President Trump’s proposed border wall may be coming sooner than expected to Texas. Environmental activists in the Rio Grande Valley say they've learned the federal government selected the Santa Ana National Refuge as one of the first sites for construction.
The Santa Ana National Refuge is one of the few places where the old Rio Grande forest still stands. Thick with thorny brush, trees are occupied by countless cicadas, which fill the hot humid air with their droning call. This is a place filled with life. The refuge is home to exotic birds and rare wild cats, including the ocelot.
“Santa Ana has one of the highest rates of biodiversity of any national wildlife refuge in the United States,” says Scott Nicol of the Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign. “It’s also in the middle of the wildlife corridor that was created to give ocelots the ability to access habitat all up and down the Rio Grande."
The federal government purchased the 2,088 acres for the refuge in 1943 to preserve this disappearing habitat. Because the land is federally owned, building a segment of the border wall here would avoid many of the problems that arise with the seizure of private property. Nicol says, according to an unnamed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official, that’s what’s happening:
“All of those meetings have been held in secret, so we don’t really know what the full plans are but it has been leaked that they want to wall off Santa Ana.”
Jim Chapman with Friends of the Wildlife Corridor says he spoke to officials who took part in a recent meeting where Customs and Border Protection (CBP) revealed the plan for building the border wall at the Santa Ana National Refuge. CBP has not confirmed whether or not these meetings took place.
“What was going to happen was the entire refugee was going to be walled off with an 18-foot concrete wall with a 12-foot steel fence on top of that," Chapman says. "The refuge would be cleared 150 feet into the refuge, a so-called 'enforcement zone' – and that enforcement zone would be lit – illuminated – all night every night.”
Chapman says the wall would keep visitors from enjoying the refuge, and it would trap wildlife when waters rise. He thinks the constant flood lights would harm ocelot habitats.
“You could not design something more damaging for the refuge than that," he says. "If they tried real hard they could not come up with something really, really worse for the refuge than that.”
Chapman says he was at the refuge several days afterwards. He says he saw a crew working on the levee where the wall would be built.
“And so I walked up there and asked them what they were doing, and they were drilling soil samples along the levee. They didn’t mention anything about a wall. But when you’re drilling exactly where the wall would go 40 feet down – it’s pretty obvious," he says.
Marianna Trevino Wright of the Rio Grande Valley’s National Butterfly Center says she had a similar experience.
“I was stunned to see them, and I said, 'Hey guys, what are you doing?'
'Working on what?'
'Clearing this land.'
And I said, 'You mean my land.'"
What was once onion farmland, the 100-acre National Butterfly Center is restored natural habitat for migratory birds and butterflies like the monarch. Trevino Wright says she caught a work crew as they were cutting down trees and widening a dirt road that leads to the Rio Grande.
She says CBP officials told her they would investigate the trespassing. She has yet to get a satisfactory explanation about why the crew was at the Butterfly Center and if there’s a plan to build the border wall on that land.
“There has been zero engagement of our organization or of us as private land owners here by any entity that is here doing work,” she says.
Trevino Wright says there’s also evidence that a survey crew has been at the National Butterfly Center. She found paint marks on the ground and wooden stakes in the levee.
U.S. Congressman Henry Cuellar, a border wall opponent, says he’s also having trouble getting information about what’s happening.
The Texas Democrat represents District 28, which covers part of the border. He says Homeland Security does not have the money to build the border wall – and nothing can be built – even at the Santa Ana National Refuge.
“We asked this specific question to CBP headquarters, and they’re saying they cannot shift money around – so they would have to wait for this new appropriation bill – 1.6 billion dollars that we’re hoping we can stop in Washington D.C. before the year's over,” the congressman says.
Cuellar says there is a lot of fear and confusion about the border wall and the CBP should be doing a better job of engaging and communicating with the local communities.
“There should be more information out there. The Bush administration, when they were working on the fence, they had a lot of town hall meetings – they had a lot of meetings – they went out there,” Cuellar says.
Customs and Border Protection did not respond to requests for comments on this story.