McALLEN, RGV – The 22-mile levee-wall plan being devised by Hidalgo County Commissioners Court and the Department of Homeland Security is incompatible with the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
“This combined project would eliminate wildlife passage by replacing CBP’s original ‘wildlife friendly’ fence design with an impermeable 16 to 18 foot high wall built into a built into a flood control levee,” wrote Fish and Wildlife Deputy Director Kenneth Stansell, in a March 3 letter to Greg Giddens, executive director, SBI (Secure Border Initiative), at Customs and Border Protection.
“This new project design would effectively eliminate the wildlife passage component of the earlier design and would impair the ability of the wildlife corridor to fulfill its function.”
To proceed with the new project, Stansell wrote, DHS would have to “utilize its authority” under the Real ID Act to waive the National Wildlife Refuge Administration Act of 1966.
On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced he would do just that.
In his letter, Stansell says that to compensate for the loss of land inside the levees, Fish and Wildlife would like to acquire wildlife habitats that assist the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge achieving its established purposes.
“We are prepared to offer a land acquisition alternative for your consideration,” Stansell wrote. “We have completed a very preliminary analysis of this possibility and have determined that 1,300 to 1,700 acres of suitable habitat would need to be acquired at a cost of up to $7 million.”
As the Associated Press reported Tuesday, Fish and Wildlife is “very concerned that after months of consultations on a proposed project design and reaching consensus on a way forward that satisfies the needs of both wildlife and a secure border, CBP would unilaterally propose a completely new design (for the levee-wall) and request an immediate response from the Service.”
Here is Stansell’s letter:
Mr. Greg Giddens,
Executive Director, SBI
Customs and Border Protection Headquarters
1300 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20004
Dr. Mr. Giddens:
This is to follow up on recent discussions concerning the proposal to combine the currently proposed border-fence project with a flood-control project in Hidalgo County, Texas. As we discussed last Friday, February 22, 2008, our staffs have been working together for the last six months to develop and agree upon a project design and associated mitigation for the Hidalgo County fence segments that will meet the needs of fish and wildlife resources while allowing Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to fulfill its mission to secure the border with Mexico.
The primary objective of those discussions was focused on a design that would protect the integrity of an approximately 300-mile wildlife corridor developed by the Service over the past 25 years in partnership with the state of Texas, The Nature Conservancy, Mexico and others. These collective efforts help conserve over 20 species listed under the Endangered Species Act by ensuring wildlife passage through the border-fence project area.
Approximately four weeks ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) was advised that CBP intended to pursue a new project design that would combine the border-fence project with a flood control project with Hidalgo County (segments O-4, O-5, O-6, O-7, O-8, O-9, and O-10). This combined project would eliminate wildlife passage by replacing CBP’s original “wildlife friendly” fence design with an impermeable 16 to 18 foot high wall built into a built into a flood control levee. This new project design would effectively eliminate the wildlife passage component of the earlier design and would impair the ability of the wildlife corridor to fulfill its function.
As you know, our staffs met with representatives of Hidalgo County and the International Boundary and Water Commission on January 24 and 25, 2008. During this meeting, we were requested to develop options leading to resolution on the new design, and were asked to provide you with these options as soon as possible. As a result, we have developed several preliminary options that we believe may meet the needs of fish and wildlife resources associated with the new project design.
As expressed last Friday, we were very concerned that after months of consultations on a proposed project design and reaching consensus on a way forward that satisfies the needs of both wildlife and a secure border, CBP would unilaterally propose a completely new design and request an immediate response from the Service. However, we recognize the difficult circumstances under which CBP is attempting to fulfill its mission and thank you and your staff for your efforts to meet the security needs of this Nation while also fish and wildlife resources. We are also pleased that you recognize that we are bound by our operating statutes and that we need adequate time to provide meaningful consultations on the project design.
As agreed to on Friday, we will continue to work with CBP to develop mitigation alternatives from a programmatic perspective to address the impacts of the project on trust resources. We would like to document, however, that any proposed fence and/or levee segment that bisects lands within the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge (Refuge) cannot be found compatible with the purposes for which the Refuge was established. Therefore, we see the need for the Department of Homeland Security to utilize its authority under the Real ID Act to waive the National Wildlife Refuge Administration Act of 1966, as amended (16 USC 668dd). In this event, we will propose specific recommendations for acquisition of wildlife habitats that assist the Refuge in achieving its established purposes.
Concurrent with our discussions concerning programmatic mitigation, we will provide you several preliminary options for the Hidalgo County project including designs that would provide wildlife passage through the border-fence project area. If these options are not acceptable or feasible to CBP, we are prepared to offer a land acquisition alternative for your consideration. This option entails implementing the county’s flood-control wall to the full extent proposed while securing lands that would provide for the needed wildlife corridor within the flood-plain. We have completed a very preliminary analysis of this possibility and have determined that 1,300 to 1,700 acres of suitable habitat would need to be acquired at a cost of up to $7 million. Final numbers will depend on the final analyses of impacts, changes in land-values as a result of the proposed project, and the availability of willing sellers. While this may not be the most desirable option, we offer it at this time for further consideration.
In closing, we want to thank you and your staff for meeting with us last Friday to discuss these challenging issues. We are very pleased with the outcome of this meeting and we want to assure you that we are fully committed to achieving fish and wildlife conservation within the context of developing a secure border. We are also confident that if we continue to work cooperatively towards these ends, both of our missions can be achieved. If you would like to discuss this issue further or require additional information, please feel free to contact me at 202-208-4545.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife