Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Refuge Threatened by the Fence

In my last Loose Feathers, I linked to an article reporting that Michael Chertoff used his authority as head of Homeland Security to waive any laws impeding speedy construction of a border fence - an expensive project of questionable usefulness. Chertoff frames his decision as simply obeying the will of Congress. In reality he has this authority because of exceptions inserted into the bill for ideological reasons. Plans for the fence have generated opposition from land owners, local businesses, and environmentalists - all of whom stand to lose because of its construction. Such an alliance might have seemed unlikely ten years ago. I suppose it is an outgrowth of Bush's promise to be a uniter.

Monday's NY Times featured one of the people worried about what the fence will mean: the manager of the Sabal Palm Audubon Center. Sabal Palm owns the largest remaining tract of a palm forest that used to cover the Rio Grande delta but now is largely destroyed. It maintains habitat for birds and other animals that are rare north of Mexican border. The sanctuary's bird checklist (pdf) includes specialties like Least Grebe, Plain Chachalaca, Groove-billed Ani, Ringed and Green Kingfishers, Green Jay, Long-billed Thrasher, Tropical Parula, Olive Sparrow, and Altamira Oriole. Together with adjacent refuges, it attracts numerous tourists to the area and helps support the local economy.

Mr. Paz, a native of not just Brownsville but “beautiful Brownsville,” knows the area and its rhythms. He says the Fence would create a twilight zone out of a swath of distinctive American soil, disrupt and damage wildlife and have the opposite of the intended effect: it will be the birders and other tourists — not the illegal immigrants — who stop coming. It may also put him out of a job....

Mr. Paz remembers cycling as a boy to the “palm jungle” along the Rio to re-enact scenes from the Tarzan movies he had just seen at the Queen Theatre in downtown beautiful Brownsville. After a decade in the Army, he returned to hold a series of jobs, including police officer and windshield repairman, while the Audubon Society acquired parcels of that jungle to create a sanctuary to be called Sabal Palm, after the stocky palm trees of the Rio Grande valley.

Ten years ago he became manager of the very property where he once imitated Johnny Weissmuller — property that sits roughly between a bio-diverse preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy of Texas and a swath of land restored by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Combined, Eden....

Yes, until recently life was peaceful at Sabal Palm. The schoolchildren and birders would come in. Mr. Paz and his assistant, Cecilia Farrell, would collect the small fee, sell handbooks, maintain the grounds. Come 5 o’clock, they would leave the sanctuary in the care of a wiry night watchman who has lived on the property for nearly a half-century. His name is Ernie Ortiz, he is 82, and he packs a .38.

What’s more, the relationship between the Border Patrol and Sabal Palm was quite friendly. Border Patrol sensors are in the sanctuary’s soil, in its mesquite trees, everywhere. And when Sabal Palm staged a hawk watch, the Border Patrol provided a portable tower for spotting nothing more than birds.
Current plans put the center in a no man's land between the fence and Mexico. Whether the center would be able to stay open under such circumstances remains unclear. If refuges like this along the Lower Rio Grande Valley are forced to close or if the fence substantially degrades the river's habitats, the region's economy will suffer negative consequences. Tourists who now go there to experience the rare ecosystem (and the birds it supported) will likely choose to go elsewhere. If the refuges cannot manage the habitat, that habitat may disappear.

These sorts of ecological and economic impacts would normally be addressed as part of an environmental review process, which would have opportunities for public comment at all stages. The process of planning and building the border fence, by contrast, has lacked transparency. Homeland Security officials claim that ecological consequences will be mitigated but refuse to say what issues they will address or how they will do it. By circumventing environmental and land management regulations, Chertoff guaranteed that the public would have no opportunity to influence how or whether the fence is built. The result is both anti-environmental and anti-democratic.

Several other bloggers have already commented on this issue. I encourage you to read John's thoughts on the fence and birding the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Sibley's call to action.