San Antonio Express News
August 7, 2012
by Lynn Brezosky
BROWNSVILLE — Some four years after then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived dozens of environmental laws to expedite construction of the controversial border fence, the federal government has paid just short of $1 million for an 8.31-acre slice of land cutting across the northern edge of the Nature Conservancy's Southmost Preserve.
The preserve is home to one of only two large stands of native Mexican sabal palms remaining in the country.
Court documents show the government initially offered $114,000.
“The settlement represents an agreement on compensation for the land that was used for the border fence,” said Laura Huffman, state director for the Nature Conservancy. “That was never intended to and doesn't represent the conservation losses that we've experienced.”
On Monday $978,650 was deposited, just a few weeks before a jury trial to determine the value of the land.
The settlement agreement was reached July 9.
Huffman said a jury decision likewise would have been based on what could be proven in terms of the value of the land and the structures atop it, with conservation losses remaining an unknown, if not priceless, factor.
The Conservancy purchased the 1,034-acre tract for $2.6 million in 1999, but figures its total acquisition cost to be about $3.1 million, not counting hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in equipment, stewardship, staff and outreach.
“The border fence has fragmented the preserve, from the standpoint that 800 acres of our preserve are now on the south side of the fence,” she said. “And fragmentation of heritage ranches and landscapes throughout Texas is one of the biggest issues and challenges that we face today.”
Some things still need to be worked out.
A gap in the fence, one of the last segments to be completed, has allowed for easy access for preserve caretaker Max Pons, his family, and workers including restoration technicians who care for the native plant seedlings in the preserve's nursery.
Customs and Border Protection plan eventually to install a gate.
“We do not know that they're planning,” Huffman said when asked about keys or access codes. “They've indicated they would be cooperative with us to the strike the right balance, making sure people who need to have access, have it, but not everybody.”
The house where Pons and his family have lived more than 10 years will be moved to the north side of the fence, meaning an end to the round-the-clock, on-site management he provided, particularly for the seed farm.
It will no longer be feasible for university students conducting research in one of the world's most ecologically diverse tracts to stay in lodging that at night will be locked in the no man's land.
Pons on Tuesday joked about being in a "gated community," but said life on the preserve so far has remained much the same in the year or so since the fence was completed.
The Border Patrol remains a constant presence on both sides of the fence.
“I'm not alone,” he said, watching two Border Patrol vehicles move along the dirt road leading to the preserve. As far as unauthorized immigrants? “I still don't see them like I see the animals.”
He said he communicates frequently with the Border Patrol, in part so they know when a new batch of footprints are from student biologists or bird-watchers and not unauthorized immigrants or drug smugglers.
While there are 107 acres of experimental farmland north of the fence, he said he was glad that the ponds, palm forests, and other native fauna — the entire habitat portion — remained intact.
Initial concepts for the fence would have placed it closer to the Rio Grande, a scenario that would have separated wildlife from their lifeblood.
“It's an extremely unique pristine area, made up of really interesting geological formations,” Pons said. “The hills that you see out there are referred to as ‘lomas,' Spanish for ‘active clay dunes.'” And it's part of 50,000 years of windblown and water-carried sediments piling up.
“One of the greatest feelings I have is when university classes come out and we go for a walk, and they look at me and say, ‘Wow, we didn't know this was here,'” he said.
The settlement is one of the last in a slew of condemnation lawsuits the government filed in 2008 to build the fence.
But even as it was reached, environmentalists have begun waging a fierce informational campaign regarding new segments planned to the west.
The segments have so far been stalled by concerns the fence's tooth-like structure could collect debris like a colander, creating flooding nightmares, said Scott Nicol of the group “No Border Wall.”
But the U.S. arm of the International Boundary and Water Commission, the binational commission charged with enforcing treaties sharing the Rio Grande, said recently it would not oppose the fencing, reversing its prior stance despite the Mexican arm's continued opposition.
“For years the U.S. half was telling Customs and Border Protection, ‘If you want to build this, you have to build something that can be removed, something that you can drag out of the floodplain within 72 hours of notice,'” he said. "Customs and Border Protection has said, ‘No, that's not feasible.' That should mean you just don't do it then.”