City supports habitat protection amid push for border wall

HARLINGEN — City commissioners last night merged proposals from Commissioners Victor Leal and Tudor Uhlhorn to draft a resolution aimed at protecting native wildlife habitat amid President Donald Trump’s push for a border wall.

At the meeting, commissioners appeared prepared to consider Leal’s proposed resolution before Uhlhorn presented his own proposal.

Amid sometimes heated debate, Uhlhorn and Leal appeared to clash over language describing the proposed border wall’s impact on native wildlife habitat at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and other sanctuaries.

The approved resolution states the city “endorses a border security strategy on the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge that is minimally intrusive on natural habitat, preserving and protecting the old-growth native forest from the proposed 150-foot clearance for fencing and lighting and preserving public access for tourists and residents who have enjoyed this natural space since its dedication in 1943.”

It was the second time in two weeks commissioners considered a group’s original request for a resolution opposing the border wall.

On Oct. 18, commissioners voted down the group’s original proposal, with Leal and Commissioners Michael Mezmar and Ruben de la Rosa voting against the proposed resolution, while Uhlhorn and Commissioner Richard Uribe supported it.

As a result of the vote, the city became the first in the Rio Grande Valley to oppose a resolution opposing a border wall.

Last night, Leal presented what he called a resolution aimed at “preserving wildlife sanctuaries.”

“I asked (staff) for a resolution that would reflect the city’s commitment to preservation of wildlife and natural habitat,” Leal said.

Leal said his proposed resolution did not aim to oppose plans for a border wall.

“I don’t want to address any bias to national politics,” Leal said. “We’re not singling out one particular item that might happen. I don’t want for it to be misconstrued that we’re resolving (the border wall).”

Meanwhile, Uhlhorn’s proposed resolution stated the existing border wall has “caused environmental damage and destruction of critically important wildlife habitat and threaten(s) to harm more than 100 species in the border region, including dozens of rare and endangered species and these other harms would be exacerbated by construction of more border walls and levee walls in the environmentally sensitive areas.”

“I have a little bit of experience with the border wall,” said Uhlhorn, who owns land near the banks of the Rio Grande. “There are places where it’s totally inappropriate to do it.”

Uhlhorn said the federal proposal to clear a 150-foot easement for the border wall would destroy native wildlife habitat at the Santa Ana Natural Wildlife Refuge.

“There are just some places where it shouldn’t be and it’s pretty easy to see that the Santa Ana Natural Wildlife Refuge is one place it shouldn’t be,” Uhlhorn said.

After discussion, commissioners agreed to include the closing statement of Uhlhorn’s proposal in the city’s resolution.

“I think this is a very good thing to develop this resolution,” Mayor Chris Boswell said after the unanimous vote.

After the meeting, Joyce Hamilton, spokeswoman for about 300 residents who petitioned the city for a resolution opposing the border wall, said the group was “relieved” over commissioners’ unanimous vote.

“I’m particularly pleased with Commissioner Uhlhorn’s addition of wording which put more teeth into the resolution by addressing the specific destruction to wildlife habitat in Santa Ana Refuge that would be caused by the permanent 150-foot wide clearing along the wall,” Hamilton, a retired college instructor, stated.