A few American politicians have been clamoring to expand the border wall lately. That has many conservationists thinking about what the environmental impacts might be. For this post we sat down with Dan Millis, Borderlands Program Coordinator for the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter. Based in Tucson, Arizona, Dan and his program have been fighting border walls since George W. Bush was building them in 2007 and 2008.
What does the US-Mexico border look like today? How did it get that way?
Our borderlands are beautiful. We’re talking about a region that spans 2,000 miles, the majority of it along the Rio Grande, and the rest of it cutting through some of the most remote and biodiverse landscapes on the continent. The US-Mexico border looks like the columnar cacti of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the bustling cities of San Diego, Tijuana, Ambos Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, El Paso, and the beautiful faces of the good people who live here.
Today’s border line was drawn by the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, intended to make way for a railroad across the southern US. But where there’s no river, the line is arbitrary, and it cuts across communities, tribal nations, forests, mountains – entire ecosystems. So building a wall on that line causes many problems.
Right now we have 354 miles of the border where steel or concrete walls have already been constructed. An additional 300 miles have vehicle barriers. There are several drones, dozens upon dozens of surveillance towers, hundreds of aircraft, thousands of vehicles and more than 18,000 Border Patrol agents. The costs are enormous and the footprint is huge.
What problem was the border fence/wall intended to solve? Has it done so?
The walls are intended to stop people from walking across the border. Instead, people just climb over it, dig under, cut through it or go around. It’s a waste of money.
What’s the biggest misconception you encounter about the border?
People think the border is a bunch of sand dunes that have been overrun by drug smugglers. I’m born and raised in Arizona, and, until college, even I thought that. The fact is, the border is meant to unite us, not divide us. Our border communities facilitate legitimate cross-border trade that supports hundreds of thousands of jobs in the US and Mexico. And the wildlands in between these communities are prime destinations for tourists and wildlife enthusiasts – places like Big Bend National Park in Texas and the San Pedro River in Arizona and Sonora.
What are the environmental impacts of the current barrier? What are the human impacts?
Border walls block wildlife migration, fragment wildlife habitat, and block the natural flow of water, which can result in floods, erosion damage – in fact, the wall itself has been knocked over by floodwaters several times!
Studies identify many species impeded by the walls, including puma, coati, desert bighorn, jaguarundi, even reptiles and birds (example: the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, which flies low and avoids clearings and high obstacles).
It’s important to understand that walls on the border were built without consideration for basic environmental protections like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. More than three dozen laws protecting communities, public health, historic and cultural sites, even religious freedom – these laws were waived in order to build walls more hastily. This happened under former President George W. Bush, but the scary thing is that these laws are still off the books today in our border communities and wildlands, and the Trump Administration still has the power to waive even more laws if they so choose.
The wall does nothing to address the root causes of undocumented migration, so people are still motivated to cross the border. They often circumvent areas that are heavily militarized with walls and patrols, opting instead to walk for days, at night, through some of the most difficult and remote terrain imaginable. Since the late 1990s, more than 6,000 people have been found dead after attempting to make a harrowing crossing.
How is the recently proposed border wall different than the current physical barriers?
There is no difference between Trump’s wall and existing border walls. Building a solid concrete wall across an 800-mile land border full of mountains and canyons, and then down the middle of a 1,200-mile river, is not going to happen. Instead, they will try to build steel walls, about 20 feet high, made of closely spaced posts so that Border Patrol agents can see through. Along the river, pro-wall politicians clamor for concrete ‘levee-walls’ that isolate animals from much-needed water, or entrap them when the river floods. These are the same walls we have today, the walls that block nature but not people, the walls that are based on hate and fear, and the walls that are profoundly un-American.
What are the Sierra Club and affiliated organizations asking for?
Though Trump’s wall isn’t feasible, he has shown he can gain approval for more border walls. The 2017 government funding compromise included $146 million to replace 20 miles of vehicle barriers, which do less damage to wildlife and water flows than walls, with so-called ‘pedestrian fencing,’ which is just another way to say border walls. This is unacceptable, so we are asking political leaders to oppose all border walls, both those that stand and damage our environment and our integrity today, and those that may be requested in the future.
What’s the best way for people to make a difference on this issue? What’s the timeline to act?
If you care about wildlife, landscapes, environmental justice and community health, then please contact your members of congress now! You can take action online at tiny.cc/NoWall. Letters, phone calls and in-district office visits to your US Representative and both of your US Senators can make all the difference.
People can learn more and stay informed via SC_Borderlands on Twitter and on the Sierra Club Borderlands Facebook group. Sign up for our monthly email update list and learn more at sierraclub.org/borderlands, where you can also see images of deer and mountain lions stranded at the wall, or watch videos about the destructive power of border militarization.