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.

 

Anacostia River Web Series Launches Today

River of Resilience story map commemorates the Year of the Anacostia by exploring the history and restoration of a national river watershed.

Over the past four centuries the Anacostia River has been given many names: the Eastern Branch of the Potomac, the other national river, the dirtiest river in the nation, the forgotten river. But for millennia uncounted prior to European arrival, for every creature that lived within the watershed, this river was simply everything.

How does a river transform from essential to forgotten in a span of 400 years?

This question is one of many addressed in River of Resilience, a nine-chapter web story structured as a journey from the headwaters of the Anacostia in Sandy Spring, Maryland, to the confluence of the river with the Potomac in Washington DC. River of Resilience is a story of time and place, a visually-rich geographic narrative of a wounded but irrepressible watershed, a story of those who are working to heal this river community, and an entreaty to join them.

The project features the writing and photography of Krista Schlyer, a senior fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers, and author of the forthcoming book River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia, due out fall 2018 from Texas A&M University Press.

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The River of Resilience web story was created in partnership with Esri, creator of ArcGIS, using their story map platform Cascade, and data-driven maps created by the Esri story maps team. The project was funded by the District Department of Energy and Environment in collaboration with the Anacostia Waterfront Trust.

River of Resilience launches today, April 3, 2018, with new chapters released each week through May 29, 2018.

Join the Anacostia River journey here.

 

River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia

Incorporating seven years of photography and research, River of Redemption portrays life along the Anacostia River, a Washington, DC, waterway rich in history and biodiversity that nonetheless lingered for years in obscurity and neglect in our nation’s capital.

Inspired by Aldo Leopold’s classic book, A Sand County Almanac, Krista Schlyer evokes a consciousness of time and place, inviting readers to experience the seasons of the Anacostia year, along with the waxing and waning of river’s complex cultural and ecological history.Schlyer_jacket_web

Blending photography with informative and poignant text, River of Redemption urges readers to seize the opportunity to reinvent our role in urban ecology and to redeem our relationship with this national river and watersheds nationwide.

The book is now available at Politics and Prose, Kramerbooks, and online booksellers like Amazon.

Reviews of River of Redemption

“Krista Schlyer rediscovers a treasure in our nation’s capital, the Anacostia River. A gifted story teller and photographer, she leads us on a moving expedition of human failure and the miracle of nature’s renewal.” –TOMMY WELLS, Director, DC Department of Energy and Environment

“Krista Schlyer has woven her way into the soul of the Anacostia with poetic prowess….a symphony of beauty through words and photos.” –BRENDA LEE RICHARDSON, former Director of Earth Conservation Corps

 

RIVER OF REDEMPTION SYNOPSIS

Seventy years ago, when Aldo Leopold was writing his prophetic essays in Sand County Wisconsin, the culmination of all his fears was unfolding on the banks of the Anacostia River in Washington DC. The river’s ecological fabric had already been torn from every possible angle. It had been channeled, walled, deforested and dumped on. While Leopold was writing about the meadow mice and oak trees of Sand County, the National Park Service was lending out the banks of the Anacostia as a dumping grounds for the refuse of the nation’s capital. That garbage was burned every afternoon in one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. On the banks of the Anacostia came the violent collision of colossal failures in ecology and justice–all brought to a painful nadir in 1968 with the death of a small boy named Kelvin.

A bald eagle on the Anacostia River, Washington DC.

Just three hundred years earlier the Anacostia had been a living, breathing artery of life for the Nacotchtank people, but in a wink of time we transformed it into a toxic channel and dumping grounds.

The profaning of the Anacostia was made possible by one factor, forgetfulness.

In our Anacostia amnesia we forgot the beauty of an old growth forest, the joy of jumping in a clean river on a hot summer day, the thrill of seeing a bald eagle soaring high above the earth. We forgot the satisfaction of struggling to haul a healthy fish out of the water, and the simple pleasure of sitting on a riverside and gazing down into a clear water-sky to watch turtles fly with perfect, impossible grace. But most of all we forgot that we are a part of a community of land, water, air, bird, mammal, fish, amphibian and insect. We forgot that this river watershed is our community, a community in which every single resident has both rights and responsibilities for the common good.

 

River of Redemption  is a book aimed at remembering our fundamental relationship with rivers, and imagining a future where that relationship will be restored.

The book was published in November, 2018. You can buy it at Politics and Prose, Kramerbooks and on Amazon and other online booksellers, or order a signed copy today in my Book Store.

You can also read excerpts from the book by clicking on the River of Redemption submenu of the Anacostia Project tab.

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.

