In the 1980s, When Kevin Dahl first began visiting the Organ Pipe Cactus national monument in southern Arizona, the border was unmarked, save for a simple fence used to keep cattle from a ranch in the US from crossing into Mexico. In those days, park rangers would call in their lunch orders at a diner located just across the border.
Since then, a 30ft steel bollard wall has replaced the old barbed wire fence at Organ Pipe. The towering steel barrier cuts through the Unesco reserve like a rust-colored suture.
“It’s this incredible scar,” said Kevin Dahl, a senior program manager at the National Parks Conservation Association, describing the wall that snakes its way through a pristine track of Sonoran desert, dwarfing the giant cacti that give this desert its name. “What was once a connected landscape is now a dissected one.”
That dissection is now a reality across much of the US border. It is a landscape increasingly defined by walls, roads, fences and associated border infrastructure that is fragmenting critically protected habitats, desecrating sacred cultural sites and threatening numerous endangered species in some of the most biodiverse and unique places in North America.
“Border construction has had a huge impact on some of the most remote and biodiverse landscapes on the continent,” said Dan Millis, a campaigner at the Sierra Club. “The Trump administration is taking it even further.”
Four days before the US election, this is how the new border wall has affected four distinct wilderness areas.
‘An environmental and human disaster’
Donald Trump entered the Oval Office with a campaign promise to build 450 miles of a new “border wall system” – a combination of infrastructure including bollard barriers, roads, perimeter lighting, enforcement cameras and other technology – even amid the pandemic, has continued at an increasing pace. According to Customs and Border Protection, 400 miles of the border wall system has been completed so far, with physical barriers from 18-30ft tall. If he wins, he may well aspire to wall off the border in its entirety.
Construction is occurring mostly on public, often protected lands, because the Department of Homeland Security has sweeping powers to waive environmental protection laws, like the Endangered Species Act, which would otherwise bar construction.
Protected lands “belong to the government because they are so unique and fragile. Because of that same fact, they are being demolished,” said Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, noting the relative ease of border wall construction on public lands compared with the lengthy process of taking private property.
The eastern terminus is the Lower Rio Grande Valley wildlife refuge in south-eastern Texas – 100,000 acres of lush protected lands that US Fish and Wildlife have spent four decades restoring. The 135 individual tracts of land, described as a “string of pearls” connecting various habitats, extend along the 275 miles of the Rio Grande River before entering the Gulf of Mexico. It is one of the most biodiverse places in the country, supporting 700 species of terrestrial animals such as the jaguarundi, a wild cat, as well as myriad plants and a vibrant ecotourism industry.
The landscape is now being bisected by a 15ft concrete base surmounted by 18ft steel bollards.
“It’s going to make it that much harder to preserve the very little that is left of the ecosystem,” said Norma Herrera of the Rio Grande Equal Voice Network
“This is some of the best birding in the world,” said Elise Wort, a tourist who traveled from her California home to see some of the 500-plus bird species that reside in the valley. “The border is an environmental and human disaster.”
Much of the construction in the south-western border states is occurring in remote and mountainous terrain. Critics say it makes little sense to construct a physical barrier in these areas because most are lightly trafficked corridors for unauthorized migration, and they are also crucial habitat for animals. Ninety-three endangered and threatened animal species are found in the borderlands.
One such area is the Madrean Sky Islands, rugged linked mountain ranges in New Mexico and Arizona that boast the highest biodiversity in inland North America.
“It’s like going from the climate on the Mexican border to Canada,” said Emily Burns, program director of the Sky Island Alliance, with ecosystems ranging from subtropical lowlands and deserts to temperate mountaintops.
The 30ft steel wall and stadium lighting are adversely affecting the ocelot, javelina, Mexican grey wolf and the North American jaguar, the latter of which has made a surprising comeback in the US since being hunted to extinction in the late 1980s, according to Burns’s organization.
“We don’t expect there will be any hope for the jaguar’s recovery in the US if [the border is] completed,” said Burns, because it will cut off the main Jaguar population in Mexico from that in the US.
Further east in Arizona, new sections of steel bollard wall are being built in the largest area of protected Sonoran landscape. At the San Bernardino national wildlife refuge, groundwater pumping to mix concrete for the wall is draining a crucial wetland and imperiling four threatened or endangered species for which San Bernardino was created to protect. Government documents obtained by environmental groups revealed that the US Fish and Wildlife Service repeatedly warned the Department of Homeland Security about the imminent threat to these species. Their warning went unheeded.
“I started my career as a biologist at the Refuge, and 20 years later, I came full circle to witness its destruction,” said Myles Traphagen, borderlands program coordinator for the Wildlands Network, an environmental group.
‘Our tribal sovereignty is not being upheld’
Construction during the Trump administration has severely affected tribal lands along the border, leading to a growing protest movement in response to desecration of sacred sites and barred access to ancestral lands.
“Our tribal sovereignty is not being upheld,” said Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan, a doctoral candidate of Indian studies at the University of Arizona and a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, who lands have been split by the wall, stifling cross-border cultural and religious events between O’odham members in Mexico and the US. “I don’t think it ever has been when it comes to the border wall or the border in general.”
At Organ Pipe Cactus national monument in Arizona, part of the ancestral lands of the Tohono O’odham nation, a particular flashpoint has been the impact of the border wall on the sacred Quitobaquito springs. A recent analysis by data scientists at the investigative journalism website Bellingcat found that water levels at Quitobaquito springs are declining at unprecedented rates, with border wall construction a likely culprit because crews have tapped the underlying aquifer for water to make concrete.
‘This wall has done nothing more than divide our communities’
On 12 October – Indigenous Peoples’ Day – O’odham members and their allies blockaded the highway passing through Organ Pipe. Border officers responded with force, including teargas, arresting eight in the process.
Earlier this year, construction crews used dynamite to blow up Monument hill in Organ Pipe to make way for the wall, disturbing O’odham burial grounds and uprooting numerous Organ Pipe and Saguaro Cactus scattered along the service roads, which evoked felled green monoliths.
A recent decision by a federal appeals court has provided at least one win for border wall critics, and a blow to Trump’s ambitions to complete the 450 miles of the wall by year’s end.
The ninth circuit court of appeals ruled that the president’s use of emergency powers to allocate military funds for border wall construction was illegal. Even so, construction will continue on projects where military money was not used – including the four described here.
“This wall has done nothing more than divide our communities, disrespect our values, and inflict enormous environmental harm,” said the Arizona congressman Raul Grijalva, whose district includes Organ Pipe. “It’s time for wall construction to end once and for all.”