MISSION, RGV – Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park could end up being closed if a border wall is built through the middle of it, a leader with Sierra Club RGV has predicted.
Scott Nicol, who co-chairs the group’s borderlands team, said Congress has provided funding to the Department of Homeland Security to build new border walls in various parts of the Valley, including Bentsen.
“Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is the only place in the Valley outside of Padre Island where you can camp. It is critical for our eco-tourism economy. It is a World Birding Center. We have birders from all over the world that come here to see birds. They spend money and it is an important part of our economy, in addition to being ecologically important,” Nicol told the Rio Grande Guardian.
“If Bentsen ceases to function as a park, if there is no longer access, because you will have a border wall between the visitors’ center and the park and they (Border Patrol) decide, no one is going to go through the border wall, and they close the park, then the park ceases to be a state-owned facility.”
Nicol said the granting of land beside the Rio Grande by the Bentsen family includes a provision that if the park is no longer accessible to the public, it goes back to the family’s estate.
“The Bentsen family will own it once again. We could not only lose access to the park, the State of Texas could lose that entire park, if we do not have access. This is why we think it is so critical that Governor Abbott fights for it, to say there has got to be another way to deal with our issues, than walling off out state parks.”
Asked what would happen if a border wall was built through Bentsen, Nicol said: “The levees that currently run between the visitor’s center and all of the trails would be converted into a levee border wall. The visitor’s center would be on the U.S. side, everything else would on the Mexican side of the border wall. Not unless Border Patrol establishes some way for visitors to go through, a gate or something, would there be access. Visitors would have to pass through the border wall to get to the park because all of the trails are south of the levee.”
Nicol visited the Rio Grande Guardian’s studio to announce a “community picnic” that is being hosted by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park on Saturday morning. The start time is 9 a.m. Festivities end at 12 noon.
“The community picnic is intended to bring more awareness to Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park and other areas that are going to be cut off by the levee border walls that Congress recently funded. At Bentsen, the levees that currently stand between the visitor’s center and all of the trails for the state park will be converted into a levee border wall unless we do something about it. The money is there but that does not necessarily mean the wall has to be built. We are going to call on Governor Abbott and Representative Cuellar to stand up for the Valley, stand up for our state parks and do everything in their power to stop these border walls from being built,” Nicol said.
“Naturalists will lead guided hikes, they will be talking about what makes Bentsen so special. There will be opportunities for people to write to Governor Abbott and Congressman Cuellar urging them to fight for this park and this community, the family farmers, the Butterfly Center, La Lomita Mission, all of those who are going to be impacted by walls.”
Nicol said the Sierra Club was targeting Abbott because Bentsen is a state park and Cuellar because he represents Mission in Congress.
Environmentalists scored a notable victory recently when Congress said a border wall could not be built at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo. Asked how groups like the Sierra Club succeeded in “protecting” Santa Ana but not Bentsen, Nicol said:
“With Santa Ana there was a lot of public pressure put on members of Congress because we had heard that Santa Ana would be targeted first. Because the land was federally owned, the government felt they could take that and build that wall and not have to go through a lengthy condemnation process, which they are going to have to go through with many other places.
“Unfortunately, they (Congress) did not get the whole message. We weren’t just trying to stop the wall at Santa Ana. We were trying to stop border walls from being built all across the Rio Grande Valley. We were trying to save the National Butterfly Center, we were trying to save La Lomita Mission, we were trying to save the farms that will be cut off by these new border walls. Unfortunately, Congress made the carve out for Santa Ana but everything else is potentially to be walled off if we don’t stop it.”
Nicol said what happened with Santa Ana is an example of how public opinion can have an impact on the federal government.
“It shows it is possible to stop these walls. But, it is not a done deal. It is not inevitable. With Santa Ana, that could come back. They are not prevented from ever building a border wall, just prevented from building a border wall this go around. A future omnibus bill could wall off Santa Ana. We have to keep fighting for Santa Ana, we have to keep fighting for Bentsen, we have to fight for the Butterfly Center and La Lomita and all the rest of it. If we just sit back and say, it is inevitable then, yes, it is inevitable.”
Asked about the impact of the omnibus spending bill passed recently by Congress, Nicol said:
“That bill provided enough cash to convert all of the rest of Hidalgo County’s current levees into levee border walls. So, they (DHS) would take the river-facing side of the existing levee, carve it away and put in a concrete slab, and in some places even put steel bollards on top of that. Access can be a big issue. If the public is going to be allowed into places like Bentsen of La Lomita, that is going to cause a huge problem for wildlife.
“When we get a flood like we did in 2010, and the area from the river up to the levee is underwater for a few months, animals that walk on the ground or slither on the ground can go up the regular slope of an earth levee but if they come up against an 18-foot or taller concrete wall, they are trapped and they will drown. You can turn a wildlife refuge or a park refuge land into a deathtrap for terrestrial species.”
Nicol said that up until recently, all that was stopping the Trump administration from building new border walls was a lack of funding.
“They just did not have the money from Congress. Congress gave $450 million for levee border walls, they gave $196 million for other walls in Starr County, probably bollard walls that are similar to what has been built in Cameron County. We do not know the exact location. The word is some of those walls will be in Roma but we have not seen maps of those. There has also been money from a year ago that Congress provided to put gates on many of the road-sized gaps in existing border walls. That could cut off access to places like Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary. We are very concerned about these things. It would be great if more members of Congress had stood up and prevented that from occurring. But, where things stand now, the money is there but there is no legal requirement to build. So, it is still possible, but a lot more difficult, to stop these walls.”
Asked what the physical difference would be between new border walls and those built a decade ago, Nicol said:
“There will be replacements built in Arizona and California and New Mexico but in South Texas, what they are talking about doing is taking existing levees, which do not have a border wall in them, and carving away the river-facing side and putting in a border wall. These are levees that we just paid to rebuild. Taxpayer funds were used to rebuild all of the levees in Hidalgo County under the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009. So, we are just going to destroy something we just spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build and then spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build it all over again.
“There are also going to be, potentially, new walls in Starr County. Those will be a different design from those in Hidalgo County. They are liable to block water that would otherwise drain. You get a hurricane that rolls through, a big rain event. The water should drain down into the river but there is going to be a wall in the way. This will potentially worsen the flooding in Roma, or whichever Starr County community these walls are built in. They can also, if they are in the floodplain, dam water, block water from spreading out and push more water into Mexico, worsening flooding there. That is a treaty violation.”
Asked if Sierra Club RGV has spoken to the International Boundary & Water Commission about a potential violation of the 1944 water treaty with Mexico, should a border wall be built, Nicol said:
“We have not personally spoken to them. The big concern that I would have is, IBWC is a binational organization. It is not supposed to be making any decisions without both the Mexican and U.S. halves agreeing to those. But, in 2011-2012, Customs and Border Protection was able to exert enough pressure on the U.S. half of IBWC to get them to reverse their long-standing opposition to border walls in the floodplain. The Mexican section continues to say that this would be a treaty violation. The way the organization was supposed to be structured is that if both sides cannot agree on something that would be done in the floodplain, it does not happen. Instead, the United States appears to ready to act unilaterally to build structures that could potentially be a treaty violation and cause extreme flooding.”