PART THREE IN A SERIES
“When clouds came, they brought rain, which blessed the earth and made things grow. Who loved the people and blessed them? The dead ancestors, who once were people, and who came back as clouds … ”
“One, then another, and another, and another, sharp cloud came clear of the horizon. They moved close to the surface of the water. They rested on dark bulks. They came toward shore, all four of them. They were not clouds, then, but houses on the water … ”
— Paul Horgan, Great River
From a warming winter retreat in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, the greatness of El Rio begins. Yet from its first falling, it is a river under assault. Massive agricultural, industrial, and increasingly urban demands have reduced one of the world’s most mythic rivers into a meticulously engineered maze of irrigation channels, dams, and the occasional salty bog.
The river has begun to dry up with more frequency below Albuquerque, which plans to claim even more water for its taps and hoses. Only a few years ago the river stopped flowing inside the remote Big Bend National Park despite being just downstream from the merging Rio Conchos, spilling from Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountain range.
This ancient river, now an international boundary, divides Texas from Mexico and winds wildly into the Lower Rio Grande Valley. It is a far cry from what the original inhabitants knew.
The Great River is now considered one of the world’s most endangered waterways. Increasingly she doesn’t have the strength to pass beyond the sand dunes announcing the Gulf of Mexico.
But Texans may not have to watch this serpent expire from overuse. Homeland Security, empowered by the Secure Fence Act of 2006, is rushing to wall off the U.S. border with Mexico. In so doing, the River herself — and thousands of our wildest acres — stands forfeit.
Max Pons has retreated with a migraine, a product of the recent change in barometric pressure. Those tending the rows of palm shoots direct me to his house — the state’s most southerly home backing on the disappearing Rio Grande.
His family has been living and boating along the southern coast of Texas for four generations, but Pons only stumbled into this spot as a college student in 1980. Studying the creatures of this subtropical wetland environment, Pons was so smitten by the biological riches here that he settled in to work a plant nursery in the underbelly of strongly agricultural South Point.
Through the years, the once far-reaching palm forests that greeted Spanish ships five centuries ago at the river’s mouth have been reduced to 134 paltry acres pampered on private preserves like this one.
“Sabal palms made great wharf pilings,” he tells me. “They can last for hundreds of years. They don’t deteriorate.”
After The Nature Conservancy purchased the site in 1999, Pons was brought on as caretaker. However, in coming months, Homeland Security plans for a border wall cutting through numerous private landholdings — and cutting off thousands of acres from the United States proper — could evict Pons from his personal Eden.
Along with him would go the endangered palm wilderness and thick scrubland, home to numerous endangered animals like the jaguarundi and ocelot, as well as several farmers and homeowners that work the land between the International Water and Boundary Commission’s levee and the river.
I arrive here after two weeks traveling along the river, meeting with those who call its banks home. They are at turns stunned, angry, and confused by Congress’s approval of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, as well as Secretary Chertoff’s breakneck rush to seize Texas lands for 150 miles of wall.
There is just enough red in Pons complexion and just enough color in his humor to convince me of his pirate heritage. But Pons shies from speaking on the record about Homeland plans. This issue of the Wall has stilled the mouths of non-profit employees here and at the Audubon sanctuary next door, which protects about 42 acres of sabal palm forest, a wilderness that used to stretch up the river as far as Roma. With some calls up the chain, however, the fears find approved expression.
“With this border wall, and the construction of it, we’re trapped,” says Sonia Najera, South Texas program manager for the Conservancy. “We’re trapped between the river and the wall.”
Both the Conservancy and the 557-acre Audubon Society holding will fall south of what would, in effect, become the United State’s new southern boundary.
“We can’t see a way to operate our center if it goes up,” said state Audubon Executive Director Anne Brown. “I think it’s a lot for people to expect that we be able to open it and have staff in this kind of unsecured zone daily.”
Though only a smattering of birdwatchers share the Audubon trails with me today, as many as 3,000 school kids from around Brownsville, one of the country’s poorest regions, discover the wonders of the natural world each year at the Sabal Palm Audubon Center. Tourists drop another $6.9 million coming and going.
Even with a proposed special gate and key, Brown says the plan is unworkable and would put staff at risk. Pons doesn’t know whether to pack or dig in.
“There’s just so much information floating around, we don’t know what’s really going to happen and what’s not gonna happen,” Pons said. “If the preserve becomes a management issue, in which our agricultural activity has to cease, yeah, it would be an eviction.”
Still, these 1,500 acres are not the only Texas lands that would be stuffed behind a steel curtain. For decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has channeled $100-million taxpayer dollars into a string of some of the most biologically diverse wildlife areas in the nation. As many as 40,000 of the agency’s current 88,000 acres could be lost behind the Wall, I’m told.
“That’s a lot of acres to be condemning,” one Valley resident says. “It seems to me it’d be easier to take over Mexico. Manifest Destiny all over again.”
Of course, while these agencies and non-profits are fighting vigorously behind the scenes, writing letters and lobbying members of Congress, their voices fade when talk turns to lawsuits. They know their issues are but a small flame before the winds of Washington.
An environmentally based suit to stop wall construction in Arizona’s San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area only served to demonstrate Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s powers. A district judge ruled in favor of Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club last October, but a provision tucked inside the Real ID Act allowed Chertoff to waive 19 federal laws — including the Endangered Species Act — to get on with construction.
So far, in the dozens of landgrab lawsuits Homeland has brought against Texas residents, cities, and schools, only one person has had the courage to return volley by suing the Security Czar in return: El Calaboz landowner Eloisa Tamez. She has since been joined by a neighbor, won a small victory in federal court, and become a symbol of indigenous and Texan resistance to the Wall.
Entering El Calaboz
As a child, Eloisa fought the power of lightning.
As the oldest child in her family, her grandmother sought her out whenever dark storms approached. Muttering prayers, the elder would place a knife in the child’s hands and cut crosses against the sky. Enduring the rinches — the borderland name given to Texas Rangers and Border Patrol agents of the period — was another matter. When they stomped through the family grocery and on through the house, the young Eloisa and her sister would reflexively dive beneath the bed.
“They just assumed that everybody here was hiding illegals. They would go right through houses. We’d hide. We were afraid.”
Still she grew in confidence, fighting San Benito School District when the superintendent decided to ship El Calaboz pupils elsewhere. As a high-school sophomore she organized students and spoke out at public hearings.
“Child, why are you speaking out like that? Don’t you know you have no say-so?” an Anglo woman confronted her at one such hearing.
“I’m speaking out because my parents said I could,” she remembers replying.
“Well, don’t you know you don’t need high school? Most of you people don’t finish high school anyway.”
Today, Eloisa holds a doctorate in health education and is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College.
“I did see that as a wrong. How could one person go and make a decision like that?” she tells me. “Just like this, by golly, I’m not going to sit back.”
Before reaching El Calaboz, I stop in on a gallery owner in downtown Brownsville whose iron balcony overlooks the river. Mark Clark gave up Smithsonian employment and Washingon, D.C., residency when the city’s security adjustments post-9/11 made life there unbearable. (“You stop anywhere on a bicycle and you have a guy with a Glock on top of you,” says Clark of White House policing.) He says the Wall is the one issue these days he would be happy to go to jail fighting.
Fortunately, for now, there are only a few surveyor’s stakes to prostrate before. The heavy equipment has yet to arrive. Eloisa’s suit can take some credit for that.
Two weeks ago, the condemnation suit brought against Tamez for denying Homeland Security access to her land hit a snag. Federal District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville agreed with Tamez that “negotiations are a prerequisite to the exercise of the power of eminent domain.” Chertoff failed to present evidence his agency ever tried to negotiate with the professor before going to court, the judge said while once more denying Homeland’s request for an expedited order condemning her land. However, should the sides not reach an agreement, Hanen did not agree that a jury trial was in order. At that point, an appeal may be necessary, said Peter Schey, executive director for the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and Tamez’s attorney.
“If it delays it until `Chertoff’s` out of office and others can look at this wall business more seriously and the advisability of it, then so be it,” Schey said. “I think by next January officials will be looking at this whole wall project through a new lens.”
Motions brought by Schey requesting a preliminary injunction and class-action certification have yet to be heard.
Eloisa unlocks two modest gates, and I follow her up onto the levee behind the family’s pair of small, white houses. It’s dusk when we survey what’s left of her lineage’s portion of an estimated 12,000-acre Spanish Land Grant pre-dating the break of the Colonists from Britain.
There are only a handful of acres here now.
“The reason this land is precious to me is I saw my father and my grandfather, I remember as a child how hard they worked to get one crop, to give fruit for us to live on,” she says. “As I think back now, especially under threat of losing this land, my memories have a lot of meaning for me. It’s not something I’m willing to give up just on a whim.”
She tells me about the tongue-lashing she gave the Border Patrol agent who stopped her here a few days ago to ask what she was doing. “Oh, here he is,” she says as a vehicle approaches. This time the officer nods meekly and passes on. Clearly she made her point the last round.
“If they want it, they need to pay for it,” Eloisa says of her remaining three acres. “But if they do pay for it, they need to go all the way back to 1936.”
Like river residents in numerous Valley communities, the generational loss of land-grant property has been obscured over time. And no one in her family remembers receiving compensation for the federal levees that divided their land in the ’30s and reduced the Rio Grande’s length with intensive engineering work.
Tamez, a product of Lipan Apache and Basque descent, worries about the social consequences of further dividing the people of the river.
