ALAMO, Texas (Border Report) — A one-third-mile swath of land that borders the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is to be surveyed for a border wall Friday, and work crews are not only expected to go on but could trim sections of the refuge that Congress exempted from the border wall, a leading environmental advocate told Border Report.
Jim Chapman, president of the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a nonprofit support group for South Texas’ Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, told Border Report that a local farmer who owns the property was notified by U.S. Customs and Border Protection that survey crews would be on the site sometime Friday.
U.S. District Judge Randy Crane, of the Southern District of Texas in McAllen, on April 30 ruled that surveyors may access this section of land for up to 12 months. And according to the orders, they may cut down vegetation or trim back areas in order to conduct the surveying.
Crane wrote that crews may “survey, make borings, and conduct other investigatory work … and to access adjacent lands; including the right to trim or remove any vegetative or structural obstacles that interfere with said work.”
The land has been in dispute because Frank Schuster Farms Inc., in 1978 sold a tract of land to the wildlife refuge but did not sell the land underneath an earthen levee that abuts the borderline with the refuge. The levees were built in the 1930s as flood control for the region and are maintained by the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission and have proven the trajectory for placement of new border wall by CBP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Rio Grande Valley. Crane ruled that because the land is not owned by Santa Ana it is not protected by a carve-out from Congress that forbids the building of the border wall on the refuge.
“Pretty shocking,” Ricky Garza, a lawyer with the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project, said of the federal government’s lawsuit to access that strip of land so close to the refuge. Santa Ana is considered “the crown jewel of refuges,” and Garza said his organization will be monitoring any activity on the land, which is located just a few miles from their South Texas offices.
“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 farmland directly adjacent, it was not violating the letter of the law put in place by Congress but it was violating the intent,” Garza said Thursday.
‘Anything within Santa Ana will be protected’
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said he was instrumental in inserting language into House budget bills for 2019 and 2020 that explicitly exempt Santa Ana, as well as other historical and significant areas, such as La Lomita Chapel, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, SpaceX and historic cemeteries.
In a call with Border Report on Thursday, Cuellar said he was not aware that surveyors were scheduled to be at Santa Ana this week but said that if crews cut down parts of Santa Ana it will violate Congress’ legislative intent to protect the area.
“The legislative intent it was very clear that anything within Santa Ana will be protected and they should not come in and go into the Santa Ana to clear brush and all that. The congressional language should be very clear on that, in my opinion,” said Cuellar, a South Texas Democrat who serves on the House Appropriations Committee and is the vice-chair of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.
However, Cuellar added that Santa Ana supporters have not reached out to his office to voice opposition to this lawsuit, which was filed by the federal government to gain access onto the property. And he said if they do, that he will try to work language into the upcoming Congressional budget to include a special provision to ensure Santa Ana is fully protected.
“My office is open but I do need feedback from the folks who feel that they might be affected and nobody’s reached out,” Cuellar said.
Border Report has reached out to CBP officials for confirmation on the Friday surveying, and will update this story if the agency responds.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.