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7/14: Trump Administration Preparing Texas Wildlife Refuge for First Border Wall Segment
Released 20 August 2017  By Melissa del Bosque – Texas Observer

Trump Administration Preparing Texas Wildlife Refuge for First Border Wall Segment

If the levee wall is constructed, it will essentially destroy the refuge, a federal official told the Observer.

Melissa del Bosque – Texas Observer
July 14, 2017

For at least six months, private contractors and U.S. Customs and Border
Protection (CBP) officials have been quietly preparing to build the
first piece of President Trump’s border wall through the Santa Ana
Wildlife Refuge in South Texas. The federally owned 2,088-acre refuge,
often called the “crown jewel of the national wildlife refuge system,”
could see construction begin as early as January 2018, according to a
federal official who has been involved in the planning but asked to
remain anonymous.

“This should be public information,” the official told the Observer.
“There shouldn’t be government officials meeting in secret just so they
don’t have to deal with the backlash. The public has the right to know
about these plans.”

CBP plans to construct an 18-foot levee wall that would stretch for
almost three miles through the wildlife refuge, according to the
official. The structure would consist of a concrete base, which would
serve as a levee, and be topped with a fence made of steel bollards,
similar to a levee wall built almost a decade ago near Hidalgo, Texas. A
second federal official confirmed these details to the Observer.

On Friday afternoon, several workers were drilling into the existing
earthen levee on the wildlife refuge and extracting soil samples to
prepare for the construction. A security guard watching over the site
asked me to leave when I started asking questions. Engineers from
Michael Baker International, a global engineering firm, have been
attending meetings on the project, according to the federal official.

The official said that the Department of Homeland Security picked the
Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge as the first site for a border wall segment
because it’s owned by the federal government, avoiding legal
entanglements with private landowners. At least 95 percent of the Texas
border is privately owned. As the Observer’s June cover story, “Over the
Wall,” detailed, at least one-third of the 320 condemnation suits filed
against landowners in 2007 are still pending.

Established in 1943, the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge is one of the top
birding destinations in North America. Home to at least 400 bird species
and 450 species of plants, it also hosts both the rare Sabal palm and
the endangered ocelot. The refuge is located on the Texas-Mexico border
about 10 miles southeast of McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley.

If the levee wall is constructed, it will essentially destroy the
refuge, the official said. The proposed plans call for building a road
south of the wall and clearing refuge land on either side of the wall
for surveillance, cameras and light towers.
Donate now to support independent, nonprofit journalism.

A spokesperson for CBP, Carlos Diaz, acknowledged that there have been
preliminary meetings for projects designated in Trump’s 2017-18 budget
request. “CBP has prioritized 28 miles of new levee wall system in Rio
Grande Valley, 32 new miles of border wall system in the Rio Grande
Valley, and 14 miles of replacement secondary barrier in San Diego,”
Diaz wrote in an email.

Diaz would not confirm whether construction could begin in the Santa Ana
Wildlife Refuge as early as January 2018.

The federal official pointed out that the Department of Homeland
Security may transfer money from within the agency to build the segment
of border wall at the refuge if budget negotiations stall. But he also
offered a caveat: “Everything is unpredictable with this presidency.”
The orange pole, bottom right, marks where workers extracted soil on the
levee in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in preparation for
construction of Trump’s border wall. Jen Reel

Congressman Filemon Vela, a Democrat from Brownsville, said he and
Congressman Bennie Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee
on Homeland Security, have requested a briefing from CBP on the matter.

“We’re going to come up with a plan and do everything we can to stop
it,” Vela told the Observer. “The Rio Grande Valley isn’t rural Texas
anymore. It’s a metropolis of 1.2 million people on this side of the
river and 2 million on the other side. These refuges are sacred from an
environmental standpoint. There’s so little protected land left and we
need to do whatever we can to save it.”

Keep up with the Observer’s sharp reporting on the border and throughout
Texas with our weekly newsletter.

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