STARR COUNTY, Texas (Border Report) — Dusty, yellow-flowering prickly pear and the rare brown jay birds are common sights in this part of rural western Starr County. But what’s new now is a 30-foot-tall metal border wall that is going up in what were once dense ranchlands.
The son of the ranch’s landowner told Border Report on Wednesday that his family sold a section of their property to the state of Texas to be part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star border security initiative.
A spokeswoman for the Texas Facilities Commission — the state agency that manages all state-funded border wall projects — would not confirm that this new segment miles northwest of the small town of Roma is a state project.
“Due to security concerns and protecting procurement integrity, and the privacy of private landowners, we are unable to confirm these data points. Construction Locations: Specific project work locations are not being released at this time,” TFC Communication Specialist Francoise Luca told Border Report.
But the son, who schedules bird-watching tours for the ranch, says they have sold off part of it. He said the border wall now is part of the daily tours where, for about $25, bird-watchers can spend several hours on the ranch trying to catch a glimpse of the rare brown jay and other birds that migrate to the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas every winter.
He would not say how much land easement the state now owns, nor the cost. And roads leading through his ranch are private. He agreed to speak with Border Report on condition that his name and ranch’s name are not used. He is afraid of pushback from neighbors.
Downriver, a swath of ranch land has been cleared. What once was green and lush, is now dry, brown stalks of leftover wildlands, and the beeping sounds of heavy construction equipment can be heard pinging off the Rio Grande.
This is not too far from the Salineño Wildlife Preserve, a popular birding and nature area.
Lois Hughes and her partner have been volunteer caretakers of the property for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for 14 seasons. The 2022-23 season just ended last month and they have moved out. But she told Border Report that she is concerned that construction noise and debris will impact the summer nesting season for many wild birds in the area.
“The construction disruption would be awful. It would take out an awful lot of habitat in the environment through here,” Hughes said. “And if they’re doing it in the summer it’s right in nesting season. Taking out trees that are food sources for the birds. It would be significant.”
This past winter, visitors to the area, documented many sightings of rare birds, according to the online eBird tracker.
Debralee Rodriguez, executive director of Valley Land Fund, which owns the Salineño tract of land that Fish and Wildlife manages, told Border Report that the nonprofit has twice in the past six months been asked to sell their borderlands to the state, and she said twice they have refused.
There is a closed sign now hanging on the gate. But Rodriguez says they will re-open in October for the new birding and wildlife season.
But Hughes worries that land nearby will also be sold to the state and if a border wall is built very close to them then she fears Fish & Wildlife won’t allow visitors to the area.
“If the wall still goes between us and the water treatment plant there will no doubt be a gate and it would put us on the river side of that wall,” she said.
Another nearby landowner, who also wished to remain nameless, told Border Report this week that they are concerned about border wall construction and the “militarization” of the area. The landowners said Mexico and the United States share not only a river, but an economic base and putting up a border barrier should be the federal government’s responsibility.
But Texas Department of Public Safety Lt. Christopher Olivarez said that Abbott’s Operation Lone Star initiative is securing the border because they believe the Biden administration has failed to do so. And he said a wall helps not only federal Border Patrol agents, but local law enforcement, and DPS that patrol the borderlands.
“From a law enforcement perspective, it’s very important. I mean, of course, when you have a barrier, it’s going to make it more challenging for either people or any other type of illegal activity trying to come across between the ports of entry. And when you have a barrier, in this case, such as a wall, well, that will allow you to move resources and other areas where there isn’t a wall, or there is no barrier. So it helps law enforcement in that aspect of it. It makes it more challenging,” Olivarez told Border Report.
He says this region is particularly favored by Mexican drug cartels to send “big bundles of drugs across the Rio Grande.” And he says those that bring drugs often are armed and endanger local residents.
Texas lawmakers in the Legislature currently are debating border security spending requests for the next biennium. The state spent over $4.5 billion previously on border security, including over $855 million in contracts awarded for several border wall segments throughout South Texas.