As Border Wall Plans Progress, the White House Flouts Environmental Laws

Officials confirm the bird-rich Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is the 'probable' starting point for construction.

More than two years after President Trump boasted of his plans to build a “big, beautiful, powerful wall” between the United States and Mexico, his administration is adopting a stealthier approach—ducking dozens of environmental rules—to make the promise a reality. And it looks like one of the country's best birding sites will be up first. 

To fast-track the process, the White House is targeting public tracts—even those set aside specifically for conservation. Nearly all Texas border lands are private, and seizing property through eminent domain is controversial and costly. But rather than waiting to go through the courts, in July the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began taking soil samples at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas to help choose suitable materials for a three-mile-long wall through the 2,088-acre haven, where more than 400 bird species have been observed. Documents published by the Texas Observer show that the goal is to finish the $45-million segment by July 2019. “It’s about expediency,” says Scott Nicol, co-chair of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands team. The administration might even bypass an environmental impact statement by invoking a 12-year-old anti-terror act.  (Last week a federal official confirmed that Santa Ana is the probable starting point; and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which opposed border-wall construction on nearby refuges a decade ago, stated it would cooperate.)

Not all construction on private land is on hold, either. Around the same time the Army Corps started poking around Santa Ana, contractors with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) were sawing down habitat and widening a road at the National Butterfly Center in nearby Mission, Texas. While the 100-acre tract is owned by the North American Butterfly Association, CBP can claim access to any private property within 25 miles of the border to “maintain levees for flood-control purposes.” The nonprofit recently filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to argue that the agency has gone way beyond that scope.

If true, it would be keeping with other DHS actions. This August the department waived 37 environmental laws—including the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act—to speed up the construction of eight prototypes for the wall on federal land near the San Diego-Tijuana border, in a region that contains critical habitat for the Coastal California Gnatcatcher, the Quino checkerspot butterfly, and other threatened and endangered species. The models were paid out from CBP’s 2017 budget—at a total price tag of $3.3 million—and were unveiled at the end of October.

With these plans underway, Trump can point to tangible progress on his pet project. But a major challenge looms on Capitol Hill: A $1.6 billion “down payment” for the wall is still awaiting Senate approval. Though the House pushed the bill through months ago, experts say it’s unlikely to pass both chambers; Democrats despise the idea, and the GOP is far from unified in support.

But wildlife advocates are still holding their breaths. Both Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and the National Butterfly Center are part of a 230,000-acre ribbon of habitat in the Lower Rio Grande Valley that’s taken decades and millions of dollars to stitch together. Existing portions of wall built during the Obama administration are already preventing some animals in the Valley from accessing the river and escaping floodwaters. All told, the documents published by the Observer show, the administration plans to build 15 segments of border wall through 33 miles of the Valley.

A longer partition, conservationists argue, will further cut off that corridor and push fragile species like ocelots, jaguars, and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls closer to the brink. “We’ve been doing everything we can to mobilize opposition and head off any possible construction,” Nicol says. At summer’s end, he and more than 600 birders and demonstrators marched through Santa Ana to show that the consequences of the wall would be big and powerful—but far from beautiful.