by Kiah Colier, The Texas Tribune

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security gave notice that it plans to waive environmental laws to install gates along a stretch of border fence in the Rio Grande Valley.

Roughly a decade ago when the federal government built 60 miles of border fence in the Rio Grande Valley, it left a few dozen long gaps in the barrier where it said it would eventually install gates.

The spaces have been a point of confusion and frustration for local residents who say they render the fence ineffective — and a target of ire from progressives who say they are proof that the barrier was more of a political statement than a practical solution to hinder drug smugglers and undocumented crossers.

Now, infused with cash from the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is finally looking to make good on its promise. On Tuesday, the agency filed a notice in the Federal Register saying it plans to waive more than a dozen environmental and other laws so it can install gates and roads along the border fence in Cameron County.

A project to install some 35 gates has been authorized, and funded, since at least July 2017 but the agency has been largely silent on when exactly it would begin work on the project. The exact date is still unclear, but the notice indicates construction may be imminent.

“For the last several years, the Rio Grande Valley Sector has seen more apprehensions of illegal aliens than any other sector of the United States Border Patrol,” according to the notice, signed by DHS Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen. “For example, in fiscal year 2017 alone, Border Patrol apprehended over 137,000 illegal aliens. In that same year, Border Patrol seized approximately 260,000 pounds of marijuana and approximately 1,200 pounds of cocaine.”

Nielsen has broad authority to waive environmental and other laws for border fence construction under laws passed in the mid-2000s. Then-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff invoked those laws for the construction of 654 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border — just short of the 700 mile goal set by Congress. Although the barrier was ordered under the Bush administration, the Obama administration oversaw construction.

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One of the gaps the U.S. Border Patrol will close is in the Texas Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve, which is home to some of the last remaining stands of sabal palm tree forest in the country. Spokeswoman Vanessa Martin said the conservancy received a letter on Tuesday regarding the project, which she described as “a looming threat.”

“To our knowledge, DHS has not finalized the access plan but we’ve made a request to keep the gate open during business hours so that active restoration, research, farm operations and the native plant nursery, which serves as the seed and plant source for restoration projects in the region, can continue,” Martin wrote in an email.

She added: “From a wildlife impact perspective, this closes a key access point in the wildlife corridor.”

South Texas landowners who have border fence running through their properties are given secret codes to open gates, if there are any.

Martin said the conservancy has been told the project will be complete in the spring of 2019. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman said the agency could not share a timeline “at this point.”

Scientists say the fence has had a detrimental impact on wildlife, including endangered species, in one of the most biodiverse areas in North America. The larger barrier the Trump administration is moving to construct will be even more destructive, they say, hindering not only people and property owners but animals looking for food and mates.

The notification sparked immediate reaction from the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit advocacy group that has sued to stop construction of the Trump border wall.

“This adds insult to injury for Cameron County, where the government has already run roughshod over property owners and decimated the environment to build border walls,” said Laiken Jordahl, a borderlands campaigner for the group, in a statement. “Trump’s latest waiver continues to chip away at crucial protections for people and wildlife in the Rio Grande Valley. They deserve clean air, clean water and the same legal rights as everyone else in the country.”

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