August 7, 2017 at 6:00 AM
On dusty land in Mission, Tex., near the Mexican border, Marianna Trevino Wright recently took a walk with a contractor. She was showing off her effort to turn the earth surrounding the National Butterfly Center into "an oasis for butterflies," she said — with 10,000 native milkweed plants that a dwindling number of monarch butterflies use as habitat in their arduous and yearly migration from Mexico and across the United States to Canada.
But the yellow that caught her eye that day wasn't the fluttering wings of butterflies. It was heavy machinery that mows vegetation, said Wright, executive director of the butterfly reserve. And men were taking soil samples on the center's property. "I said, 'Hey guys what you're doing?' They said, 'Working.' I said, 'On what?' They said, 'Clearing the land.' I said, 'You mean my land.' They said, 'We're going to have to call our supervisor.'"
The Department of Homeland Security sought a waiver from environmental regulations this month to build a section of border wall near San Diego. But 1,500 miles away in Texas, the Trump administration is working on another section that could block migrating butterflies and cut across the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most treasured spots for birdwatching in the country and a "crown jewel" in the federal refuge system. Wright unknowingly walked right into that effort.
President Trump's promise to build a massive wall faces multiple challenges, including funding, a lack of political support and unforgiving terrain. But he is making use of a 10-year-old congressional act giving then-President George W. Bush authorization to construct a border wall without meeting environmental standards.
The Trump administration has reportedly allocated $40 million to construct 35 giant gates to close gaps in a current border wall along the Rio Grande Valley on the western end of Texas. The Army Corps of Engineers is also studying a plan to raise the wall of a levee that runs through the area by 10 feet, effectively creating another physical barrier.
Wright hoped the contractor could expand the center's monarch butterfly habitat as part of $400,000 project, but now much of the land it owns could end up behind the wall — which in many places does not follow the international border. "For us, it's 70 acres," she said. "Two-thirds of our property and a significant portion of America will wind up behind the border wall. About four percent of our native wildlife will be trapped behind the border wall."
The levee wall is a major concern for conservationists who say it would trap numerous animal species that travel across the border. It would have bright lights and cameras that could be frightening. "It could be a problem for everything from endangered ocelots to rabbits," said Scott Nicol, co-chair of the Sierra Club's Border Lands Team. "There are about 50 ocelots left in the United States. They're endangered because of a loss of their habitats."
A wall would make desert rains that cause the Rio Grande to flood all the worse, Nicol said. "Animals are trapped, and they drown," he said.
It's not clear whether Homeland Security will request to waive an environmental-impact statement in Texas as it did in San Diego. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 gave the agency authority to suspend dozens of laws to quickly build the wall. About 700 miles of wall were completed before Congress, doubtful of its effectiveness and bewildered by its cost, cut funding.
A June 12 report showed a history of delays and lack of oversight when it comes to border security. "Most of DHS's major acquisition programs continue to cost more than expected, take longer to deploy than planned, or deliver less capability than promised," the report said. "DHS sometimes approves moving forward with major acquisition programs without appropriate internal oversight."
Southwest Texas has the highest number of border crossing, according to Customs and Border Patrol. Its connection to the Mexico border has less arduous terrain. Even the mayor of Mission, Norberto Salinas, who opposes a border wall, said illegal crossings are a significant problem. "I cannot give you a count, but there are more illegals in this area than anywhere else within 2,000 miles."
A Border Patrol official in Texas affirmed that the current waiver is solely for San Diego, and that the 35 gates in the Rio Grande Valley are the only construction slated for this year. Land is being cleared and soil is being sampled in anticipation of future plans, but additional construction cannot happen without funding from Congress in the 2018 budget, the official said.
That's unlikely to happen, even though a House vote along party lines approved more than a billion dollars for a border wall in a defense-spending bill, said Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.). "The $1.6 billion that was included in the Secure Defense Act is not going to see the light of day in the Senate. The Senate is going to require 60 votes," Hurd said.
Hurd, who favors a digital wall of sensors and security cameras supported by border agents and drones instead of a physical structure, said the Trump administration is having problems even with designing a prototype for the wall, and faces challenges by cities such as Fort Worth, not to mention terrain with cliffs that drop 6,000 feet.
"Unfortunately, people who talk about border security have never been at the border," Hurd said. "There's a lack of understanding about what's really needed." As a reminder, he said, the Lake Amistad National Recreation Area is at the border. "Building walls in the middle of a lake is called a dam," Hurd said. "For me you have to talk to people on the ground about whether this makes sense or not."
Hurd was clear about what makes sense to him. "When you look at the difference in price tag, a physical wall costs $24.5 million per mile, but a smart wall can be half a million dollars per mile," he said. For a smart wall, every mile could be examined to determine what equipment is best for the terrain: radar, lidar readings, cameras with night capability. The information fed by those devices could be streamed to Border Patrol agents. When they're triggered, a drone could determine whether the cause was a human or a bunny, he said.
"Doing something just to say we're doing it is not a smart strategy," he said.
Wright said the Butterfly Center isn't waiting for Congress to approve or turn down funding for the wall. "We're talking to lawyers about how to fight this," she said. But so far it seems like a losing battle. "The government's ultimate weapon is eminent domain," Wright said, and there is little she can do about that.