Posted on February 15, 2019
Wednesday morning at dawn a solitary pied-billed grebe paddled through a misty oxbow lake called La Parida Banco in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. La Parida translates from Spanish as: one who has just given birth, perhaps the most apt description I’ve ever heard for a wildlife refuge. I contemplated this meaning as the little grebe and I shared a cold February sunrise in the North American tropics of South Texas.
Though we occupied the same space, we came to La Parida on different errands: his was a search for food and safety on an island of wild sanctuary within an ocean of human development. Me, I was surveying the site of the first major border wall construction in Texas since 2009, the construction that would devastate the pied-billed’s home.
Yesterday, wall construction began. I walked the Rio Grande levee at dawn and instead of the usual hawks, herons, turkeys and orioles, I was greeted by a battalion of law enforcement. I knew by the ripping feeling in my heart that this signaled the beginning of wall construction, a feeling that was confirmed when I saw an excavator arm moving like a giant insatiable insect over the forest. My mind went to the birds that had been building their nests in the forest; the butterflies who had laid their eggs on the underside of leaves hoping to keep them safe from predators; the tortoises and snakes in the brush, the bobcats and coyotes quietly hunting shrews and cottontail.
Grief has made itself a home in the borderlands of late.
But my thoughts were quickly interrupted by a by a Border Patrol agent, kindly telling me to leave. I backed slowly away, eyes still on the arm of the excavator moving purposefully over the forest just beyond a long line of Border Patrol and other law enforcement officials.
My walk back to the parking lot in Bentsen state park was one of my lowest moments in the past ten years. I have been documenting the US-Mexico border for more than a decade, since the Secure Fence Act of 2006 mandated the construction of more than 700 miles of border barrier through one of the most important biological regions on the continent. [See Embattled Borderlands ]
This land provides home to the highest diversity of birds and butterflies in the continental US; five of North America’s six cat species; resting and refueling for 700 migrating animal species; and a last hope for some 100 threatened and endangered species, including Sonoran pronghorn, desert tortoises, cactus ferruginous pygmy owls and many more whose futures are tied to this land. [see this report by the Center for Biological Diversity]
That future hangs by a fragile thread. In 2018, Congress approved $1.6 billion for wall construction on the border. Last spring, the Trump Administration began building wall in New Mexico. Construction began yesterday in La Parida. Surveyor stakes have been planted delineating the “enforcement zone” where forests will be cut. And Congress is adding another $1.3 billion in border wall funding in 2019 in order to avoid another government shutdown. Several locations in the Valley have been given a reprieve in this legislation, but not the Lower Rio Grande Valley refuge, not La Parida, she who has just given birth.
The ecological stakes of this political bartering have been well documented. Since the 1990s the US government has constructed about 400 miles of solid barrier, through the 2,000-mile borderlands. This wall has severed migration corridors for endangered bighorn sheep, ocelots, jaguars and wolves, caused damaging floods, degraded fragile watershed ecology, and fragmented and destroyed tens of thousands of acres of habitat essential to wild species. The barriers and habitat loss come at the worst possible moment, as climate change is exacerbating the frequency and intensity of droughts in the Southwest–a time when wild species’ best hope of survival is the ability to migrate.
These threats would normally be prevented by bedrock environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act. But a provision in the Real ID Act of 2005 allows the Department of Homeland Security to waive all laws to expedite building of a border wall.
Here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley the direct damage of habitat fragmentation and destruction is compounded by a history of large-scale agriculture, energy and residential development. More than 95 percent of the native habitat in the Valley has been replaced by agricultural fields, oil wells, wind farms, roads, subdivisions, and shopping centers. Within what remains of this endangered ecosystem, one of the most unique wildlife communities on the continent fights for survival. South Texas sits within a natural borderlands at the overlap of the north and south of the natural world, where temperate bird, butterfly, mammal and reptile species coexist with their tropical cousins.
It would be hard to overestimate the natural value of the La Parida refuge. It is one piece of the larger Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, a collection of the most valuable ecological lands along the last 275 miles of the Rio Grande. The refuge began as a desperate attempt to save what was left of a vanishing ecosystem. Decades of work, thousands of volunteer and staff hours, and many millions of dollars have created what is now one of the most important wildlife corridors in the country. Refuge land and state parks, along with private preserves like the National Butterfly Center, offer one last hope for thousands of wild species. But this corridor along the Rio Grande sits directly in the path of the border wall, which will be built on the Rio Grande levee.
