Saturday, November 15, 2008

Testimony on the Environmental Impacts of the Border Wall Given to the Texas State Legislature

On November 13 the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas State House of Representatives held hearings on the impacts of the border wall. Organized by Representative Eddie Lucio III, it brought speakers from all along Texas' southern border, including landowners, citrus growers, politicians, environmentalists, and residents. “The Texas border with Mexico thrives due to its close relationship with its neighbor to the South; it is imperative that we understand how a border wall would affect Texas’ relationship with Mexico,” Lucio said.

A number of members of the No Border Wall Coalition spoke at the hearing, addressing the impacts of the wall on agriculture, border communities, and the waiving of laws under the Real ID Act. Martin Hagne, Executive Director of the Valley Nature Center and a founding member of the Coalition, described to the legislators the effects that the walls currently under construction are likely to have on the environment.

Here is his testimony:

Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to testify and to give you further information about the border wall in Texas as designed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. My name is Martin Hagne, and I am the Executive Director of the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco, Texas. Today I am representing the No Border Wall Coalition, which was formed in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in May of 2007. And although the No Border Wall Coalition is greatly concerned with all aspects of the border wall, including human rights, immigration, property rights, and economic issues, today my testimony will focus on the impact of the wall to wildlife and the environment.

The border wall is to date the single most detrimental environmental disaster to take place along the Texas Mexico Border in our lifetime. The environmental effects will be far-reaching, long-lasting, and permanent in many areas. There is simply no way to construct such a barrier in such a place without doing irreparable harm to wildlife and the very sensitive habitats along the Rio Grande.

Today I will focus mostly on the Lower Rio Grande, but all areas in Texas slated for the border wall face similarly destructive challenges. Obviously the habitats along such a long border will vary greatly, but the damage will be equally destructive.

Habitat Loss

The easiest issues to describe will be the obvious habitat loss that will occur when the concrete and steel structure is built. As mandated in the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the wall is not just a single wall but two structures spaced apart to facilitate high speed roads between and outside the walls. This in itself will clear a wide swath of habitat up to 350 feet. Granted that DHS seems to be pursuing a single layer wall at this time, but the Act still stipulates the double layered version and still shows such on the "books." We must, therefore, be aware of this and act accordingly.

The thin layer of riparian forest that still exists along the Rio Grande, is often only 100 feet wide or less. Agricultural land has crept up all the way to the rivers edge in many places. The riparian forest made up of tall woody species such as Anacua, Texas Ebony, Rio Grande Hackberry, and Mexican Ash has been slipping away due to clearing for human use, and much of what little is left has been altered due to the river being dammed in 1957 by Falcon Dam. The dams and reservoirs that make the Valley flood-free and inhabitable for humans have also stopped the seasonal flooding which keeps the riparian forests alive. Each year floods would inundate the lowlands of the Rio Grande and keep such ecosystems thriving. Flood control is altering these precious forests into drier thorn forests.

For over 30 years efforts have been made to reclaim some of the lost habitat along the river and to create a Wildlife Corridor. US Fish & Wildlife, along with many other groups, such as Texas Parks & Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, and Audubon Society, to name a few, have been working hard to purchase old farmland and to re-vegetate them back into a natural state of riparian forest. So far over $70 million has been spent of mostly federal funds to purchase land, and about $30 million has been used to plant native plants on these tracts. Tens of thousands of school children have taken part in these planting efforts! Now we are faced with all that work and taxpayer's money being bulldozed.

It has been argued by proponents of the wall that such small areas needing to be cleared are insignificant and that birds can fly over any structure that is put in their path. While it is true that birds can find water by flying a distance, mammals and reptiles will not be able to travel over such a structure. It has also been said that birds can leave an area and adapt to another habitat.

But there are bird species that rely on certain habitats that can't adapt fast enough if their present homes are removed. These are species that live and nest in this riparian habitat that is almost gone and that has little left of its original make-up. These same species are not found north of the Rio Grande Valley, and many are just found along the actual Rio Grande itself. These birds are limited to the riparian remnants along the river.

In these tall, Spanish moss-draped forests we find such bird species as Gray Hawk, Tropical Parula, Clay-colored Robin, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Brown Jay, Muscovy Duck, Common Black-Hawk, and Red-billed Pigeon. These birds rely on the riparian forest along the river, and many rarely stray inland. These birds do rarely if ever utilize other habitats and could therefore be extirpated from Texas and the United States.

It has been estimated, using the maps released for this EIS, that over 80% of USF&W refuge property will be affected along the Rio Grande in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

This does not include the several Texas Parks & Wildlife's Wildlife Management Areas and privately owned sanctuaries by such groups as the National Audubon and The Nature Conservancy located along the river that will be affected. The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Refuge alone in the Lower Rio Grande Valley takes into account eleven (11) different biotic communities. This is arguably the most bio-diverse region in the U.S.

Habitat Fragmentation

Equally destructive to wildlife is habitat fragmentation. A few decades ago this was rarely thought of as a problem. Roads were built crisscrossing our nation's wildlife refuges and wildlands. But now biologists know the very real threat of fragmenting any habitat. The edges created invite new species of plants and animals, changing the make-up of the ecosystem, often driving out the original inhabitants.

