A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle patrols at a border fence along the a South Texas border in Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande Valley. More border wall construction is set to begin next month. File Photo by Donna Burton/U.S. Customs and Border Patrol
MEXICO CITY, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- The $463 million-a-year ecotourism industry in South Texas -- a top birding destination -- is bracing for the arrival of border wall construction crews in mid-February.
The workers are set to begin bulldozing a swath of land 150 feet wide to construct 33 miles of wall near the Mexico border in Texas' Hidalgo and Starr counties. The work was funded last year to supplement the existing 22 miles of wall in Hidalgo County.
Ecotourism thrives in South Texas because of a unique subtropical ecosystem called the Tamaulipan thornscrub forest, and the wall construction poses a significant threat, environmentalists say.
"It is the most diverse habitat in the entire country," said Tiffany Kersten, a biologist and a board member of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a nonprofit group established to support the Santa Ana and Lower Rio Grande Valley national wildlife refuges, both of which are owned and run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The organization opposes the wall's construction as a threat to the group's mission of supporting the national wildlife refuges and their "protection of native and migratory wildlife species that depend on the native habitat."
This threatened habitat sustains more than 1,100 plant species and 700 vertebrate species (including more than 500 bird species), at least 18 of which are listed as federally threatened and endangered, according to the Tucson, Ariz.-based nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.
Along with the national wildlife refuges, the region is home to the National Butterfly Center and several state and county parks, all of which bring in tourists. Only Santa Ana will be spared the effects of construction.
More than 6,000 jobs depend on the nature tourism industry in South Texas, according to the most recent study by Texas A&M University in 2011.
Aislynn Maestas, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency will work with Customs and Border Protection to minimize the impact to natural resources.
To build this section of the border wall, the U.S. government has suspended 28 environmental protection laws, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, using an obscure section of the Real ID Act of 2005, which allows the homeland security secretary to suspend any law to facilitate building border barriers.
A green ribbon running beside the Rio Grande River marks the remaining 5 percent of the original riparian forest habitat. The other 95 percent has been degraded or destroyed over the past century through agricultural, residential and commercial development.
Bulldozing what remains for the wall and its 150 feet "enforcement zone" threatens the survival of endangered animals like mountain lions, or ocelots, of which only 70 survive in the United States, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. The organization has joined 31 other groups to oppose construction of the border wall in South Texas.
The habitat also sustains the most diverse insect population in the country, Kersten said. In turn, the insects and the habitat attract hundreds of migratory bird species because, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is where the Central and Mississippi flyways converge.
The unique habitat helps make Texas the nation's top birding destination.
"More than half of the bird species seen in the United States have been sighted in the Rio Grande Valley," said Kersten, a biologist who moved to the valley more than five years ago because of its opportunities for birding. She has been a bird watcher since age 12.
The wall will be built up to two miles from the international boundary, which is the river, along or near existing flood-protection levees. No-man's land will be the walled off area between the levees and the river. It's a stretch of land in the United States but blocked by the wall, restricting access to the trails frequented by birdwatchers.
"At Bentsen State Park, the wall would slice the visitor's center off from the trail system. At the Hidalgo Pump House, where a border wall was built in 2008, the visitor's center was divided from the trails. At the National Butterfly Center, this is what's going to happen, too," Kersten said.
According to a 2010 study by the National Recreation and Park Association, Bentsen State Park attracts 45,000 visitors a year, with 40 percent of them considered "non-local." These out-of-town visitors spent almost $46 per day, totaling more than $835,000 per year contributed to the local economy.
Environmental activists, like Scott Nicol, borderlands campaigner for the Sierra Club, worry that the environmental impact of the border wall will hurt the local economy.
Nicol said that when the Bentsen family deeded the property to the state of Texas in the 1940s, it did so with the proviso that if public access to the land is denied, ownership would revert to them.
South Texas's population can little afford to lose valuable tourist dollars. The average incomes in Starr and Hidalgo counties are some of Texas' lowest, between $11,659 and $13,480 per capita.
The region's outstanding natural beauty is a strong draw for out-of-town tourists, including seasonal Texans, Nicol said.
"Our climate brings people in for the winter, too," he said. Winter Texans choose to come to the Rio Grande Valley because, while they are here, they can go birdwatching. If the places they would go to like Bentsen State Park and the World Birding Center or the National Butterfly Center are walled off, they aren't going to come down. They can go elsewhere."