Few in the United States have ever heard of La Parida, but this refuge has given birth to the grebe, kiskadee, green jay, ringed kingfisher, red tailed hawk, bobcat and javalina. This land is essential. It is home. It is life. But as I look across the water to the Rio Grande levee where construction equipment moves over the land, I see death on the horizon.
Come and protest the desecration of the Rio Grande Valley-noon, Saturday, 2-16-19 at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. If you can’t come, call your members of Congress today or write an op-ed for your local newspaper. Be a voice for the borderlands.
Krista Schlyer is a conservation writer and photographer and author of the book Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall. She is currently working on a film with Jenny Nichols and Morgan Heim called Ay Mariposa, which tells the story of two fierce women and a community of butterflies on the front lines in the battle against the border wall.
Category: Borderlands, Borderlands Project, Continental Divide, Featured, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: ay mariposa, beauty, border, border wall, conservation, construction, ilcp, immigration, international league of conservation photographers, la parida, Lower Rio Grande Valley, national butterfly center, nature, resist, resistance, texas, wildlife, wildlife refuge
Posted on February 8, 2019
Like many South Texas mornings, yesterday’s dawn was sung into existence by Altamira orioles, great kiskadees and green jays, warblers and cardinals. It’s hard to imagine any hurt could go unhealed in a world where the birds chorus at dawn. So it seemed for a brief eternity as I walked west through the northern edge of Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, along the Rio Grande levee.
I stopped for a moment on a low bridge over an irrigation canal to watch the just-risen sun peeking out from behind restless clouds moving with some easterly haste. And it was then I felt it, I was being followed. You know the feeling. I get it often while traveling in the borderlands, usually because I’m actually being followed by border patrol. But this feeling was one of anticipation, not the frustration or mild rage that border patrol provokes in me. And when I looked down the canal, into the light morning mist, what I saw made my heart quiver–a troupe of ridiculous wild turkeys shuttling along the canal bank toward me. I crouched low on the bridge and waited as they approached in unhurried fashion, stopping briefly every few feet to inspect the grasses for food.
When they were less than 20 feet from me, one of the turkeys gave his wings a grand flourish, catching the morning sun for one perfect translucent moment. Angelic he was, a regular borderlands angel. And then the moment passed and the troupe walked up onto the levee and continued on its way.
And I returned to the reason why I had gotten up before dawn to walk down the levee. It was not to hear the orioles or greet the angels, that was just fortune’s mercy. No, this spot, where these turkeys are traveling through their habitat, their home, their source of sustaining food, water and shelter, this is where the border wall will soon be built. And it could happen any day.
I followed the turkey’s path along the levee west of Bentsen park to the La Parida tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. When I reached the refuge I found just what I had come to see, but hoped I’d never find: surveyor stakes lining the levee and an excavator parked next to the National Wildlife Refuge sign. Within days it is expected that this machinery will begin to tear down the trees where the orioles are building their beautiful nests and laying their eggs, and scrape the land where threatened Texas tortoises and Texas indigo snakes are resting and hunting, and pour 20 feet of concrete wall into the Rio Grande levee.
As I was looking at the construction machinery a National Wildlife Refuge law enforcement truck approached and the officer told me to move along, that I was not supposed to be there. (I held my tongue and moved along, but I wondered to myself about his job description, which is supposed to entail protecting wildlife refuges from destruction.)
The money for this segment of border wall construction was approved by Congress in 2018. The day after the bill was signed Senator Chuck Schumer and then Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declared that they had defeated Donald Trump and not included border wall in the budget. The national news media repeated their claims. And yet here I am, staring at the machinery that will raise a combined 30 feet of concrete and steel through this sanctuary of wild life.
This wildlife refuge, along with the Bentsen state park, the National Butterfly Center and hundreds of other tracts of public and private land, are part of a 30-year effort to try and save a vanishing ecosystem, one of the richest and rarest ecosystems in the United States–from utter destruction. The environmental stakes couldn’t be higher here. Two of North America’s major avian flyways funnel through the Rio Grande Valley, as do major migration pathways for monarchs and other butterfly species, and migration pathways for endangered cats. These migrants depend on the spare remnants of habitat that are left to them and that Valley residents, the federal government, and national environmental groups have been trying to save for decades. And now we are preparing to scrape this precious land to the bone and further fragment it with massive border walls.
