Saving a Crown Jewel

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and Photos by iLCP Fellow Krista Schlyer


On a late January afternoon the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge trails are quiet, aside from the curve-billed thrashers, Carolina wrens and black-crested titmice calling through a fresh north wind. I came here today for an hour of respite before boarding a plane back home to Washington DC. I have been here many times before, but today held a special significance. Today may be the last time I see this wild haven before it is destroyed.



Saturday, January 27, was the 75th anniversary of the creation of Santa Ana, and a thousand people came to celebrate the refuge and protest the border wall construction that would destroy it. The refuge was set aside in 1943 because agriculture and flood control measures were erasing the native habitat in South Texas. As the native landscape disappeared, so did the rich diversity of birds that had called the Lower Rio Grande Valley Home. This valley was historically a Mecca for birds, butterflies and all manner of insects, and tropical cats like the jaguar, ocelot and jaguarundi. Situated in the transition area between the tropical and temperate zones, this land is a melting pot of the north and south of the natural world.



But today, less than 5 percent of the native habitat remains. Jaguars are gone. Ocelots and jaguarundis are critically endangered. Many bird species disappeared, yet, more than 500 different species continue to cling to the remnant habitat that has been saved under the National Wildlife Refuge System and private preserves. Santa Ana is the largest and most important of those remnant islands of habitat in an ocean of human development. Its value defies measure, which is why it is often referred to as the crown jewel of the wildlife refuge system.


But Santa Ana is also the first target for border wall construction if Congress approves funding. A border wall would bisect the refuge and scrape the vegetation from a large swath of land for an enforcement zone. The decision could be made in the next 10 days.



To try to help people see the immeasurable value of Santa Ana, I wrote a poem and worked with some talented filmmakers Jenny Nichols, Allison Otto, and Morgan Heim, to make a short film called Ay Santa Ana.



There are some places in this world where life and beauty effervesce from the ground itself, places we simply cannot lose.

There are some places in this world where life and beauty effervesce from the ground itself, places we simply cannot lose. There are landscapes where lines must be drawn in the proverbial sand and we must say, no, you will not take this from the world. Not on our watch. Many such places exist in the US-Mexico borderlands, and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is one. Here is a place people will lay down their bodies to protect.



Some members of Congress and even editorials in the Washington Post have suggested that sacrificing the border landscape for the sake of political compromise is worth it. I think those politicians and political writers must never have seen Santa Ana or any of the wild places and beautiful people who call the borderlands home. People are often willing to sacrifice what they do not understand.



As I was leaving Santa Ana I chanced upon a common paraque perfectly camouflaged upon the forest floor. It had been sleeping, but when I arrived it roused and looked up at me. This beautiful bird, and thousands of other species who depend on Santa Ana, and on lands all across the borderlands, are looking to us to be a voice for them. To tell those in Washington DC who would sacrifice their very futures, that the borderlands is a home, not a bargaining chip.

Please help members of Congress understand by sharing this blog and film.

The number for the Congressional switchboard is: 202-224-3121

For more information about the peril currently posed to the US-Mexico Borderlands, visit my web story: Embattled Borderlands


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Meet the Author
The mission of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) is to further environmental and cultural conservation through photography. iLCP is a Fellowship of more than 100 photographers from all around the globe. As a project based organization, iLCP coordinates Conservation Photography Expeditions to get world-renowned photographers in the field teamed with scientists, writers, videographers and conservation groups to gather visual assets that are used to create conservation communications campaigns to foment conservation successes. iLCP is a 501 (c) (3) organization. Support our work at this link.