Trump's Border Wall Threatens Butterflies, Birds, Botanicals, and Entire Bioregions
November 4, 2018
Claire Harbage / National Public Radio & Melissa del Bosque / The Texas Observer & Jonathan Hilburg / The Architect's Newspaper
The National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre wildlife center and botanical garden in South Texas, provides a habitat for more than 100 species of butterflies. It also sits directly in the path of the Trump administration's proposed $1.6 billion border wall. Construction of the wall will require nullifying 28 existing laws designed to protect public lands, wildlife and the environment. Trump has already begun to divide the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest US refuges, to build a levee wall.
Butterfly Preserve On The Border Threatened By Trump's Wall
Claire Harbage / National Public Radio
(November 1, 2018) -- The National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre wildlife center and botanical garden in South Texas, provides a habitat for more than 100 species of butterflies.
It also sits directly in the path of the Trump administration's proposed border wall.
The federal spending bill approved in September includes $1.6 billion in 2019 for construction of the wall. In October, the Department of Homeland Security issued a waiver to 28 laws protecting public lands, wildlife and the environment to clear the way for construction to proceed.
The planned wall would cut the privately owned National Butterfly Center in two, with as much as 70 percent of its land sandwiched between the wall and the Rio Grande.
"It's going to be a no-man's land, Border Patrol's enforcement zone," says Marianna Trevino Wright, the National Butterfly Center's executive director. "They will clear everything. So it's not like all of this habitat is going to become Garden of Eden, undisturbed. It is going to be eliminated."
The center, which opened in 2004, is also home to several endangered plants and threatened animals, such as the Texas tortoise and Texas horned lizard.
In July, a group of scientists published a paper outlining the proposed wall's significant negative impacts on "some of the continent's most biologically diverse regions." The border wall would eliminate, degrade and fragment wildlife habitats -- for instance, by clearing land, blocking access to water and food, and inhibiting seasonal migrations.
More than 2,700 scientists signed on to the paper and called for the administration to rethink its border tactics. They've called for DHS to abide by the environmental laws that are already in place and forgo physical barriers when possible.
The Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act are among the environmental and public health laws that are being waived to speed up the wall-building process.
For its part, the DHS argues in its recent waiver that the Rio Grande Valley section of the border, where the butterfly center is located, is an area of "high illegal entry."
Since 2013, this sector has seen the highest number of US Border Patrol apprehensions of people crossing illegally or who are inadmissible. In fiscal 2018, which ended in August, 23,757 unaccompanied minors and 63,278 family units were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley sector.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Legal Defense Fund are suing the Trump administration, arguing that DHS doesn't have the authority to waive these laws.
Similar lawsuits have been unsuccessful, and the department has already waived environmental laws in New Mexico and California to facilitate border wall construction.
The National Butterfly Center also filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration in 2017, after Trevino Wright found US Customs and Border Protection contractors beginning to clear brush with chainsaws on the private land.
"Imagine coming home one day and finding people cutting down your trees, ripping up your fence and destroying your yard," says Trevino Wright. CBP did not respond to NPR's request for comment, citing the open litigation.
Construction along the border could begin as soon as February 2019. Until then, the butterfly center continues to use its property as though the barrier won't be built. That includes developing the land adjacent to the Rio Grande, which would be well on the other side of the planned wall, for recreational activities.
"We have long-term plans for this place," says Trevino Wright. "We're not going to just pack up and abandon that."
National Butterfly Center Sues
Trump Administration Over Border Wall
Melissa del Bosque / The Texas Observer
(December 22, 2017) -- The National Butterfly Center filed a lawsuit in Washington D.C. Monday against the Department of Homeland Security demanding that the Trump administration conduct federally required environmental assessments, and follow the constitution and legal due process before attempting to build a border wall through the 100-acre nature and wildlife sanctuary in South Texas.
In late July, Marianna Trevino-Wright, executive director of the center, discovered contractors working for US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) using chainsaws to clear protected habitat and widening an existing roadway on the center's property to make way for a border wall. The butterfly center is home to at least 100 species of butterfly, and serves as critical habitat for the migration of the threatened Monarch butterfly.
Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association, which owns and runs the center, said that in recent weeks agents from US Border Patrol had told visitors that they weren't authorized to enter the sanctuary, because it was off-limits.
"The center is private property," he said. "It doesn't belong to the federal government. We believe the federal government has been behaving illegally and in a really egregious fashion in many different ways, so we're seeking an injunction to try and have the courts make them behave in a way that is consistent with the law and the constitution."
In the lawsuit, the center is accusing the federal government of unlawful incursion, deprivation of due process and violating the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, which mandates that the federal government conduct an environmental assessment prior to making decisions on construction and other major projects. In the lawsuit, the center also seeks restitution for its legal fees.
The National Butterfly Center is also home to endangered animal species such as the Texas tortoise and Texas horned lizard, and endangered plant species including the slender rushpea and Walker's manioc. The sanctuary is part of the lower Rio Grande Valley Wildlife Corridor, which includes the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, another threatened wildlife habitat being targeted for Trump's border wall.
If the wall is built through the center, according to the lawsuit, it will "cut off two-thirds of the NBC, effectively destroying the Center and leaving behind a 70-acre no-man's land between the proposed border wall and the Rio Grande."
"We understand that not everyone in the country may be as interested in butterflies or in the environment as we are," said Glassberg. "But everyone should care when the government thinks it can do whatever it wants on your private property."
The Department of Homeland Security has not yet responded to the lawsuit, said Glassberg.
New Border Wall Documents Show Path of Destruction
Through Texas Homes, Wildlife Preserves
Jonathan Hilburg / The Architect's Newspaper
(November 10, 2017) -- Newly released records have cast light on the Army Corps of Engineers' assessment of border wall plans in South Texas. Spanning 33 miles across the Rio Grande Valley, the 15 proposed walls would tear through wildlife habitats, RV parks and involve costly legal battles over the Trump administration's efforts to acquire privately held land.
The documents, obtained by the Texas Observer with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, have broken down the ease of building each segment into "least challenging," "challenging" and "most challenging." Only seven of the proposed 21 sections are rated as "least challenging," with challenges for the other tracts ranging from existing infrastructure to unequal terrain.
Plans for the proposed 150-foot wide enforcement zone. (Image via Texas Observer)
"Nice RV park, many retirees live there permanently. Western half of segment will impacts upward of 100 homeowners," reads a two-mile-long "most challenging" entry. Another notes that the wall will need to cut through a dam that holds back a nearby town's reservoir of drinking water.
Others comment on the proximity of housing along the wall's route, leading to questions over how the federal government will try to reconcile building on private land when there are already 320 cases in the Rio Grande Valley pending from a similar 2007 expansion.
This wouldn't be the first time the Trump administration has tried to push through border wall construction in the area. The 2,088-acre Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in South Texas is one of the largest refuges in the country, but the federal government has already begun plans to bisect the park with a levee wall. Despite the backlash from the public and government officials, the government owns the refuge and work is moving forward.
Labeled as a pilot project, the images released today depict a concrete based wall topped with 18-foot-tall steel bollards. Reportedly costing $15 million per mile, the Army Corps anticipates a completion date of July 2019.
However, these new documents show that the levee wall isn't Santa Ana's only concern. The administration now wants to add a 150-foot-wide paved enforcement zone running south of the levee wall, complete with 120-foot surveillance towers, lights, and underground motion sensors.
Scott Nicol is co-chair of the Sierra Club's borderlands team, and put in the original FOIA request. "With this type of construction it would be difficult for Santa Ana to stay open," said Nicol.
The enforcement zone isn't just limited to the refuge, according to the Army Corps' analysis. Several entries comment on the difficulty of acquiring the land required for the zone, with one stating "Church and cemetery directly impacted by enforcement zone."
The release of this feasibility study closely follows the recent unveiling of eight border wall prototypes. Although funding for the border wall is still being fiercely contested, it seems the Trump administration is moving ahead in any way it can.
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