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17 USC 102

The Environmental Impact of the Border Wall

January 11, 2019

 

The southern border of the United States is currently home to more than 650 miles of steel fencing constructed to deter unauthorized immigration. Across these 650 miles in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and California, walls and barbed wire bisect wildlife refuges, national monuments, national forests, and other environmentally and ecologically significant landmarks. These projects have cost billions of dollars, but their environmental cost, in terms of lost biodiversity and the economic cost of repairs needed due to flooding, is many times that.

 

As President Donald Trump holds the federal government hostage until Congress agrees to appropriate $5 billion for a border wall that would run the entire length of the nearly 2,000 mile southern border, it is as important as ever to understand what a border wall would look like, and more importantly, why nearly 70 percent of Americans believe that building a wall should not be an immediate priority. In the discussion of the merits and faults of the wall, arguably the most often overlooked issues are environmental concerns.

 

Many endangered and vulnerable species call the region home and migrate regularly across the border. Natural waterways have been altered to deflect water off of the physical barriers of the borderlands, and this exacerbates flooding. The fact of the matter is that the waiving of statutes protecting the region  and the billion-dollar expenditures on physical barriers have caused and will continue to cause irreversible harm to local border ecosystems and communities that already face myriad environmental challenges.

 

As is often the case, the sidelining of environmental concerns in the border region was made possible by the post-9/11 national security state. In 2005, Congress passed the Real ID Act, part of which permits the secretary of homeland security to unilaterally waive any and all local, state, and federal laws to expedite construction of infrastructure deemed essential to national security, such as border fencing or a wall. In addition to the unilateral and magisterial waiver power granted to unelected officials, the legislation is flawed because the ability of courts to review these waivers is heavily restricted. U.S. District Courts have exclusive jurisdiction on the matter, and individuals have just 60 days after the fact to file a claim of unconstitutional action by the agency. District court rulings can only be reviewed upon petition of writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court. This provision effectively provides blanket justification for a single individual to override existing federal, state, and local laws, tantamount to a violation of the separation of powers. As Article I of the Constitution stipulates that existing federal rules and laws can only be repealed by legislation enacted by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the president, vesting waiver power solely in the hands of the DHS secretary is unconstitutional.

 

The Real ID Act has been invoked to justify border fence construction 10 times in the past, waiving 48 different federal laws and many more state and local laws in all four border states. The manner with which DHS secretaries have been able to bowl over environmental regulations and demolish ecosystems and existing understandings, like General William Tecumseh Sherman, under the broad guise of national security has so ingrained itself in American political culture that it is inseparable from the idea of border security.

 

With the intention of citing this broad authority, the Trump Administration plans to invoke the Real ID Act in the event it is able to secure funding for the wall. The White House plans to waive such landmark environmental and ecological regulations as the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act. Because all of these pieces of legislation had passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan approval, the administration’s waiving of such provisions undermines the rule of law and weakens their universally consistent enforceability, rendering the environmental statutes in question toothless. If the Clean Water Act cannot be enforced in a Texas border town, then who’s to say it would be any more enforceable, anywhere else? Once upon a time, Republicans stood for the values of rule of law, fair and consistent application, and environmental protection, but as the past quarter of a century has demonstrated, they have abandoned them in the monomaniacal, zero-sum, fact-free pursuit of owning the libs.

 

In its short tenure, the Trump Administration has made no secret of its hostility to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Last July, the departments of commerce and the interior announced their intentions to end a policy granting similar protections to species listed in the ESA as either threatened or endangered and to make it easier to remove species from the lists (a move championed by the fossil fuel industry and land development groups). The deputy secretary of the Interior Department has called the ESA “ an unnecessary regulatory burden.”

 

The construction of a border wall would represent another act of hostility towards the ESA and the continued survival of endangered species. Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change estimates that as many as 800 species would be negatively affected by a hypothetical border wall, with 111 of them listed as endangered under the ESA. Even while the wall is still being built, the habitats of these animals and the animals themselves will be disturbed by the presence of large vehicles, a sudden increase in the amount of noise, and pollution. However, this period of disturbance is temporary, as opposed to the obstacles to survival presented by the continued presence of a wall.

 

The imposition of borders and the concept of border security is a human construction. Animals in the region migrate and regularly traverse national boundaries. While a determined human can poke a hole in a fence or use a ladder to climb a wall, there are simply no options for the animals who call the border region home. The waiving of environmental and ecological protections like the Endangered Species Act allows for construction of fences and walls right through the habitats of many endangered species, including the jaguar, the ocelot, and the Sonoran pronghorn. This would separate these species from their homes, food, and water, and makes mating more difficult or next-to-impossible, pushing their populations ever closer to extinction.

 

Take the jaguar, for example. The jaguar once was worshipped as a deity in the Mayan and Aztec societies (and was depicted as a brave warrior and wise leader in Hopi and Anasazi drawings) and lived throughout Central and South America, Mexico, and what would become the southern and central United States. Over the course of hundreds of years, jaguars were driven out of the U.S. and hunted to near extinction north of the border.

