Thursday, January 22, 2009

Environmentalists: $50M unable to mitigate border fence

Brownsville Herald
January 21, 2009

The federal government allocated $50 million last week to minimize the adverse environmental impact of the border fence - a measure that came just two weeks after the government sued one of Brownsville's largest nature preserves in order to begin work on the barrier.

Environmentalists in South Texas and beyond call the government's attempt at mitigation inadequate, pointing out that it might not aid fragile habitats outside of federal jurisdiction.

"Because we're not owned by the federal government, this money isn't for us," said Sonia Najera, South Texas Program Coordinator for The Nature Conservancy, which owns Brownsville's Lennox Southmost Preserve.

At the Southmost Preserve and the Sabal Palm Audubon Center - two preserves that will be bisected by the fence - officials see a simple solution: keep the barrier off environmentally sensitive land.

"The damage already done to the borderland's natural and cultural resources is dramatic," said Michael Degnan, the Sierra Club's associate Washington representative. "Border walls have caused devastating floods in communities and have bisected critical wildlife corridors."
But unlike wildlife corridors in Arizona, most of the Lower Rio Grande Valley is still unscathed by fencing.

Environmentalists hoped that once President Barack Obama took office, plans to build fencing along the Rio Grande Valley's wildlife corridor would be derailed.

But a spokesperson for Obama told TIME Magazine that the president supports the fence "as long as it is one part of a larger strategy on border security that includes more boots on the ground and increased use of technology."

If Obama chooses not to halt construction in the Rio Grande Valley, both Brownsville preserves will be situated in a no-man's land south of the fence. The Sabal Palm Audubon Center has announced that its doors will close after more than 37 years if the fence is constructed. For Southmost Preserve, it's a "wait- and-see" situation, officials said.

"I was surprised by (the Obama administration's statement)," said Najera. "Why are we spending so much money to construct the fence without trying other measures that would have less of an environmental impact?"

A portion of the newly allocated $50 million will likely be spent in the Valley to restore or recreate the habitats of native species, according to Rick Schultz, the U.S. Department of the Interior's national borderland coordinator.

But the mitigation efforts are aimed at compensating for the impacts to resources "managed, protected or under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior," according to federal documents. That stipulation leaves Brownsville's privately owned preserves with little consolation, Najera said.

"I wasn't happy about that," she said. "But the fence hasn't been constructed here yet. There's still hope in Cameron County."

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