The Wall and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge
by Keith Hackland (firstname.lastname@example.org)
published August 2017
Keeping Outsiders Out, Or Insiders In?
Does a wall keep migrants and smugglers out of the US, or
does it keep farmers and nature tourists inside the wall and
away from legitimately accessing lands along the Rio Grande?
Everyone has an opinion. If you want to stir up an argument,
just ask anyone for opinions on the border wall.
It is a volatile issue.
Purpose Of The Wall
The real barrier on the Texas-Mexico border is the Rio
Grande. The river takes time and planning to cross. It takes
no time at all for an active person to scale the wall, but not
everyone is active, so law enforcement uses the wall to direct
river crossing traffic away from urban areas and into locations
where they can be intercepted without undue disturbance to
The wall is a creation of congress, passed into law during
the presidency of George W. Bush. Congress mandated that
the wall should consist of two fences, about 150 feet apart,
cleared in the center, and built along the border, with the idea
of keeping illegal migrants out of the US.
The wall is a political creation, and it is widely used by supporters
and opponents alike for political leverage and voter
manipulation. In the meantime all of us - residents, visitors,
and law enforcement - have to deal with its consequences.
There are speeches, petitions, protests, and lots of hot air.
That's all we need in the Valley, more hot air.
Problems With A Valley Wall
Congress's design of the wall did not work out too well in the
Valley. The Rio Grande curves and bends. It runs about 280
miles from its mouth (Boca Chica) to Falcon Dam, whereas
the road covers that distance in about 140 miles.
The US - Mexico boundary is overseen by the International
Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) created in 1889,
and it is subject to an international agreement established by a
convention held November 12, 1884. One of the terms of the
boundary agreement is that neither country can build anything
that could divert flood water into the other country.
So the prohibitive length and doubling curves of the Rio
Grande, plus the terms of the US-Mexico boundary agreement,
make it impossible for the US to place a wall or fence
on the river bank. This is most fortunate, because any wall on
the river bank would also destroy the riparian forest along the
river, the last refuge and nesting habitat of many of the most
rare US tropical nesting birds, some of the same birds that
birders come from around the US and around the world to see
here in Deep South Texas.
So What Is A Wall Builder To Do?
Fortunately for wall builders, there was a solution. IBWC
negotiated a plan whereby the wall gets built on their land.
Their land is a levee. The wall strengthens their levee. Since
1900 various levees have been built to protect the Valley's
urban and agricultural land from flooding. Today's version is a long levee running near the Rio Grande.
It runs more or less in a straight line, following
the river west, but at some distance
north. It has been improved several
times, the latest being a four foot
height increase in 2013.
Building The Wall
During the latter part of President
George W. Bush's presidency some sections
of wall were built in the Valley on
the levee. Not much was done during
President Barack Obama's years, because
no money was allocated for wall building.
Now under President Donald Trump there is renewed interest in wall building
and Congress is allocating funds
again. This has caused a flurry of activity
amongst anti-wall activists. I am
generally anti-wall in the Valley, but it
is not a clear cut issue. It is important to
understand the effects of the wall and to
pick the fights carefully. I know people
who have lost their jobs by being on the
"wrong side" of the wall issue.
There has been media coverage and
social media posting about the horrors
of the wall. I have received telephone
calls and emails from birders in Texas and several other states asking why Santa Ana NWR is being bulldozed.
Well Santa Ana NWR, of course, is not
being bulldozed, but it is possible that a
wall will be built on the levy that runs
on the northern boundary of the refuge,
next to the irrigation canal and between
the wild lands and the visitor center (and
adjacent to the visitor center, the maintenance
yards, residences, offices, parking,
and butterfly and bird gardens).
The levee is around 100 feet wide
where it passes through Santa Ana. The
IBWC owns the levee, maintains a road
on its top, mows its sides, and removes
any new growing trees. This provides
grassland for seed eating birds. The
roads and trail into Santa Ana cross the
levee. A wall built here could have very
limited habitat impact, or a little impact.
