Land in Peril...Border Wall Threatens Private Property and Wildlife Habitat

Benavides swings his pickup off the busy highway leading into Roma and turns down a dusty road, stopping at a weathered gate next to the old city cemetery. He has been opening the gate to family property along the Rio Grande for more than 45 years. Lately, his trips have become more frequent as media outlets from across the state and nation have been clamoring to see a wooded tract threatened by the infamous border fence, land that has been in his wife's family for eight generations.

"It has just snowballed," Benavides says with a half smile and a slight shake of his head. He is standing on the bank in the shade of a towering Rio Grande ash and looking out at the river he loves. "It started as a little story here in Roma and then the Valley newspapers and TV stations started calling, and since then I have had TV stations from San Antonio visit and been interviewed by USA Today."

Benavides has approximately 154 acres with nearly a mile of winding river frontage. His riparian river woodlands are among the most endangered habitat in the Rio Grande Valley where more than 95 percent of native wildands have been cleared.

"About three and a half weeks ago a border patrolman came into the store we have here in Roma and told me the fence was coming up, and the next week some individuals from Washington were coming in to explain the purpose and how the fence would be deployed."

He was shown a map, but not allowed to have a copy. The map indicated a fence of some type would be built thru his property, but it was difficult to tell exactly where as only the river was shown and a red line denoting the proposed fence.

Benavides is still waiting for the representatives from Washington to show up and for an explanation of exactly what type of fence will be constructed and when and where it will be built. The rest of the Rio Grande Valley is awaiting clarification as well. Several days ago, U.S. Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar stated that no fence would be built in Texas until 2008.

"What really got me upset was the individual mentioned eminent domain," Benavides says, as he stoops to pluck a blade of lush grass from the river bank. "We can't stop Homeland Security. It is the law right now that we have to have a fence in this area. But to come in and say we will take it anyway we can, we can exercise eminent domain; that really got me upset and it still does."

A gentle breeze from the south wafts across the flowing river. The Rio Grande is high this afternoon as water is being released downstream from Falcon Dam. The sounds of nearby traffic are erased by swift water, thick woodlands and the cooing of nesting mourning doves and whitewings. It is a scene that has remained relatively unchanged for centuries.

"This area where we are right now on the river bank has never been farmed. The trees are probably 100's of years old. The habitat is beautiful. We have birds, javelina, indigo snakes, beautiful big bobcats. This property has been in my wife's family for generations. It is part of "porcion" 72 and 73 that was part of what my wife's family got in 1763 when they first came in as settlers with Escandon."

When the King of Spain distributed land grants to settlers in the New World they were called "porciones" or parcels of land. In what is now southernmost Texas, they almost always ran north from the Rio Grande in strips that were careful to give each landowner access to river frontage. It was recognized that the river was the life source for settlers and it remains so today.

"To us the river is not a dividing point between two nations It is a river that unites both Mexico and the United States. We depend on the river for everything. The City of Roma provides water for over 25,000 people. We have water rights. How are we going to be able to pump water if a fence separates us from the river? What is going to happen to all those animals that drink water from the river?"

Benavides has always loved the outdoors and his river property has been shared with the community for decades. "My father used to bring me to the river swimming and fishing when I was a little boy. I was a Cub Scout, a Boy Scout and Explorer growing up here in Roma, and later I became a scout master. I have brought the scouts here many, many times. We have camped in this particular spot," he says with a sweep of his hands. "The Rio Grande Council has had camporees here."

"This is something you just don't find along this river any more. To see it destroyed by a fence and a road that would not really serve any purpose is just ridiculous. Wall or no wall it is still going to happen. We are still going to have people coming across. What Mexican president is going to say; "Mr. President, tear down this (President) Regan said."

Benavides says he really doesn't know any more now than he did some four weeks ago when he was first approached by the border patrolman. "We have always worked with these people. They have had access to this property for years. They monitor this area. There is electronic technology they use in this area, sensors and what have you, and they are welcome to do it. But a fence is something else."

Benavides has been working with United States Congressman Henry Cuellar of Laredo in hopes of somehow convincing the Department of Homeland Security and the Border Patrol that a virtual fence would be more appropriate for his property. "He has been very, very helpful. He has been trying to pass some legislation that would lessen the effect of the law and give Homeland Security a little more flexibility," Benavides says.

Joining Benavides on the river is Roma mayor Rogelio Ybarra, who shares Benavides's concerns about the proposed border barricade. "We are right by the banks of the Rio Grande, and it is a beautiful place to be," Ybarra says. "Placing a fence by the river is not what we need in Roma. We have a beautiful view from our bluff in town and are trying to promote tourism and bird watching and a wall would ruin that."

"If they take the property by eminent domain, so be it, but I don't think they are going to have any volunteers. The only thing I know is that there are a lot of people against it. This land has been here for many generations," Benavides says as he leans against a venerable mesquite, "but they can probably destroy it in a few hours with a bulldozer."

Just across the river, stands a lone cypress that has somehow escaped years of extensive clearing on both sides of the Rio Grande. From an uppermost branch sways an altamira oriole nest. The hanging stocking of a nest moves gently to and fro when suddenly a flash of orange alights on the swaying nest and darts in. The brightly colored tropical bird has arrived to feed its young as far below the river flows ceaselessly toward the Gulf of Mexico. For a moment, time stands still along the banks of the ancient river.

Gazing across the Rio Grande, Benavides says, "It's just something we grew up with. Our fathers grew up with and we were hoping our grand children would grow up to enjoy, but it looks like they are not, all they are going to see is a wall."

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore