tourism officials said the fence would drive away nature enthusiasts interested in wildlife watching, canoeing and hiking along the river. They estimate eco-tourism pumps about $125 million a year into the region, where the median per capita income is about $11,000according to the McAllen Chamber of Commerce.

"The country is not aware of how economically depressed the Valley is," said David Dauphin, a local butterfly guru. "If they were building a fence on the U.S.-Canada border cutting off the Niagara Falls, the whole country would be in an uproar."

A retired chemist from Houston, Dauphin moved to Mission with his wife Jan four years ago. Their modest backyard, filled with native plants after months of scrupulous landscaping and gardening, is host to more than 130 species of butterflies and is a favorite free attraction for eco-tourists from all over the world.

"If they put in the fence, we will probably move back to Houston or somewhere else," Dauphin said.

Why a fence?

The proposed fence is part of the Security Defense Act signed by President Bush last year. It calls for 700 miles of two-layered reinforced fencing and a "virtual fence" of roads, sensors, lights and cameras in all four states on the Mexican border.

Congress approved $1.2 billion for the construction of 370 miles of border fence, with about 153 miles of it in Texas, by the end of 2008.

Fence supporters argue that the need for a stronger barrier is real.

Though the number of undocumented immigrants crossing through the area's wildlife refuges is unknown, last year the Border Patrol detained more than 110,000 people in the Valley out of a total of more than a million on the Southwest border. Only its Tucson, Ariz., and San Diego sectors were busier, with 392,074 and 142,104 detentions, respectively.

The Border Patrol is still in the early planning stages for the fence and is testing different types of barriers for Texas, agency spokesman Xavier Rios said.

"Depending on the purpose of the fence and the location, we have to design the type of fence that would be taking the environmental concerns into consideration," Rios said. "There is no one-size-that-fits-all solution."

The agency is considering the types of fencing already in use in other states, Rios said, such as wire mesh, steel posts and cable barriers. It also is testing new, off-the-shelf prototypes.

Local input

Frustrated with uncertainty, 14 environmental groups, the Texas Produce Association and the McAllen Chamber of Commerce urged the Department of Homeland Security to consider an environment-friendly "virtual fence," using cameras, sensors and other low-impact technology.

"Mr. Secretary, you have the power, authority and obligation to avert an economic and ecological disaster in South Texas," the groups wrote to Chertoff. "The Department of Homeland Security should make a good-faith effort to understand and consider the needs of local communities."

But last week President Bush threatened to veto a House bill on homeland security that would require the government to seek community input on the fence, saying it would "serve as an impediment of gaining control of the border."

A similar amendment pushed by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, to require coordination between federal and local officials passed the House and is pending with the Senate version of the immigration bill.

"Washington is so far removed, so how can you not get an input from the local business community or environmental groups?" Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas said. "By not listening to the locals you are shutting another door."

Residents, politicians and environmentalists say they want to stop undocumented immigrants from crossing, but doubt that a fence would work.

"I think the local people who live on the border want the same things (the government wants); we want to stop the illegal immigration," McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez said. "But we live here and it would seem to me that we would be an invaluable resource, working with the Border Patrol ... we want to end up with something that works, and not with something that is a mistake."

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