Why are government contractors clearing trees on a private Texas butterfly sanctuary?

monarch butterflies wall

The National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, has become an unexpected flashpoint in the battle between President Trump’s border wall and private property rights.

The story began on July 20 when Marianna Trevino Wright, executive director of the nonprofit center, found a crew of workers armed with chainsaws and heavy machinery on their privately owned property and private road, located just north of the Rio Grande River. The crew, she says, had already chopped down “dozens, perhaps hundreds,” of trees, shrubs and other plants. Wright also found orange stakes and large painted tags marking off about 200,000 square feet of land for apparent bulldozing. That land, according to the National Butterfly Center, serves as habitat for more than 400 endemic and migratory species, including monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). All of that habitat might be lost to accommodate Trump’s wall, Wright fears.

The workers had not notified anyone of their presence or their intentions and had entered the property without permission, driving right past “private property” signs, Wright tells The Revelator.

Wright says the work crew, reportedly from an Alaskan construction company, told her they had been contracted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The agency quickly denied to the media that any trees had been removed by it or its partner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That assertion was repeated to The Revelator this week. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ contractor has not performed any clearing or tree removals in the vicinity of the National Butterfly Center,” Corps spokesperson James Frisinger wrote to me in an email.

Video evidence, however, showed that trees had been cut down:

In addition to the cleared vegetation, the video also shows a Texas tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri), a state-protected species, wandering near the contractors’ machines.

Who was responsible for this? The two agencies spent most of this past week still denying that it had even happened. Frisinger did say that a Corps-employed crew was present to collect soil samples from the flood-prevention levee on the property as part of “the limits of the permanent levee easements owned by the U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission.” The markings, he said, were to help gather “geotechnical data to help CBP plan its current and future border security program.”

But Frisinger said a second crew was also present. After several days of inquiries, Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Roderick Kise was able to confirm that the trees had been removed by this second crew. He said the work was part of ongoing maintenance work for the levee on the National Butterfly Center’s property and the access road used by border patrol agents. He added that the center should have been informed of the work prior to the crew’s arrival.

Wright disputed those comments, saying the levees on their property meet all standards and are “certified FEMA compliant” and that tree removal would not mitigate future floods. The access road, meanwhile, is “already wide and well-maintained,” she says.

The bigger picture continues to emerge, and it shows plans that would affect private properties such as the National Butterfly Center. Wright has posted online copies of an email originally sent by Customs and Border Protection acting branch chief Daniel Schroeder to undisclosed recipients on July 25 — five days after the work on their property — stating that the agency had begun research into which landowners would be affected by border-wall construction. “Obtaining the appropriate real estate interest is imperative to completing this project,” the email reads. It continues: “CBP anticipates beginning direct engagement activities with identified landowners before the end of FY 2017. This initial landowner engagement will include seeking permission to identify the boundaries of the property through a right of entry to survey agreement. Both the landowner and the government will then engage expert appraisers to give an opinion on the value of the land. At that time, USACE will attempt to negotiate with the landowner for the sale of the property at fair market value.”

If things do move forward with the border wall, Wright says the markers placed on their land indicate that about 1.2 miles of the National Butterfly Center’s property would end up behind the wall, making it inaccessible. “We’re losing about two-thirds of our property,” she says.

They wouldn’t be alone. Maps posted online reveal that the wall would also cut off nearby county parks, the famously haunted La Lomita Mission, local businesses and residences, and even a RV park. “That entire community will be behind the wall,” Wright says. “How will they receive emergency fire and medical services?”

Carlos Diaz, southwest branch chief for Customs and Border Protection, told me via email on July 26 that “no decision has been made regarding locations as we’re waiting for the FY18 [budget] to be approved.” The House of Representatives voted to approve that budget on July 27.

Meanwhile, however, border-wall preparation has already begun in the nearby Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, a federal property.

Ultimately, Wright says this is not about protecting the center’s titular butterflies. “It’s about due process and property rights,” she says. “Private property is sacrosanct. It’s the fiber of the American dream.”

Legal experts consulted by The Revelator say the federal government has a lot of power, but can’t just show up and start bulldozing things. “No, they can’t do that,” says Patrick Parenteau, a professor at Vermont Law School. “When it comes to actually taking property — certainly by physical occupation, damaging property and causing economic harm — they’re going to have to pay. That means somebody’s got to file a lawsuit, though.”

Wright says the National Butterfly Association and its parent organization, the North American Butterfly Association, are already looking into that and have set up a crowdfunding campaign to support their legal fight. “We don’t imagine that we can stop the wall,” she admits. “This really is a David and Goliath-type fight. But who knows. We’ve got to give it our all.”

 

Previously in The Revelator:

Does Trump Really Have the Authority to Shrink National Monuments?

Trump’s Border Wall Could Impact an Astonishing 10,000 Species

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John R. Platt

is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His “Extinction Countdown” column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.

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  • christineheinrichs

    Wow. Thanks for shining a light on this dreadful situation. Keep us posted.

    • Ann Wick

      Totally agree. I would like to see a Petition to Congress to have this Stopped — ASAP.

  • Cathy McIvor

    This breaks my heart! I just can’t believe this can happen. This “wall” must be stopped. Thanks for this article.

  • liveoak

    “Legal experts consulted by The Revelator say the federal government has a lot of power, but can’t just show up and start bulldozing things. “No, they can’t do that,” says Patrick Parenteau, a professor at Vermont Law School.” Oh but they CAN. The virulent belief system that rides under the banner “America First!” has no respect for life, property, or anyone’s rights, just its own narcissistic expansionism.

    • Jeff

      Legally, the government MAY NOT trespass on private property, let alone damage or take it in any way. There are exceptions, like entering private property with a search warrant and “taking” land by eminent domain, though in the latter instance the government must pay the owner the market value of the property.

      I agree with you that the Machine WILL do this stuff whenever it can get away with it, so it’s up to us to fight back. While I, like the Natives to this country, don’t believe in the idea of owning land, in the context of our current system natural land should at least be protected from environmental and ecological harms. People who wish to use their land for wildlife preserves deserve the highest level of protection for that land. On the other hand, considering this society, acts like those described in this article are logical conclusions to the fundamental attitudes of greed and materialism that drive this society.

  • MJ

    Great video!Stay Strong! Who in Texas do you contact to protect property rights? I can’t believe the state allowed this! In Virginia we have Southern Environmental Law Center.