South Texas Butterfly Sanctuary Threatened By Trump's Border Wall

Dec 3, 2018
Originally published on December 3, 2018 7:58 pm
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President Trump is pushing for more money to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. The debate could come to a head as Congress nears a deadline to fund parts of the government. Some sections of the border already have a wall. And in many areas, building more wall means cutting through private property. In South Texas, NPR's Cristina Cala and Sam Gringlas visited a place where that conflict is already playing out.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: We're just looking at dozens and dozens of these red and black butterflies.

CHRISTINA CALA, BYLINE: Like a cloud of butterflies - just one right after the other.

GRINGLAS: The National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, hugs the banks of the Rio Grande River. It has a visitor center, hiking trails, gardens - all on 100 acres of land at the end of a long dirt road.

MARIANNA TREVINO-WRIGHT: These are queens. And this one right here is a soldier...

CALA: That's Marianna Trevino-Wright, executive director of the sanctuary. She says this part of the Rio Grande Valley has more butterfly species than anywhere in North America.

TREVINO-WRIGHT: Every day I come to work, it's like going on a safari.

GRINGLAS: Right before the midterm elections, the Trump administration announced it had awarded contracts to build six miles of border wall in Hidalgo County, Texas. It will be one of the first new stretches of wall built under President Trump. Trevino-Wright says the wall will be constructed up to a mile back from the river, basically cutting the butterfly sanctuary in half.

TREVINO-WRIGHT: So this is it.

GRINGLAS: So all this land in between here, the river and where we started out by the levee, that's going to maybe be closed off to you.

TREVINO-WRIGHT: It's going to be a no man's land. It's going to be border patrols' enforcement zone. They will clear everything. One agent told me, why would we leave even one bush for someone to hide under?

GRINGLAS: Customs and Border Protection denies that it plans to completely clear-cut the land. It also says that property owners who need access to the land between the river and the wall can have it.

CALA: The Butterfly Center doesn't have a lot of options to stop the law. The federal government can claim private lands for public use through a legal process called eminent domain. The government has used eminent domain many times before to build other stretches of the border while under previous administrations. Trevino-Wright gets that. But she was shocked when last year she found workmen wielding chainsaws, cutting down trees and mowing down brush to survey the land.

TREVINO-WRIGHT: Imagine going home to your house one day and finding people cutting down your trees, knocking down your fence and destroying your yard.

GRINGLAS: Trevino-Wright says that's really the crux of her complaint.

TREVINO-WRIGHT: It's not really about the butterflies. The birds and the butterflies can fly over the wall. The issue is the seizure of private property. The issue is the violation of due process. Those are the real issues.

GRINGLAS: So the Butterfly Center sued. The lawsuit claims those workers illegally entered the sanctuary and destroyed property. And here's the important part. Trevino-Wright says that clear-cutting happened before Congress approved funding for wall construction.

CALA: Legal experts say the federal government has a lot of leeway when it comes to eminent domain. Attorney Alan Ackerman, an expert on eminent domain, says the government does have to meet one really important requirement before taking private land.

ALAN ACKERMAN: The federal government has tremendous discretion, but that discretion is only based upon approval from the legislative body. And once the federal government has the discretion, it's pretty hard to beat them.

CALA: In other words, Congress has to fund the project before work can get underway. The funding eventually did come through.

GRINGLAS: The government has filed a motion to dismiss the suit. CBP declined to comment on the case since the litigation is ongoing. Trevino-Wright said she understands construction will probably move forward anyway. Still, there's a lot of open questions. Like, how much of their land will get clear-cut?

CALA: How much money will the government pay out in compensation?

GRINGLAS: And how long will that process take?

CALA: And the big question - can the Butterfly Center even stay open after all that?

TREVINO-WRIGHT: I mean, we have long-term plans for this place. We're not going to just pack up and abandon that.

GRINGLAS: Come February, workers will start construction on a wall in Hidalgo County. Whether a barrier will eventually stretch the entire U.S.-Mexico border, that deal is far from done. I'm Sam Gringlas.

CALA: And I'm Christina Cala, NPR News, Mission, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.