Matt Clark, Southwest Representative
I once spotted and photographed a family of javelinas on the U.S./Mexico border near the San Pedro River in southeast Arizona. Through my camera lens, I watched the silhouette of an adult javelina cautiously approach the ominous border wall, and stop with a grunt. It was a haunting image. I can’t pretend to know what natural instinct brought the javelina to the border that day, but seeing those wild creatures literally cut off from their habitat by a steel wall stretching on for miles beyond sight – it really stuck with me.
Ironically, on a prior visit to this same location, I was guided by a local landowner to a spot where someone had used a simple nylon rope to scale and defeat the wall in seconds. Walls, no matter how tall and well-reinforced, will never succeed in keeping determined people from crossing the border illegally. Sadly though, these same walls will, and do, stop wildlife in their tracks, denying them the territory, resources and genetic exchange they need in order to survive and adapt in the arid environment of the borderlands.
A scientific study I contributed to, published in Conservation Biology in 2009, concluded that dispersal movements and population dynamics of many wildlife species could be significantly affected by security infrastructure, especially those species that are land-bound and large enough for walls to keep them out, those that fly at heights lower than 13 feet as they disperse, or those that rely on continuous habitat for cover or perches. Just a small sample of species whose transboundary movements could be further compromised by barriers and other developments at the border include desert bighorn sheep, mountain lion, black bear, desert tortoise, pronghorn, pygmy owl, wild turkey and the endangered jaguar and ocelot.
Unfortunately, when crafting border security-related legislation in the past, many in Congress have ignored major environmental concerns and have trampled the rule of law itself in their zeal to seal the border. In 2005, Congress passed a controversial provision in the Real ID Act (Section 102) to waive dozens of laws in order to construct hundreds of miles of damaging border walls and roads. The 37 laws that were swept under the mat include bipartisan legislation passed to protect public health, farmland, Native American graves and freedoms, historic sites, wildlife and other sensitive natural resources. This unprecedented waiver authority, which allows a political appointee – the Secretary of Homeland Security — to waive any and all laws of the United States, has resulted in avoidable and expensive environmental and property damage, created numerous safety hazards, and has harmed interagency cooperation and trust.
A poll conducted by YouGov in 2011 found that 64% of those polled oppose giving the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) discretion to waive environmental and other laws to build border infrastructure, and an identical number oppose congressional efforts to permanently waive such laws for border security. This same poll found that the vast majority of Americans (92%) strongly prefer beefing up efforts at the Ports of Entry over spending billions of dollars on hundreds of miles of fencing in between the Ports.
The past damage done is bad enough, but now new threats are coming into play. Specific provisions in the immigration reform bill (S. 744) introduced into the Senate, run counter to public opinion and common sense. The current version of S.744 would force DHS to develop a separate “Southern Border Fencing Strategy” and spend hundreds of millions to build yet more ineffective, environmentally harmful border walls. A very problematic provision in S. 744 would also further expand the existing waiver authority, enabling DHS to operate above the law for all border infrastructure and operations along the Southwest border, including building a sprawling network of forward operating bases, checkpoints, security camera tower s, roads and bright night lighting along the border and interior. Collectively, this would add up to an unregulated, unmitigated environmental disaster with no accountability whatsoever. To avoid such foreseeable folly, immigration reform legislation should be stripped of provisions that would enable walls and waivers. The proposal in S.744 for an even more expansive waiver is an unnecessary overreach – federal agencies are already operating effectively under an interagency agreement in place since 2006 that enables Border Patrol to have ready access to all lands along the border – including in designated wilderness – when a situation necessitates it.
Even the current head of the DHS, Janet Napolitano, does not agree with the provision in S.744 that would dictate more wall building. When testifying before Congress on the provision that would require dedicated funding for more walls she said, “We would prefer having money not so designated so that we can look at technology, air-based, ground-based, manpower, other needs that may be more fitting to prevent illegal flows across the Southwest border.” This is the same reasoned voice who, as Arizona’s governor, bluntly stated: “You show me a 50-foot wall and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder at the border. That’s the way the border works.”
What the border needs is not another set of ineffective, ecologically harmful walls and unpopular waivers, but rather more ingenuity and interagency collaboration that will foster the development of common sense, win-win solutions for both security and environmental concerns.
A 2010 report on interagency cooperation on U.S./Mexico border wilderness issues listed many successful efforts in the past where agencies have worked together to bolster border security. The report concludes: “The twin values of national security and public lands stewardship can be simultaneously fulfilled, but it will take continued interagency cooperation to assure this happens.” The practice of waiving laws as a means to an ends is counterproductive; doing so only serves to eliminate the critical public processes and damage the trust that enables such interagency cooperation to occur and thrive. As a nation, we can and must do better than walls and waivers. The future of our diverse borderlands region, and the wildlife it supports, depend on it.