Trump border wall would cut through rare wetlands in parched Presidio

The B.J. Bishop Wetlands at Presidio draws a large number of migratory birds to the area, and with them, a growing number of eco-tourists.
The B.J. Bishop Wetlands at Presidio draws a large number of migratory birds to the area, and with them, a growing number of eco-tourists. rmallison@star-telegram.com

Terry Bishop, a lifelong farmer, decided a few years ago to convert about 10.5 acres of property that he owns along the U.S.-Mexico border into wetlands.

The gesture was a favor to his hometown, Presidio, which needed property near the border where it could lay a pipe and discharge treated water from a nearby municipal plant into the Rio Grande. But it was also a way for Bishop to give something back to the Earth, which has been so good to him and his family over the years.

In addition to growing alfalfa, Bishop, 63, is an amateur bird watcher. He admires the migratory animals of various shapes and colors that flock to his wetlands each day and flap their feathers in the shallow water. It is truly an oasis of greenery in an otherwise punishing desert terrain.

But Bishop worries about what would happen to the river if the Trump administration builds a border wall perhaps 20 feet high or taller separating Presidio from the Mexican city of Ojinaga, just across the river. Such a wall would essentially put up a giant barrier on the southern end of Bishop’s wetlands, which he thinks would affect the health of the river and unnecessarily disrupt animal migration patterns.

“I like the variety of birds you can see. I like how they make all these different noises,” Bishop said. “There used to be places like this up and down the river. There just aren’t anymore.”

Security a priority

Others say the health of the river is secondary to stopping drug smugglers from crossing illegally, regardless of how it may affect wildlife, flooding or private property.

Helen Marie Jones is Republican chairwoman for Kinney County, one of just a handful of counties touching the U.S.-Mexico border that consistently vote Republican in local elections and supported Trump in the 2016 presidential election. She lives more than 200 miles east of Presidio, but she expressed sentiments that Presidio residents often hear from neighboring towns to justify wall construction.

“We want the wall, 100 percent,” said Jones, 80, a retired rancher who lives in Brackettville, which is about 20 miles north of the border.

“The drug cartels are still a big problem. I have helicopters flying over my house all the time,” she said. “Some of the farmers have issues with [possibly losing] their land [for a wall]. They don’t want to go through eminent domain. That’s understandable. But the security of the border is very important. It’s a big problem.”

Hottest place in Texas

Presidio, located just west of Big Bend Ranch State Park, is surrounded by beautiful mountains and extremely dry land, other than a thin ribbon of greenery that drapes each side of the river. The city of 5,000 is often the hottest place in Texas (and occasionally the entire United States) — and the nearest Wal-Mart is 160 miles away in Pecos.

There is no wall separating it from Ojinaga, except chain-link fencing around a few acres of federal property that make up the region’s lone port of entry — the only place between Fort Hancock (near El Paso) and Del Rio, which are roughly 375 miles apart, where a car can cross the border.

Although longtime residents say it has been common over the years for undocumented immigrants to cross the river, it’s less common today because there are far more decent-paying jobs available in Mexico than in years past, said Jose Portillo, Presidio’s city administrator.

Neighboring Ojinaga is just as remote as Presidio. South of the border, the nearest place of size is Chihuahua City, about 150 miles away.

A federal proposal to build a border fence — similar to those in El Paso and Laredo — has been debated in Presidio for more than a decade. The measure is widely opposed by area residents and local officials, Portillo said.

The Presidio City Council has formally opposed such a wall since 2009. City leaders value their business contacts and personal friendships in Ojinaga and say they believe a wall would harm those relations while also failing to stop illegal immigration.

“You can sneeze in Presidio and Ojinaga catches a cold,” Portillo said. “That’s how intertwined we are.”

Challenges for contractors

Presidio is but one example of the challenges contractors will face regarding issues such as wildlife and flooding as they design a wall stretching the length of the border, said Michael Evangelista-Ysasaga, a Fort Worth businessman.

His PennaGroup is among the companies that have notified the federal government that they wish to take part in the design of the wall.

The federal government is expected to soon narrow its list of 230 prospective contractors to just a handful. The finalists would then be asked to build prototypes of their vision for a border wall. Contractors who have made the cut have been asked not to publicly discuss their selection.

“Despite the fact that birds can fly over a fence, they actually don’t like to do that,” said Evangelista-Ysasaga, who added that he has been studying biological, ecological and hydrological issues related to the border area and the Rio Grande to prepare for the wall project.

The challenge is to create a wall that looks uniform from one end of the nearly 2,000-mile-long border to the other, while also designing a structure flexible enough to meet the specific challenges of various terrains, he said.

“The challenge is trying to figure out what kind of back-of-the-house engineering we can have that will sustain a front-of-the-house project,” he said. “Anybody who tells you the design is going to have zero impact on the ecosystem is lying to you. Our challenge is to minimize the impact.”

In Presidio, the general feeling among residents is that stepped-up enforcement can be accomplished by deploying better surveillance cameras and other technology, and by making better use of Border Patrol agents, several residents said

Ask people on the streets, and most will say a border wall would be a tremendous waste of money and a slap in the face to their neighbors.

“I hope they don’t build it,” said Elida Martinez, who works the front desk at the Three Palms Inn, one of just two small hotels in Presidio. She remembers crossing the river at one of several unofficial crossings to visit relatives in Chihuahua as a child, back when residents on both sides of the river crossed the boundary without thinking twice.

“We are one community,” she said.

Revisiting NAFTA

That’s not to say Presidio residents don’t see the need to change border laws, not only related to immigration but also to the movement of goods. A fair amount of support exists for revisiting provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Portillo said.

“People come from Mexico to buy shoes in the U.S., and when they go back to Mexico they throw away their old shoes [so they can wear their new shoes] and avoid paying tariffs of 15 to 18 percent,” he said. “But you can buy a TV in Mexico and bring it back across to the U.S. with no tariff.”

Presidio’s remoteness obviously hurts its economy. Retail jobs are scarce, and goods can be expensive because shipping costs add to the price tag.

For example, Presidio motorists typically pay about 50 cents a gallon more for gasoline than residents of metro areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth.

Tourism is one of the area’s largest industries, with a handful of locally owned restaurants and shops drawing whatever business they can from motorists heading to and from Big Bend National Park, which is 50 miles to the east.

Travelers usually arrive in Presidio on Farm Road 170, sometimes called the River Road. It is designated part of the state’s Texas Mountain Trail system, and it is a favorite of hikers, campers and touring motorcyclists who want to visit the national park, as well as Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Making the river healthy

And, perhaps not surprisingly, Presidio has recently become a fairly well-known destination for those in the bird-watching community.

People come from hundreds of miles away to look at the white pelicans and other creatures bathing in the new wetlands, Bishop said. The wetlands area is partly created out of the former Loma Paloma Golf Course, which was owned by Bishop’s family but destroyed in a 2008 flood and closed permanently.

It would seem pointless, Bishop said, to spend millions of dollars on a wall that likely wouldn’t stop illegal immigration but that would cause a major setback in efforts to make the Rio Grande a clean, vibrant river.

“The river is unhealthy. We have a low water volume. The water is silty and salty. We are trying to make it healthy again,” he said. “In some places, we may need a fence, but in most places, including here, it’s not necessary.

“Governments, whether local or federal or whatever, can be heavy-handed. All we’re saying is, be gentle.”

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson