La Parida: Where the Wild Things Were

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.

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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.

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La Parida – She who has given birth. A tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

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 ]

Kit foxes in Janos grassland, Mexico.

Kit foxes in borderlands of Chihuahua and New Mexico.

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.

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Javelina at border wall in Arizona

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.

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Great kiskadee eating granjeno berry in Lower Rio Grande Valley wildlife refuge. (c)Krista Schlyer

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.

You can help.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Border Angels vs Excavators

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.

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Wild turkey at the site of the future border wall in Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Mission, TX.

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.

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Wild turkeys on the Rio Grande levee, planned site of border wall construction.

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. (c)Krista_Schlyer-01005

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.

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Excavator on the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, South Texas.

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.

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La Lomita Mission Chapel, Mission Texas

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.

Congress is working on another deal behind closed doors. They are discussing what to call the border barriers they are sure to fund if we keep the peace rather than making it very uncomfortable for them to fund more wall. Please call your senators and representative today. Congressional switchboard: (202) 224-3121
For more information about the history of the US-Mexico borderlands, visit: Embattled Borderlands. Or get my book Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall. And look for Ay Mariposa, a new film coming out this spring.

 

Border Wall Construction Begins, again

89. Wildlife refuge staff Nancy Brown at a wall construction site.

2008 Border wall construction on the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I can still hear Americans cheering when Ronald Regan demanded “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

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.

Prairie dog family in northern Chihuahua Mexico.

Prairie dogs in the US-Mexico borderlands.

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.

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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.

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Desert cottontail near border wall construction in 2008, San Pedro National Riparian Corridor, Arizona.

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.

For more information about the history of the US-Mexico borderlands, visit: Embattled Borderlands. Or get my book Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall. And look for Ay Mariposa, a new film coming out this spring.

 

Ay Santa Ana

Santa Ana and the battle for sacred ground

There are some places in this world where life and beauty effervesce from the ground itself, places we simply can not lose. There are landscapes where lines must be drawn in the proverbial sand and we must say, no, you will not take this from the world. Not on our watch. Many such places exist in the US-Mexico borderlands, and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is one. Here is a place people will lay down their bodies to protect. It is that rare, that special. I want to show you why.

I wrote a poem about Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas, and worked with a talented group of filmmakers–Allison Otto, Jenny Nichols, and Morgan Heim–to translate it into a short film. Please take a look.

 

 

President Donald Trump has been banging his nativist drum demanding billions of dollars for a border wall. Congress has been deal-making and deliberating behind closed doors, preparing to bargain away the future of the borderlands in exchange for the Dreamers held hostage by the Republican Party. I don’t believe any of them know or care about what they are sacrificing to the altar of political power––all for a wall that will have no effect on human migration but will destroy one of the rarest eco-regions on Earth.

Please share this film with your friends and family, with your members of Congress. Pick up the phone and tell your Congressional representatives: the border is not a bargaining chip. The Dreamers must be saved from exile from the only home they have ever known, and the borderlands must be protected from border walls, fences and militarization. #noborderwall #saveSantaAna #cleanDreamAct #aysantaana.

The number for the Congressional switchboard is: 202-224-3121

The 75th anniversary of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is January 27. Many hundreds of people will be journeying to South Texas for a special rally for this endangered landscape. Santa Ana needs our help. If you can join us, here is some information about the event: https://www.facebook.com/events/419603675122981/ . If you cannot travel to South Texas, please take some action for Santa Ana the week of January 27.

For more information about the peril currently posed to the US-Mexico Borderlands, visit my web story: Embattled Borderlands.

 

New Film: Border Walls and Boundaries

The US-Mexico border wall boondoggle didn’t start with Donald Trump. Despite its exorbitant cost, wasteful, ineffective nature, and destructive impact, all of the current presidential hopefuls – on both sides of the political spectrum – have voted in support of border wall on the southern US border. Bernie in 2013, Hillary in 2006, Ted Cruz every chance he gets. There are many reasons why Americans could resent this reality: the waste of billions of our taxpayer dollars over the past decade; the useless, farcical nature of walls as a means of stopping people from moving across the landscape; the thousands of migrant deaths it has led to on our southern border; the environmental destruction it has brought to many national parks, wilderness lands and wildlife refuges. This film is about one reason, one very important reason why building a border wall is not worth the cost.

 

A Cry for the Borderlands Into the Partisan Wilderness of Washington DC

 

For 10 years, ever since the passage of the REAL ID Act in 2005, the wildlife, people and ecosystems of the US-Mexico borderlands have suffered the destruction of unprecedented militarization and the waiver of environmental and many other laws. Senator John McCain is working to expand borderlands destruction and disenfranchisement through a bill S750, cynically titled “The Arizona Borderlands Protection and Preservation Act.” I visited his senate office yesterday with members of the Sierra Club Borderlands Team, and sat down with a staffer who listened politely and patiently waited for us to leave. Today I wrote this letter to Senator McCain via his legislative aide–asking him to withdraw his bill waiving all laws within 100 miles of the Arizona border:

Dear David,

Thanks so much for the meeting yesterday with myself and the Sierra Club. I realize there are many issues we see differently, but I hope we can find a meeting place of common ground in the borderlands. In this region over the past 10 years, our national parks, environmental laws and wildlife conservation efforts have been reeling blow by blow as our nation has erected walls and moved border enforcement further and further from the actual border. Senator McCain’s bill S750 would further expand that region of lawlessness to 100 miles from the border, stripping the land and its inhabitants of all laws, and putting all of southern Arizona at the whim of whoever controls DHS.