Mainly it would bring an industrial military
look to the refuge, and depending
how it was built, could impede terrestrial
wildlife and visitor access would have
to be maintained.
Effects Of The Wall
We know from law enforcement experience
that the wall directs illegal activity
to areas without the wall. So, if
the wall is extended along much of the
Valley, but not past birding and nature
areas, it follows that birding and nature
areas will become a hive of smugglers
and other illegal activity resulting in increased
law enforcement action.
Who would want to visit refuges and
sanctuaries criss-crossed by dirt paths
and dirt roads, with border patrol vehicles
racing back and forth, with smugglers
and illegal migrants hiding in the
brush, with clothes and drug pack equipment
discarded everywhere? Birders
would stay away from our top birding
hot spots to avoid the eye sore, the aggravation,
and the problems. Worse still,
our bird populations would be reduced
by the heightened activity.
On the other hand, a wall along the
boundaries of the birding and nature
areas would reduce illegal and law enforcement
activity inside them. Is that
desirable? Most people would answer
yes. Would it promote nature tourism?
It would protect current tourism levels, and if bird populations improved, it
could increase tourism.
Nature Tourism: $500 Million A Year
The four Valley counties are visited,
in my estimate, by about 150,000 to
200,000 birders a year. Birders visit
birding hot spots, primarily those along
the river, spending about half a billion
dollars a year, generating over $66 thousand
in local tax revenues and sustaining
6,600 jobs (Texas A&M 2012 report).
Birding (nature tourism) accounts for
25% of Valley tourism and Santa Ana
NWR is the most visited birding hot
spot in the Valley.
Some birders no longer visit the Valley
due to unfounded media reports that
our area is unsafe. Now add to that new
unfounded reports that "Santa Ana is being
bulldozed to build a wall through it"
and even more birders will stop visiting
here, thinking there is no habitat and no
birds to be seen. That would be a disaster
for our economy, and also for our
birds since their habitat would no longer
be protected without the financial sustenance
Scaring Away Birders And Money
Since 2002, every year, my wife and I
have visited Europe one to two times a
year as volunteers to promote the Valley
to birders there. We understand why
birders visit the Valley and what would
keep them away.
The calls and emails I have received
about the wall and Santa Ana ask two
questions. First, is it true that Santa Ana
NWR is being destroyed and closed to
build the wall? No, it is not true, but the
media and social media reports allow
readers to think it is true.
Second, should we protest the building
of the Santa Ana wall? We can protest
anything we choose, but if the wall is extended along the Valley but not past
Santa Ana, then the refuge can be expected
to become a major crossing point.
This will cause an increase of smuggler
and illegal migrant activity generating
more law enforcement action, therefore,
damaging and destroying the refuge.
If no more walls were built in the Valley
that would help, but that is no longer
reality. We have to deal with the wall,
like it or not.
To stop all walls, go visit Congressional
representatives in Washington and
write to them. But to stop the wall only
at Santa Ana is a serious mistake. Not
everyone agrees with this assessment,
and I may lose some friends over this
issue. I don't want to lose any friends,
but even more critical, I don't want the
Valley to lose Santa Ana due to illegal
activity and law enforcement action.
I don't want to lose birders, who will
stay away to avoid the mess. I do not
want to lose half a billion dollars a year
in Valley revenue. I don't want to lose
the natural habitat, and the birds, due to
a rise in illegal enterprise and increased
law enforcement activity.
Let us not sacrifice the Valley's great
birding hot spots and the birding tourism
it attracts, on the fickle alter of politics,
in the hot flames of emotion. Let us not
hand over the Valley's top river birding
hot spots to smugglers and law enforcement.
Santa Ana, our river birding habit,
needs quiet protection. Let us seek the
best way to protect the little precarious
and precious habitat left for our birds,
and the birders who watch over them.
This article focuses on Santa Ana
NWR, but the same issue also affects
Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Anzalduas County
Park, National Butterfly Center, and
Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park.