If a rare tree is leveled to make room for the border fence, will anyone care?
The moment the Secure Fence Act (H.R. 6061) was approved in 2006, the most important question associated with the construction of the United States-Mexico border fence ceased to be “why?” and became “where?” The fence — actually a series of intermittent freestanding barriers — is nearly complete, with most of the California, Arizona and New Mexico stages finished.
In West Texas, construction is well underway from the state line east to Fort Hancock, while on the opposite end of the state, building has begun on sections in the Rio Grande Valley. There, amid the resacas and thornscrub of South Texas, the finished fence will eventually trace the slow curves of the Rio Grande River.
More or less.
The border fence doesn’t strictly adhere to the national border — the Rio Grande. In reality, its path veers erratically inland — a straight line that disregards the natural curves and oxbows of an ageless river — creating huge swaths of the United States trapped in a “no man’s land” south of the fence and north of the border. The Nature Conservancy’s Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve stands to be bisected by the fence, leaving nearly three-quarters of the preserve in this no man’s land.
The merits of Southmost Preserve are innumerable:
- Spanning 1,034 acres at the very tip of Texas, the preserve is home to a wealth of threatened and endangered species, including rare birds, frogs and tortoises.
- The land lies under the Central Flyway, one of four principal migratory bird routes in North America, and the preserve’s thick Tamaulipan thornscrub represents a prime wildlife corridor for free-roaming ocelots and jaguarundi.
For years Southmost Preserve has been a haven for scientists and birders enticed by land where, in a single day, dozens of rare animal species can be spotted.
But the real prize at Southmost — the bedrock of its unique habitat and the species that helped earn the preserve the moniker “Jewel of the Rio Grande” — is the rare sabal palm. Once found across much of the lower Gulf Coast, sabal palm forests have all but vanished under the plow. While some scattered trees can be found on private lands in the region, the significant remaining stands of these towering trees are located at Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve, the Sabal Palm Audubon Center and the Lower Rio Grand Valley National Wildlife Refuge. All three of those conservation areas lie in the path of the border fence.
In order to save sabal palms that would otherwise be leveled by construction of the fence, the Conservancy is partnering with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and Audubon Texas in coordination with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to transplant palms to safe ground, one tree at a time (see video below).
The trees, which grow as tall as 65 feet and are up to 100 years old, are being uprooted and hauled to a number of spots, most within a mile of their original location, where they are then carefully replanted.
It’s a massive undertaking and a race against the clock. Each of the approximately 300 trees must be thoroughly trimmed and the root balls need to be unearthed intact to ensure survival. The project, which is already underway, is expected to last through the summer.
The security of our borders is of paramount importance. Since the creation of Southmost Preserve, the Conservancy has worked closely with the U.S. Border Patrol to allow ample access to the property.
Unfortunately, in an attempt to seize the preserve — or at least the narrow strip of land on which the fence would sit — the Department of Homeland Security has opted for litigation over collaboration. Southmost Preserve is now the subject of a condemnation lawsuit that, if successful, would allow construction of the fence and would require the government to pay for only the land on which the barrier sits, regardless of how much property winds up inaccessible, uninhabitable and outside the reach of conservation management.
Despite this harsh reality, the Conservancy, Texas Audubon and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service remain resolute, working throughout the intense heat of the South Texas summer to give hundreds of iconic, historic trees the best chance to survive for future generations of Texans.
And hopefully, if the project is a success, this scramble to protect the last remnants of a once-majestic forests will someday be viewed as the best possible conservation outcome salvaged from a very bad idea.
(Image: Moving a sabal palm. Credit: TNC.)