Congress moves to block border wall in key wildlife refuge

Washington (CNN)The $1.3 trillion spending bill that would fund the government through September -- and has President Donald Trump's support -- has the first money to build new border fencing under the Trump administration, but also puts a piece of the border in Texas off limits.

A provision would block construction through the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a critical section of the border where Trump's Department of Homeland Security initially wanted to put an early stage of his border wall.
Overall, the bill includes $1.6 billion for border barriers and technology -- including new construction for the first time since Trump took office.
But Santa Ana was one of the first places Trump's wall was set to be built, something the bill would halt. The bill would also restrict the kind of construction that can be done to only existing fencing -- allowing Democrats to claim they blocked the President's "wall" and Republicans to claim they have begun the wall. Most of the allocated monies go to replacement fencing, as well.
    The President still touted the border wall funding despite the exemption, tweeting, in part: "Got $1.6 billion to start Wall on Southern Border, rest will be forthcoming."
    The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    For the past year, environmental groups have been protesting the proposed wall, which was set to run through all 3.1 miles of the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.
    "The bill is very explicit in keeping any new border walls from going up in Santa Ana," said Scott Nicol, co-chairman of the Sierra Club Borderlands. "I think we were successful in making walling off Santa Ana politically toxic."
    The refuge is in Hidalgo County, Texas, and sits on the border of the US and Mexico right on the Rio Grande. Last year, US Customs and Border Protection apprehended more than 137,000 people in the area -- making it the highest trafficked place on the southern border.
    But the refuge is 2,000 acres of protected federal land home to nearly 200 species, including some that are endangered, like the ocelot. There are only 50 of the small jaguar-like cats left in the United States, and the remaining population is entirely in Southeast Texas. Barriers, roads, and population explosion has led to a significant loss of the ocelot's habitat and has made it difficult for the species to thrive and breed. Some environmentalist argue if a wall were to go up in Santa Ana, it could lead to the extinction of the ocelot in the US.
    The Santa Ana border wall was set to be a pilot project for other sections of the border because the land could be easily acquired and built on as it is federally owned.
    While the the miles of Santa Ana will be safe, the spending bill calls for nearly $641 million for 25 miles of new fencing on both sides of the refuge. That will join the 22 miles of existing nearby fencing.
    "They would run levee walls all the way up to Santa Ana, and then run the walls all the way on the other side -- so basically Santa Ana would be like a three mile hole in a 50 mile wall," said Nicol.

    Other border areas

    Environmental groups were concerned the Department of Homeland Security would wave environmental protection laws in Santa Ana as the agency has done in three other places along the border under the Trump administration: San Diego, Santa Teresa, New Mexico, and Calexico, California.
    But the bill calls for a "consultation of environmental impact" with the Secretary of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency before any walls are built along the Southwest border, while making specific mention of Santa Ana.
    The spending bill also includes $679 million for 14 miles of replacement fencing in San Diego.
    Last week the Trump made his first visit to California and visited the eight border wall prototypes. He mentioned he liked a "see through" wall so border patrol agents could see through to the other side, something border security experts have advocated. But none of the prototypes will be usable under the omnibus restrictions.
    Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the location of the fencing next to the Santa Ana wildlife refuge and where the bill would authorize new construction.