The spending bill passed by Congress on Thursday allocates more than a billion dollars to construct President Donald Trump’s border wall through the Rio Grande Valley. But there is one key stipulation: none of those funds can be used for construction in the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge.
The administration had previously begun preparations for constructing the wall through the refuge, which stretches for 2,088-acres along the U.S.-Mexico border. The refuge, which was created in 1943, is home to at least 400 species of birds, 450 types of plants, and half of the butterfly species found in North America.
Construction of the wall through the refuge would have required 18-foot structures — designed to let water flow in and out — that would cross through nearly 3 miles of the region. It would require construction of roads, as well as clearing of land on either side. A federal official told the Texas Observer in July that construction of the wall would “essentially destroy the refuge.”
The refuge was meant to be one of the first places that the wall would be built, because the federal government already owns the land and wouldn’t have to worry about issues of private ownership.
Despite the omnibus blocking spending for construction of the wall through the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, some preparation activities have already begun. According to the Department of Homeland Security, soil samples have been drilled “at several locations along the southwest border, including in the Santa Ana Refuge in Rio Grande Valley,” to help map below-ground conditions that could impact construction of the wall.
Environmental groups have opposed Trump’s wall, arguing that it would pose a serious threat to wildlife and ecosystems along the border. Construction of the wall, for instance, could cut off migration routes for land-based animals, or destroy nesting habitat for birds.
According to a 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife report, more than 100 animals that are listed as endangered, threatened, or candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act could be affected by the border wall.
Despite the potential impact on wildlife and ecosystems, the Trump administration has repeatedly expressed its intention to construct the wall without conducting environmental reviews.
A 2005 anti-terror law gives the department broad authority for construction of projects that relate to national security, including forgoing environmental reviews and waiving a number of fundamental environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act.
The administration’s attempts to waive environmental laws has faced opposition from environmental groups and Democratic politicians. The Center for Biological Diversity and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) have filed a lawsuit to stop construction of the wall, claiming that the administration illegally failed to conduct an environmental impact study.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra also filed a lawsuit against the administration, arguing that the homeland security law used by the administration to expedite the construction process — and bypass environmental laws — only pertains to projects constructed before 2009.
Those lawsuits, however, face steep legal odds. Becerra’s lawsuit has already been rejected by a federal judge on the grounds that the administration had not exceeded its legal authority in ordering expedited construction of the project.
And Republicans in Congress are currently working to make challenging the law on environmental grounds even more difficult, with two bills that would allow the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Patrol to construct physical barriers and conduct border patrols on federal or tribal land without regard to 36 different laws.
Still, environmental groups viewed the omnibus’ prohibition of construction in the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge as a win.
“The bill is very explicit in keeping any new border walls from going up in Santa Ana,” Scott Nicol, co-chairman of the Sierra Club Borderlands, told CNN. “I think we were successful in making walling off Santa Ana politically toxic.”
The spending bill now heads to the president’s desk. It is unclear, however, whether Trump will sign the bill into law — he threatened to veto the bill via Twitter on Friday morning in part because the bill fails to fully fund the wall’s construction.