August 13, 2009
by Tim Vanderpool
Call it an expression of public will, or just political pandering; either way, you can't call the new wall on our southern border benign.
Cutting a daunting swath from California to Texas, it has degraded waterways, chopped up private property and wreaked environmental havoc by severing wildlife-migration routes and pummeling habitat.
Now, three years after the construction began, and with nearly 700 miles of the fence and barriers complete, Rep. Raul Grijalva is pushing for a fresh—some would say first—look at the environmental fallout from the Secure Fence Act of 2006.
On July 23, Arizona's District 7 congressman sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano urging her department to conduct a full analysis of those impacts, and consider steps toward repair. The letter was co-signed by 42 of his congressional colleagues.
Grijalva says the time was right, given that Napolitano hails from the borderland—she was Arizona's governor before succeeding Bush appointee Michael Chertoff last year as head of Homeland Security—and that the fear factor behind the fence has waned a bit.
"I sensed an opening," he says. "Before, when we'd bring this up, we'd hear, 'Oh, you're promoting terrorism,' from Chertoff and his minions. Anytime we'd even mention the idea of mitigation, study, monitoring, evaluation, we'd hear 'Aah, you're helping harbor terrorists.' They'd wave that bloody rag every time.
"There's a different attitude now," Grijalva says, "a professional attitude, not an ideological attitude. I know that Janet (Napolitano) wants to do the job to keep the border secure. But she's dealing with it in a professional manner and a policy manner, which, to me, creates an opening."
Homeland Security spokeswoman Sara Kuban declined to comment on Grijalva's letter, except to say that Napolitano would be in contact with the various members of Congress.
Meanwhile, Grijalva's request has drawn plaudits from environmentalists, including Dan Millis, coordinator of the Arizona Sierra Club's Borderlands Campaign. "To the Sierra Club, this is a very important and very urgent issue," Millis says, "and I definitely think the timing is good. I don't think a serious look at this has been taken yet, at least by the higher-ups in the Department of Homeland Security."
The letter to Napolitano expressed concerns "regarding mounting environmental and societal impacts related to border security infrastructure and operations." It also requests that the secretary work with other agencies "to create and fund a robust border-wide environmental monitoring program and to provide sufficient mitigation funding for damage caused by border security infrastructure and enforcement activities."
That this letter was dispatched with any optimism at all reflects the sea change since Chertoff's time. In his drive to complete the fence, he repeatedly brandished his congressionally granted authority to waive bedrock environmental laws—such as the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act—to keep fence construction humming. In many cases, he used the waiver as a threat, browbeating land-management agencies into abdicating their resource-protection responsibilities.
Southern Arizona's San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area could be a poster child for that abuse. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management cobbled together a half-assed environmental assessment of the fence's potential impacts—concluding that the Normandy-style barriers "won't impede animals or people, because they have enough distance from the ground up," according to a BLM spokeswoman. "They're really just to keep vehicles from driving through the riverbed."
But in hindsight, such kowtowing has "damaged" those agencies, says Stephen Mumme, a border environmental management expert at Colorado State University. "It has led to the impression along the border that they're not using sound science—that they were being heavily influenced by political considerations in the Bush administration and continuing even now.
"If anyone, they were responsible for saying—even if it was politically unpopular—that they needed to have a better sense of what's going on," Mumme says. "But in the last administration, I think it was politically dangerous for managers to say that."
Of course, Chertoff's frantic pace didn't occur in a vacuum. Even as the project rolled forward, there was a steady drumbeat from anti-immigrant right-wingers such as Glenn Spencer and his Arizona-based American Border Patrol. Spencer's group routinely flies along the border to monitor the fence's progress, and loudly complains when there is a slowdown.
That pressure hasn't entirely vanished; Grijalva's efforts come as the Senate is considering a measure to expand "pedestrian" fencing to the entire 700 miles of barrier mandated by the Secure Fence Act. This high steel fencing is meant to block people from walking across the line, and is far more extreme—and damaging to wildlife—than the vehicle barriers now lining much of the border.
But there's been scant attention paid to the enormous social costs inflicted by this security juggernaut. Consider the impacts endured by Texas families who have seen their property—much of it passed down through generations—sliced in half by the wall. More fallout has been felt in Nogales, Ariz., where downtown merchants last year were engulfed by floodwaters that had backed up behind a concrete barrier placed in storm drains by the U.S. Border Patrol.
Then there's the fiscal factor: Grijalva cites Congressional Budget Office estimates that the border barrier has cost taxpayers an average of $3 million per mile to build. Another 15 percent will be added for continuing maintenance.
But the cost to the environment is incalculable. According to biologists, damage to habitat and wildlife migration is impacting species ranging from tiny lizards to mule deer, bighorn sheep, coatis, bears and jaguars. That's exacerbated by damage to watersheds and riparian areas. Again, the San Pedro River could be a perfect example. Two years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a "temporary" vehicle barrier across the river near Sierra Vista, south of Tucson. The placement followed roughly two miles of fence already existing within the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.
Groups such as the Sierra Club fought that fence, and lost. Meanwhile, the clock is still ticking, says Millis. He notes that the Department of Homeland Security recently transferred $50 million to the Department of Interior to help soften impacts upon endangered species along the San Pedro and elsewhere.
"But that's all off-site mitigation, basically trying to restore potential habitat for endangered species in the same quantities that it was lost along the border. It doesn't really address the big problems that are happening on the line every day, and that we have tons of pictures of—wildlife blocked by the wall, huge erosion problems in wilderness areas, etc., etc.
"Now there's a huge priority on getting the science in order," Millis says. "This whole thing was really just shoved down our throats."