Border patrol already has unprecedented authority over all other federal agencies on the border, (and in the entire nation–with the CBP budget exceeding that of all other federal law enforcement agencies combined). People, environmental and civil rights organizations are essentially powerless in relation to the massive presence of DHS in the borderlands. I have seen the destruction that has come from this excessive power for a single federal agency. And I have been at the receiving end of this undemocratic imbalance of power–with my vehicle searched multiple times (nowhere near the border), being stopped and questioned by armed agents and intimidated just for being on public lands within 20 miles of the border.

DHS itself has repeatedly testified to Congress that it does not need or want further waiver authority in the borderlands, making all of the recent attempts to strip environmental protections from the region curious. Immigration is at net-zero and we know most illegal drug imports come through the ports of entry, and there has never been a single documented case of a terrorist coming across the southern border–so we have to ask ourselves, what is motivating the never-ending string legislation that aims to remove environmental protections and increase expensive border militarization that is born on the backs of American taxpayers?

Basically what we were asking in our meeting, and what the Sierra Club is asking going forward, is for a commitment from Senator McCain to protect our borderlands parks, refuges and people from further disenfranchisement and destruction. Please urge your boss to withdraw S750, and to oppose any other form of expansion of legal waivers on the border. And in the future to oppose any further attempts to add walls and waivers to immigration bills. The lives of the people and wildlife, and the ecological integrity of our national parks, wilderness and wildlife refuges on the border should not be handed over as a bargaining chip for immigration reform or electoral politics. We need Senator McCain’s help.

I am attaching a link to a slideshow/book talk that I have done around the country to help the public understand what’s at stake in the borderlands. I hope you will take a look at it and show it to your boss
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Again, thanks very much for your time.
Best wishes,
Krista

The Pity of Donald Trump

As I watched Donald Trump repeat his “more border wall” mantra last night during the first GOP primary debate, my mind returned to a moment earlier in the day when I was working on an annual report for Humane Borders, a non-profit dedicated to providing humanitarian aid to vulnerable migrants traveling the arid Arizona borderlands. I had been editing a profile of Humane Borders’ Executive Director Juanita Molina, in which she talked of what motivated her to do the work she does. She recalled a day a decade ago when she was working for an HIV clinic in California and a young man came in asking for help. He led Juanita to a car where she saw another young man, emaciated and unmoving. She thought he was dead. But just then he opened his eyes and smiled at her. Juanita got the young man and his partner to the emergency room, where he survived for four days. During that time they told Juanita of the arduous journey that had brought them to the Arizona border, and how, when the one man became too weak to walk any further, his partner strapped him to his back and carried him.

Stories like this, weighty with love, sacrifice and courage, are not rare in the borderlands. I have heard many over the past 8 years since I’ve been working in the region. In my book Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall I recount the story of Josseline Quinteros, a 13-year-old girl who died in the Arizona desert when she grew weak on her journey from Guatemala, and rather than hold up her group she urged a coyote to leave her and get her little brother safely to their mother in Los Angeles.

Sonoran Desert National Monument

Sonoran Desert National Monument

Donald Trump cannot see people like Josseline and the men in California, or even Juanita, because he understands life only in two dimensions. He is afraid and loud because of this deficit of understanding in a world of infinite dimensions and complexities and beautiful cruel textures. There are an eternity of forms of human relationships and challenges and infinitely faceted connections within the world of nature, a truly eternal complexity of every element interacting with every other. You can see glimpses of it in the love bond of a man who carries his dying partner through the desert and a sister willing to give her life so that her little brother will live, and the many devoted people who like Juanita, and Humane Borders, give everything they have to help those in crisis. And you can see it quite clearly in every moment that you look into the quiet world of nature. This world is an endless imaginarium of beauty, heroics, love and death. So, so much more than a mind constrained in two dimensions of fear and power can understand.

Trump is not alone. Almost every candidate on that stage parroted his call for more wall, more enforcement, more militarization, serious consequences for “illegals.” And with their loud voices they have been able to shape the story about immigration in in this nation built by immigrants–depicting migrants as criminals and freeloaders. These people, migrants, are really no different from us; they are heroes and loved ones and mothers and sons and fathers and daughters, not invaders or threats. And “illegal immigration” will not end until we have a legal immigration system that works by accounting for the great demand for cheap labor and by creating trade laws that  treat our neighbors fairly. The economic arguments for border militarization are laughable from every angle, from the tens of billions of dollars we have thrown away building a wall people can climb in 10 seconds, to the idea that immigrants are a drain on our economy. But in Washington DC, on either side of the partisan isle, there are very few who will stand up for Josseline or the borderlands. And the media is complicit for glorifying or even vilifying the Donald Trumps of the world; they help perpetuate the small, distorted two-dimensional mindset that has led to endless ecological distruction of the beautiful borderlands and the deaths of more than 6000 migrants. What a pity. For the Donalds and their inability to see clearly, and for the rest of us, who suffer the consequences.