Existing Border Barrier Already Destroying Environment as Activists Fight Trump Wall

Elizabeth Whitman
A bird caught in the border wall along the Arizona-Mexico border.
The border wall had mangled the bird.

Its body lay sandwiched between two steel wire mesh panels, desiccated by the Southwest's summer heat. Its feathers had clumped, its tongue suspended stiffly in an open beak.

Within a few dozen feet of this bird, two others had been similarly ensnared by the wall, which spans more than five miles along the southern edge of Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the northern border of Mexico.

Laiken Jordahl, an activist with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, shook his head at seeing the birds.

If the Department of Homeland Security had genuinely consulted with anybody — other government agencies, like the National Park Service, or environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity — before building the wall, these birds might still be alive, he said. Instead, they had somehow fallen through a gap between two wire mesh panels and died.

But Homeland Security didn’t have to ask for anybody’s opinion on this wall, when it was built during the Bush administration. The 2006 Secure Fence Act received bipartisan support, but that proposal was very different from today's debates over the border wall, calling for less fencing, and the administration waived laws that would have required it to carry out environmental reviews, consult with other federal agencies and local communities, and consider alternative plans.

Today, the Trump administration is using the same tactics. It is moving forward with plans to replace the 15-foot wire mesh walls — which are all but impermeable despite their name — and low-slung vehicle barriers with more than 60 miles of 18- to 30-foot steel-bollard wall in Arizona alone. The new barrier would cover sections along the Arizona-Mexico border that include the five miles of wire mesh wall and some 25 miles of vehicle barriers in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument; construction is slated to begin this month.

click to enlarge Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, on the southern border of Arizona. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, on the southern border of Arizona.
Elizabeth Whitman
In a last-ditch effort to halt construction in Arizona, the Center for Biological Diversity and two other environmental groups — Defenders of Wildlife and Animal Legal Defense Fund — on Tuesday filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

The requested injunction is part of a lawsuit the groups filed in mid-July, challenging the administration’s waiver, allowed by the 2005 Real ID Act, of more than 40 protective laws in order to build the border wall.

They asked the court to halt planned construction along the Arizona-Mexico border until a judge rules in that case.

“We’re really at a pivotal point right now,” said Jean Su, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. She said that according to lawyers with the Department of Homeland Security, pre-construction activity — moving panels in, bulldozing — would begin on August 12. Actual construction is slated to begin August 21.

“So we have a bit over two weeks to stop this thing,” Su said.

Prior to the Center for Biological Diversity’s motion, the last of the legal obstacles to these plans fell away at the end of July, when the Supreme Court allowed the administration to divert military funds to wall construction.

“The walls that would be built here would be done with no congressional approval and no judicial review,” Jordahl said as he surveyed the desert border, where fencing stretched miles upon miles into the distance. “It’s the definition of authoritarianism.”

Impeding waters and wildlife

Last Thursday, signs of imminent construction were apparent at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Surveyor stakes had been driven into the soft ground, with corresponding fluttering pink ribbons also tied to vehicle barriers. The stakes appeared to mark the 60-foot strip of land north of the border that, under the 1907 Roosevelt Reservation, falls under federal jurisdiction but outside the oversight of federal land managers like the National Park Service.

click to enlarge Fresh surveyor stakes about 60 feet from the border, on August 1, 2019. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
Fresh surveyor stakes about 60 feet from the border, on August 1, 2019.
Elizabeth Whitman
Signs of environmental damage — and not just the dead birds — were obvious too.

From the road that parallels the border wall, tire tracks cut visibly through an area clearly posted as “Restoration Area.” A 2006 Memorandum of Understanding among the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture, under which land-management agencies like the Forest Service and the National Park Service are housed, essentially gave Border Patrol free rein to drive through federally managed lands, even those designated as wilderness.

In numerous sections along the wire mesh wall, six-by-24-inch grates had been installed along the ground for the very purpose of allowing water through. Yet thick branches, chunks of dead cactus, even a backpack filled with spare clothes had accumulated, blocking the grates. Dirt and sand filled the spaces between. In other sections, mini-lakes formed to the north of the wall where south-flowing washes had been unable to drain.

click to enlarge In 2007, the Border Patrol declared that the border wall would "not impede the natural flow of water." - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
In 2007, the Border Patrol declared that the border wall would "not impede the natural flow of water."
Elizabeth Whitman
The water comes from summer storms, running off the Ajo Mountains on the eastern edge of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument or from the Puerto Blanco Mountains. It courses down into floodplains between the mountains, then gushes south in washes that run perpendicular to the border wall.

