August 6, 2012
by Christopher Sherman
McALLEN, Texas (AP) — The U.S. government paid almost $1 million Monday for part of a South Texas nature preserve taken for the border fence, ending nearly four years of litigation in one of the project's highest-profile condemnation cases.
The government deposited $978,650 with the court Monday, a month after notifying the judge it had reached a settlement with The Nature Conservancy and farmers who leased property there, according to court records. The settlement has not been finalized by the court.
The government took an 8.31-acre strip of land east of Brownsville for its fence, leaving most of the 1,000-acre property of sabal palms, oxbow lakes and citrus groves known as the Southmost Preserve in a no-man's land between the fence and the Rio Grande. The fence has already been constructed.
After going through a required mediation process recently, the two sides reached the agreement. If they had not, they would have had to argue the value of the condemnation in front of a jury.
Laura Huffman, The Nature Conservancy's state director, said the appraisals used in the mediation process included the value of the entire property and the buildings on it. The settlement reflected the estimated difference between the property's value without the fence and with it.
What the settlement doesn't include is the impact on the land's conservation value.
"This definitely fragments the land that's used by ocelots, for example," Huffman said. "And that's exactly the type of thing that you're trying to protect when you do this broad conservation is the habitat and the use of the habitat by the animals."
The organization is also moving the preserve's long-time manager, whose home was left between the fence and the river, off the property, Huffman said.
She said there were no immediate plans for the money, but a portion will be reimbursed to some who helped finance the land's original acquisition. Some of the land is leased to farmers and that will continue for now, she said.
The government has built about 650 miles of border barriers along the 1,954-mile U.S.-Mexico boundary.
The Rio Grande winds through South Texas, carving wide turns through rich farmland. The border fence was built in straight lines on or behind levees that protect against flooding, which left large tracts of land between fence and border.
In 2009, the government paid for about 300 mature sabal palms, a native species that once covered some 40,000 acres in South Texas and now exists only in pockets, to be moved and replanted elsewhere on the preserve and other properties to make way for the fence.