“This is an indigenous culture that has been here for generations,” she said. “It seems to me this is going to become a war zone. We are going to be chased away. We’re going to become extinct.”
Goodbye to El Rio
The next day, I’m paddling the river, talking about the weeks I’ve spent enjoying the hospitality of strangers, enjoying the subtle and overt beauty of this river and its people, when I’m cut off mid-sentence.
“I’m picking him up over there,” bellows a National Public Radio producer in a canoe some 50 yards distant with a nod in my direction. The photographer places a finger across her lips for the third time in an hour.
“She’s trying to record the goats,” another cautions.
I hear the dull clank of a goat bell on the Mexican bank. The intrepid scouts are pointing elongated microphones at everything that moves: goats, children, birds. They gather near the shore of Ciudad Alemán to spend 10 minutes talking with locals washing their cars at the river under Border Patrol scrutiny.
I haven’t been the most popular participant on this two-hour float. The muzzling, however, has given me time to reflect on these last few days, on the meaning of these vast stretches of river being pressed beneath a wall, what it will change beyond minor shifts in migration and the corresponding policing efforts to adapt to those shifts. I listen to the water and watch the Great Kiskadees and Ringed Kingfishers.
What is the experience of the river worth?
In Rio Grande City, the local peyotero, who gathers, dries, and sells the “divine cactus” to tribal members, wonders if he’ll still be able to reach his favorite fishing spot. I haven’t the heart to tell him that the entire stretch of river here will be locked behind 15- to 18-foot fencing.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Outreach Specialist
Nancy Brown says that it is still unclear how much of the federal-refuge tracks running up and down the river in the Lower Rio Grande Valley will be fenced off, but she estimates that as much as 70 percent of those 88,000 acres will be impacted in some way. Considering only 5 percent of original habitat for native wildlife remains in the Valley, even the 500 acres of brush Homeland Security says will be removed is a blow.
“One of our core missions is restoring that brushland habitat,” Brown says. “I can tell you that it took thousands of volunteers over 10 years to restore 500 acres. So that’s 10 years of work that is gone.”
Others take issue with the hit-and-run-style impact statement that Homeland’s contractors released.
“The `Environmental Impact Statement` specifically states they did not have time to do a hydrological study,” says the Nature Conservancy’s Najera. “They come to these conclusions that habitat will be protected north of the border wall, but there is no data — nothing, absolutely nothing — to support that. They come to these conclusions that there will be minimal impact to wildlife or to watershed issues, but there is no data to support that. It’s just a rosy picture.”
Lately, Border Patrol agents have been telling wildlife sanctuaries in Cameron County that the International Water and Boundary Commission doesn’t want any more restoration work being done between the levee and the river. When I try to track down the order, folks at the IWBC say they don’t know where “the rumor” came from, that no order of the kind has been issued. Border Patrol flacks route me up the chain to Washington, D.C., where my calls are ignored.
In the last few weeks, Pons says he has encountered two jaguarundis on the Conservancy tract. The palm forests and Tamaulipan brushland offer premier habitat for ocelots, too, though he’s never seen one. Fewer than 50 of the cats are believed to remain in the nation — all in fragmented pockets of Valley wilderness such as this.
“There’s just an enormous number of Neotropical birds that come through this area. We have what we call the Margarita snake — the Speckled racer — and the Black-striped snake, chachalacas, Kiskadees, Sandhill Cranes, Black-spotted Newt, the Rio Grande Lesser Siren.”
Efforts to catch the ocelot on camera are foiled time and again, even though Pons masks his odor by spraying fox scent around the camera and tripwire.
“I think they can smell me,” he says.
When I came to the river I came with an urban residue that desaturated my dreams. At night, I circled, lost in gray networks of colorless streets. But my first night in the Valley I am greeted with scenes of explosive color. Skies filled with trailing feathers and light. Something obviously has clicked.
So what is the river worth — even one as degraded and strained as this Rio Grande? What about a reliable fishing hole? Or a reclusive wildcat? None of these answers will come if we allow ourselves to be cut off from this ancient pathway, El Rio.
“You can’t restore a river as long as people have no connection and no relationship to it,” says John Horning, the executive director of WildEarth Guardians, a longtime player in the fight to protect the river’s headwaters region. “I actually think where the border wall is going to be yards, tens, hundreds of yards distant from the river, its primary impact won’t be ecological, but it will be more cultural and social. What happens in that dark zone that no one penetrates the public won’t care about.
“To actually create physical barriers … is essentially the final nail in the coffin of a river that’s struggling to stay alive.” •
Follow Greg’s travels and conversations on his border blog, view video clips, join the debate on U.S. border policy, and meet more of the people whose lives are directly impacted by the Wall.
Online @ murodelodio.com