I went to a dawn vigil this morning at La Lomita Chapel, a historic church that is also in the path of the border wall. (The church has been fighting the federal government’s taking of the mission land through eminent domain.)
The priest saying the mass, Father Roy, spoke passionately about the wrong-headedness of the wall and about the foundational Christian teachings that demand an open heart and hand towards those who need your help. It was a stirring speech, but what reached me was not the affirmation of the core religious and humanist beliefs of generosity and love, but Father Roy’s caution that we not let anger over this impending desecration overcome us. We must maintain a core of peace and love, or be destroyed by rage against those who are most responsible for this.
As I have heard Van Jones say, ‘When it gets harder to love, love harder.”
But it is getting harder and harder with every dollar Congress gives to president Trump for border wall construction; with every denial by the Democratic party that they have done so; with every news story that parrots this Washington DC delusion; with every new piece of machinery that arrives at the border and every new surveyor stake that is planted in a land of living sanctuary.
It is getting harder and harder to love. And I’m not sure my border angel and his winged compatriots, who depend on this land for their very lives, think peace is the best option at this point.
Category: Borderlands, Borderlands Project, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, birds, border, border wall, borderlands, butterflies, donald trump, environment, Father Roy, fence, La Lomita, nancy pelosi, national butterfly center, national wildlife refuge, nature, south texas, texas, wall, wildlife
Posted on February 7, 2019
Today is also the 10th anniversary of a much lesser known historical event — the Borderlands RAVE. It was an expedition I organized with the International League of Conservation Photographers, focused on raising awareness of the beauty and biodiversity, value and vulnerability of the US-Mexico borderlands after the passage of the Secure Fence Act of 2006.
There were 15 of us on that trip, some of the most committed photographers, scientists and filmmakers I’ve worked with. We traveled the border from San Diego to Brownsville from January 19 to February 19 of 2009. We documented some of the most exquisite beauty and rarest habitat in North America; stayed with border residents who opened their homes to us and shared their stories of love for their homeland on the border. We were detained by Border Patrol and by flat tires and desert sand. We slept under the endless desert sky.
The last days of the trip were spent in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where less than 5 percent of native habitat remains and border wall construction had already begun to fell forests and scrape the land bare, leaving no secret passageways or gentle quarter for endangered ocelots and jaguarundis; setting the stage for massive flooding that would drown imperiled Texas tortoises in 2010; and diminishing an already nearly vanished refuge for birds and butterflies.
When the trip ended we had gathered thousands of photographs, undeniable evidence of the importance of the borderlands and the threat that a wall posed to them. I believed then that if we just showed Congress our evidence, that this kind of destruction would end. In March of 2009, I created an exhibit of our team images and worked with Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Mennonite Central Committee and friends and family to install the exhibit in the House of Representatives. We had a reception and briefing, where many members of Congress came to speak of their opposition to wall. We did the same thing in the Senate in November 2009, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And senators came to speak about their opposition to the wall. We had a newly-elected president who, when he was campaigning, had said:
“The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand.”
But President Barack Obama had voted for the Secure Fence Act, and he would continue to build the border wall that George W. Bush had started.
Flash-forward 10 years: I left my home in Washington DC this morning and got on a flight to South Texas where border wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley is starting up again. Donald Trump has become the fourth successive president, starting with Bill Clinton in the 1990s, to expand the US-Mexico border wall. Trump will, like the others, start on National Wildlife Refuge land, because it is easier to destroy the homes and futures of wildlife than to take land from Texans. Trump will also take private land, but he will start with the low-hanging fruit, public land, where he has already waived the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act and every other law that would impede construction. Congress gave the executive branch that power under the Real ID Act of 2005.
Tomorrow I will witness and document the destruction of forests where birds have begun to construct their nests and butterflies have laid their eggs; they will be torn down by machines funded by American taxpayers.
My first instinct is to end with something snide, like: Happy Anniversary.
But that would suggest it’s possible to simply shrug off this moment, and accept walls as an inevitable feature of the modern world, along with mass extinction of Earth’s biodiversity, climate chaos and nationalism. It isn’t and they aren’t. So instead I’ll end by asking every person who reads this to make a phone call to their members of Congress, because one thing I’ve learned is that politicians don’t do things because they are right or wrong, they do them because their constituents demand it.