Can a Beloved Texas State Park Survive Trump’s Wall?

The state parks department has pleaded with the administration to save Bentsen state park from the wall. But the feds have shown little interest.

bentsen state park
Gus Bova
Atop Bentsen state park's hawk observation tower, activists raise their fists.

Can a Beloved Texas State Park Survive Trump’s Wall?

The state parks department has pleaded with the administration to save Bentsen state park from the wall. But the feds have shown little interest.

by Gus Bova
February 5, 2019

On Sunday afternoon, around 30 activists gathered at a pavilion near the entrance to the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, a 766-acre refuge near the border town of Mission that draws more than 30,000 visitors a year to the Valley. Established in 1944, the park is home to stands of native Rio Grande ash and Texas ebony, along with threatened species, including the ocelot and the Texas tortoise. The group had gathered to discuss a matter on the minds of many South Texans these days: Trump’s border wall. Within weeks, contractors could start bulldozing through the refuge to make way for the barrier, which would sever the park’s visitors center from the rest of the property. As the group talked, chachalacas — noisy tropical birds rarely found in the United States outside of Texas’ southern tip — darted around beneath nearby birdfeeders, and green jays flitted among the branches of the Valley’s trademark thornscrub. After the meeting, the crowd signed postcards to send to various elected officials, before taking a sunset hike through the park.

bentsen state park
A chachalaca at Bentsen state park.  Gus Bova

“I’ve been coming to this park my whole life,” said Martha Garcia, a 20-year-old McAllen native and biology student at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. A member of the “No Border Wall” coalition, which organized Sunday’s event, Garcia worries the wall will destroy habitat for the birds and spoil the refuge’s tranquil character. “With the wall comes more militarization,” she said. “The community here is already stressed because of all the helicopters, cameras everywhere — all that disrupts the peace and comfort people seek in areas like this.”

Bentsen is part of a 6-mile stretch where Trump plans to start wall construction as soon as mid-February. Along the six miles, federal contractors plan to turn an existing earthen levee into a 15-foot concrete levee wall, then top that with 18-foot steel bollards. Then they’ll clear out a 150-foot enforcement zone to the south, which will be illuminated at night. Congress funded the construction in March; environmental and historic preservation laws were waived in October; and a Galveston-based company, SLSCO Ltd., was awarded the construction contract in November. Other properties in the path of the 6-mile segment include the National Butterfly Center as well as land belonging to a Hispanic family who’s called the Valley home since before it was the United States. Some lawmakers are making last-minute moves to save the park and the butterfly center, but the clock is ticking.

bentsen state park
Bentsen state park viewed from its hawk observation tower.  Gus Bova

On Friday evening, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced to local press that construction equipment would soon arrive in the Valley, with plans to begin construction on “federally owned land” by mid-February. CBP has refused to elaborate, but an email obtained by the Observer, sent January 23 by Justice Department attorney Cliff Stevens to attorneys working for the butterfly center, says the feds will start on federal land “east of Bentsen state park.” That would seem to point to a federal wildlife tract called El Morillo, located between the state park and the butterfly center. It’s unclear where the feds would go next, because they haven’t finished acquiring property from Bentsen — which is owned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) — or from the butterfly refuge or some other private owners.

The Bentsen state park is a Valley institution. Seventy-five years ago, the family of U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen Jr., a hometown hero in Mission, sold the land that the park sits on to the state for $1 — on the condition that it be used “solely for public park purposes.” Should the refuge close to the public, the park’s deed requires that it revert to the Bentsen heirs, a legal requirement that TPWD is taking seriously. In a 2017 letter to CBP officials, Carter Smith, director of TPWD, wrote that even if the federal agency provides an electronic gate for access, the wall would deter visitors and endanger park patrons who would find themselves birdwatching in a no-man’s land between nations. “Construction of the proposed wall would certainly call into question whether [TPWD] could continue to safely operate the area as a state park,” he wrote.

The parks department has tried reasoning with CBP. In the same 2017 letter, Smith detailed four preferable alternatives to the 30-foot structure now headed for the park. Ranked from most desirable to least, Smith first suggested CBP could forego the wall altogether, instead installing more technology and building a “check station” to be manned jointly by TPWD and CBP. Barring that, he suggested the concrete wall could be built without the steel fencing on top, or that the park’s entrance could at least be left unfenced, or that the fence could maybe be shorter. But CBP has shown little interest in accommodation.

bentsen state park
A resaca at Bentsen park.  Gus Bova

“Communications have been limited, but what CBP has said is that they intend to go forward with the originally proposed wall design,” wrote Josh Havens, a TPWD spokesperson, in an email to the Observer. CBP spokesperson Carlos Diaz said in an email that his agency has met in person and telephonically with TPWD, but that the parks agency’s alternatives do not provide the “Impedance and Denial capabilities” of the wall. Diaz did say CBP is considering shrinking its 150-foot enforcement zone at the park, and that contractors have already performed an “environmental survey” of the area. (Governor Greg Abbott, who’s stayed quiet about the park’s plight, did not respond to a request for comment for this story).

In the last week, Texas Democrats have made moves to shield Bentsen. On Thursday, Laredo Congressman Henry Cuellar — who voted in favor of the wall in March after helping win protection for the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge — announced that he’d secured language in a Democratic border security proposal that would retroactively protect Bentsen, the butterfly center and the historic La Lomita chapel. Also last week, McAllen state Senator Chuy Hinojosa filed a joint resolution in the Texas Senate that would urge Congress to oppose wall construction at Bentsen. But all that might be too little, too late: Cuellar’s proposal depends on the blessings of a GOP-controlled Senate and Trump himself, and Hinojosa’s resolution, even if passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature, would amount to little more than a suggestion.

bentsen state park
Activists with the “No Border Wall” coalition gather at Bentsen state park.  Gus Bova

In November, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission held a public hearing in Mission about the wall (something CBP has repeatedly refused to do). Demonstrating the park’s beloved status, 28 people came out on a weekday afternoon to speak in support of the refuge. Some, like Jennifer Siegler, were Valley locals. “I’m not a great public speaker, but I wanted to show my face and let you know I’m born and raised here in Mission,” Siegler told the commission. “I know all the hard work you’ve put in … to argue against putting up that wall. Don’t give up the fight. It means the world to all of us.”

Other speakers had less Lone Star credentials, but similar concerns. “I never thought I’d actually get up and say anything, especially because I’m not a Texan,” said Heather Wise, a winter Texan spending her fourth winter in the Valley, who added that she goes to Bentsen as part of her daily routine. “There aren’t a lot of really old places left in our country, and [Bentsen]’s pretty precious because of that,” she said. “I don’t want to tell my grandchildren that I was right there, and I didn’t say a word.”

Pam Havens, a member of the Bentsen family, addressed the commission that day as well. Along with other descendents, Havens would inherit the park if Trump forced it to close. She raised a simple question: If the wall gets built through Bentsen, “would it still be a park?” In response, Ralph Duggins, chair of the commission and a Rick Perry appointee, apologized. “We would far prefer there not be a wall, but we just don’t know,” he said. “I can’t… I’m sorry, we can’t answer.”

Gus Bova reports on immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border and grassroots movements for the Observer. He formerly worked at a shelter for asylum-seekers and refugees. You can contact him at [email protected]

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