Associated Press / Austin American Statesman
December 29, 2008
McALLEN, Texas — The Department of Homeland Security has sued The Nature Conservancy to condemn land in a South Texas nature preserve for the border fence.
The conservancy's Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve, which includes more than 1,000 acres along the Rio Grande near Brownsville, is home to a rare grove of native sabal palms, a South Texas native plant nursery for reforestation projects and habitat for the endangered ocelot and jaguarundi.
The government offered the conservancy $114,000 for a strip of land that would leave three-quarters of the preserve, including the property manager's home, in the no-man's land between the fence and Mexico, according to court records filed earlier this month.
The Nature Conservancy's preference is no fence and no compensation, but the offer failed to take into account the impact to the rest of preserve, Laura Huffman, The Nature Conservancy's state director, said Monday.
The organization paid more than $2.5 million in 1999 for the preserve and has invested considerable money in it since, Huffman said.
It would be a safety concern to have a property manager living south of the fence, Huffman said, and "if we can't steward the land properly ... it raises the question of whether or not it is a viable preserve."
In total, the 60-foot wide strip of land running 6,000 feet across the preserve is about eight acres.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is trying to complete 670 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, does not comment on pending litigation.
Even if the fence were situated in such a way that the conservancy's warehouse for its equipment and property manager's home were on the north side, the logistics of constantly moving farm equipment through still unspecified access gates would be daunting, Huffman said.
The Nature Conservancy leases swaths of the land for agriculture including organically grown citrus.
By starting the condemnation process, it at least gives the conservancy an opportunity to get its own appraisal of the property and make an argument for fair compensation, Huffman said. The conservancy would welcome a visit from U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen who has made site visits in the area for other condemnation cases, she said.
After one of Hanen's visits, the preserve's neighbor to the west worked out a compromise with Customs and Border Protection to build a concrete wall into the river side of the levee rather than building a fence, which would have affected buildings on the Old Nye Plantation. Huffman said such a wall would likely still create problems for the preserve.
The nearby Sabal Palm Audubon Center, which would be completely on the south side of the border fence, is still waiting for word on the fence.
Since the fence does not cross Audubon's 557 acres, the government has not had to sue for condemnation and has not told Audubon anything in months, said Anne Brown, vice president of National Audubon Society and executive director of Audubon Texas.
"We haven't heard a word," Brown said.
The border fence has faced its stiffest opposition in the Rio Grande Valley where it would cut through properties along the river that have been in families for generations, are critical habitat preserves or are part of large farming operations.