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Slicing a Corridor in Two: A Report from Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

One score and 15 years ago, Ansel Adams, one of our nation’s greatest artists and advocates for wildlands conservation, said, “It is horrifying that we have to fight our own Government to save our environment.” Nearly 40 years later, a man with similar experience quoted those same words as he stood beside the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge entrance. It was January 27, 2018, and Geoffrey Haskett was speaking at the Save Santa Ana Rally near Alamo, Texas, organized by La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), the county Democratic Party, and the the Lower Rio Grande Valley Chapter of the Sierra Club and numerous other sponsors.

A man wears a large jaguar costume with a big papier-mâché head. Two men stand on either side of him against a background of green trees.
L to R: Paolo Lopes and Laiken Jordahl with Center for Biological Diversity, along with Myles Traphagen parade the jaguar/ocelot. Photo: Myles Traphagen

A former regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who was tasked with protecting the Santa Ana NWR, Haskett attended the rally to speak out against a proposed plan to build the first 3 miles of border wall along the southern U.S. border, right through the refuge. How could it be that Haskett’s first return to the refuge in 10 years was to defend the crown jewel of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Refuge System against the government he once worked for? Before Haskett spoke, the Congressman for the district, Filemon Vela (D-TX), brought up a very cogent and common sense point: “They built a wall back in 2006, and now they’re asking for funds to rebuild it. You can see how that worked out.”

This map shows green and red lines along the U.S.-Mexico border, outlining the proposed location for the border wall.
This map shows how the proposed wall would bisect the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Not much land in Texas is publicly owned.  A good portion of the 2% of land that exists in conservation status along the Rio Grande happens to be at Santa Ana NWR and a few other parcels that make up the Lower Rio Grande Valley Refuge Complex. The Trump administration’s current plan is to build a border wall through the heart of Santa Ana, blading a swath of earth and native Tamaulipan forest 150 feet on both sides of the wall in order to achieve “operational control.

To a Manhattan real estate developer who’s never set foot on the refuge, the fact that about 400+ birds call the refuge home doesn’t mean much.  The fact that the endangered ocelot, which depends upon refuges like Santa Ana to maintain a connected corridor to its breeding grounds to the east at Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, bears even less consideration. With the word ‘Manhattan’ flying around my head, I couldn’t help but think about the potential destruction of this place in the words that Robert Oppenheimer uttered on July 16, 1945 after witnessing the detonation of the first nuclear device. “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Ironically, Oppenheimer spoke those words less than two years after the establishment of the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge while working on the Manhattan Project.

Cross-Border Culture Runs Deep

This closeup of a palm tree shows green fronds against a blue sky dotted with white clouds.
A palm tree at Santa Ana. Photo: Myles Traphagen

The threat to Santa Ana and its local residents is very real, affecting all taxa. The refuge is not only home to hundreds of unique plants and animals—like the indigo snake, Sabal palm, green jay, chachalaca, pauraque, countless numbers of butterflies, giant Texas ebony trees with Spanish moss that dangles off them like icicle tinsel on a Christmas tree—it’s also the home of many ancestral family memories that span across both banks of the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo on the Mexico side). Wildlands Network’s own Katy Schaffer, who hails from nearby McAllen, Texas, shared her experiences with her father at Santa Ana in a blog post last year. These feelings run deep.

At the rally, numerous local poets and activists of all ages and backgrounds told their stories, at times bringing the crowd of 600 activists to tears. One such moment was when Stevie Luna-Rodriguez, a young poet from Edinburg, Texas, spoke of the beauty of butterflies, which flutter through the refuge during their annual migration south toward Mexico. (The National Butterfly Center, which lies just up the river, is also under threat by a border wall.)

“They call our babies dreamers, as if they’ll never achieve it. And they call us immigrants like we should be ashamed to be butterflies. Have you ever met a butterfly that stopped its path for a badge? Have you ever looked at a butterfly and felt anything but pride for its color and composure? And do you know that their path is ingrained into them?”

In the borderlands, there is an expression that has become almost cliché, but it’s as real as rain when you’re a member of that culture: “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.” One couldn’t help but feel that sentiment at the rally, listening to the people tell their totally exposed, raw life stories about being a “mixed DACA family,” which usually went something like this: “I’m a U.S. citizen, but my two sisters are DACA, and my dad is a U.S. citizen but my mom is a Mexican citizen with permanent residency, but she’ll have to go back to Mexico if my sisters get deported.”

“We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.”

The political buzzword that Trump uses—“ending chain migration”—is code for ripping families apart. However, many families along the border have lineages that predate the first United States and Mexico Boundary Survey, which established the two countries’ limits following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Seven years later the Gadsden Purchase would push the U.S. border even further south, merging the residents of southern New Mexico and Arizona even further into U.S. territory.

