July 12, 2008, 10:27AM
By CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN
MISSION — For months the federal government's border fence plans in South Texas have been attacked by land — property owners, wildlife advocates, land conservationists — but the next wave of opponents could come from the water — and they're carrying paddles.
Kayakers and canoeists will descend on the lower Rio Grande for events this fall aimed at raising the river's profile as a recreation hub and drawing attention to the impact the border fence could have on river access.
But before promoters can establish the Rio Grande — especially the lower sections near large border cities — as another option on Texas' long list of rivers, they must fight a decades-old stigma.
Paddlers share the river with Border Patrol agents patrolling in bullet-proof vests and smugglers of drugs and people. But on the water, they're hardly noticeable as the river twists and turns through farm fields and wildlife preserves, but it is the violent perception that persists.
Even though it forms Texas' 1,255-mile border with Mexico from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico, most of the Rio Grande — with the notable exception of Big Bend National Park — is a forgotten river in the minds of tens of thousands of recreational paddlers in the state.
In a recent letter to Roma Mayor Rogelio Ybarra, Texas Rivers Protection Association President Tom Goynes expressed his support for the planned river festival and his concern about the border fence. But perhaps most telling was the clear illustration of how novel the idea of using the lower Rio Grande was even for people dedicated to the state's rivers.
"It has come to our attention recently that the Lower Rio Grande is indeed a safe and legal place to paddle, and that rights for all U.S. citizens to do so are guaranteed by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo," Goynes wrote. "It's ironic that we only learned that the resource was available to us as a result of the government's plans to take it away."
Los Caminos del Rio, a nonprofit based in McAllen, recognizes that its Healthy Living Festival planned for Nov. 1 — to capitalize on any attention the border could receive before the national election three days later — is unlikely to affect the 85 miles of border fence slated for completion in Texas this year.
While not backing off its fence plans, the Border Patrol supports Los Caminos's efforts to get more people on the river.
Dan Doty, spokesman for the local Border Patrol sector, said "the more eyes we have out there the better job we can do."
Doty said he's thinking of buying himself a canoe to explore the river. "It's a great place for recreation; it's a beautiful, beautiful river."
For Los Caminos del Rio, more legal activity on the river — kayaking, canoeing, fishing — will discourage the illegal smuggling activity. When people raise safety concerns, executive director Eric Ellman points to the Friends of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge who have been giving canoe tours for years without incident. He also points out that Los Caminos del Rio has had hundreds of people on the river in the past couple years without any problem.
Even those predisposed to believe in the river and its safety sometimes find themselves fighting back the Rio Grande's stigma in their own minds.
In "The Tecate Journals: Seventy Days on the Rio Grande," Keith Bowden recounts his canoe journey on the river from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico in the winter of 2004. Bowden wrote that every time he thought about passing the large Mexican border city of Reynosa across the river from Hidalgo, Texas, he grew apprehensive because of the violent reputation.
Instead, all he encountered was a group of kids rough-housing in the river who were curious about his trip; and at the other end of town, a man too insistent in asking for a ride across the river to find work.
Still, Bowden thinks drawing people to the lower Rio Grande will be a "hard sell."
"I don't think most Americans have any interest in the river," Bowden said. "They view it as the province of smuggling."
Bowden said he thinks it will be easier to convince Mexicans because there is already a tradition of using the river for recreation.
And so far it has been.
Economic development officials in Mexican border cities, including Reynosa, are coordinating with Los Caminos del Rio. Last month, the small Mexican city of Camargo held its first kayak outing — complete with a beer sponsor — where attendees paddled from the Rio Grande up a tributary into the center of town.
Already, anyone traveling the river is more likely to see people on the Mexican shoreline — fishing, swimming, boating. There are more public access points and people tend to see it more for what it is — a river. Someone has even opened a water skiing academy upriver from Mission on the Mexican side.
Aleida Flores Garcia is trying to get something going on the U.S. side as well, but the border fence could kill it.
She and her husband, Jorge Garcia, have been working on their property along the river in Los Ebanos for years. They've cleared brush, put in a park and built a boat ramp. They plan to build a large thatched pavillion and hold fishing tournaments and dances. Garcia recently incorporated her business as the La Paloma Ranch Retreat.
But the federal government has sent her a condemnation letter. The border fence is planned to run across her property leaving most of it in the no man's land between the fence and river.
Garcia has a lawyer and is fighting the government, but other challenges have so far been unsuccessful.
"I need to fight for this little town," she said. "The nature itself is just too beautiful to be blocked by a wall."