National heritage designation could alter plans to expedite border wall construction in Starr County, lawmaker says

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ROMA, Texas (Border Report) — The Department of Homeland Security has announced that an environmental waiver has been granted to expedite construction of 15 miles of new border wall in Starr County near its largest cities. However, legislation recently filed by two South Texas congressmen to designate the area — along with a larger section along the Rio Grande — as a historic heritage corridor might possibly impact border wall plans, one of the congressmen told Border Report.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas (Courtesy Photo)

U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez, both Democrats from Texas, last week introduced House Resolution 6499, which would authorize a study by the Department of Interior needed to designate the Los Caminos del Rio region as a National Heritage Area (NHA). The 200-mile Rio Grande region would join 55 other national heritage landmarks and become the first area in Texas to bear the national heritage designation. The designation would enable the area to qualify to receive federal additional federal funding to preserve its culture and heritage.

However, Gonzalez told Border Report he also hopes that such a designation could alter border wall plans in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas.

“Designating the Los Caminos del Region as a National Heritage area is a way to preserve this historical and environmentally significant landscape,” said Gonzalez, who lives in McAllen. “The U.S.-Mexico border itself is critical to the Rio Grande Valley’s cultural identity and this bill is one of the best ways I know to honor that. It’s my hope that a wall would not be present near this national heritage site.”

It’s my hope that a wall would not be present near this national heritage site.”

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas

But Laiken Jordahl, a borderlands campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization that has sued the Trump administration multiple times for issuing waivers for border wall construction elsewhere in the Southwest, said while he applauds the effort, he doubts that getting a historic designation will be enough to stop construction under the Trump administration. Areas that are currently exempt from border wall construction — such as the historic La Lomita Chapel and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, both in South Texas — are only designated as such because they have specifically been named as exempt by Congress in border wall appropriation measures, he said.

Laiken Jordahl is a borderlands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Arizona. (Courtesy Photo)

“We’d applaud any effort to further protect that region and its spectacular wildlife. As things stand right now, however, the Trump administration is waiving every relevant law, every relevant protection that gets in its way. So in order to stop the wall, we need to rescind the funding and repeal the waiver that allows the administration to continue with this behavior,” Jordahl said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection last week announced that an environmental waiver had been granted to build new border wall in remote Starr County. Actually, according to the Federal Registry, the Trump administration has announced it is waiving 28 federal laws in order to begin construction in Starr County this year. This includes: the Endangered Species Act; the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (commonly called the Clean Water Act); the Clean Air Act; the National Historic Preservation Act, and many others.

“Trump is endangering lives by allowing border wall construction during the pandemic, and now he’s fast-tracking walls through Texas communities,” Jordahl said. “These new waivers mean Texas families will lose their homes, wildlife will die and people will be walled off forever from the beautiful Rio Grande. Trump’s priorities are delusional in this time of crisis. All border wall construction must stop now.”

The 15 miles of a non-contiguous border wall is to be built from the remote western unincorporated area of Salineño, through an internationally-renowned birding area, and through the towns of Roma, Escobares, La Grulla and the county seat of Rio Grande City. A $175 million contract was awarded last month to build the 30-foot-tall metal bollard wall as well as a parallel all-weather roadway, infrared lights, underground sensors and cameras.

Read a Border Report story on Starr County border wall plans.

The northern Mexico city of Miguel Alemán is seen across the Rio Grande on Tuesday, April 21, 2020, from atop a bluff in the city of Roma, Texas. A border wall is slated to be built on this spot, which could block the vista. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

In Roma, locals fear the border wall will destroy a beautiful vista from the Roma Bluffs overlooking the Rio Grande and the Mexican border city of Miguel Alemán. The cities are so closely tied together, that dogs can be heard barking from across the river.

Roma Mayor Roberto Salinas told Border Report on Tuesday that his office requested that CBP build a wall into the steep cliffs to deter illegal immigration, but not to extend it above the sight line so they can continue to attract tourists to this town of 12,000.

“We were hoping they would do something more aesthetically pleasing instead of 18-30-foot-tall bollards but they said in the end that’s what they’ll do,” Salinas said.

Salinas said he is in favor of a border wall to stop the flow of illegal narcotics coming across the Rio Grande. “They’re supposed to start construction early next year and I’m looking forward to seeing that. I believe we need the border wall and I’ve been in favor of that all along,” Salinas said.

They’re supposed to start construction early next year and I’m looking forward to seeing that. I believe we need the border wall and I’ve been in favor of that all along.”

Roma Mayor Roberto Salinas

CBP officials say this area has the highest apprehension for marijuana and narcotics of any area on the Southwest border. The Federal Registry listed the agency as having “over 1,000 drug-related events between border crossings” in Fiscal 2019 in the U.S. Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector.

What a National Heritage Corridor listing would do

Cuellar said designating five counties — Webb, Zapata, Starr, Hidalgo and Cameron — as a National Heritage Corridor would showcase the legacies of early colonial Spanish settlements, military conflicts, trade and agriculture. And it would set the area up for substantial federal funds to ensure its historical preservation.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee is seen on Feb. 19, in Mission, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

National Heritage Areas are designated by Congress as places where natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape. NHAs leverage federal funds and average $5.50 for every $1 of federal investment. In 2009, Cuellar submitted a similar bill that was not passed into law.

“Los Caminos del Rio Region is one of the most ecologically diverse areas in North America with a flourishing blend of history and culture,” Cuellar said. “Recognizing the region as a National Heritage Area will boost our local economy and preserve this South Texas landmark for future generations.

Rose Benavidez, president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, which had been coordinating talks between CBP and Starr County community officials last year until talks broke off, said she is not surprised by the announcement of the environmental waiver, and she hopes that designating the area a National Heritage Corridor could help to stop border wall construction plans.

“They have endless amounts of waivers,” Benavidez said. “At this point anything that can be helpful would be welcome in terms of preserving this community.”

Benavidez added that most of the land in Starr County is privately-owned and the Trump administration still must get right-of-entry in order to survey the land.

“At the end of the day, it’s all based on the availability of real estate,” Benavidez said.

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