Monday, August 11, 2008

Agency rejects fence deal, braces for lawsuit

San Antonio Express News
August 11, 2008

Lynn Brezosky - Express-News Rio Grande Valley Bureau

SANTA MARIA — The thick tangle of brush on both sides of the Rio Grande levee at the Anacua segment of Texas Parks and Wildlife's Las Palomas preserve may not look like much, but to biologist Steve Benn, the clumping of native huisache, hackberry and tepeguaje is priceless.

His ears tell why. On a hot, still, August afternoon he picks up the sad-sounding call of the mourning dove, the chirpier tunes of yellow-billed cuckoos, kiskadees and Carolina wrens, to name a few.

“You turn a photographer or a bird-watcher or an Audubon guy loose here and they're just going to go nuts for hours and hours,” he said.

It's also a breeding ground and study area for white-winged doves, and for a few weekends each fall it's a place where locals without vast ranch holdings can hunt them.

But if the government's current plan holds fast, in a few months it will be another patch of painstakingly restored vegetation that the border fence cuts through, a situation that has put the state agency on a collision course with the Department of Homeland Security.

The Border Patrol's environmental stewardship plan released in July acknowledges adverse impact to the tract, and the government offered funds to acquire nearby land now owned by the nonprofit Valley Land Fund.

The deal, which Parks and Wildlife spokesman Tom Harvey said was “complicated,” would have paid $105,000 to allow the state to acquire different land to mitigate the loss of habitat.

The details of the arrangement are now moot, Harvey said, as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission on July 17 voted unanimously to reject the offer.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, charged with acquiring lands for the fence, told the agency the government would file a condemnation lawsuit for the land.

Randy Roberts, a real estate agent for the Corps, said preparations for the lawsuit were “in progress.”

But buoyed by the federal court success of the University of Texas-Brownsville/Texas Southmost College in staving off a section of fence slated for its campus, Parks and Wildlife officials now think being sued may be their best recourse.

The university and the Department of Homeland Security on July 31 announced an agreement that keeps the fence from cutting off a golf course and historic sites.

The compromise came after U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen told federal attorneys they had failed to discuss alternatives with the campus as he'd ordered and as required by an amendment to the law calling for the fence.

The university will now heighten and repair an existing perimeter fence, while the Border Patrol will install high-tech security devices and use the campus as a study site for testing technology and infrastructure combinations.

Campus officials began meeting on the alternative fence, and they expect to let out bids for the work this week.

“We expect to finish the project on or ahead of schedule,” UTB/TSC project manager Michael Putegnat said.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Executive Director Carter Smith said the university prevailed in part because of its “unique status as an institution of higher education,” and that Parks and Wildlife believes it has grounds for compromise too.

“We find that agreement very encouraging, and that's the kind of flexibility that we hope the Department of Homeland Security can bring to this unique situation as well,” he said.

“The state of Texas has been a longstanding partner in border law enforcement through the Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens,” Smith said. “Similarly, we've been longstanding partners with both the federal government and citizens of the Rio Grande Valley to invest in the conservation of these unique and irreplaceable resources.”

Parks and Wildlife began acquiring Valley lands in the 1950s, largely to conserve nesting habitat for white-winged doves. Hunting stamp sales have helped grow the Las Palomas (Spanish for “pigeon” or “dove”) preserve to about 3,500 acres over 18 different units. The Anacua tract is 139 acres, of which 48 acres would be south of the fence.

“It fragments the property,” Smith said. “It also makes it logistically and operationally very difficult to manage any future public use because that part of the fence will now sit on what will essentially be a no man's land.”

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