Thursday, June 11, 2009

Conservationists say, ‘We'll take the trees, but no thanks to the border fence.'

Brownsville Herald
June 11, 2009
by Laura Tillman

On the outskirts of Brownsville, where subdivisions and strip malls give way to rust-tinted fields of sorghum, two environmental conservation non-profit organizations are welcoming what they call a "small positive in a sea of negative."

About 300 native sabal palm trees are being scooped out of the path of the border fence and transferred to the Nature Conservancy and Sabal Palm Audubon Center in Brownsville. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is moving the trees, the only palm species native to South Texas, off of what is now government-owned property at no cost to the nature centers.

Bob Benson, executive director of Audubon Texas, says his organization is concerned about the environmental impact of the border fence, but that the preservation of these trees is a "bright spot."

"Obviously it's making good out of a bad situation," Benson said.

But while Benson is glad to add trees to the Audubon Center, he has bigger worries.

Recently, several ongoing lawsuits between landowners and the federal government raised the question of whether the government could close planned access gates along the fence in the future. If the answer is yes, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen has said that property owners could argue to a jury that the government would be taking not some but all of their property.

Since the Sabal Palm Audubon Center is slated to be entirely behind the border fence once it is built, the center must have a reliable access gate to remain open to the public.

"We've been acting on good faith that we would have these access gates," Benson said. "We're happy to get the trees, but our main concern is those gates. We have to have access to our property."

Because the sabal palm sanctuary is entirely behind the planned path of the border fence, the organization never had to sell land to the Department of Homeland Security to make way for the path of the border fence.

The ongoing border fence debate has depleted tourism to the sanctuary by about 25 percent, Benson said, and he's concerned once the structure goes up the public might not realize they can still visit. So far, the Sabal Palm Audubon Center has cut back its hours and has closed for the summer months.

The Nature Conservancy, which is close to the sabal palm sanctuary, is waiting for its day in court. State Director Laura Huffman says she is still hoping that the conservancy property could be used as testing ground for invisible fence technology.

"The good news is that these three organizations - the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy, and the Audubon - are working together to save these trees," Huffman said. "The bad news is that if our property is compromised by a fence, then all the good we've accomplished will be lost."

More than 90 percent of the conservancy's property would be behind the fence if it's built.

On Thursday, mechanized tree spades dug snug six-foot inverted pyramids around the base of sabal palm trees and then removed them.

Then the machine dug out matching holes for the trees and slid them into their new homes. Finally, the corresponding holes were filled with the earth extracted from their new locations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completes about eight of these transfers daily.

Once the switch is made, the palms stand a high chance of survival, according to Maxwell Pons, the preserve manager at the Nature Conservancy.

Transplanting, he said, often doesn't work because there is too much wiggle room between the plant and surrounding soil. When the plant moves, fragile roots break, and the plant can't connect firmly to the soil. But with the accurate tree-spade method, the trees will integrate well into their new locations.

About 175 of the palms were destined for the 1,000-acre Nature Conservancy preserve. This preserve already has acres of shady sabal palm groves hugging the riverbank.

Pons, the steward of the refuge, has lived on the property for more than 20 years.

"I see more bobcats than immigrants," said Pons, who said he watched a bobcat run along the riverbank earlier that day.

Pons has seen jaguarundi, snakes, rare birds, and even the occasional ocelot on the rambling land that will soon be behind the border fence. The property is replete with history - both environmental and man made. The groves contain 45-foot sabal palms, some more than 100 years old. In one grove, a small shaded cemetery is home to graves more than 200 years old.

"You can't separate the natural history from the cultural history of the area," Huffman said. "When you stand at that cemetery you really get a historical sense of what that landscape really did look like. These ancient majestic trees are part of the beauty of South Texas."

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