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South Texas county prohibits border-wall surveyors from entering lands near bird sanctuary

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CBP seeking public input on building border wall in rural area of Zapata County

Zapata County Courthouse in Zapata, Texas. (Courtesy photo)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The commissioners of a small, rural county in South Texas have voted to block the federal government from surveying for a border wall on public lands near a coveted bird sanctuary.

The five-member Zapata County Commissioners’ Court on Monday unanimously voted not to grant “right of entry for survey and site assessment to the U.S. Government for county land near San Ygnacio,” according to the agenda item.

San Ygnacio is home to a popular bird and butterfly sanctuary located on a narrow strip of land along the Rio Grande about 40 miles south of Laredo, Texas. It boasts one of the best bird-viewing areas for the tiny white-collared seedeater and scissor-tailed flycatcher, as well as various butterfly species, like the American snout. The seedeater is only found in the United States in this part of South Texas.

The land was donated to the county a few years ago for the sanctuary, Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell told commissioners, according to an audio recording of Monday’s meeting obtained by Border Report.

Zapata County is mid-way between Laredo and McAllen, Texas, and is mostly rural ranchlands that are home to a population of just about 15,000.

Government contractors want access to survey in preparation for erecting a 18-mile-long and 30-foot-tall metal border wall. This section of proposed wall is part of $1.3 billion that Congress late last year appropriated for fiscal 2020 to build 52 miles in Webb County and 18 miles in Zapata County.

On Friday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials sent a letter requesting public feedback on these segments of proposed border wall writing: “CBP is seeking your input on potential impacts to the environment, culture, quality of life and commerce, including potential socioeconomic impacts from the approximately 69 miles of CBP-funded border wall system being proposed in Webb and Zapata Counties.” CBP is accepting public comments on this proposed segment of border wall until April 21. Comments can be sent to laredocomments@cbp.dhs.gov

Prior to Monday’s vote, a group of members of the No Border Wall Coalition urged county commissioners not to allow the government onto what they called “precious” lands.

A group of members of the No Border Wall Coalition, including Melissa Cigarroa, second from left, spoke to Zapata County Commissioners on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, in South Texas, and successfully urged the court not to allow the federal government a right of entry to county park grounds to survey for a border wall. (Courtesy Photo)

“That right of entry is our constitutional right to demand better protections, to not allow just anyone to come onto our lands, especially those who want to denigrate it and cause destruction,” Melissa Cigarroa, a member of the coalition who also is president of the board of directors for the Laredo-based Rio Grande International Study Center, told commissioners.

“Here in Zapata County, especially, the land is so beautiful and generations of families have held on to this precious treasure for years and years,” said Cigarroa, whose family owns land in Zapata County.

“All this waste of money or this ecological destruction that will happen as a result and it’s not going to solve the immigration, the drug problems,” Zapata County landowner Elsa Hull told the court. “We stand to lose our homes. I lie in the path of this wall.”

We stand to lose our homes. I lie in the path of this wall.”

Zapata County landowner Elsa Hull

Hull’s home is just south of San Ygnacio on three acres of riverfront land. She is named as a plaintiff in the Rio Grande International Study Center’s lawsuit challenging the right of the Trump administration to declare a national emergency in order to transfer Pentagon funds from the military to border wall construction.

Read a Border Report story on Trump’s recent transfer of more military funds for the border wall.

“These billions of dollars could be used for the technology, sensors, cameras or even creating more jobs, more agents in the field. But we all know it’s not about border security,” Hull said. “We urge the county to stand firm in their position. This right of entry is the first step.”

Zapata County Precinct 2 Commissioner Olga Elizondo, whose district includes San Ygnacio, agreed with Hull, telling the court she went there on Saturday to feed the birds.

“I go there often and I don’t hear anything or see anything that we’re threatened by,” Elizondo said. “Just like Elsa said: that money can be used for other things.”

Elizondo made the motion in court to deny right of entry, and the others agreed.

After the vote, County Judge Rathmell can be heard saying that Zapata County Commissioners also were among the first county municipalities to issue a proclamation against the border wall.

“You guys are leaders in this fight,” Hull told them.

“We urge the county to hold the line and to continue to be leaders and to set an example for the citizens and the landowners in this county,” Hull said. “Don’t bow to the pressure. We can unite and stand together. We don’t want our lives to be signed away, our river to be signed away. …And when future generations look back at this we need to ask ourselves what side of history will we be on? Will we be on the right side? Stand firm in the fight.”

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