Austin American Statesman
August 2, 2008
Feds say they'll take state parks department to court for nixing a border wall deal.
By Asher Price
Construction of a wall along Texas' border with Mexico for months has pit some landowners, local officials, immigrant advocates and conservation groups against the federal government.
Now, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission can be counted as an opponent.
The commission, which oversees the state Parks and Wildlife Department, voted last month to essentially tell the feds to get lost, saying no thanks to an offer from the federal government to donate $105,000 to a nonprofit land trust in exchange for about 21/2 acres in the state-owned Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area in Cameron County. The federal government wants to build part of its border fence on the land.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now says that it will go to federal court to take the land.
"Construction of a border fence has impacts to fish and wildlife resources that could not adequately be compensated for by the offer of compensation," said Ted Hollingsworth, an official with the land conservation program at the state Parks and Wildlife Department, explaining the commissioners' decision.
The commission's vote places another obstacle in front of the congressionally mandated construction of the wall, which the federal government says is crucial to thwarting illegal immigration and maintaining national security.
Along the way, the U.S. government has had to tangle with landowners, local governments and large institutions. The El Paso City Council voted unanimously in March to block the Corps of Engineers from using an access road that cuts across city property to work on the fence, and it is now in litigation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said El Paso spokeswoman Noelle Nevarez. And the University of Texas System resolved a similar standoff Thursday in court over a proposal that would have had the wall cutting through the UT-Brownsville campus.
The border wall has also galvanized conservationists, who say the barrier will cut through preservation tracts controlled by the federal government, the state and nonprofit groups.
One proposed wall route, for example, would separate the 557-acre Sabal Palm Audubon Center in Brownsville from the rest of the United States. The center is a haven for birders and attracts 10,000 tourists to the area each year, according to Audubon Texas.
"It's obvious that where the wall goes, wildlife and habitat will be affected," said Martin Hagne, executive director at the nonprofit Valley Nature Center in Weslaco. The fragmenting of land harms animals' ability to survive and thrive, he said.
"The government is looking at this as a piece of dirt and not as a whole ecosystem," Hagne said.
In May, the real estate division of the Corps of Engineers, which has been piecing together land for the border wall, proposed a land-for-cash swap with the state Parks and Wildlife Department.
"Construction of border infrastructure along the southwest border will help deter illegal immigration as well as drug trafficking and other unlawful and dangerous activity," Hyla Head, the chief of the Corps of Engineers district office in Fort Worth, wrote to the state Parks and Wildlife Department on May 18.
Head initially offered $25,150 for a stretch of wildlife management area land that is about 1,960 feet long and no more than 60 feet wide. Parks and Wildlife staff members then negotiated a settlement of $105,000, to be paid to the Valley Land Fund, a McAllen-based land trust that could buy land to mitigate the taking of Las Palomas land.
But at its July 17 meeting, the Parks and Wildlife Commission nixed the deal with a 6-0 vote. (Three commissioners were absent.)
"We understand the reasons that the federal government believes they need to build this fence, and we're certainly not in a position to make a decision whether that's right or wrong," Chairman Peter Holt said at the meeting. "But from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's point of view, and for us as commissioners, our job is to look at the mission of Texas Parks and Wildlife and our constituency, which is the citizens of the State of Texas, and decide what's the right thing relative to our mission, what we at Texas Parks and Wildlife are supposed to do and not do."
The proposed wall route would cut through the 139-acre Anacua Unit South of Las Palomas, leaving 48 acres on the Mexico side of the fence. The Anacua land, farming fields at one point, is now primarily reforested white-winged dove breeding habitat and is open for hunting.
The federal government has gone to court 216 times in Texas to condemn land, although many of those have been "friendly takings" in which the government seeks to clarify its ownership of a property the owner has agreed to sell, said Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice.
Ames said the department has succeeded in all 34 Texas border wall footprint cases that have been decided.
The Corps of Engineers will take the Anacua case to federal court next, said Randy Roberts, a real estate officer with the Corps.
"We have to go ahead and move forward through these projects," he said.