National emergency dashes hopes for 5 ecologically sensitive sites spared by the spending bill

"The exemption in the spending bill will not likely save us in a state of emergency situation."

62-year-old Luciano Guerra stands on the banks of the Rio Grande in the National Butterfly Center, a private sanctuary for butterflies in southern Texas. CREDIT: Maren Hennemuth/picture alliance via Getty Images
62-year-old Luciano Guerra stands on the banks of the Rio Grande in the National Butterfly Center, a private sanctuary for butterflies in southern Texas. CREDIT: Maren Hennemuth/picture alliance via Getty Images

A spending bill allotting money to President Donald Trump’s border wall efforts shields five major ecologically or economically sensitive landmarks along the Rio Grande in Texas from any construction, including the National Butterfly Center and a beloved state park. But residents worry that a national emergency would make no such accommodations, once more imperiling vulnerable ecosystems on the border.

“We are very concerned about the state of emergency declaration,” said Marianna Treviño-Wright, the executive director of the National Butterfly Center. The center, located near the border city of Mission, Texas, has emerged as a major opponent of the wall, which would put the vulnerable animals and wildlife it protects in danger.

Thursday night momentarily brought the center some relief, when Congress moved to avert a second partial government shutdown. Lawmakers passed a 1,159-page spending bill containing more than $1.3 billion for the president’s wall, albeit not the $5.7 billion initially requested. The amount contained in the spending bill allows for 55 barriers based in the Rio Grande Valley — directly threatening state landmarks.

But Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) said last-minute language added to the bill shielded five Texas landmarks. Along with the National Butterfly Center, exemptions are included for Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, home of the World Birding Center, and the historic Catholic chapel La Lomita.


The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, already exempted through last year’s budget, was also spared, along with land meant to house a commercial spaceport for the company SpaceX.

“This is a big win for the Rio Grande Valley,” said Cuellar in a statement. “I worked hard to include this language because protecting these ecologically-sensitive areas and ensuring local communities have a say in determining the solutions that work for them is critical.”

But those efforts could be for naught. On Friday morning, Trump declared a national emergency to build the wall, announcing that he would divert funds from military construction projects in order to erect the immense barrier.

“I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this. But I’d rather do it much faster,” said Trump, addressing reporters in the Rose Garden.

While the decision is likely to face an outpouring of legal opposition, it has left the border in a state of unease, especially at places like the National Butterfly Center.


“This is unchartered [sic] territory in the United States, where a president usurps power and does an end run around Congress in order to advance his authoritarian plan,” said Treviño-Wright in an email to ThinkProgress on Friday morning.

Even the spending bill was largely considered unacceptable to many border communities. While the five areas shielded through Cuellar’s efforts saw relief, other parts of the border were far less lucky.

Rev. Roy Snipes, the parish priest at La Lomita, told the Texas Tribune that being spared “would be the answer to our prayers” but that “our poor neighbors wouldn’t be spared.”

A number of lawmakers rejected the spending bill for similar reasons, including Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) who said in a statement that the wall would spur “55 miles of havoc through the Rio Grande Valley,” prompting a “no” vote from the Austin-area congressman. El Paso Rep. Veronica Escobar (D) similarly voted “no.”

Thousands of scientists and researchers have expressed concern about the wall’s likely impacts on the environment and public health, in addition to broader humanitarian worries.

In Texas alone, the Trump administration waived 28 laws to build the wall, including the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.


Moreover, similar sweeping efforts are ongoing elsewhere in states like California, and opponents have yet to see much success challenging them in court.

The spending bill remains a source of concern for border communities, many of whom have expressed unhappiness with congressional Democrats for giving the president any funding for the wall. That funding also only runs until September, meaning that any relief is already short-lived.

But a national emergency means that even exempted areas could find themselves back on the frontlines of Trump’s beloved project far sooner than that. Trump offered no indication during his comments on Friday morning as to whether some areas might be spared the barriers.

That could imperil places like Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, which the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) has long cautioned could shutter over wall construction. TPWD has previously warned a wall would “bifurcate the park” and leave it unable to perform its basic functions.

In response to a request for comment from ThinkProgress, TPWD Press Office Manager Steve Lightfoot commended Cuellar’s “hard work and persistence” to secure protections for the park.

“Native habitats cover only about 5 percent of the Lower [Rio Grande Valley], and special places like Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park offer critical habitat and refuge for hundreds of species of birds, plants, and butterflies that are found in no other place outside the region,” Lightfoot said, while declining to discuss the national emergency’s implications for Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.

With their fate in limbo, morale is running low in some of the border’s most treasured areas, not least of all at the National Butterfly Center. On Friday, Treviño-Wright expressed pessimism over the fate of the beloved wildlife preserve.

“The exemption in the spending bill will not likely save us in a state of emergency situation, nor does it provide any guarantee for 2020,” she said, “when another budget battle for border wall will likely put us back on the table.”