Not only does fragmentation affect the habitat in question, but it also has far-reaching effects on entire ecosystems. By changing the makeup of one area, it also affects other neighboring habitats and in the long run changes the entire regional ecosystem. This has not been taken into account in any DHS document or "study" released so far.

The other effect the wall will have is separating animals from each other on both sides of the wall. Ground dwelling mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and other wildlife will not be able to cross 16 to 18 foot tall concrete and steel structure. This will leave them not able to reach water, nor roosting and nesting sites.

Species can become genetically flawed by being cut off from neighboring populations, eventually creating a bottle-neck effect in the gene pool. It has been said that the wall can't cut off species from reaching each other because it is an east and west directed wall. This is not true, as DHS maps shows it clearly meanders south and north and doubles back in many places. Most animal species when faced with such an obstacle cannot and will not find ways around it, leaving them confused and stuck in place. This has already been documented in Arizona, where the wall was built through wildlife refuges.

The Wildlife Corridor was designed for just such travel and will now be severely hampered and made ineffective.

Endangered Species

There are 20 species of federally endangered species in this area, as well as many more threatened and endangered species listed by the state of Texas. The border wall will affect many of these species in negative ways through habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, corridor loss, water being cut off, and loss of eco-tourism dollars that positively help habitat restoration efforts.

Two federally endangered wildcat species are barely hanging on in existence within their U.S. range in the Lower Rio Grande Valley: the Ocelot and the Jaguarundi. The corridor is a must for these species to be able to travel to new territories for mates. As the efforts to restore the populations of these cats succeed, new territories need to be found by males to further the populations. Crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico will be a must for these cats. The border wall will cut off their access to such crossings. These cats will not, and cannot, travel long distances to find "openings" in a wall. Their habitats are now too fragmented to allow for this. Without new genetic populations to breed to, the U.S. population will become in-bred, narrowing its lines, until it can no longer get out of a bottleneck in its genetics. USF&W and other organizations such as Environmental Defense have been working with private landowners and ranchers in deep South Texas to create more habitats for these cats, especially the Ocelot. Land corridors for travel north and south are also being pursued, as this is critical for the cats to reach Mexico. The wall in Cameron County will basically stop this project.

The USFW plan for recovery for the Jaguar was already shelved because of the negative impacts the wall will have in Arizona. If the Jaguar cannot freely travel north and south, it has no chance of recovery in the U.S., leaving the program totally ineffective.

The Wildlife Corridor in the Lower Rio Grande Valley is also a must for other species in peril of extirpation. Long-tailed Weasels, the Mexican sub-species of American Beaver, and others, live in the riparian areas along the Rio Grande. These species, as well as the hundreds of others, must be taken into account.

Wetland Loss and Water Quality Issues
Critical wetlands along the wall will be affected, many of which are ephemeral (drying out during dry seasons). Due to flood control measures, the area in question has lost much of the seasonal wetlands that used to exist. Any and all wetlands removed or negatively affected therefore have an even higher negative impact to area wildlife.

The fact that many of these wetlands are seasonal makes it even harder to identify them, therefore making it easy for DHS to say none existed.

With the removal of any wetlands comes degraded water quality. Wetlands act as natural water cleansers as the water filters though wetland aquatic vegetation. Farm chemicals and other harmful runoff from city lawns and streets have no natural filtration system before reaching the Rio Grande.

Flooding is also negated by natural wetlands. Ponds and marshes slow the rain waters and collect large amounts of flood water.

Flood Levee System and Wall Combo

Last year FEMA announced that the flood levees which are built, maintained and operated by the federal agency IBWC, were not high enough to protect the area from a major hurricane. The area would no longer be certified and, therefore, insurance would go up or be unattainable. Industry would pull out and many other issues would arise. Although this should be a federal issue and fixed by federal dollars and agencies, it has now become a County project. Hidalgo County was "frightened" into signing a deal with DHS to receive some federal funds and then use County bond funds to repair the levees. But under one condition: that the face of the levee be an 18 foot sheer concrete wall that would also act as a border wall.

This scenario has many flaws. First, the County should not have to pay for such repairs. Second, the 22 miles of sections repaired are only in the areas where DHS wanted a wall in the first place, leaving unrepaired gaps in the flood control system. This does nothing for making the system FEMA approved again. Thirdly, cutting into the side of the existing levees during hurricane season is nothing short of asking for a disaster. Fourthly, fixing the levees on the U.S. side at this time will endanger hundreds of thousands of lives on the Mexican side of the border if levees are not simultaneously repaired in Mexico.

And lastly, this levee/wall combo has been touted as a win-win for the environment. Although the levee/wall combo might affect certain areas less as far as habitat removal, it will only slightly improve on that situation. But what it will do is become a solid 18 foot wall of concrete which is totally impenetrable to wildlife. There will be effectively no movement over, under or around this wall. No animal, besides a bird, could get over such a structure. It is less wildlife friendly than the originally designed wall.

