Border Barrier Could Put Chill In Valley Ecotourism, Wildlife

Oct. 27, 2006, 12:27PM

Border barrier could put chill in Valley ecotourism, wildlife
Many say a fence will deter animals and birdwatchers not immigrants

Houston Chronicle

HARLINGEN Experience tells farmer Fred Schuster the likely fate of a fence on the Rio Grande a rain-swollen river could simply sweep it away.

''Fences along the river don't do well,” observed Schuster, 54, who was raised on his family's 3,000-acre farm on the river near San Juan. ''When we have a lot of rain and the river rises … it pretty well washes anything downriver.”

Tourist bureaus, wildlife refuges and farm and ranch operations that rely on the river had other worries Thursday after President Bush signed a law authorizing the government to build 700 miles of fencing in Texas and three other states.

Nancy Millar, vice president of McAllen's Convention and Visitor's Bureau, said the fence could ''devastate” wildlife and ecotourism in the lower Rio Grande Valley that pumps $125 million into the economy each year. She said that's because the border fence could occupy some of the same land as nature preserves and wildlife corridors which federal biologists have spent millions of dollars to restore since 1979.

''The Valley has spent many years and put tremendous effort in promoting ourselves as the country's best birding destination, which we are,” Millar said. ''This fence has the potential of ruining a lot of that.”

Most of the ecotourists visit a chain of nature reserves and parks along the banks of the Rio Grande. And each year in various Valley cities, eight bird and wildlife festivals are held, well-attended events that feature seminars by birding experts and guided field trips.

''These festivals, almost without exception, take people to a lot of these places along the river to see the wildlife,” Millar said. ''Not having those places anymore will have a very profound effect on attracting nature tourists.”

Oliver Bernstein, a Sierra Club spokesman in Austin, said a border fence could cause ''unnecessary, serious harm to precious natural areas and disrupt critical wildlife corridors.”

Bernstein was referring to the 85,000-acre wildlife corridor, purchased by the Department of the Interior along the winding river in the four southernmost South Texas counties. The farmland is being reforested, and is a safe corridor for ocelots and other endangered wildlife to move between the 90,000 acres of existing nature reserves.

''Environmentally speaking, a barrier could be particularly devastating to wildlife along the lower Rio Grande,” Bernstein said.

Reforestation work continues this weekend, when U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rangers expect more than 1,000 volunteers to replant one of those tracts a 50-acre field next to the Los Ebanos ferry with 14,880 native trees.

At the 557-acre Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary on the river below Brownsville, the fence worries manager Jimmy Paz.

“If they do build it, the biggest concern is getting water and keeping the area pristine for wildlife,” said Paz, explaining the reserve has several lakes filled with water pumped from the Rio Grande. A fence could block natural drainage and keep the refuge staff from pumps on the river.

''Frankly, I don't believe they're going to do it,” said Paz. ''That is not the way to keep people from coming over.”

Farmer Schuster said border security is needed, but he doubts fencing is the best answer in Texas.

Schuster said he is ''disheartened” after a suspected illegal immigrant shot and wounded a Border Patrol agent near his home Sunday. The suspect has not been found.

''I've lived here for 54 years, and illegal immigration right now is the worst it's ever been,” he said. ''People literally come and go at will.”

Some border experts and retired Border Patrol agents question the effectiveness of more fencing, saying it fails to address the estimated 11 million to 12 million immigrants already in the United States illegally.

The federal government estimates that roughly one-third of the illegal immigrants in the country entered on visas, and stayed.

Chronicle reporter Susan Carroll contributed to this report.

Related information
Bush signs border-fence bill, insists more is needed


Rio Grande Valley wildlife:

4 84: bird species

300: different butterfly varieties

125,0 00: Estimated number of tourists who visit each year to view the species.

Source: McAllen Convention
and Visitor's Bureau