The National Butterfly Center attracts 30,000 people a year and is a project of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA). But the anticipation of the Border Wall could mean the closing of the butterfly center and a downfall of the economy.
The 100-acre property contains trails, 12,000 plugs of rare grasses and endangered wildflowers. The highlight of the year is the mass migration of Monarch butterflies, which stop at the center on their way to Mexico to hibernate in the oyamel fir trees.
Recently a crew was clearing brush at the property. To anyone visiting the center it would seem like a normal working crew doing what Executive Director Marianna Trevino-Wright had asked for, but these men were contractors with the federal government surveying locations for a border wall.
The survey included cutting down Retamas along with other trees in a space between the fence that separates The National Butterfly Center in Mission and a national wildlife refuge tract on the edge of a private road belonging to the butterfly center.
The contractors had instructions to clear 1.2 miles for the survey. When Wright confronted the work crew she said they were polite but they were still trespassing. The work halted while a supervisor was called.
Wright described the man as bent out of shape.
“You could tell that he was upset,” she said. “He just told me that someone from Customs and Border Protection would be in touch and they left.”
The following day five uniformed agents with CBP appeared at the center to inform Wright that what she was claiming had not happened. Wright led the agents to the area in question. It was obvious work was being done due to the heavy machinery left behind by the crew.
Border Patrol Chief Manuel Padilla visited Wright in August. He brought posters illustrating what the border wall project was going to look like and told her the contractors would return. Wright said the contractors have not returned but she expects them to continue with their project.
Several assumptions have been made about Wright, the butterfly center and NABA. A common theme includes being pro-illegal immigrations, anti-national security and pro open borders.
“None of those things are true,” Wright said. “Our issue is the federal government came on to our property with no notice and began destroying everything we've built.”
The issue for Wright and NABA is having no due process and the private property rights as they relate to the border wall. She believes any American should have an issue with that.
Up until Dec. 11 there was never any satisfactory answers provided by the federal government why the destruction of a segment of the National Butterfly Center was being done. What she has been able to gather from multiple reports is the work was being done in advance to construct a border wall on the property.
There was no notice or eminent domain, so Wright and her employer NABA filed a lawsuit seeking answers. There is a process for suing the government which includes waiting three months for them to respond. If the federal government does not respond, council with NABA will seek a trial date.
HIT THE GROUND RUNNING
Eight days after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen toured the Rio Grande Valley with CBP Acting Deputy Commissioner Ron Vitiello and Chief Padilla.
Her timely tour was to make sure citizens knew that President Donald Trump requested $1.6 billion for a new border wall system and a levee wall system in the Rio Grande Valley. Nielsen talked about listening to CBP and answering their needs such as new technology.
The Secretary held a press conference after her tour. At a podium with the DHS crest on it and standing in front of a fence she detailed the department's plan to securing the border. Nothing concrete was provided because the border wall has yet to be passed through the Senate.
When she was pressed about DHS condemning land around the Rio Grande River she answered with, “It's quite complicated to build the wall as you know, so we have a few issues there,” she said.
She continued to say that they are looking for a variety of ways to work with the landowners, state and local authorities.
Nielsen had no answer as to the date construction would begin, but hoped soon.
As to the resistance from local environment groups saying that any theoretical border wall affecting the environment, Nielsen thinks DHS has to assess it.
“I think each area is very different,” she said. “Each area has a different natural barrier and different needs. I think it's important to engage that and I think the border patrol is doing that.”
For Nielsen, border security is both stopping illegal entrance and also expeditiously removing those who come into the country illegally. She believes a wall is a prudent tool to start the ability to stem ties with illegal border crossers.
SANTA ANA WILDLIFE REFUGE
Once the Secretary's motorcade rushed on to her next appearance, Chief Padilla provided some clarity to her visit. Padilla provided her with statistics like how the Rio Grande Valley Sector of the Border Patrol consists of 46 percent of all apprehensions made. Also included in those statistics were how the RGV Sector led in marijuana seizures this fiscal year as well.
A stop along the tour was Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge where Padilla said the planned fence-wall is going to start. Thirty-five gates have been fully funded in FY 2017. The wall-fence will be 60 miles, 28 of those miles will be in Hidalgo County and 32 miles will be in Starr County. Those are all in the planning phase, which has not been funded.
“I need to be clear on that,” Padilla said. “If the funding comes to fruition our starting point will likely be right there on Santa Ana Refuge.”
Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge is managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is under the Department of the Interior. As federal employees, an opinion cannot be officially on record regarding whether or not a border wall should be constructed on the property.
They simply say U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to work with CBP on any proposed activities through formal and informal processes to minimize the impact of the region's national wildlife refuges and natural resources.
THE FUTURE OF BUTTERFLIES
In the case of the National Butterfly Center, if a wall is constructed where the survey was conducted, the wall will be 1.2 miles from the Rio Grande River.
The National Butterfly Center gets about 30,000 visitors a year. Wright said it would be difficult to estimate the forecast if and when a wall is constructed, but would negatively affect the center.
An example Wright mentioned was the Sabal Palm Sanctuary in Brownsville. After a portion of the border wall was constructed near their property, visitors declined by 50 percent.
The National Butterfly Center would not be able to withstand a drop like that and could probably close their doors. Having nature areas close down due to the border wall would also eliminate major tourism in the community.
Until the contractors return or the lawsuit is settled, Wright does not know what is going to happen. The education she has received in light of her situation has been eye-opening, especially when dealing with CBP.
Officially everything regarding the National Butterfly Center is in limbo. They continue to operate for now. Due to only being on the job for about a month, Secretary Nielsen said she was not familiar with the situation regarding the center, but would be happy to look into the situation.
But the questions still presses whether the federal government had authority to be on the property.
“I think the idea of any assessment, whether its environmental or the case of (the butterfly center) is to share the results with the community, then have a discussion,” Nielsen said.