Border fence concerns Rio Grande defenders

Fence Paddlers
Eric Ellman and his dog, Buster, kayak on the lower Rio Grande near Mission, Texas, Thursday, July 10, 2008. Kayakers and canoeists will descend on the lower Rio Grande for events this fall aimed at rising the river's profile as a recreation destination and drawing attention to the impact the border fence would have on river access. Eric Gay / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The federal government's border fence plans in South Texas have been attacked by property owners, wildlife advocates and land conservationists. The next wave of opponents could come from the water — and they're carrying paddles.

Kayakers and canoeists will descend on the lower Rio Grande for events this fall aimed at raising the river's profile as a recreation hub and at drawing attention to the impact the border fence could have by blocking access to the river.

The Rio Grande forms Texas' 1,255-mile border with Mexico from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico. But most of the river, with the notable exception of Big Bend National Park, is forgotten by the state's tens of thousands of recreational paddlers. Those who do use the river share the water with Border Patrol agents patrolling in bulletproof vests and with smugglers of drugs and people.

In a recent letter to Roma Mayor Rogelio Ybarra, the president of the Texas Rivers Protection Association expressed his support for a planned river festival and his concern about the border fence. But perhaps most telling was the clear illustration of how novel the idea of using the lower Rio Grande was even for people dedicated to the state's rivers.

"It has come to our attention recently that the Lower Rio Grande is indeed a safe and legal place to paddle, and that rights for all U.S. citizens to do so are guaranteed by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo," association president Tom Goynes wrote. "It's ironic that we only learned that the resource was available to us as a result of the government's plans to take it away."

Los Caminos del Rio, a nonprofit group based in McAllen, recognizes that its Healthy Living Festival planned for Nov. 1 — to capitalize on any attention the border could receive before the national election three days later — is unlikely to affect the 85 miles of border fence slated for completion in Texas this year.

While not backing off its fence plans, the Border Patrol supports Los Caminos's efforts to get more people on the river.

"The more eyes we have out there, the better job we can do," said Dan Doty, spokesman for the local Border Patrol sector.

River recreation
For Los Caminos del Rio, more legal activity on the river — kayaking, canoeing, fishing — will discourage the illegal smuggling activity. Executive director Eric Ellman says Friends of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge have been giving canoe tours for years without incident, and his own group has had hundreds on the river in the past couple years without problem.

Mexicans have a tradition of using the Rio Grande for recreation.

Already, anyone traveling the river is more likely to see people on the Mexican shoreline — fishing, swimming, boating. There are more public access points and someone has even opened a water skiing academy upriver from Mission on the Mexican side.

'I need to fight'
Aleida Flores Garcia is trying to get something going on the U.S. side as well, but the border fence could kill it.

She and her husband, Jorge Garcia, have been working on their property along the river in Los Ebanos for years. They've cleared brush, put in a park and built a boat ramp. They plan to build a large thatched pavilion and hold fishing tournaments and dances. Garcia recently incorporated her business as the La Paloma Ranch Retreat.

But the federal government has sent her a condemnation letter. The border fence is planned to run across her property, leaving most of it in the no man's land between the fence and river.

Garcia has a lawyer and is fighting the government, but other challenges have so far been unsuccessful.

"I need to fight for this little town," she said. "The nature itself is just too beautiful to be blocked by a wall."