The President of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), Carter Smith, has reportedly notified the Bentsen family that the state park which bears their name will revert to them when the border wall is built, according to Marianna Treviño-Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center.
This act will be triggered by the terms of the original deed of conveyance for the land from the Lloyd Bentsen family to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1944, which stipulates various “Use Restriction(s),” whereby any breach of “public park purposes,” including if it “is not so maintained, designated and operated . . . for the use and benefit of the public, then the title to such land shall revert” back to the “Grantors,” in this case the Bentsens.
TPWD has maintained and operated Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park ever since receiving the property.bentsen sp
However, the Lone Star State, known for fighting the good fight against federal land-grabs on the northern Texas border, appears prepared to forfeit that “use and benefit” enjoyed by the public for almost 75 years, giving a green light to the federal government to bulldoze and clear the way for Trump’s border wall, according to the source.
This news came to light shortly after U.S. Customs and Border Protection sent a memo at the end of June to the Defenders of Wildlife outlining plans for additional border wall construction, including 25 new miles in McAllen, levee walls, bollard walls, 150-foot enforcement zones, and surveillance cameras funded by the Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2018.
Once completed, all of Hidalgo County will be walled off from the Rio Grande River, except for 3.3 miles through Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park (BRGVSP) consists of 766 acres of brushy woodlands along the Rio Grande. It is also the headquarters of the World Birding Center, a network consisting of nine sites: Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, Harlingen Arroyo Colorado, Resaca de la Palma State Park, Roma Bluffs, Quinta Mazatlan, Old Hidalgo Pumphouse Nature Park, Estero Llano Grande State Park, South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, all prime centers for bird and butterfly watching.
Neighbor to the state park, where over 325 species of birds and more than 250 species of butterflies have been noted, is the National Butterfly Center operated by the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), whose President just led in the authorship of a paper in the journal Bioscience documenting the ecological harms of a fence and barrier construction along the 2,000 mile US/Mexico border over the past decade and the further damage that would be incurred by Trump administration’s proposed continuous wall. The paper is co-signed by 2,700 scientists from 47 countries.
The National Butterfly Center filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security in December of 2017. The suit came after Treviño-Wright, discovered contractors for U.S. Customs and Border Protection using chainsaws to clear protected habitat in order to make way for a border wall in late July 2017. Treviño-Wright is also President of the World Birding Center corporation.
No stranger to this fact, City Manager for Mission, Martin Garza, requested that Treviño-Wright arrange a meeting with the Bentsen family to explore both parties’ interest in maintaining the park for public use and enjoyment after the wall is built.
The City of Mission holds a stake in the future of Bentsen State Park as well.
According to the “Use Restriction for Tract 1,” in the Special Warranty Deed from Aug. 13, 2002, wherein Bentsen Palm Ltd. granted a total of 176.01 acres to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for the express purpose of developing and operating the World Birding Center Headquarters and Visitor’s Center, should the property (described as, Exhibit A-1— in effect the entrance to the park) not be used continuously “for a period of one year or more… for purposes of constructing, developing, and operating a World Birding Center, then the title to the World Birding Center improvements and Tracts…shall pass to the City of Mission.”
City Manager Garza could not be reached for comment.
TPWD Director Smith is expected as one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Association of Nature Center Administrator’s (ANCA) national conference this September at the Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center. According to the federal government’s border wall pre-solicitation notice posted at fedbizopps.gov, this event will coincide with the government’s award for Phase 1 contracts related to border wall construction in Hidalgo County.
Monday, Trevino-Wright responded to an ANCA conference email announcing Smith’s appearance in the Rio Grande Valley urging participants to hold Smith accountable to the stated purposes of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, including environmental conservation, recreation, and education where Bentsen State Park is concerned.
Tuesday, Trevino-Wright received a phone call from a TPWD employee explaining that executives and other privileged employees of TPWD remain hush-hush about Bentsen’s likely closure. They cited a public policy statement and claimed that agency leadership squashed a letter drafted by TPWD employees to Governor Greg Abbott, in defense of BRGVSP, following Smith’s meeting with him. The same caller then urged her to reach out to Smith directly to put her mind “at ease” about the future of the state park.
