STARR COUNTY, Texas (Border Report) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Saturday showed off the first state-built border wall in the nation, and he said more walls will soon be built in other parts of the state.
Abbott was flanked by Texas General Land Commissioner George P. Bush, whose agency gifted state-owned farmland to put up the first state-funded section of border wall just west of the small town of La Grulla in rural Starr County in deep South Texas.
The 30-foot-tall metal bollards span just 800 feet but, once completed, are slated to run 1.3 miles through these dusty fruit and vegetable fields. The area is set back over a mile from the Rio Grande, which isn’t even visible from the construction site.
It is part of the 8 miles of border wall to be built by the state of Texas in Starr County to “fill in the gaps,” Abbott said, from where the Trump administration began erecting a border barrier that was stopped when President Joe Biden took office.
In June, Abbott pledged during a Border Security Summit in Del Rio, Texas, that the state would build its own border wall and authorized the transfer of $250 million as a down payment to launch construction.
Flanked by state leaders, Abbott said Saturday that this “unprecedented action taken by the state of Texas” is necessary “to secure our state” from human traffickers and drug smugglers crossing the Rio Grande.
He even struck a hammer on a bollard to order construction crews to put up a section of the metal bollard in the high sun and Texas heat before a throng of media assembled in the remote area on Saturday.
Bush, the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush, called it a “momentous occasion” spurred by “the people of Texas who said enough is enough. Enough of open borders. Enough of disorderly chaos led by coyotes, smugglers and traffickers who do harm to our state.”
Bush told Border Report that his agency manages 13 million acres of state-owned land and he has pledged over 200,000 acres eligible for border wall construction.
He said they have “immediate acreage available and ready to go” in the El Paso and West Texas region.
Texas Facilities Commission Chairman Steven Alvis told Border Report the total cost of construction for the 8 miles of border wall segments is “not to exceed $162 million.”
Abbott said it is a “replication” of the design built under the Trump administration. And he said funds are coming from $3 billion set aside by the Texas Legislature for border security, as well as private donations that the state is accepting. The state is also soliciting private land from ranchers and those on the border to put up the border wall.
His hour-long news conference was live-streamed on social media and Abbott took the opportunity to even provide a website for people to donate at borderwall.texas.gov.
Several South Texas environmentalists said they are concerned that the flatlands of Starr County are prone to flooding and this border wall is built a stone’s throw from a national wildlife refuge.
But in response to a question from Border Report regarding whether the state needs to comply with federal environmental regulatory laws, Abbott said it does not.
“We are building this like any private property owner would have the right to build a wall or fence in their own yard and we’re not using federal land. We’re using state land,” Abbott said. “And so the federal government has no authority whatsoever to interfere with our ability to build this wall and to secure our state.”
South Texas environmentalist Scott Nicol told Border Report that Starr County floods and that metal bollards will prevent wildlife, like turtles, from passing back and forth to the river. He also accused Abbott, a Republican who is running for reelection, of staging this press conference and building the border wall to get media coverage during his campaign.
“Abbott is wasting Texans’ money on political theater that only benefits his reelection campaign, not the taxpayers,” Nicol said. “Border walls inflict terrible environmental damage and push border crossers into deadly terrain, but as a security measure, they are worthless. Abbott knows that. Border walls in the Rio Grande floodplain will dam water, worsening flooding in the Texas communities that Abbott claims that he wants to protect.”
Dinah Bear, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental lawyer who is former general counsel for the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, told Border Report that if Abbott is building the wall on state-owned land and not using federal funds and there are no endangered species, historical artifacts, and it’s not in a flood plain or threatens migratory birds then the project might not be subject to federal environmental regulations.
“As I understand the facts, I can’t identify any particular federal environmental law that would come into play now or before the wall was built,” said Bear, who has served under both Democratic and Republican-led administrations.
However, she said she is just learning of this border wall on Saturday and to be certain, environmentalists or any concerned groups would have to comb through reams of records to ensure the new structure isn’t violating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Myles Traphagen, borderlands program coordinator for the Arizona-based nonprofit Wildlands Network, said he was disheartened to hear Texas was building its own border wall in the Rio Grande Valley with plans to expand the metal barrier to West Texas.
“The border is once again being used as a political football. When is it going to stop?” he said.
Traphagen referenced the recent 23-mile hike by a Mexican gray wolf named “Mr. Goodbar,” that walked for several days alongside the border wall in southern New Mexico, just west of the West Texas state line, trying to get south.
GPS tracking devices by U.S. Fish & Wildlife mapped the male wolf’s path. And Traphagen said that is exactly where another Mexican wolf crossed in 2017 headed north from Mexico before the border wall was built.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a South Texas Democrat who is vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Committee, and who represents Starr County, told Border Report the state-built wall is unnecessary.
“Border walls are ineffective, cause harm to the environment, induce severe flooding, and encroach on private property,” Cuellar said. “While Gov. Abbott wants to address the humanitarian crisis at the southern border, he must look to alternative solutions. I remain staunchly opposed to border walls, which are cost-prohibitive and ineffective. Instead, let’s focus on technology, equipment and personnel.”
After years of fighting the federal government, which wanted to build a border wall on her family’s riverfront land, Starr County landowner Nayda Alvarez finally had the case dropped this past year. Now, she says, the state is going after other riverfront landowners in Starr County and she worries many ranchers will give up property and allow the border barrier to be built on lands bordering the Rio Grande.
“Why do they keep targeting Starr County?” Alvarez said.
Alvarez said the governor should, instead, focus on shoring up the state’s power grid, which failed last winter.
“Winter is coming and he allocated millions for the wall?” she said. “We’ve got bigger issues.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.