Monday, April 26, 2010

Walling off Texas' Last Sabal Palm Forest

By Scott Nicol

On April 19, Kiewit construction crews began clearing ground for yet another section of border wall just east of Brownsville, Texas on land that was, until the prior week, part of the Nature Conservancy’s Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve. The 18-foot tall steel wall will cut off 95% of the 1,034 acre preserve. As with the more than 400 other landowners whose property the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has condemned, the Nature Conservancy was only offered compensation for the exact footprint of the wall – a strip 60 feet wide and 6,000 feet long – not the land that will be behind the wall. In DHS’ limited view, $114,000 is “just compensation” for walling off lands purchased in 1999 for $2.6 million.

Kiewit construction sign in front of the South Texas border wall

Before the order granting the federal government possession of their land, the Nature Conservancy had attempted to use the courts to force DHS to provide compensation and guarantee access to its property. The Department of Homeland Security has stated that the new border wall will have gates, but they have refused to explain under what circumstances they will be opened to permit access to areas behind the wall. With no way of knowing if staff or eco-tourists will be allowed into the Southmost Preserve, it is hard to see how they can continue to operate. Faced with a similar situation, the neighboring Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary simply took down its sign and ceased operations.

The Southmost Preserve contains one of the last of the sabal palm forests that once enveloped the mouth of the river. Before it was called the Rio Grande in the United States and the Rio Bravo in Mexico, the river was known as the Rio de las Palmas to Spanish explorers and conquistadors, who used the palm forest at its mouth as a landmark as they sailed along the Gulf Coast. Then dense groves of sabal palms followed the river up to 80 miles inland, but today the last stands are confined to one tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the former Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary, and the Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve. All three are now behind the border wall.

Border wall under construction in front of Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary

Federally listed endangered species, including the ocelot and jaguarundi, depend upon riparian habitat along the Rio Grande for their continued survival. Naturally solitary animals, they require large territories in which to hunt, find mates, and disperse after they are weaned. But South Texas has lost roughly 95% of its historic vegetative cover to urban development and agriculture.

Habitat fragmentation, in which disconnected “islands” of habitat are separated by large areas cleared of vegetation, split by roads, or divided by other impediments to movement, poses a tremendous threat to these species’ long-term survival. Ocelot and jaguarundi trapped within too-small habitat “islands” may not have sufficient prey or access to water, and often show evidence of inbreeding. Today, the Rio Grande Valley is home to the less than 80 ocelots and 40 jaguarundi that are still believed to survive in the United States.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge was established to address the threat to the survival of ocelot, jaguarundi, and other wildlife posed by habitat fragmentation. Over the years 113 individual tracts of land, totaling 88,044 acres, have been acquired, with a goal of using the ribbon of riparian habitat along the Rio Grande as a wildlife corridor to link them. Though not operated by US Fish and Wildlife, the Southmost Preserve and Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary are critical parts of the corridor. Bound together by the river, it was hoped that they would provide sufficient resources and allow for the necessary mobility to prevent the extirpation of these endangered cats.

Mile after mile of border wall now slice through the LRGV National Wildlife Refuge; along the northern border of the Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary; and soon will tear through the Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve, fragmenting habitat that was painstakingly pieced together over the course of many years. The walls that break apart the wildlife corridor may prove to be the final nail in the coffin for ocelots and jaguarundi.

Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary closed

Though the border walls called for by the Secure Fence Act are nearly finished, the threat of Congressionally mandated damage to the borderlands continues. With mid-term elections looming, many politicians hope to exploit fears of “spillover violence” and a Mexican “reconquista” in their bids to stay in office. Calling for the erection of more walls and the deployment of troops may not be sound border policy, but it is a sure-fire way to land an interview on Fox news, which is tantamount to a free campaign ad. The border environment is then either used as a scapegoat or ignored.

Claiming that federal land managers are “hiding behind the law” and preventing the Border Patrol from doing their job, recently Representative Rob Bishop introduced legislation that would prevent the Department of Interior from “impeding” Homeland Security’s attempts to fulfill the Secure Fence Act’s mandate. Rep. Bishop, whose Utah district lies 800 miles north of the U.S. – Mexico border, failed to ask the Border Patrol if the Department of the Interior’s stewardship of public lands was in fact interfering with their operations. Brandon Judd, vice president of Local 2544 of the National Border Patrol Council, spoke out against Rep. Bishop’s bill, stating that without environmental regulations, “you would destroy the land.”

Last week the Senate held hearings on border security and the failure of Boeing’s multi-million dollar “virtual fence.” The Senators did not discuss the environmental impacts of the border wall, or address the underlying economic factors driving immigration, or even consider whether or not it made sense to continue “enforcement only” immigration policies. Instead Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, suggested that, "The best answer to this continuing crisis and continued flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. is to go back to the old-style fences, double- and triple-tiered, and layered."

"Triple fence" border wall design in San Diego, California

So while we may want to believe that border wall construction, and the accompanying destruction of border ecosystems, is finally coming to an end, the truth is that so long as politicians believe that militarizing the border plays well in their home districts they will continue to draft legislation calling for more border walls. To voters in Utah and Connecticut sabal palm forests along the Rio Grande are no more real than the forests in Avatar. When the palm forests are gone most won’t notice their passing.

This is why it is so important for those of us who can see the damage that is being inflicted upon the borderlands, and who will mourn the loss of sabal palms, ocelots, and the rest of our unique environment, to make certain that when these decisions are made far from the border our voices are heard. We cannot allow ecosystems that predate the founding of the United States and Mexico to be destroyed just to score points in an off-year election. As John Muir said, “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.”