Since at least 2007, when the wire mesh wall was slated for construction, staff at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument have warned that the fence would stop floodwaters from flowing across the border, cause back-pooling and damage not just to the environment but to the wall, too, as waters trapped by the fence spread laterally.

During one storm in July 2008, the wall essentially turned into a dam, sending floodwaters into the nearby towns of Lukeville, Arizona, and Sonoyta, Sonora, in Mexico.

That was after the Border Patrol decided that the fence would “not impede the natural flow of water,” according to an August 2008 report of the damage put out by the National Park Service that skewered the Border Patrol and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ analysis.

The Park Service concluded that over time, flooding would damage the wall, erode the area around and below the fence, change vegetation in the park, and ultimately, change the very function and morphology of the floodplains.

It also noted that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) promised it would “remove debris from the fence within washes/arroyos immediately after rain events to ensure that no backwater flooding occurs.”

Last Thursday, the agency was clearly slacking on that front, given the pileup of wood and other debris at nearly every grate along the wire mesh wall, and the water pooled up behind others.

click to enlarge Sticks, debris, and a backpack build up behind grates intended to allow water to flow through. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
Sticks, debris, and a backpack build up behind grates intended to allow water to flow through.
Elizabeth Whitman
Other signs of damage are less visible, like the slow but detrimental impact of the existing wall on animals and their behavior, and long-term patterns of movement and migration.

Last Thursday, vultures perched atop the wall in various sections, silhouetted against the blue sky — ominous imagery in an area where migrants die trying to cross the brutal desert.

Raptors love the wall because it provides them with a high vantage point, Jordahl said. For predatory raptors, the wall is great, giving them a greater and unnatural advantage over rodents, like the kangaroo rat, and other prey.

click to enlarge A kangaroo rat at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. - NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
A kangaroo rat at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
National Park Service
The wall would also impede the survival and rebounding of the endangered Sonoran pronghorn in Arizona, which depends in part on access to a larger population — and gene pool — of pronghorns in Mexico.

The pronghorns have a difficult enough time crossing vehicle barriers and roads, Jordahl said. “If the wall goes up, that’ll be the nail in the coffin,” he said.

Ignoring comments

When the Department of Homeland Security announced in May that it planned to build the wall, it offered few details other than that it would be a wall of concrete-filled steel bollard, 18 to 30 feet high and four inches apart. The bollards would sit atop a cement foundation about 10 feet deep and eight inches to a foot wide.

It gave other agencies and individuals until July 5 to submit public comments on its vague plans, but nevertheless awarded a $646 million contract to Southwest Valley Constructors, a New Mexican company, in mid-May to build the wall. Jordahl took this timing as a sign that the department had no plans to consider the comments anyway.

Other agencies, including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, submitted comments to CBP, which the agency did not make public. Instead, they’ve emerged through media reports and requests.

In comments obtained and published by Arizona Public Media, the Fish and Wildlife Service warned that the proposed wall put nearly two dozen endangered or at-risk species. It would disrupt migration and ranging patterns for those and numerous other animals, including the jaguar, and it could seriously hurt their long-term survival by limiting their genetic diversity.

click to enlarge "During rain events, the border barrier could act as a dam, capturing debris and backing up water flow,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
"During rain events, the border barrier could act as a dam, capturing debris and backing up water flow,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.
Elizabeth Whitman
Their habitats would be damaged or lost due to erosion and other disruptions, including hydrological ones, like washes unable to drain through a blocked wall. “During rain events, the border barrier could act as a dam, capturing debris and backing up water flow,” the letter from Fish and Wildlife Service said.

It also warned that around Quitobaquito Pond, close to the border in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, “floods could erode and destabilize the pond dike and other infrastructure.”

Bright lights would affect the behavior and rhythms of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and bugs, especially at night, the Fish and Wildlife Service added. Prey are easier to track in floodlights, and birds and insects become confused and disoriented.

Instead of building the steel bollard wall, leave the existing vehicle barriers, the letter from Fish and Wildlife Service suggested. Use electronic surveillance, like drones. Don’t make the wall so tall. Use infrared technology at night, not white lights. Widen the gap between bollards from four inches, to give animals space to squeeze through.

“Many mammals, turtles, and tortoises are wider than four inches and the barrier could block their movement,” it warned. “Blocked movements could have long-term implications not only for the concerns listed above, but in light of allowing future range shifts in response to climate change,” it added.

Customs and Border Protection did not respond to Phoenix New Times’ request for comment for this story.

But in a delayed response for a previous story issued before the Supreme Court ruling allowing military funding for the wall, CBP spokesperson Yolanda Choates said in an email that the agency was continuing “its environmental planning efforts to identify and consider potential impacts to the proposed border wall project areas in the event these projects proceed under future funding.”