Environmental Law and Justice

The Real Id Act of 2005 was passed to give the Minster of Homeland Security broad sweeping powers to secure the nation. It, unprecedented, gave Michael Chertoff powers to waive any and all U.S. laws to build the wall. This was not a well known law by lawmakers and many voted on this passage without knowing enough about it.

This year alone DHS has waived 36 federal and state laws ranging from the Clean Water Act to the Endangered Species Act. Such powers have only if ever been enacted during acts of war towards the United States.

Environmental organizations as well as individuals have tried to sue DHS to stop the wall, to retain their property and not allow the government to take it, but all legal action is made void due to the Real ID Act. The people of the United States have no legal recourse.

The Texas Park & Wildlife Department has already lost land on their Las Palomas Wildlife Management Tracts. A levee/wall combination is dissecting properties owned by TPW and USFW in an area that was before only dissected by a dirt levee which was traversable by wildlife.

The same Act also has rendered the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) void and, therefore, no Environmental Impact Studies (EIS) were needed to be performed. DHS started the NEPA process and eventually did release an EIS document. This 600 some page document was nothing more than a glorious work of copied material taken out of a dictionary. The studies for such an elaborate project should have taken over two years, but instead the document was published in months! Environmental studies on wildlife migration, daily usage, breeding and nesting sites, plant surveys, use during inclement weather, and many other such long-term studies could not be produced in months. The document was the worst example of government bullying.

The Real ID Act must be repealed!

The "fact" being put forth by DHS and BP representatives that a border wall is less environmentally intrusive than the "trash and human waste" left by immigrants is truly such a far-fetched illusion that we cannot believe it has even been brought up! A habitat left with trash and waste is far better than a habitat void of plants. Plants make the habitat. An area with native plants gives life whether it is degraded with trash or not. Trash can be removed, while permanent environmental damage by clear-cutting cannot! These are such simple facts that it is unbelievable that any government agency would state otherwise!

An animal living in the Rio Grande Valley within a riparian area is not one that is much impacted by trash and human waste. Such a statement shows ignorance and lack of understanding of the area's fauna and flora, this fact further showing the true need for a broader and much more thorough EIS. We are not talking about whales swallowing plastic bags. Ocelots do not eat trash! On the other hand, if you remove any habitat from the area which is already in such short supply, you are likely to lose species.

To compare the need for a border wall for national security to the needs of conserving a lizard, as DHS spokespersons have done, we can only say that if DHS believes this wall will only impact one lizard, a complete and broader EIS would show just how wrong such a statement is.

Environmental Economic Issues

Many areas along the Texas-Mexico border have prime natural areas. The Big Bend area in West Texas has tens of thousands of wild areas, river canoe excursions and hiking opportunities.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley is the top bird watching and nature watching destination in the U.S. The Valley is considered the most biologically diverse area within the U.S. 517 bird species have been recorded in this small area. That is more than all other state totals besides Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico. Native plant species number at least 1,100, but if all forbs and grasses were counted, these numbers could easily be closer to 3,000. Over 340 species of butterflies are found here, as well as over 120 species of odonates. There are 80 some species of mammals, and a higher number of reptiles and amphibians. These numbers are staggering for such a small area.

The wall is not only a disaster to our environment, but also a disaster to the local economy, which embraces eco-tourism as an annual income of $125 million, contributed by some 200,000 nature visitors annually. An ecological impact of the wall is the fact that the bird species that depend on this habitat will disappear! That in itself is truly disturbing. The implication the wall has for humans is not only the loss of nature, but the loss of livelihoods. No bird watcher would want to come see a steel and concrete wall where before a native habitat stood.

Other nations have already figured that out! Below is a note from a bird watcher from Sweden who visited the Valley and Santa Ana NWR last year.

"Thanks very much for sending me information about the horrible plans for the Rio Grande; I am reading it with great interest. I just want to say that it is not only an interior matter but also an international one. It would hit the birding business coming from other countries. I mean, if the nice areas around the Rio Grande would disappear, not many birders from others countries will go to Texas in the future, as well as people from other places in the USA. Hopefully there will be a better solution than destroying a unique fauna." Christer Landgren, Sweden

The State of Texas has invested millions of dollars into the three State Parks in the Lower Rio Garden Valley. The fairly new World Birding Center complex with nine (9) sites is also a partnership with the state. Many of these sites, along with the above mentioned USFW refuges, Audubon Sabal Palms Sanctuary, the TNC Southmost Preserve, the NABA Butterfly Park, and others, will be negatively affected.

The National Audubon Society is presently debating what to do with their flagship sanctuary, Sabal Palms. After the wall goes up it will be walled off, and concerns are many. How will staff have access? Who will have keys? What if a fire breaks loose? Will anyone insure us? Do we dare to allow visitors? etc. None of these questions can be answered by DHS when asked.

National organizations such as NAS and TNC are now faced with possibly giving up decade-old work and investments and pulling up stakes from the Valley, taking with them resources and funds.

With these funds also goes many environmental and science funded programs for local school classes. In a day where children need every opportunity to get outdoors to exercise and learn about nature, we will be forced to lose such precious resources.

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