Saving Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge extends beyond political boundaries

The Border Wall

'Year of Fear': Chapter 16

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is a 2,000 tract of preservation in south Texas south of the town of Alamo. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Editor’s note: This piece was written in partnership with the Columbia Journalism Review and the Delacorte Review, the literary nonfiction journal of the Columbia Journalism School. The project focuses on the stories and conversations going on in communities leading up to the November election.

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is known as the “jewel of the national wildlife refuge system.” The 2,088-acre parcel of land hugs the looping Rio Grande on the border with Mexico, south of the small South Texas town of Alamo and across the river from the bustling Mexican city of Reynosa. It is a favorite place for bird-watchers and nature lovers and anyone else in search of a moment of solitude and a peaceful place to reflect while gazing at coyotes and rare species of birds and turtles amidst draping Spanish moss trees. The refuge is located at a crossroads of biological diversity. It is positioned along the east-west and north-south juncture of two major migratory bird routes. It is also at the northern tip for many species whose range extends south into Central and South America.

The refuge is also a crossroad for politically diverse supporters.

“Winter Texans,” as they are called, are retirees who live in South Texas during the winter months. This is a coveted go-to spot for them since it is easily accessible, located in the middle of the “upper” or “lower” Rio Grande Valley (RGV), where the towns of McAllen and Brownsville are. Most Winter Texans live in the 200 RV parks located throughout the RGV. Most are Anglo and a great many of them are Republicans. They come to the Rio Grande Valley, a majority Democratic region full of young Hispanics, for several months every year to escape wintry cold states like Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin.

Besides frequenting local restaurants for early-dinner specials, most Winter Texans stay within their RV park circuit, where the nightly entertainment ranges from Bingo to square-dancing to bocce ball to park buffets and live music that never seems to end.  

But it’s places like Santa Ana where these very different people—politically, economically and culturally—meet. Here, on the 14 miles of winding trails, one can find Hispanic families pushing strollers with young children trying to catch butterflies near seniors dressed in camouflage vests with binoculars hanging around their necks as they point quietly to rare birds.

A few years ago, when the Trump administration announced that the border wall would be built through this nature preserve, there was public outcry from nature-lovers on both sides of the political spectrum unlike anything heard before in the Rio Grande Valley. 

While campaigning against Senator Ted Cruz in the summer of 2017, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso, visited the park and walked the dirt trails with a pack of media following him. O’Rourke spoke about the need to save Santa Ana and documented the experience on Facebook Live. He even climbed a metal winding stairwell and filmed from atop a picturesque rope bridge and scenic overlook from where one can spy rural Mexican farmlands in the distance. By using social media, O’Rourke was able to reach a nationwide audience, members of which had never before seen the splendors of this area.

O’Rourke went on to lose his Senate challenge in a surprisingly close race. But in many respects, Santa Ana was the big winner that day because it thrust the nature preserve into the national spotlight. And when Congress, during the heated 2019 fiscal budget process, voted to approve $1.375 billion in funding for a border wall on the Southwest boundary with Mexico, Santa Ana was listed as one of the handful of places exempt from construction. The others included La Lomita Chapel, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, and the National Butterfly Center, all located in the RGV. Lawmakers again exempted Santa Ana when they approved nearly the same amount in the 2020 fiscal budget for the Southwest border wall plans.

The exterior of La Lomita chapel in Mission, Texas, on January 15, 2019. (SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images)

At the time, environmentalists felt they had scored a victory in their fight against the “militarization” of the South Texas border, and they believed Santa Ana was safe.

But now Santa Ana is once again being threatened because the Trump Administration appears to have found a loophole for building the wall on the border of Santa Ana, which many say will decimate the quietness of the isolated reserve. A federal judge recently ruled that border wall surveyors may enter a disputed swath of land that abuts a corner of the refuge and that they may even trim back and cut vegetation within the park where it is necessary to survey the area for a future border wall. More recently, many South Texas communities along the Rio Grande have been especially concerned as construction on the border wall ramped up during the pandemic by workers, many from other states, who locals fear will bring the deadly virus.

“They’re doing this all right in the middle of this pandemic,” Ricky Garza, a lawyer with the nonprofit group Texas Civil Rights Project, said during a recent video call with news media. “We are extremely concerned with this construction never really stopping during this pandemic and a lack of PPE [personal protective equipment] by construction workers who are out there.”

