In satellite images, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge stands out as a patch of wild green among the neat squares of cultivated fields, roadways, and buildings in South Texas’ populous Rio Grande Valley. More than 450 species of plants grow on the refuge, and the lush vegetation and several small wetlands provide an oasis for resident bird species such as Green Jays, chachalacas, Green Kingfishers, and Great Kiskadees, along with some Mexican specialties that stray north. In spring and fall, the area serves as important habitat for migrants along the Central and Mississippi flyways. More than 400 species have been seen here, making the refuge one of the top birding destinations in the world. As such, Santa Ana and a string of nearby protected areas cobbled together by local communities are part of a thriving ecotourism industry along the Rio Grande that brings in $463 million annually.
But what makes the refuge so special for birds, wildlife, and tourism could also prove its ruin. Located along the U.S.-Mexico border, the refuge has found itself in the crosshairs of the Trump administration’s plans to build its contentious border wall, a focal point of Trump’s presidential platform that remains a key initiative.
On July 14, the Texas Observer reported that crews doing soil research for the wall were spotted in Santa Ana. The news caught locals off guard, as did the anonymous tip to the Texas Observer reporter that the private contractor has been working on the refuge for at least six months, apparently intentionally flying under the radar. When the reporter went to the refuge in person, a security guard asked her to leave.
This was not the only evidence of secretive wall plans that came out last month. About the same time as the discovery at Santa Ana, the owner of the National Butterfly Center found survey stakes on the private property, and later, workers began to clear the land for proposed roadways at the instruction of the border patrol. Both developments have catalyzed the conservation community in the area and abroad. The butterfly center has started a donation page to raise funds for a legal team, and as a show of strength, supporters of Santa Ana, including Travis Audubon, gathered this past Saturday for a protest walk along the refuge’s levee, where the soil samples were taken and the wall would likely be built.
Little else is known about what the administration has in store for the refuge, but Carlos A. Díaz, Southwest Border branch chief for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), confirmed that soil sampling was conducted on the refuge and will inform future decisions about wall construction. However, there is reason to suspect that such decisions may already have been made.
The fact that the federal government owns the refuge and doesn’t need any permission to build on the land makes it a prime candidate for one of the first sections of President Trump’s border wall. Authorized by George W. Bush’s Secure Fence Act of 2006, roughly 100 condemnation suits filed against private landowners for border-wall construction in 2007 have yet to be resolved. So avoiding such legal tie-ups is attractive.
As part of the 2007 round of construction, some 650 miles of barrier have already gone up along the U.S.-Mexico border, including 70 miles in the Valley. Those miles cut through the Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve, parts of several state Wildlife Management Areas, portions of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuges, and Audubon’s Sabal Palm Sanctuary.
“The entire Sanctuary ended up completely behind the wall,” says Iliana Peña, conservation director of Audubon Texas. The property remains accessible via an opening at its entrance road, but the idea of strolling around on the ‘wrong’ side of a 20-foot barrier concerned a lot of people, she adds.
Most birds can fly over walls, of course, but border infrastructure disturbs their natural way of life and further fragments habitat.
Most birds can fly over walls, of course, but border infrastructure disturbs their natural way of life and further fragments habitat in an area where less than three percent of it remains. “You get a bigger footprint than just the wall,” says Ken Merritt, a retired South Texas Refuge manager. “There are temporary impacts from construction and permanent impacts.” Existing border wall segments have roads alongside them, cleared land on both sides, and surveillance cameras and light towers. Even birds that can fly over the physical structure can't avoid such exposure. According to a 2008 report from the University of Texas School of Law, “The direct effects of border wall construction and maintenance will be significant and detrimental to past, present, and future conservation efforts.”
Regardless, the government continues to move forward. The Secure Fence Act remains active legislation, and on July 27, the House of Representatives approved the Trump administration’s $1.6 billion budget request for the border wall as part of a defense spending measure. Texas Republican John Cornyn and three other U.S. senators introduced a bill on August 3 authorizing approximately $15 billion for four years of border security and enforcement measures, including barriers.
As for Santa Ana’s fate, Diaz provided a statement via email that says, in part: “Currently we are in the research and planning process for construction of new wall so it would be premature to speak about specific locations. At this point the only specific projects that we’re going to be working on, are the 35 gates in the Rio Grande Valley as authorized by the enacted FY17 Budget.”
Reports of specific locations or dates for construction, he stressed, “would be very inaccurate at this point.” Yet months of preparation work on the refuge would make it seem to be on a short list.
In addition to the wall itself, locals have another concern about the handling of wall decisions and construction. The Secure Fence Act also gave the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) power to waive existing laws and regulations. Then-Secretary Michael Chertoff used this power in 2007 to lift the requirement that agencies examine the potential environmental impacts of a wall before building. People here fear a waiver repeat, especially after former DHS Secretary John F. Kelly recently granted one in San Diego, where the administration proposed building 20 border-wall prototypes and 14 miles of border fencing from the Pacific Ocean to Otay Mesa.
Diaz said that CBP has no information at this point about the possibility of future waivers, and when asked, refuge employees directed inquiries to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s external affairs office. That office provided a written statement to the effect that CBP has included the Department of the Interior, of which the Fish and Wildlife Service is a part, in initial discussions regarding implementation of the president’s January executive order calling for wall construction. That order repeatedly uses the word “immediately” and phrases such as “necessary and appropriate,” so such discussions almost certainly include a possible waiver.
A wall at Santa Ana would likely follow an existing flood levee on its north side, leaving most of this land behind the structure, just as happened at Sabal Palm. There, concerns about perception and visitor safety prompted Audubon to lease the property to a nonprofit, Gorgas Science Foundation.
“There is a stigma to the idea of a wall and that is difficult to manage from a visitor’s perspective,” Peña says. As for those 35 gates Diaz mentioned, Sabal Palm gets one of them. Although managers vow the property will remain open to visitors, a gate installed a few years ago at the nearby Hidalgo Pumphouse World Birding Center site typically remains locked.
In addition to visitors and birds, the wall also affects terrestrial wildlife. A 2011 study found that existing border barrier reduces the range of some species by as much as 75 percent, noting that small range size is associated with a higher risk of extinction. Affected species in the Rio Grande Valley include threatened Southern yellow bats, Texas tortoises, and endangered ocelots. The area’s rare stands of sabal palms rely on animals such as coyotes to spread their seeds, and the border fence makes that more difficult.
“From an ecosystem standpoint, it is devastating,” Peña says. “The refuge system in the Rio Grande Valley is legacy conservation work and Audubon was part of that. It is difficult to see such complete disregard for all that work.”