As U.S. Customs and Border Protection moves forward on plans to build nearly 90 miles of new border fence in the Rio Grande Valley, construction is already underway on what will be dozens of large border wall gates that some fear will hinder the public’s access to wildlife preserves and the migration of threatened and endangered species.
In December, the agency awarded a gate construction contract worth up to nearly $6 million to a San Antonio company whose owner has deep ties to Austin and is a former Democratic political candidate.
The contract calls for the construction of seven gates in Cameron County and comes with an option to build an additional four. In 2017, Congress approved funding for 35 gates in the Rio Grande Valley to plug gaps in existing fencing, often at roads or entrances to wildlife refuges, agricultural land or private property. During the last round of border fence construction a decade ago, property owners living or working south of the fence were given access codes to allow them to open the gates.
Border Patrol officials said the seven gates will be built in Brownsville, El Ranchito, Los Indios, Rangerville and Santa Maria. One of the most eastern locations will be at the entrance to the 1,014-acre Southmost Preserve in Brownsville, which the Nature Conservancy calls the “Jewel of the Rio Grande Valley.”
“(M)any would argue that Southmost Preserve is one of the most ecologically important pieces of land remaining in the Valley,” says the conservancy, which has operated the preserve since 1999, on its website.
The preserve is home to one of the few remaining stands of native sabal palm trees in the U.S., endangered and threatened species like the southern yellow bat, the Texas tortoise and the black-spotted newt, as well as nurseries where wildlife scientists study about 30 varieties of native plants. Universities also regularly conduct research at the preserve, said program manager Sonia Najera.
Najera said she is unsure what the impact will be on operations, especially for visiting researchers. “Right now we come and go as needed,” she said. “Absolutely we are worried about access.”
She said she’s been told that staffers would be getting training on using access codes and that Customs and Border Protection would consider the possibility of leaving the gate open during business hours. “If we have limited access, that could limit researchers onto our preserve.”
Border Patrol officials told the American-Statesman this week that the agency will work “with all landowners including those with public access to be able to accommodate the ease of accessibility. Gates can be left open during business hours or any other timeframe at the landowners request.”
The first batch of border wall gates are expected to be completed by this fall, when construction on the remaining 28 gates are scheduled to begin, Border Patrol officials said. Construction timeline is approximately one year, they said.
The issue of gate access is likely to grow as more gates and fencing are built in the Rio Grande Valley.
Some wall opponents point to the experience of the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, a museum and birding center where a nearly-always shuttered Border Patrol gate blocks entry to miles of public birding trails.
Hidalgo County officials did not respond to requests for comment, but in 2017 former pumphouse director Andres Flores told the American-Statesman: “We would love to have that access, but we don’t. I believe it’s very, very rich in terms of not just birds, but all the natural species you can find there.”
For years, the trails were known as a premier spot to find pygmy owls and tropical kingfishers, and according to one nature blog, it “is absolutely the best location in the entire Lower Rio Grande Valley to see Groove-billed Anis,” which the Audubon Society describes as an “ungainly” but sociable tropical cuckoo.
As with border fence construction, the Department of Homeland Security has waived dozens of environmental and other laws to allow for “expeditious” construction of the gates. Critics say the gates will further restrict the movements of migratory animals that pass through the Rio Grande Valley.
“Gates will close off openings that a terrestrial animal could use to pass from one side of the border wall to the other, and some of the planned gates will be in walls that bisect national wildlife refuge lands,” said Scott Nicol, co-chairman of the Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign. “A gated border wall in a wildlife refuge is one more nail in the ocelot’s coffin.”
In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates a string of wildlife refuges along the Rio Grande, called for the removal of parts of the existing fence to help the endangered ocelot move from its two known groups north of Brownsville to Mexico, where officials hope the wildcat can mate with Mexican ocelots and increase its genetic diversity. But some researchers say it has been many decades since ocelots crossed the border and mated.
“Modification or removal of existing border infrastructure would create greater connectivity for endangered cats and other wildlife between Mexico and the U.S.” officials wrote in their 2016 ocelot recovery plan, which also recommends securing the border with “alternative methods” such as drones, camera towers and motion sensors.
But some local law enforcement officials in the Rio Grande Valley welcome the gates. In the tiny town of Los Indios, where there are five gaps in six miles of border fencing built a decade ago, Mayor Rick Cavazos said filling those holes will increase safety.
“Smugglers exploit those gaps, obviously,” said Cavazos, a 24-year Border Patrol veteran. “Closing those gaps will result in smugglers and criminal aliens looking for other places to cross. Once they are installed , it will be a pretty secure segment here. It makes sense for them to go somewhere else.
Cavazos said that in recent months there have been at least two large marijuana seizures at the gaps in his city. “The end result means it will be a safer community.”
The mayor said he worried about the future of a series of environmentally and culturally sensitive sites, including La Lomita chapel and the National Butterfly Center in Mission, that have been exempted, at least temporarily, from fence construction by Congress. Because much of the rest of surrounding Rio Grande Valley riverfront is slated to get nearly 90 miles of new fencing, the resulting gaps at those sites will prove enticing for smugglers, he worries.
“I can almost guarantee there’s is going to be a lot more traffic going though there, more Border Patrol agents and vehicles than they are used to seeing,” Cavazos said. “(Smugglers) will tend to gravitate toward those gaps.”
Gideon Contracting of San Antonio began construction on the new round of gates in November, according to a Border Patrol news release. The firm, a self-described “small badass construction company,” is headed by former Austin political candidate Jade Chang Sheppard.
Running as a Democrat in 2013, Chang Sheppard made an unsuccessful bid for the Texas House District 50 seat vacated by Mark Strama. A year later, she lost a bid for the Austin Community College Board of Trustees, a race in which she was endorsed by the American-Statesman.
Chang Sheppard, who said she was prohibited from discussing her firm’s border gate contract, moved to the U.S. with her family from Taiwan when she was 2 years old and attended the University of Texas.
In a 2016 interview with Asian Austin, Chang Sheppard described starting Gideon with “nothing but loans and a strong work ethic” before turning it into multi-million dollar company.
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