Exploring the Refuge’s Unique Beauty

Immediately after the rally, I joined a tour through the refuge, led by a naturalist from Oregon who had been visiting Santa Ana as a volunteer for 13 years. After staying with the tour group for half an hour, I decided to heed one of my 10 life rules: Leave the big group if you want to see the wildlife. I walked almost every trail in the refuge. It didn’t take long, perhaps 3 or 4 hours, to walk the 2,000 acres that comprise Santa Ana. During my short walk, I picked up 5 life list species. (For non-birders, a life list is something that a birder keeps to tally their own personal assessment of avian bio diversity.) The green jay, chachalaca,  great kiskadee, Carolina wren, and pauraque graced my life list in a matter of four hours. A bird an hour. I’ll take it.

But Santa Ana is not at all pristine. It is surrounded by a monoculture of mostly agro-industry farm fields and a growing urban sprawl. Twenty-one plant and animal species in this area are threatened or endangered. In 2010, Hurricane Alex inflicted a six-month flood upon the refuge. During this period of extended inundation, large old trees like Texas ebony languished under floodwaters and died over the ensuing flood months. This area of the Tamaulipan mezquital (thornscrub) is accustomed to periodic flood and drought cycles, but the prolonged period of flood took its toll. As a result, many trees died, along with hundreds of other creatures, like the Texas tortoise, the shells of which were found lodged in border security infrastructure built after the Real ID Act of 2005.

Thin tree branches reach out against a blue sky with no clouds.
Sparse Spanish moss at Santa Ana. Photo: Myles Traphagen

As a result of the die off of large trees, long throngs of Spanish moss and the wonderfully playful epiphytes that hang on the branches in the moist, shady dells now exist in much sparser and drier conditions. They are not gone, but are now a fraction of their former grandeur. Climate change undoubtedly now exposes these sensitive air plants to increased sunlight and warmer temperatures, and the drier conditions now place these unique species at risk at Santa Ana.

As I observed the scarcity of large native trees, along with the desiccated-looking epiphytes, it occurred to me that Santa Ana may have low resistance to future ecological disturbance.

While “resiliency” is often the buzzword used in ecology to describe an ecological system and its ability to return to its defined state after a significant disturbance, I realized that, for Santa Ana, resistance was more appropriate than resilience.

Resilience implies that something can rebound to its original state, regardless of the conditions that caused its change, as if a divine force propels it to express its innate, original form. Does resilience exist in nature? Perhaps not. But resistance to disturbance is measurable, and finding those thresholds is attainable. If an ecological system is relatively intact, it is more likely to be able to resist the conditions that would force it to morph into another system or state.

Creating Sound Policy Based on Science

With my 5 new life list birds on my list, I walked down to the Rio Grande. I expected to see human trails, remnants of eroded backpacks and cans of Underwood deviled ham and tuna fish scattered on the borderline of the river. But I didn’t. The landscape was utterly clean.

A river sparkles between two scrubby banks with a blue sky above.
The Rio Grande River as seen from the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Myles Traphagen

When I first began my career working along the border for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Arizona in 1996, it was common to see cross-border traffic. And this is what I expected to see at Santa Ana after a year of being primed by a constant onslaught of politically motivated propaganda that described the Lower Rio Grande Valley like a scene from Lord of the Rings, with armies of Orcs pouring across the border, intent on taking our jobs and destroying the environment. But I saw nothing of the sort. I saw green jays, Carolina wrens and Sabal palms.

A lot has changed over the last two decades. The reality is that illegal immigration rates along the U.S.-Mexico border are at their lowest levels in over 40 years, and since 2000, the rate has declined precipitously. In fact, in 2017, Customs and Border Patrol recorded the lowest level of illegal cross-border migration on record. Are we governing and creating sound policy based upon science and data? Absolutely not. Instead, we are throwing a century of environmental and cultural preservation legacy and law under the bus because of a well propagated lie that has been promulgated to the American public by Donald Trump. The fact that two unrelated former USFWS employees wandered way out of their home ranges to journey to south Texas to “fight our own Government to save our environment” is telling.

Whether one is a jaguar, Mexican wolf, monarch butterfly or Homo sapien, the story for tens of millennia has been the same: we’re all seeking refuge from one changing ecological, economic or social system to another. The only constant is change, and the rate in which conditions are changing on Earth is becoming more rapid and extreme, so let’s figure out how to deal with it in a humane and decent way by using the best available science and policy possible. Slicing Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in two hardly seems like the best way to go about solving the problem.

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