Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Border fence threatens ocelots, jaguarundis at Nature Conservancy preserve

Now & Then: Don't Fence Me Out
Proposed border fence threatens southmost preserve

By Jennifer Winger

Located on the southern tip of Texas, The Nature Conservancy's Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve traces a slow curve of the Rio Grande for more than two miles and encompasses 1,034 acres of semiarid thorn-scrub habitat — including one of only two remaining stands of native sabal palm trees in the country. Once known as the Wild Horse Desert, south Texas may support more wildlife per acre than any other habitat in North America. And although the Rio Grande Valley itself has lost more than 95 percent of its wildlife habitat, Southmost Preserve is a shining exception: Its lands and waters provide habitat for endangered species such as jaguarundis and ocelots, as well as indigo snakes, Texas tortoises and migratory birds.

But recently, this valuable habitat has been threatened by an 18-foot-tall concrete and steel fence proposed by the Department of Homeland Security. Most of the proposed 670-mile-long border fence, with segments from California to West Texas, has already been constructed, but the section slated to cut through the Conservancy's land is on hold, pending the outcome of a legal battle. The government offered to compensate the Conservancy $114,000 for building the fence through Southmost Preserve, but the Conservancy declined. The offer would have compensated only for the footprint of the fence itself—about eight acres that would run in a 6,000-foot strip across the preserve. Now the Department of Homeland Security has taken the case to federal court.

If the fence is built, nearly 700 acres — 75 percent of the preserve — would be trapped in a no-man's-land between the fence and the Rio Grande, including all preserve facilities and the home of the preserve manager. The proposed fence would effectively cut off access to the native plant nursery, which is critical to reforestation efforts throughout south Texas. Additionally, the fence would sever a critical corridor for wildlife, as it could block animals from accessing protected areas to the north and freshwater resources to the south.

"Many people are surprised to learn that the border fence isn't actually on the border," says Laura Huffman, the Conservancy's state director for Texas. "It often ventures deep into private property, and in the case of Southmost, cuts us off from most of our land."

The Conservancy purchased Southmost Preserve—then a for-profit nursery of row crops and citrus orchards — in 1999 for $2.6 million. For the past decade, the Conservancy has been monitoring wildlife populations and working to restore natural vegetation on the preserve by controlling invasive species and tending the native plant nursery. Without this environmental stewardship, habitat for wildlife would quickly degrade.

But there may still be time to find an alternative that both protects the U.S. border and preserves the natural resources along the river that Texas and Mexico share. The U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Interior has expressed concerns about the environmental impact of the fence, and the Conservancy remains optimistic that the Department of Homeland Security will agree to discuss alternatives.

"The new administration could decide to increase surveillance technology and patrols without building a physical barrier," says Sonia Najera, the Conservancy's south Texas program manager. "Until the fence is constructed, there is hope for our work on the preserve and for the wildlife that depend on it."



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