Birders Madeleine Sandefur, Renee Rubin and Joyce Hamilton walk through the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, TX.
COURTNEY SACCO/USA TODAY NETWORK

ALAMO, Texas – When the border area around the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge flooded during Hurricane Alex in 2010, the ocelots, Texas indigo snakes and endangered Texas tortoises simply crawled, trotted or slithered over a nearby levee to higher ground.

If President Trump’s proposed border wall is erected here, that sanctuary would vanish.

“This is one of the most diverse habitats in the entire country,” said biologist Tiffany Kersten, a border environmentalist and Friends of the Wildlife Corridor board member. “If a wall was put up … everything that doesn’t fly would be affected.”

The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge — a 2,088-acre tangle of trees, animals, birds and butterflies straddling the U.S.-Mexican border in South Texas — could become the site of one of the fiercest standoffs between federal engineers on one side and locals and environmentalists opposing a border wall on the other.

Environmentalist Tiffany Kersten stands on levee inside the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, TX where the proposed border wall may go cutting off the wildlife refuge.
COURTNEY SACCO, USA TODAY NETWORK

Customs and Border Patrol officials said the refuge would be one of the first sites for Trump's proposed wall, which would rise atop the levee that runs through the property.

Congress has yet to appropriate funding for a wall. Trump said he would not extend protection to immigrants brought illegally to this country as children, known as "DREAMers," unless Congress earmarks $25 billion for the wall. Senate Democrats have resisted any wall funding as part of a deal.

The preserve would be a prime site for the wall because it’s federal land and wouldn’t have to go through the lengthy and costly eminent domain hearings that private property would, Kersten said. “It’s low-hanging fruit,” she said.

U.S. Border Patrol agents cross the levee inside the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, TX.
COURTNEY SACCO, USA TODAY NETWORK

Last week, more than 700 protesters gathered in a field next to the refuge to denounce the prospect of a wall there. Other sensitive environmental areas along the border, such as the Santa Teresa area in New Mexico, are likely to experience clashes between pro- and anti-wall groups, said Brian Segee, senior attorney with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

“It’s a 2,000-mile-long area with millions of people living in the borderlands and thousands of sensitive environmental areas and endangered species,” Segee said. “The stakes can scarcely be higher.”

The Border Patrol said in a statement that the refuge lacks patrol roads and other elements to effectively monitor illegal traffic in the area. The agency said it utilizes sustainable environmental practices in all of its decision making and operations.

The Trump administration is attempting to circumvent federal environmental protection laws by filing waivers that allow the government to erect border barriers in ecologically sensitive areas. The administration of George W. Bush filed five such waivers while constructing a border fence, according to federal filings. The Trump administration has filed three, including one that would allow it to build a wall in the Santa Teresa area of south central New Mexico.

The Center for Biological Diversity challenged Trump’s waiver requests in district courts. Segee said it’s only a matter of time before waivers are filed for the Santa Ana refuge.

“The administration is looking for a quick and symbolic victory,” Segee said. “Getting rid of the laws is the easiest way to do that.”

Santa Ana is unique because it’s the intersection of four ecosystems: coastal influence from the east, desert to the west, temperate climate from the north and tropical to the south, said Kersten, who worked at the refuge as a biologist.

The refuge, which has a series of trails that wind through the thicket and lead to the Rio Grande, draws about 150,000 visitors a year and is a major stop for migratory birds, such as the clay-colored thrush and tropical flycatcher, as well as a variety of wildlife and butterflies, she said. More than 400 species of birds have been seen at the refuge.

A wall would take up 3 miles of levee in the refuge, and about 150 feet of trees and natural habitat would have to be cleared away to make a buffer zone for the barrier.

“Knowing that the first segment that goes in would be here, is a huge concern to us,” Kersten said.

On a recent afternoon, Joyce Hamilton, 67, and two of her friends wandered through the paths equipped with binoculars and zoom lenses on their cameras. Hamilton of Harlingen, Texas, said she and her friends frequent the refuge to soak in the natural beauty and look for rare migratory birds. On that day, they were looking for the rose-throated becard.

“This is one of the most revered wildlife preserves in the valley,” Hamilton said. “A wall here would be appalling.”

A Save Santa Ana rally and concert sign across the street from the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, TX.
COURTNEY SACCO, USA TODAY NETWORK