 

This is a rant, be warned

I took a few hours last night to participate in my local government by attending an input session for the Prince George’s County, Maryland, master plan for environmental, rural and agricultural conservation. There are of course many ways to get involved in the future of the little spot of Earth I occupy, but I think there is something especially encouraging and meaningful in understanding and trying to effect the land planning process.
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Marbled salamander

These are plans that will affect the next decades of my county which spans the ultra-urban Anacostia River watershed, my great love, to the rural Patuxent River watershed, and south to the Potomac River. Some of my most favorite friends live in these lands, from the great blue heron and marbled salamander to spring peepers and northern brown snakes. For watershed health, wildlife habitat and ecosystem restoration, these plans could have a greater effect than anything else going on in my county, either for good or ill. Bad planning in the past has effected heartbreaking consequences, everything from the further devastation of the Anacostia River through the paving of the watershed, to clear-cut forests in the Patuxent watershed that make way for developments with names that drip with acrid irony like Forest Haven or Heron Bend (I made those up, but you all know what I’m talking about).

This forest was cleared to build a Whole Foods.

Last night’s input session was geared toward environmentalists and there will be others focused on hearing the thoughts of agricultural interests and developers. Some of the haggard enviros who attended last night looked as if they had been trudging to these same meetings for 40 years, and some probably had. And some of those expressed a tired anger, for being ignored for 40 years and having to go to another meeting and express the same thoughts about how the term “sustainable development” is an oxymoron, and how the best way to halt rural development and destruction of ecosystems is to stop incentivizing it by having taxpayers fund the extension of sewers and maintenance of new roads.
I can understand their frustration. This was my first planning meeting but I’ve seen things, ohhhh I’ve seen things, nonsensical things happening around the county that just make you think, whose in charge here and how is it possible they are still making all the same bad decisions we made 50 years ago? More parking lots in parks that never have full parking lots, rather than more trees and meadows. New roads that are not built with permeable paving, bioswales, rain gardens and bike lanes. We know how to do this people. We know how to be better citizens of earth, how not to pollute our rivers and air, how to create green spaces that provide homes for birds and cute little critters trying to make their way in the world, and for people whose lives and hearts are elevated by being able to see said cute critters and pretty winged things. Why aren’t we just doing it!!
I know, I know, things take time. This is true. Many of the incomprehensible developments we see have been in the planning stages for decades. There’s a particular Whole Foods development on a former forest that raises my blood pressure every time I see it, its been at lease a decade in the works (when finished it will have a big sign that says Whole Foods of Forest Haven – I made that up) .
This time delay means we won’t see the fruits of our current conservation-planning efforts for perhaps decades more. I have some hope about what those decades may bring. Some of that comes from seeing the spread of good ideas throughout the Washington DC metro area, in government, nonprofits, residents. Specifically last night it came from watching the residents and government planners engage, and continue to try to effect good outcomes, and perhaps specifically from the opening words of Adam Ortiz, director of the Prince Georges Department of the Environment. If he had been a random bureaucrat, I may have considered the possibility that he was blowing smoke up our asses (sorry Adam, I know some of the more haggard enviros thought that). But Adam is a friend, a much respected friend with a keen heart and mind. And he said something that resonated with me, something that inspired me to write all this down.
I’m paraphrasing…and embellishing, but he expressed the idea that along with a responsibility to protect our Earth this conservation planning effort was an exercise in connection. Connection to our space on this planet, our home, yes, but also connection to others who share or have shared or will share this space. What we see around us, what many of us lament as bad decisions and loss of something valuable, that was the work of those who came before us. They gathered in rooms like the one we were in last night, they talked about their vision for the future, and yes it was a shitty vision in many ways. But they put much of themselves into planning how to live in this land, and did the best they could with the information and knowledge they had at the time.
Now is our time. Our part in the story of this landscape, this ecosystem of people and rivers and wild creatures and loveliest flowers. We get to make different decisions, hopefully more thoughtful ones informed by all we have learned since those centuries of planners before us. And in the future, 30, 50, 100 years from now, there may be a room full of people cursing our name for making such pathetic decisions, but hopefully they will know we worked together and we tried our best.
And just in case none of my ideas make it into the plan, I’m setting them down here. (So that the future people in that conservation planning room don’t blame me.)
Guiding principles:
  • Net gain of forest canopy and native wildlife habitat.
  • Highest best use of government park land – turf, unless it is a ball field, is not the highest best use. All excess turf and any parking facilities that are not consistently filled to max should be converted to native meadows and forests.
  • All utility corridors should be native pollinator meadows, this will help struggling native pollinators, AND help the county agriculture system by providing little worker bees.
  • An incentive program that provides a mechanism for all new developments to contribute a meaningful amount of money to a land conservation and restoration fund.
  • Green infrastructure should be a mandate for new roads, development and anything that creates an impermeable surface, and a preference should be given to techniques that have the multiple benefits of providing stormwater retention, native habitat and beauty.
  • An end to taxpayer-funded incentives for development in rural, forested or other lands that provide important ecosystem services, wildlife habitat and green space. We should be incentivizing redevelopment only. There’s so many boarded up, broken down, paved places in this county, we could redevelop for a century and not run out of crappy dilapidated spaces to fix up.
We know how to do this people. Let’s not invite the scorn of our future selves.
Thank you to those who had the stamina to read this to the end.