Walled-Off World

Wildlife is ignored in the border debate

With politicians chest-puffing over immigration control, proposed solutions have ranged from absurd to downright dumb. But critics say one notion--building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico line--is an environmental disaster in the making.

Conservationists are particularly irked over a massive, triple wall proposed by Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican. Up to 15 feet high, Kyl's barrier would stretch for some 370 miles.

The project carries a $2 billion price tag. But its cost to delicate ecosystems and endangered species is incalculable, says Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist formerly with Tucson's Center for Biological Diversity. "There's no concern for the wildlife in the area. The government can put up triple walls, and people are going to find a way around those things. But wildlife won't."

Creatures ranging from tiny lizards to big cats are threatened by the proposed barrier. "For large animals, the kind of fences that stop people will stop pronghorn, mule deer, bighorn sheep, coatis, bears and jaguars," says UA biologist Phil Rosen. "Any jaguar populations moving into the United States from Mexico would be severely affected."

These wall-building schemes date to December, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a get-tough immigration measure that included a 700-mile border barrier. It would be double-layered and 15 feet high, with a 50-foot, sporadically lit surveillance area in the middle. Projected costs run approximately $3 million per mile.

Sen. Kyl then upped the ante in early August, attaching a rider to next year's defense funding bill to construct the longer triple wall. Still, even the senator relented a bit while fashioning his proposal; perhaps fearing a backlash, he'd dropped a 15-mile portion of the wall along the San Pedro River. The move seemed thick with politics, given that the U.S. Border Patrol had originally wanted 25 miles of wall between Naco, Ariz., and the river. Now the agency would settle for 10 miles--a number Kyl suddenly claimed was considered sufficient.

But skeptics charge that Kyl was just dodging opposition from conservationists over the San Pedro. Given the river's high international profile--and the fact that much of it lies in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area--the senator could have found himself facing an unwanted skirmish in this election year.

Kyl spokesman Ryan Patmintra didn't return a phone call from the Tucson Weekly seeking comment.

But regardless of where the wall is planted, Border Patrol officials are pledging environmental prudence. "With any action we take, we abide by the NEPA process," says agency spokesman Mario Martinez in Washington, D.C.

Martinez is referring to the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires impact reviews for such projects. But Patterson doubts whether the Border Patrol or its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, will follow through. "There is no definite (idea) of what they are going to build," he says. "But given the incredibly poor record of the Bush administration, there certainly won't be much consideration of the environment."

Patterson says the DHS "doesn't even have its own biologists, even though it leaves a huge footprint on the environment."

But Martinez responds that any scientific expertise the government lacks "will be contracted out" to environmental consultants. Given the proposed border wall's enormity, he says it would be broken down into smaller sections--based on Border Patrol sectors or natural characteristics--and several contractors would be hired to evaluate each parcel. "It's a big job, and an expensive job."

It might also be a nonexistent job: Under a recent law granting broad new powers to the Secretary of Homeland Security, those troublesome environmental requirements can simply be waived. The Real ID Act of 2005 grants DHS director Michael Chertoff leeway to ignore NEPA, the Endangered Species Act and other regulations when building roads and barriers along the Mexican boundary. Its also prohibits any judicial review, making lawsuits against habitat-destructive projects pointless.

Nor is it an unlikely move, says Patterson. "Chertoff has made it clear that he will invoke Real ID if necessary," to build border walls.

Indeed, the DHS secretary already did just that a year ago, overriding environmental concerns about a barrier project south of San Diego. That plan included completely filling in a deep canyon.

Stephen Mumme is a border management expert at Colorado State University, and a fellow at the University of California-San Diego's Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies. He says the Real ID Act "fundamentally changed the politics of the border environment. The initiative has been seized by Homeland Security." At the same time, "there is no committee within Homeland Security that would invite or require the presence of environmental experts to consider the environmental impacts of infrastructure impacts at the border. There should be one, but there isn't."

Conservation groups also have little ammunition to fight such a DHS decision. "As that law is written now, it cannot be challenged in court except on constitutional grounds," Mumme says.

Real ID or not, however, these proposed walls speak more of raw politics than effective policy; according to Martinez, the barriers prove most effective in urban areas along the border--such as San Diego, Nogales and Douglas--by stopping border crossers who would easily disappear into crowds or waiting cars.

But most law enforcement officials--including Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar--won't claim that vast barriers even make sense in remote border regions. "Chief Aguilar has said on numerous occasions that a fence would be used where it is practical and effective," says Martinez. "He's not saying that a fence along 2,000 miles of the border is effective."

Instead, Martinez says the barrier would become "part of the tactical infrastructure," buttressed in many areas by surveillance equipment.

Only time will tell whether the wall projects outlive their rhetorical utility. And ultimately, common sense might even prevail, says Patterson. "The best hope for people who care about the environment is that these (congressional) bills just die."

If they don't, biologists predict devastating wildlife impacts. "A solid wall would interrupt movement of all species of amphibians and reptiles," says the UA's Rosen. "It could also affect populations of box turtles by preventing them from moving back and forth. In some circumstances, it could cut off small population areas from movement, and cause genetic effects on whole populations, such as inbreeding."

Riparian areas would also be hit hard. "For all the north-south flowing streams, such as in Sycamore Canyon (near Nogales), a substantial barrier could have a very negative impact on native frog populations."

Too bad frogs can't vote.

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