 

Today, the number of wild jaguars in the U.S. can be counted on one hand, with all of the sightings taking place in Southern Arizona. With the nearest breeding population 130 miles south of the border, the American jaguar population already faces significant obstacles. But building the wall would almost ensure extinction. The Department of Interior has declared more than 750,000 acres of Arizona and New Mexico to be “critical habitat” for jaguars, meaning that under the ESA, federal agencies must conduct business in the region in a way that “conserves species” and that any action taken must not endanger the survival of any species listed as threatened or endangered (as jaguars are). Not coincidentally, any proposal for a wall that secures the border would have to cover this same area. By waiving the ESA, DHS could build the wall without consideration of the threat it would pose to jaguars. The wall would then block the migration of the small population of jaguars that exist in Northern Mexico, stifling breeding and therefore leaving the two suspected remaining jaguars in the U.S. to die, with all efforts to re-establish a jaguar population in the U.S. to die with them.

 

In addition to jaguars, scientists are also worried that a 2,000 mile border wall would threaten the endangered Mexican gray wolf in a similar way. Only about 100 of these wolves remain in the wild on both sides of the border. Isolating them from each other via a wall would lead to not only a shortage of breeding, but also an increase in inbreeding, which could hasten their extinction.

 

Of course, not every threat posed by a border wall to animals is an existential one, but the accumulation of everyday inconveniences can give way to worrisome trends. The Lower Rio Grande Valley is one of the most biodiverse regions in North America precisely because so much of it is protected by both the U.S. and Mexican governments. However, when border security becomes the primary consideration and these ecological protections are waived, this biodiversity finds itself under assault. In 2007, the U.S. government bulldozed parts of the wildlife refuges of the area and erected walls while ignoring entirely any environmental considerations. With the construction of new roads and fences, the amount of space open for wildlife to live in decreased while new threats such as traffic increased, making for a nightmarish scenario. In the years following the federal government’s construction of walls and roads in the Lower Rio Grande Valley’s wildlife refuges, scientists have detected an uptick in bobcat mortality on roads and in fights with other bobcats as they seek out or scrap over a shrinking and changing habitat.

 

The design of border walls also poses a serious threat to wildlife. Sections of the barriers that have already been constructed have lights that attract and zap pollinators like monarch butterflies that regularly cross the border. Because of the integral role played by butterflies in pollination, preventing their migration and preventing them from laying eggs (by destroying milkweed plants near the border) poses a direct threat to the food supply of humans and border ecosystems. The size of the barrier can be an obstacle as well. Taller barriers will impede the migration and wandering of birds and bats like the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, which flies just four feet off the ground on average. In addition, fences and walls cut off animals from water. In the humid and drought-prone Southwestern U.S., access to water is a life or death issue for these animals.

 

In many ways, the border wall would be an ecological catastrophe, but it is not just endangered species who are at risk. At the end of the day, the threats to our food supply and safety are major environmental threats as well. The livelihoods of border ecosystems and border communities are inextricably tied together.

 

Most notably, building a border wall on or through major regional waterways exacerbate flooding. River hydraulics experts have noted that a wall build in a floodplain often acts like a dam. That is, in a torrential rainstorm, the wall will deflect water and worsen flooding. A decade of anecdotal evidence backs up this hypothesis: in 2008, a severe rainstorm hit the Arizona-Mexico border and the wall acted as a dam, allowing waters to reach heights up to six feet. These floods would cost residents millions in property damage and killed two people. The very same storm caused flooding in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the federal government spent millions of dollars on rebuilding border walls and installing flood gates. That worked until a less severe 2011 rainstorm came and the wall acted as a dam again. Ultimately, the wall’s foundations crumbled and a 40 foot section of it was destroyed by the floods. The section was rebuilt yet again, only for an even larger segment of the wall to be destroyed by floods in 2014. (Talk about a Sisyphean endeavor!)

 

The lives lost in the Arizona floods of 2008 and the millions of dollars spent on repairing border infrastructure and the towns destroyed by floods are an indication of what river hydraulics experts and border residents have known for more than a decade: that the border wall will make flooding much worse, ensuring that climate change hits the region harder, in a more costly way than anywhere else in the country. Is the chance to erect a costly monument to bigotry that nearly all experts believe to be ineffective at its one task really work the cost in property, financial, and ecological damage that it will bring? Anyone making a rational decision based on the facts, not their fears will surely conclude that it is not.

 

The U.S.-Mexico border is unique in that it is not only a national border but also a natural one. Border regions are places where cultures and creatures come together and mix, where numerous diverse and historic communities and ecosystems overlap and transcend national boundaries, and that is especially true of the U.S.-Mexico border region. The wonders of the region are shared by these two worlds, on both sides of the border. The region is special and unique in that some of the rarest species and oldest human cultures and communities call it home. Yet these communities and ecosystems are under assault by those who wish to erect a border wall, the ultimate denial of another’s humanity and dreams, in refutation of all that these treasured communities share and value, and in spite of the wonder and utility these endangered and unique species bring to people on both sides of the border.

 

For decades, the battle over the future of the border region has been fought in Washington by people who have never visited or bothered to consider the impacts of militarizing and hardening the border on the very communities and ecosystems that make the region one of the most special places on this planet. The discourse on the borderlands has long left out those who are most prominently affected by these policies. No longer. The issue of whether we build a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border matters more gravely than ever before, and we cannot afford to leave the voices of the region and environmental and ecological concerns out of this discussion. For in our hands rests the way of life of border communities, and the future of the jaguar, the Mexican gray wolf, the monarch butterfly, and the bobcat. In our hands rests all the people and species whose very livelihood and survival depends on the United States, the Trump Administration, and the public recognizing the true cost of the border wall, not merely in dollars but also in the natural biodiversity and beauty that we cannot ever recapture when it is gone. Saying no to the border wall is our duty to our country, our people, and equally as important, our planet.

 

Photo credit Clark Jim, Creative Commons

 

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