August 1, 2008

TPWD Rejects Border Fence Construction

By Melissa McEver, The Brownsville Herald, Texas

Aug. 1--Count the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as another landowner that doesn't want a border fence crossing its property.

The department has rejected an offer from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to buy 2-1/2 acres of the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area for border fence construction, Texas Parks and Wildlife executive director Carter Smith confirmed.

"We feel it's our responsibility to advocate on behalf of the unique natural resources that are present in the area, and will unquestionably be impacted by (the fence)," Smith said.

Now, according to a letter to Smith dated June 28, the federal agency plans to start condemnation proceedings to seize the land.

Las Palomas comprises scattered parcels of land in Cameron, Hidalgo and Presidio counties, totaling 3,311 acres. The affected portion of the wildlife area is a 222-acre parcel on the Cameron-Hidalgo county boundary.

This land is primarily reforested habitat for doves, and the site is open to hunters and the public, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife.

If the fence is built, it would leave about one-third of that acreage on the south side of the fence, Smith said.

"We wouldn't be in a position to allow public access behind that wall, and wouldn't be inclined for our staff to be there," he said.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, the agency's governing board, voted to reject the Corps' offer of $99,000 for the 2-1/2-acre tract at its meeting July 17.

"We have a longstanding interest in the history and conservation of the very special and unique, and often irreplaceable, ecological resources in South Texas," Smith said about the decision. "Our commission felt strongly that we had way too much invested with our public and private partners (in the Valley) to simply walk away from that."

Accepting the offer would have meant turning away from the agency's mission, Smith said.

In the letter to Texas Parks and Wildlife, Hyla J. Head, real estate division chief for the Army Corps of Engineers' Fort Worth District, says that the agency will file a condemnation action in federal court within 30 to 60 days.

A spokeswoman for the Corps' Fort Worth District declined to comment, referring questions to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

After receiving a list of questions from Valley Freedom Newspapers, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman didn't return calls seeking comment.

Smith said he's hoping that the government will consider a compromise, similar to the agreement that reached on Thursday by the University of Texas at Brownsville and the government.

"We were hoping (the government) could work with us to explore other border security measures that wouldn't disrupt conservation and outdoor recreation," Smith said.

Other Texas Parks and Wildlife properties could also be affected by the border fence, including the World Birding Center at Bentsen State Park in Mission.

The combined border fence-levee project that Hidalgo County has proposed might go through the park, officials said.


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