SAN FRANCISCO - Retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major Judy Ackerman loves Rio Bosque Wetlands Park, a 372-acre wildlife sanctuary on the banks of the Rio Grande River where El Paso, Texas meets Juarez, Mexico.
"It's a really wonderful place," Ackerman told OneWorld. "There are coyotes, and beavers, and frogs and so many wonderful migratory birds."
A member of Friends of Rio Bosque, Ackerman is organizing a tour of the
park Nov. 15. She says it may be the last chance for visitors to see El
Paso's largest park before the Department of Homeland Security's border fence walls off the Rio Grande River and changes it forever.
"There's the whole concept of desert life here," she said. "Here in the
desert water equals life and unfortunately, once the border wall goes
through all the animals will be cut off from the river. It's pretty
disastrous and environmentally destructive."
The construction of the fence is mandated under the Secure Fence Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006 as a way of curtailing illegal immigration. As senators, both presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, voted for the Act.
On the campaign trail, McCain has said
"we need a lot more fencing," while Obama has distanced himself from
the vote, saying, while "there may be areas where it makes sense to
have some fencing...for the most part, having Border Patrol, surveillance, deploying effective technology -- that's going to be the better approach."
The U.S. Congressional Research Service
estimates the fencing could cost as much as $49 billion to build and
maintain. The cost may go even higher if private landowners along the
border fight for expensive buyouts.
The Department of Homeland Security
is currently walling off a three-mile section of border to the
immediate east of the Park. Park manager John Sproul expects the
bulldozers to start humming at Rio Bosque "any day now." Sproul says
the wall will make the Park much less hospitable to both birds and
mammals and may prevent some animals, like badgers and bobcats, from
returning to the area.
Sproul told OneWorld that Park officials "expressed our concerns as part of the environmental analysis process," but then Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff
waived all environmental regulations on the fence, citing national
security needs. Subsequent challengers to that ruling from
environmental groups and localities, including the City of El Paso, have been unsuccessful.
"We have not been consulted," park visitor Judy Ackerman said. "The
mayors of neighboring towns were specially asked for their input but
now have basically been blown off. And this is consistent over time."
Homeland Security officials did not
respond to requests for an interview, but documents posted on the
Department's Web site argue that even though it "no longer has any
specific obligations under the Endangered Species Act" or other environmental laws, the "the Secretary committed the Department to responsible environmental stewardship of our valuable natural and cultural resources."
The Department of Homeland Security
elected to build only a single fence on this section of the border. At
other sections, the federal government has used Sandia Fencing, where
two fences made of triple-strength concertina wire are separated by a 150-meter dead zone that's big enough for a vehicle to drive through.
In addition, Sproul said the Department of Homeland Security has said
it would leave four-inch-high gaps in the fence every 150 feet at
ground level to "try to provide some opportunity for some small animals
to move from side to side."
"But that's still a barrier," Sproul
said. "They'll come in and put a set of poles in. Then they'll come
back and lay cement, and then they'll put up the actual wall itself.
We're next, and I'm not optimistic."