“I guess that’s where their motivation became clear: that it was more about the ANCA conference than about anything else,” said Trevino-Wright. “I don’t need my mind put at ease ahead of the ANCA conference and Smith’s scheduled appearance there. For one, I will not be able to attend because it is occurring at the same time as NABA’s (North American Butterfly Association) biennial meeting, which I must attend in Tallahassee. Second, I am not concerned with any public official’s comfort.”
“Politicians and public employees should serve the interests of their constituents and answer to them,” continued Trevino-Wright. “Unfortunately, I think this call was about making sure Carter Smith isn’t put on the hot seat. After all, TPWD’s silence regarding the border wall and Bentsen State Park has been deafening.”
Josh Havens, Communications Director for TPWD, said Wednesday, “We have had conversations with the Bentsens, keeping them apprised of our dealings with Customs and Border Protection, regarding potential plans for the wall and our message to the Bentsen family has been the same that it is to the federal government: that TPWD’s goal is to minimize impacts as much as possible and that we are going to keep working to find a solution that will benefit both the federal government and us . . . one that allows them to achieve their mission and allows us to preserve the operational viability of the park.”
Havens maintained, “At no time have we notified the Bentsen family that the park will be closing, nor do we have plans for it to close.”
The fact remains if TPWD cannot achieve their stated goal, the property will revert to the Bentsen family.
Now, the residents of the Rio Grande Valley must face the potential consequence of the park’s closure, including the loss of access to recreational and educational lands and the loss of dollars pumped into this region by an eco-tourism industry responsible for almost $500 million per year to our local economy.
A document produced by TPWD, which appears to be an internal agency brief, methodically and specifically lays out the effects a border wall built at the entrance to the state park would have on Valley residents and tourists.
How would the closure of Bentsen State Park affect the 30,000 visitors who enter it every year? What will the impact be to the riparian woodlands native to the Rio Grande Valley and the wildlife unique to this remnant of native habitat on the banks of the Rio Grande River?
“Proposed placement of the wall would essentially separate the park’s Headquarters, Visitor, and Education Center from the great majority of park property,” gravely limiting public access, according to the document.
“If the levee border wall is built with a proposed gate as the entrance into Bentsen State Park,” the document warns, “it seems likely that a Border Patrol Checkpoint will need to be constructed to monitor visitors leaving the park.”
An already heavily-patrolled area, as Border Patrol-marked vehicles disrupt and disturb the scenery of the brushlands on route to the center, as well as when exiting, the increased presence of Border Patrol, Texas Department of Public Safety units, State Park, and municipal police all serve as a deterrent to visitors that desire to connect with the outdoors, in an area where TPWD admits only about 5 percent of our native habitat remains.
Trevino-Wright criticized local and state lawmakers who she feels are not doing enough to stand up for Bentsen Park, but praised two state legislators taking the lead, namely Senator Judith Zaffirini of Laredo and Representative Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City. At a time when legislative progress appears less likely than judicial, the battle for private property rights will head to court via the National Butterfly Center’s lawsuit filed in District Court in the District of Columbia.
At present, the center has entered the discovery and conferencing phase of the litigation process.
“Ultimately, the federal government has the power of eminent domain to seize lands, both public and private,” Trevino-Wright explained. “TPWD is well aware of this, as is Governor Abbott, who is not challenging the taking of Texas on the southern border as he did when he fought the feds in the battle for private property on the northern border back when he was our attorney general.”
“For this reason, I do not think there is any hope for saving Bentsen, unless the citizens of Texas, members of Texas Parks and Wildlife, residents of the Rio Grande Valley and, of course, the birders from across the country, demand Bentsen, the National Butterfly Center— indeed, the entirety of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Wildlife Conservation Corridor— be spared from the ecological and environmental disaster that is the border wall. Basically, we’re all screwed unless Governor Abbott decides to defend Texas and the lands that rightfully belong to Texans.”
Whether the Bentsens will join the fight for private property rights should this reversion occur is yet to be seen. They could not be reached for comment.