July 16, 2008

Study: Border fence will disrupt lives in Valley

The Associated Press

McALLEN — The U.S.-Mexico border fence will make life harder on some South Texas farmers, damage valuable wildlife habitats, impair views and generally become an obstacle to border life, the Homeland Security Department acknowledged in an environmental study.

For the people of the Rio Grande Valley, the study said that there will be serious trade-offs for 70 miles of fence designed to help the Border Patrol control illegal immigration and smuggling. But it said residents will benefit from increased security against "illegal cross-border activity."

Construction could begin next week.

"If you live within a mile or so of the river, which is where the fence will be built, you are eternally sentenced to an unsafe existence," Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, head of the anti-fence Texas Border Coalition, said in a statement.

However, some South Texas denizens will get a break: The fence will include hundreds of holes so the endangered ocelot and jaguarundi cats can get to the Rio Grande to drink. And if an animal falls in the hole during fence construction? The government will provide escape ramps, the plan said.

The Homeland Security Department’s Environmental Stewardship Plan for the Rio Grande Valley was criticized before it was ever released. The department drew up the plan after Secretary Michael Chertoff waived environmental studies required by federal law to speed fence construction.

Federal officials said the plans show that Chertoff is keeping his promise to be a good steward of the land in the fence’s path.

"The secretary made it clear when he invoked the waiver authority that that by no means meant we would act without some responsible plan," said Barry Morrissey, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection. "The environmental work is still being done."

New maps of the 21 fence segments running through the lower Rio Grande Valley showed little variation from preliminary maps released last fall. The fence will run along the Rio Grande on part of the University of Texas at Brownsville campus. But the school’s golf course and undeveloped acreage will be behind it.

About 14 miles of fence between Roma and Los Ebanos will be built in the flood plain as a "removable" fence. Treaties with Mexico strictly regulate the building of permanent obstacles that could steer floodwaters toward one side or the other.

Morrissey described those segments as similar to concrete jersey barriers commonly seen in highway construction projects, topped with about 15 feet of steel mesh fencing.

The new plan does not clarify the issue of access gates in the fence — one of the most frustrating for landowners who wonder how the gates will be operated, whether they will be manned and how access could be restricted.

The question is critical for those whose homes and businesses will be left in the no man’s land between the fence and the river.

Without offering details, the plan recognized that the fence will impede farmers’ access to the land and will increase their costs and possibly decrease the land’s value.

Government contractors will clear about 508 acres in the lower Valley. Despite the access holes for the endangered cats, the plan acknowledges that the fence "will likely impact wildlife movement, access to traditional water sources, and potential for gene flow" because some of the species cross the border into Mexico to mate.

Seventeen fence sections will affect wildlife management areas or national wildlife refuges, 14 of them directly.

The Audubon Society’s Sabal Palm Center near Brownsville will still be completely south of the fence, according to the plan. And a neighboring nature reserve managed by The Nature Conservancy will be bisected.

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