Volume 18, Issue 14
Despite its reputation as a barren wasteland, the desert regions of the American southwest are some of the most biologically rich areas in all of North America. Within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, there are 25 million acres of protected public lands, including six national parks, six wildlife refuges and a number of wilderness areas.
Of this area, the Coronado National Forest, part of the ecologically rich Sky Island mountain range that extends from Sonora, Mexico, into southern Arizona and New Mexico, contains more threatened and endangered species than any other national forest in the country. Many of these threatened species are charismatic megafaunas, such as the Mexican gray wolf, ocelot, jaguarundi, and a lone jaguar that has reentered the region from Mexico after the species was driven to extinction in the U.S. during the 20th century.
Yet these species and many others are increasingly threatened by the expanding wall the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is building on the border to deter unauthorized migration from Mexico. A 2011 study by Penn State biologist Jesse Lasky found that, of 369 animal species documented within 30 miles of the border, 50 were considered endangered.
The 654 miles of wall that already exist along the 2,000-mile long border has prevented at least 45 of those species from migrating, potentially reducing their gene pool and cutting them off from water sources and hunting grounds. “A lot of species do best in Northern Mexico, but with changes in precipitation patterns, they would need to disperse across the border,” says Lasky. “This is something we should be thinking about a lot more – how fast organisms are responding to climate change.”
Additionally, new roads created by the Border Patrol into more remote areas of Arizona’s southern desert have also disrupted desert habitat and destroyed many miles of cryptobiotic soil, clumps of fungus and algae that retain moisture and assist in plant growth that take many years to form.
In autumn of 2017, President Trump requested $1.6 billion for the construction of 74 miles of additional wall that would bisect the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Texas as well as reinforce an existing wall on the San Diego-Tijuana border in California. Environmentalists worry that apart from bisecting habitat and preventing animal migration, the wall could also exacerbate the risk of flooding to both ecosystems and human settlements.
In Nogales and the adjacent Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, debris has been known to pile up behind the border fence, damming water behind it until it bursts through in a flash flood event that drowns out habitat and occasionally kills people. “Flood water always has debris in it,” says Dan Millis of the Sierra Club Borderlands project. “That’s how you get these damming events that blew out chunks of the wall. Damming also causes erosion – it creates the situation we saw in Arizona where debris backs up the water and then the sediment building upstream created a waterfall that causes more erosion. This is liable to happen in Texas.”
Due to a law passed in 2005 called the Real ID Act, the DHS has the right to waive most environmental regulations in the name of national security, depriving environmental advocacy groups of the power to litigate against the federal government. Yet as the Trump administration makes plans to build 700 to 900 additional miles of concrete wall along the border to the tune of at least $12 billion, environmentalists, scientists, and regional stakeholders are coming up with alternative solutions that promote border security while also enhancing the health of borderland ecosystems.
One such proposal is to create a large international nature reserve on the Rio Grande that is co-owned and operated by the U.S. and Mexican governments. The Rio Grande’s volume is currently on the decline due to climate change as well as diversions by both countries for municipal, agricultural and industrial uses. It also suffers from excessive pollution from raw sewage and fertilizer runoff, possibly contributing to the loss of half a dozen of its native fish species. By restoring the riparian areas on both sides through the planting of trees, reducing water diversions and cleaning up pollution, the river’s water volume and velocity will likely increase, deterring people from crossing while also providing more robust habitat for wildlife.
Yet another option is to rely more heavily on advanced surveillance technology to monitor the border and reduce the environmental damages associated with a physical wall and terrestrial Border Patrol vehicles. The Department of Homeland Security already employs predator drone aircraft, high-elevation blimps, and helicopters equipped with video cameras and infrared sensors used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to monitor border activity. “Technology is definitely first,” said David Aguilar, principal of the Washington D.C.-based Global Security and innovative Strategies consulting firm. “These are things that can be used on any part of the border. There are places where you just can’t put a wall.”
Despite insistence from some that security concerns trump environmental ones, this is a false choice. While no solution is 100% effective, it is possible to secure our border without sacrificing the species and ecosystems that make the borderlands beautiful and worth protecting.
- Barclay, Eliza and Sarah Frostenson. “The ecological disaster that is Trump’s border wall: a visual guide.” Vox. Vox, 29 October 2017. Web. 9 February 2018.
- Goldfarb, Ben. “Where wildlife is up against the wall.” High Country News. High Country News, 10 February 2017. Web. 9 February 2018.
- Lasky, Jesse R. et. al. “Conservation biogeography of the US-Mexico border: a transcontinental risk assessment of barriers to animal dispersal.” Wiley Online Library. Diversity and Distribution: A Journal of Conservation Biogeography, 3 May 2011. Web. 9 February 2018.
- Montemayor, Gabriel Diaz. “There’s a better alternative to building a border wall: restoring the Rio Grande.” Quartz. Quartz Media LLC, 28 August 2017. Web. 19 February 2018.
- Nixon, Ron. “On the Mexican Border, a Case for Technology Over Concrete.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 June 2017. Web. 19 February 2018.
- Ray Ring. “Border out of control.” High Country News. High Country News, 16 June 2014. Web. 9 February 2018.