FRONTON, TEXAS - Betty Perez and John Odgers typically don't share the same canoe -- or much else.
He's a former banker turned Minuteman whose post-retirement pursuits include tracking illegal immigrants and packing heat.
But Perez and Odgers do have one thing in common: a deep love for the majestic winged creatures that live along the wild banks of the Rio Grande.
The federal government's plan to fence off more than 300 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border is fostering strange political bedfellows here in South Texas.
Few dispute that the same reedy riverbanks beloved by critters are also prime habitat for drug runners and human smugglers. Now an unusual assortment of interest groups -- not just the usual tree-huggers, but also civic and business leaders worried about eco-tourism dollars -- have begun voicing alarm over the environmental costs of a boundary that many South Texans consider a hopeless boondoggle.
So it was a sign of the times when Perez and Odgers happily floated down the river together, eager to show off a nature lover's paradise they fear will be forever lost beyond 16-foot-high walls.
"This is all going to be behind the fence," Perez, 55, lamented as she paddled along an unspoiled stretch, pointing out exotic birds and stocky palm trees that exist nowhere else in the country. "Soon, I guess I'm going to have to bring my papers to come down here."
Odgers, 68, a noted local birding guide, sat without a paddle at the bow, barking out the names of the fauna swooping by -- "Groove-billed ani to the left!" -- while a reporter scribbled notes and a fatiguing Perez muttered about lazy men.
It was tranquil, save for the distant hum of a Mexican highway, and aside from the suspicious sight of a skiff sitting untended on the Mexican side, there was no illegal activity in sight. For four hours, until the canoe made shore below the bluffs of the 330-year-old town of Roma, there also was not a single Border Patrol agent in sight.
The lush, meandering lower leg of the Rio Grande is one of the most biologically diverse places in North America. More than 300 varieties of butterflies and half the bird species in the United States can be spotted here. So can two endangered species of wild cats: the ocelot, which resembles a miniature leopard, and the jaguarundi, an otter-faced relative of the puma.
Over the last 30 years, ranchers, conservationists, and state and federal officials have strung together a delicate necklace of nature sanctuaries along the river's final 275 miles. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service alone has invested more than $100 million to buy land and restore it to its native state, creating a riverside corridor called the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Now the new federal directive to build 21 fence segments here threatens to trample the lands the government and private groups spent decades nurturing. A Fish and Wildlife analysis found that up to 75% of the nature corridor could be harmed, for just 70 miles of fence.
"In this little area, you will find more species in four counties than in all but three entire states," said Martin Hagne, executive director of the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco, a vacant lot that was transformed into an educational park filled with malachite and pixie butterflies, Texas tortoises and cottontail rabbits.
"Now they're going to spend billions of dollars to undo the work that cost millions of dollars. These are your tax dollars at work," he said.
Over the last years, business leaders and city officials have spent millions turning South Texas into a lucrative eco-tourism attraction. More than 125,000 people visit the Rio Grande Valley every year to see fields of butterflies hovering above nectar plants and to watch flocks of birds descend on the river and the resacas, lakes formed when the serpentine stream shifts course.
The Rio Grande sits in some of the continent's biggest migratory bird corridors, and listers, or bird aficionados who aim to watch every species in the country, know that South Texas is the only place to scratch off the names of many birds native to Central America (seeing them south of the border doesn't count).
The visitors sustain 2,000 jobs and pump $125 million a year into the economy, according to the visitors bureau in McAllen.
Cities have built riverside viewing centers to cater to the tourists -- civic investments that could soon go bust. Early blueprints of the fence indicate that several sites, including the Old Hidalgo Pump House and the World Birding Center, could be blocked from the river.
"It's a major economic part of our community," said Kay Wolf, director of the pump house, which carried water to the Rio Grande Valley in 1909 and was converted into an attraction with more than $1 million in government funding. "And officially, we haven't heard anything. We learned about this when we saw something in the newspaper."
Such complaints are fueling anger and resentment in a region where many already think that the border fence is an insult to their Mexican neighbors. Many South Texans believe that the proposed locations, which cut across farmers' fields and through parks, confirm that the Department of Homeland Security has little regard for the towns and landowners in its path.
There are even attitudes of defiance: Brownsville Mayor Patricio Ahumada declared this month that he would not allow federal surveyors access to city property.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is urging calm, saying that the Texas fence locations remain under discussion. He has pledged to conduct a thorough environmental review of the fence plans -- but also warned that he has the authority to ignore the results. Congress has allowed Chertoff to waive environmental rules in the interest of national security, a card he has played to fast-track fencing in California and Arizona.
"This wall is used to keep out potential terrorists as well as illegal immigrants," said Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Keehner. "The secretary reserves the right to use the power Congress has given him if it is necessary to protect our borders."
Chertoff has said that a fence would be good for the environment because border crossers often leave litter that despoils nature. The remark floored conservationists, who noted that the fence plans call for clearing a 60-foot-wide corridor, which would denude the thicket of trees and brush where birds and wild cats live.
"There's no comparing a little trash to a fence 16 feet high and 3 feet into the ground," said Nancy Brown, outreach coordinator for the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, a preserve of Texas ebony and Rio Grande ash trees.
As Brown toured an adjacent plot called Monterrey Banco, an area that Fish and Wildlife officials spent decades restoring and that was set to be blocked off by fencing, a group of men and boys suddenly floated by in the river below. It was 8 in the morning. They did not make a move for the U.S., but their presence was suspicious, and Border Patrol agents soon showed up.
Ocelots were once found as far north as Louisiana and Arkansas. Now there are fewer than 100 left in the country, mostly in nature preserves near Brownsville that are linked by dwindling migration corridors. The wild cats are often killed crossing roads as they search for mates. Attempts by Texas officials to build tunnels for ocelots' passage have largely failed.
"The wall will totally disrupt that further. I've seen nothing to suggest it will be wildlife friendly," said Sonia Najera, a wildlife biologist with the Nature Conservancy.
As she toured the Southmost Preserve, a 1,034-acre citrus farm near Brownsville that the group is converting into a sanctuary, Najera pointed out in the dirt the faint footprints of a feline.
"We don't deny that there's illegal traffic here," she said. "But if they put a wall to the north of us, which is the plan, this is going to become a staging area for traffickers, and this corridor is going to close down. Each link in the chain is already under so much stress."
© 2007 The Los Angeles Times