New York Times
April 7, 2008
At the very bottom of this country, where the Rio Grande loops up and down as if determined to thwart territorial imperatives, there sits a natural wonderland called the Sabal Palm Audubon Center. Rare birds of impossible colors dart about the rustling jungle, while snakes slink, tortoises dawdle and the occasional ocelot grants a rare sighting.
After decades of reclamation and preservation, and after millions of public and private dollars spent, this has become a vital place in one of the nation’s very poorest cities. Beyond the busloads of gawking schoolchildren, the center also attracts birders from around the world to spend money the color of their beloved olive sparrow in local restaurants and hotels.
But if you yearn to hear the clattering call of the chachalaca at Sabal Palm, your travel plans perhaps should factor in the Fence. Yes, the Fence: that ever-encroaching cross between the Berlin Wall and Christo’s Gates (Artist: Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security, with funding provided by the United States of America).
The guardians of Sabal Palm fear, and with good reason, that in trying to keep out illegal immigrants, the Department of Homeland Security will soon be erecting the border fence just north of the bird sanctuary, effectively trimming this natural treasure from the rest of the country and probably forcing its closure. In other words, they say, a very thoughtful gift of about 550 acres to Mexico.
And this may be a gift that keeps on giving. Conservationists and landowners worry that the Fence will also cut across a river-hugging wildlife corridor that stretches over several Texas counties, painstakingly restored and maintained by, among others, the federal government.
Nailing down Homeland Security’s plans is like trying to spot the elusive ocelot. When asked whether the agency intends to build the Fence north of the sanctuary, its chief spokesman, Russ Knocke, said: “I can’t rule that out, but I cannot also definitely tell you that that will be the case.”
He said the agency had adjusted its plans in the past to address environmental issues whenever possible (although it announced last week that it would bypass environmental reviews to expedite construction of the Fence). For example, he said, a stretch of the Fence in the Arizona desert includes crevices for an endangered lizard — crevices “too small for a human being to get through and large enough for the lizard.”
Mr. Knocke said the agency would continue to listen to advice and complaints from the public, but he emphasized its desire “to move quickly,” given its Congressional mandate to install fencing and other security measures along the southern border by the end of the year.
So when will the National Audubon Society learn whether its Sabal Palm sanctuary winds up south of the new border? “I couldn’t tell you a specific date,” Mr. Knocke said. “But there should be no uncertainty about how quickly we want to move.”
Put yourself, then, in the dusty shoes of Jimmy Paz, 66, the weathered manager of Sabal Palm. At the moment he is sitting at a picnic bench outside the modest visitors center, trying to speak above some chattering chachalacas feeding on grapefruit rinds. Now and then he interrupts himself to point out the iridescent brilliance of a green jay, or to ask passing birders where they are from.
Montana, a few say. California, say others.
Mr. Paz, a native of not just Brownsville but “beautiful Brownsville,” knows the area and its rhythms. He says the Fence would create a twilight zone out of a swath of distinctive American soil, disrupt and damage wildlife and have the opposite of the intended effect: it will be the birders and other tourists — not the illegal immigrants — who stop coming. It may also put him out of a job.
“It would be like putting a fence around Central Park,” he said.
Mr. Paz remembers cycling as a boy to the “palm jungle” along the Rio to re-enact scenes from the Tarzan movies he had just seen at the Queen Theatre in downtown beautiful Brownsville. After a decade in the Army, he returned to hold a series of jobs, including police officer and windshield repairman, while the Audubon Society acquired parcels of that jungle to create a sanctuary to be called Sabal Palm, after the stocky palm trees of the Rio Grande valley.
Ten years ago he became manager of the very property where he once imitated Johnny Weissmuller — property that sits roughly between a bio-diverse preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy of Texas and a swath of land restored by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Combined, Eden.
Mr. Paz has come to know those who frequent this sanctuary: the buff-bellied hummingbirds, the long-billed thrashers, the ever-prowling Border Patrol agents, the river-wet visitors from Mexico, passing through. Driving the grounds in his pickup truck, he points to a telltale inflatable tube, discarded at river’s edge.
A decade ago, he says, federal agents intercepted hundreds of illegal immigrants a month on Sabal Palm grounds. But as border security increased, and as patterns changed, the number of interceptions dropped dramatically. Now, he says, not even 20 a month are caught, with very few carrying contraband like marijuana.
Yes, until recently life was peaceful at Sabal Palm. The schoolchildren and birders would come in. Mr. Paz and his assistant, Cecilia Farrell, would collect the small fee, sell handbooks, maintain the grounds. Come 5 o’clock, they would leave the sanctuary in the care of a wiry night watchman who has lived on the property for nearly a half-century. His name is Ernie Ortiz, he is 82, and he packs a .38.
What’s more, the relationship between the Border Patrol and Sabal Palm was quite friendly. Border Patrol sensors are in the sanctuary’s soil, in its mesquite trees, everywhere. And when Sabal Palm staged a hawk watch, the Border Patrol provided a portable tower for spotting nothing more than birds.
But now Sabal Palm lives from rumor to rumor, gleaned mostly from Mr. Paz’s chats with border agents and a proposed map contained in a draft report by the federal government. There will be a fence along the levee. A fence along the levee with a gate. A fence along the levee with a gate, and Sabal Palm will have a key.
None of these eases the concerns that Anne Brown, the executive director of Audubon Texas, has about insurance, city services — the sanctuary’s very existence. “Do we check passports?” she asks. “Since the fence becomes the new border, what are we? Are we in Mexico?”
Homeland Security says it will reveal its plans for Brownsville very soon. Until then, the likes of Mr. Paz carry on, unsure of the very ground they stand on.