Even with the many legal waivers, Choates continued, “CBP remains committed to protecting the nation's natural and historical resources and seeks to work closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to accomplish the intent and purpose of [the National Environmental Policy Act] within a managed timeframe to meet operational needs.”

click to enlarge Tire tracks cut through a National Park restoration area near the Arizona-Mexico border. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
Tire tracks cut through a National Park restoration area near the Arizona-Mexico border.
Elizabeth Whitman
She said that CBP had conducted environmental surveys and was in the process of doing more “to analyze potential impacts to the community and ecological resources.”

“CBP will continue to consult with local, state and federal stakeholders, to ensure that impacts to the environment, wildlife, and cultural and historic artifacts are analyzed and minimized, to the greatest extent possible,” she added.

Choates did not respond to follow-up questions asking about when and how the agency had conducted those surveys and how it consulted with stakeholders.

A spokesperson for Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument said he would not be able to respond to a query for comments on the proposed border wall by New Times’ deadline.

One land

In 1976, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, designated Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument as an international biosphere reserve. Its 500 square miles are considered the most pristine of the Sonoran Desert’s 100,000 square miles.

click to enlarge The view from Monument Hill, looking east toward the Ajo Mountains. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
The view from Monument Hill, looking east toward the Ajo Mountains.
Elizabeth Whitman
Across the border to the south is Mexico's El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site. That reserve, along with Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and Mexico’s Alto Golfo de California and Delta del Rio Colorado National Biosphere Reserve, together form the largest continuous protected desert area in North America, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

In May 2017, a collection of eight organizations and tribes, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Tohono O’odham of Sonora, and Greenpeace México, petitioned UNESCO to designate El Pinacate as “in Danger.” The label wouldn’t offer any legal protection, but the groups hoped it would draw more attention to the threat posed by the border wall.

“Mexico’s El Pinacate World Heritage Site and much of its incredible wildlife are now threatened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, which is intended to prevent immigration between the two nations,” the petition said. The wall would create “a permanent, impassable barrier for El Pinacate’s wildlife and [divide] the Sonoran ecosystem in two, potentially forever.”

click to enlarge Part of the wire mesh fence crosses a steep hill that is extremely difficult to cross on foot. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
Part of the wire mesh fence crosses a steep hill that is extremely difficult to cross on foot.
Elizabeth Whitman
It noted that the traditional lands, including sacred sites, of the Tohono O’odham stretch across the border, which they still cross for ceremonial purposes and pilgrimages.

“We steadfastly oppose any physical barriers that would hinder physical access for us O’odham in Sonora, Mexico and for Tohono O’odham in the United States to the area of our original homeland,” wrote José Martín Garcia Lewis, Governor General of the O’odham in Sonora, in extensive comments attached to the petition. “We are one O’odham people.”

UNESCO has yet to declare the area to be in danger.

UNESCO doesn’t typically comment on government decisions or policies, Roni Amelan, a spokesperson for UNESCO, wrote in response to an email from New Times seeking comment.

“It is our understanding that the planned wall will not go through the Biosphere Reserve but along its border and does not pose a threat to the [reserve] itself,” Amelan wrote, referring to the reserve at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. His comments did not appear to take into account the fact that the together, biosphere reserves on both sides of the border form a contiguous desert.

One of the high points along the U.S.-Mexico border in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is Monument Hill, a rugged slope of crumbly rock covered with cholla cactus. A vehicle barrier extends roughly to the base of the hill, at which point the wire mesh wall begins, sharply angled upward to follow the pitch and contours of the barely passable land.

The hill is so steep that humans struggle to climb it. With one poorly placed step, the rocks could give out from underfoot and send a person tumbling backward. This natural, potential deterrent to anyone trying to cross the border makes this section of the 15-foot wire mesh border wall seem redundant, especially when the floodplains below, far easier to cross on foot, were barred only by vehicle barriers.

Midway up the hill, Border Patrol has stationed a camera that tracks movement like an eye.

To the east, the wire mesh stretches down the hill for miles before vehicle barriers eventually take over, running all the way to the Ajo Mountains. To the west, the wall and subsequent vehicle barriers continue through Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a visible scar through the Sonoran Desert.

From the top of Monument Hill, the land ripples outward. In the shadow of the setting sun, the low-lying washes of the desert’s floodplains become visible at a macro level, and the wall, cutting east-west, slices cleanly across the south-flowing washes.

Jordahl pauses to marvel at a swarm of giant, reddish ants swarming over the ground. "If the judge doesn’t grant our injunction, very little could prevent the new border wall from being built," he muses. “Not even Congress can stop it, or judges.”