Opponents of the Border Fence Look to Obama

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Victor Calzada / El Paso Times / AP

A welder works on the border fence near in El Paso, Texas

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Meanwhile, south of the river, Moreira is planning a "green wall" of 400,000 tress along a 217-mile stretch of the border as a symbol of Mexico's protest. The green wall will provide sanctuary for the deer and other animals that normally cross to and fro between the two countries, Foster says. A confirmed supporter of President Bush, Foster believes that Bush, as governor, shared a widely held view in the region that Texas has a symbiotic relationship with Mexico. "I feel let down. I see the President as a fixer," Foster says. He believes "weighty issues" like Iraq distracted Bush, while national media voices like Fox News' Bill O'Reilly and CNN's Lou Dobbs have fanned national sentiment on the border fence. "I am optimistic that with border governors like Governor [Janet] Napolitano, Obama is getting people in the Cabinet who understand the border," Foster says.

But for Texas conservationists, any shift may come too late, according to Laura Huffman, state director of the Texas Nature Conservancy. In the last week of 2008, the Department of Homeland Security sued the conservancy in a condemnation proceeding involving the Lennox Southmost Preserve, a 1,000-acre parcel that is just that — southmost — where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville, Texas. The preserve, bought in 1999 by the conservancy for $2.5 million, is home to a rare grove of native sabal palms through which endangered ocelots and rare jaguarundi roam.

The Federal Government has condemned a narrow strip of land about 60 ft. wide and 6,000 ft. long running across the preserve and has offered to compensate the nonprofit with a $114,000 payment. The fence will effectively place 800 acres of the peninsula south of the wall, including equipment sheds, management offices and the preserve's on-site warden's home. Several small, organic farm plots leased to locals will also be in the no-man's-land. A similar fate is facing an adjoining sabal plam preserve owned by the Audubon Society. Huffman fears that the endangered palms, prized as garden totems, will be susceptible to poachers. (See the top 10 green ideas of 2008.)

The preserve is just one of several linked along the river that attract visitors from all around the world, particularly bird watchers — last April, the sighting of a rare South American fork-tailed flycatcher, not seen in the area since 1879, attracted more than 2,000 visitors. "What's sad is, this threatens the effort, the partnership — public, private and nonprofits — that has worked together in this area," Huffman says. The wall may shatter a three-year, $100 million effort to restore habitats and preserve vital native species, she says.

The conservancy plans to pursue all legal remedies, but so far has not joined this month's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court by the border coalition group to strike down Homeland Security's waiver of 32 federal, state, local and tribal environmental rules in order to construct the fence — a power granted by Congress when the agency was established in the aftermath of 9/11. The department does not comment on the 300-plus lawsuits making their way through the courts. In visits to the region, Homeland Security Chairman Michael Chertoff has said the numerous lawsuits have slowed progress, but 90% to 95% of the initial 670 miles will either be completed or have had ground broken as Bush leaves office.

As for opponents in Brownsville, on the eastern end of the Texas-Mexico border, they plan a symbolic retirement party for Chertoff this week complete with piñatas and mariachi music. Even an 11th-hour announcement by the Bush Administration promising $50 million in mitigation projects to address environmental and cultural issues in sensitive areas, including tribal lands, has not impressed opponents and is likely to be reviewed by the incoming Administration.

"The wall will surely hurt American interests all across the Americas for a whole generation," wrote State Representative Elliott Shapleigh, a Democrat and a fifth-generation El Pasoan, in a recent Op-Ed. "Is it too much too soon to ask that this wall come down or is it the right thing to do at the right time in history? If not now, when? If not under President-elect Barack Obama, then who?"

Watch a video of Texans fighting the border fence.

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