A treasured sanctuary for butterflies in Texas has found itself at the center of a revolt against President Donald Trump’s long-touted border wall, in a growing reflection of the sentiments shared by Texas border environmentalists and private property owners alike.
“It’s going to be an eyesore for one,” Marianna Treviño-Wright, the National Butterfly Center’s executive director, told ThinkProgress as she spoke about the border wall. “We’re an ecotourism destination. Who wants to go and enjoy nature in a place that looks like a prison yard?”
The border wall will cut through the center’s land and imperil the vulnerable creatures it cherishes. With options dwindling, the National Butterfly Center is taking desperate measures to stop the wall from being built on its property.
On Monday, the Texas Observer reported that the center had asked a federal judge to stop the Trump administration’s ongoing border wall efforts on its property. The private nature preserve is seeking a restraining order against the federal government and specifically wants to stop the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from continuing with its wall construction pending a decision on a larger lawsuit filed in December 2017 by the center.
Arguing that the National Butterfly Center’s constitutional rights are being violated through the seizure of its property, the organization moreover says that the border wall will cause “irreparable harm” to the delicate wildlife and nature it seeks to safeguard.
The National Butterfly Center is owned by the nonprofit North American Butterfly Association (NABA) and contests that its property rights are being undermined by the government. According to a copy of the order shared by the San Antonio Express-News, the center names DHS head Kirstjen Nielsen and asks that any actions “in furtherance of the construction of a border wall, enforcement zone, road, or any related installations” on NABA’s property cease.
Disputes over the border wall aren’t exclusive to Texas; on Monday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected California’s efforts to require the Trump administration to comply with environmental laws in building the wall. But in the Lone Star State, the fight against the wall is picking up steam.
The National Butterfly Center’s restraining order is the latest in an increasingly bitter feud that has seen a wide array of Texans pitted against state and national officials. Trump’s border push has been wildly unpopular with many border communities, with reasons ranging from humanitarian and environmental concerns to issues over private property.
More than 2,000 scientists from the United States and Mexico have also warned about the wall’s impact on the environment, as have a slew of U.S. climate and environmental groups including Environment Texas, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife.
Private property concerns are also growing in a state where owners jealously guard their land. Eminent domain efforts have met with lawsuits in South Texas for years, stretching back to the most recent Bush administration’s efforts to build a border wall. Now, they’re rising rapidly, as landowners furiously push back against the government.
For the National Butterfly Center, the issues of property seizure and the environment are intertwined.
The 100-acre refuge near Mission, Texas, has been feuding with the government for almost two years. According to Treviño-Wright, federal contractors appeared unannounced in July 2017 — before congressional funding had been secured — and began clearing away trees and brush.
In response, the center swiftly sought legal action, but congressional funding came through in early 2018. By the summer, the Trump administration had waived 28 environmental and health protections to build the wall, including the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
Treviño-Wright told ThinkProgress that the center’s concerns about the wall are wide-ranging. While the wall presents a hindrance to tourism, the biggest threat is arguably to wildlife.
“Some butterflies and birds can fly over a wall, [that’s] true for many species not for all,” she said. Of particular concern are low-flying butterflies, for which an eighteen-foot wall poses an impossible hurdle.
The Lower Rio Grande Valley has the most diverse butterfly population in all of North America and the National Butterfly Center itself has discovered around 240 species alone in the last 17 years on its property. Moreover, the wider area is home to at least 11 biologically distinct ecosystems and any disturbance could cause extreme harm to wildlife.
“Each ecosystem has its own flora. And [for] butterfly species… each is intimately connected to one or two plant species. Those host species are the only mechanisms they have to reproduce,” explained Treviño-Wright. “Without that, they can’t lay their eggs.”
Butterflies are far from the only concern. The Texas horned lizard and the Texas tortoise are among the animals that stand to be impacted by the wall, along with the Texas indigo snake. The center wants an environmental assessment done of the border wall’s impact, something mandated under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act — both waived by the Trump administration. But so far, courts have largely upheld the administration’s decision to waive the laws.
A popular GoFundMe effort for the center, active since December 2018, has raised more than $90,000 in an attempt to fund legal efforts against the government and to help “clean up and remediation of the damage” caused by government contractors. On the center’s active Facebook page, hundreds of people have weighed in with concern and support.
“We are in a major environmental crisis and it should be a crime that the impact of the wall on the environment is not considered,” wrote Katie Scott, a commentator, under a video posted by the center.
In another comment under a post opposing the border wall, Mission resident Ernest Herrera expressed weariness with the argument that birds and butterflies would simply “fly over” the wall.
“It’s obvious after conversing with those people that they can’t even begin to comprehend any of the concepts [elevated by the National Butterfly Center],” Herrera wrote. “It’s like talking to a wall. Maybe that’s why they want a wall. They identify so well with one.”
In a statement to ThinkProgress on Wednesday, Scott Nicol of the Sierra Club Borderlands Team said that the wall’s threat to the center could not be overstated.
“In addition to destroying vegetation that butterflies rely upon, ramming a levee-border wall through the National Butterfly Center would block the movement of land animals, including endangered species,” Nicol said. “When the Rio Grande floods the 30 foot tall concrete and steel levee-border wall would prevent their escape from the rising water, turning what is today a refuge into a death trap.”
The National Butterfly Center isn’t the only area in South Texas set to be massively impacted by the wall. While the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge was granted protections after appealing to Congress, others have been less lucky. The Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park has said for over a year that border wall plans will likely force its closure. That park is the headquarters for the World Birding Center and a popular attraction that draws visitors from across the country.
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is publicly-owned, but many of the other areas impacted are private property, including the La Lomita chapel, which sits on land singled out by the government for the wall. Like the National Butterfly Center, La Lomita is actively fighting the wall, but it’s unclear that any of the opposition efforts will prevail.
“It’s very clearly an uphill battle, it’s us against the federal government, and in particular an administration that seems to… have all of its wickedness aimed at the borderlands,” said Treviño-Wright.
Nationally, most of the border wall discussions are focused on whether the president will agree to a bipartisan deal struck by Congress allocating funds for the wall, or whether he will declare a national emergency to build the barrier. Neither outcome would do much for South Texas, where construction efforts are underway, with funding allotted months ago.
For the National Butterfly Center, optimism is fading, but supporters are still hopeful that concerns for private property and the environment will win out.
Noting that the beloved butterfly sanctuary has rocketed to national attention, Treviño-Wright said the center is serving an important role in elevating the discourse. “All of this is playing out at our place, with the butterflies as the backdrop and the primary combatant, it seems, against this administration and their vile, racist, profiteering agenda,” she said.
But she emphasized that the debate stretches far beyond “just butterflies” in a region famed for its multiculturalism along with its ecological diversity.
“It is about due process, about the sanctity of private property, about our constitution and the protections that all American citizens are supposed to have,” Treviño-Wright said. “And all of that has been set aside for this project, a project that we cannot imagine will enhance national security.”