September 3, 2009
by John Young
PRESCOTT, Ariz. — "It's no wasteland."
No, not this mountainous berg where seemingly everyone over 65 wants to live.
Sergio Avila-Villegas is talking about the U.S.-Mexico border, which bobcats, ocelots, jaguars, mountain lions, black bears and so much more inhabit.
Avila-Villegas, a biologist with the Sky Island Alliance, is a lonely voice pointing out how political forces in America are subdividing a biome in disastrous ways.
At a colloquium at Prescott College, he described how the ongoing construction of the U.S. border wall brings ecological devastation — most particularly among the species that migrate and otherwise reside in a region with only natural barriers.
This is made possible in fast-track fashion because Congress and the Bush administration strip-mined environmental safeguards from the legislation enabling the border fence. Congress also removed all fiscal common sense from the hysteria-derived gambit, as some segments south of San Diego cost $21 million a mile.
That underlines a message Avila-Villegas wants people to understand: "It's a wall. It's not a fence."
It's a wall that not only blocks animal migration and destroys habitat. Its furious dust-raising construction causes air and water pollution. It also diverts rivers and floodwaters.
Ah, but does it divert migration of Mexicans entering our nation illegally? In some cases, yes. In other cases, a medieval device called a ladder foils Washington's greatest designs.
The amazing thing about this is that the Bush administration sought to justify it, at least in part, on ecological reasoning.
Just look, said then-Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, at all the trash left by the non-Americans crossing the border. A wall will stop that and save the environment, he said.
But: Just in case a wall would cause other environmental effects far more long-lasting than sandwich wrappers in the sun, Republicans inserted in the Real I.D. Act of 2005 — the immigration grab-bag that included this monstrosity — a pretty puppy called Section 102. It allows Homeland Security to waive all standard environmental safeguards associated with giant infrastructure projects like this.
That means that the 30-plus species of mammals in the region in question, as well as the owls, migratory birds and more, are all at risk. Federal policies typically take such matters into consideration. Not in this case.
But it's a wasteland — no? Hot, dry, inhospitable to creatures in Bermuda shorts?
What it is, as least in the borderlands of Arizona, is "one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world," Avila-Villegas said. It is where a tropical ecosystem shakes hands with a temperate North American cousin. Don't be misled by the hulking presence of the Sonoran and Chihuahan deserts. The area teems with life. And we are destroying it.
People can always outwit wall-builders. But nature has problems with obstructions. Avila-Villegas shows sobering photos of how flood waters surging up against the wall dividing the border town of Nogales caused homes on the Mexican side to be submerged.
Just the price of — what? Do we assume that such walls really accomplish what they seek to do?
People living in the border areas point out the futility in trying to wall off the border. For one thing the terrain is too unforgiving in many places. For another, as observed day after day, what jaguars and ocelots can't master, wily human beings will as they seek to feed their families. It's the cats who will starve, or turn their attention to cattle or human beings to put food in their mouths.
The border wall may be America's greatest boondoggle in terms of cost and benefits. So, why does it proceed?
Why, particularly, when the administration and Congress behind it are consigned to the dust. This Congress can put a stop to it. It ought to based on fiscal concerns alone. At minimum, it needs to yank out the provision which treats environmental protection as wholly alien.