US District Judge Randy Crane, of the Southern District of Texas in McAllen, ruled on April 30 that surveyors may access that section of land, writing that he grants “the right of the United States, its agents, contractors, and assigns to enter in, on, over and across the land” for up to 12 months.

Crane ruled that a one-third mile-long section of land that abuts the northeast corner of the refuge is not owned by the refuge and therefore not exempt from border wall construction. This is because when the refuge purchased additional lands from a local farmer in 1978, the land underneath an earthen levee that lines the park boundary was not part of the deal. So although Congress said no border wall may be placed on Santa Ana property, putting one atop the flood levee apparently does not violate any rules. 

The dirt levees, which run parallel to the Rio Grande, were built in the 1930s throughout Hidalgo County to control flooding in the delta region. The levees are maintained by the US International Boundary and Water Commission to ensure that water deflection does not violate a 1970 international water treaty between the United States and Mexico. They have become the Trump Administration’s favorite path for constructing new border wall miles in South Texas. Survey crews hired by the US Army Corps of Engineers and US Customs and Border Protection were slated to begin work Memorial Day weekend; however, as of the publication of this piece, the surveying has not yet started.

US Representative Henry Cuellar of South Texas—the only Democrat from the Southwest border on the House Appropriations Committee, and vice-chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee—vehemently opposes surveyors on the land and the constructing of the border wall so close to the treasured preserve. He said that the building of a border wall on this section of land violates the legislative intent that Congress mandated when it approved funds for the wall.

“The legislative intent was very clear that anything within Santa Ana will be protected and they should not come in and go into Santa Ana to clear brush,” Cuellar told Border Report in an interview. Environmentalists said these recent turn of events have left them desperate and uncertain of what will happen to their beloved park and other protected areas in the vicinity of the Trump Administration’s border-wall path ahead of the November election. As of May 15, CBP has completed 187 miles of new border wall, with the goal of completing 450 miles by the year’s end, the US Department of Homeland Security said last week.

Jim Chapman, the 72-year-old president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a nonprofit support group for Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, is scrambling to get help. Last week, Chapman walked the dirt levee, spotting wooden stakes already placed adjacent to park lands, their pink ribbons marking where the 150-foot-wide enforcement zone will likely extend. A once-lush path of brush is already trimmed back and thin and Chapman shook his head in sadness.

CBP’s border wall enforcement zone is set to include an all-weather road; underground sensors; infrared cameras and 30-foot tall floodlights; and an 18-foot tall metal bollard wall that sits atop the levee, mounted on a 6-foot concrete base.

Chapman says the floodlights will disturb nocturnal species like the Mexican free-tailed bat and will threaten already endangered species of tortoise that call this area home and won’t be able to get through the four-inch wide gaps in between the six-inch wide metal slats in the wall or under the concrete base.

He’s also angry at what he says is the Trump Administration going “full throttle” on its border wall during this coronavirus pandemic. As a retired physician’s assistant who spent his life working in medicine, Chapman says money is now urgently needed to find a cure for COVID-19, not to build a wall to divide the United States from Mexico. “Money for the wall should be given to anything else. There shouldn’t be any wall,” Chapman said.

Garza, the Texas Civil Rights Project lawyer, said “the government has filed more lawsuits under the pandemic” to gain land access for wall-building like they did at Santa Ana. Garza said there are currently over 40 federal lawsuits, most at the McAllen federal courthouse. His organization represents several land owners and is keeping an eye out on Santa Ana, which is located just a few miles from their offices in Alamo, Texas.

“What was pretty shocking to see was, in Santa Ana, the government basically went up to the letter of the law where the prohibitions had been in place and they had decided to sue the piece of land directly adjacent,” Garza said during a call with news media. “It was not violating the letter of the law put in place by Congress but it was violating the intent.” 

The question now becomes what it will take to save this jewel. Will park supporters from both sides of the political spectrum come together to oppose border wall construction? Many of Santa Ana’s Winter Texan supporters have uncharacteristically stayed in the Rio Grande Valley this spring because they felt it was safer to ride out the pandemic here. Will they speak out against Donald Trump? Or will they remain silent and allow the cutting down of centuries-old Mexican Cypress trees?


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