November 12, 2009
by Patrick Behrer
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As we recognize the historic occasion of East Germany’s opening, America quietly completes construction of its own wall. The southern border barrier between the United States and Mexico covers 670 miles of southwestern desert between Mexico and the four states it borders. Like the Berlin Wall, the border wall is emblematic of much more than just a boundary between countries. Cutting indiscriminately across ecologically-priceless land, it has become a symbol of governmental disregard for environmental protection.
The Bush Administration began the project in 2006 as the most recent attempt to stem the tide of illegal immigration, and it now nears completion; at 630 of 670 miles completed, Obama shows no signs that he intends to halt construction of the final portions. Humanitarians and budget hawks have blasted the wall as ineffective and enormously costly. With a final price tag of more than $4 billion and $6.5 billion in estimated maintenance expenses over the next 20 years, the direct, measured costs alone are immense. However, to discuss the project’s environmental impact, one must recognize the systematic neglect of environmental laws that occurred during its construction.
The Real ID Act of 2005 allowed the Department of Homeland Security to construct infrastructure along our nation’s borders with immunity from all government laws and regulations. Using the power granted under this act, the Secretary waived the impact assessment requirements of both the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Protection Act. Thus, the border wall’s construction—which took place on some of the most ecologically valuable land in the country—went ahead without any consideration of its impact on the native species that call this area home.
Not surprisingly, this wall has wreaked havoc on the ecosystems of the area. It cuts off migration routes for species such as the Sonoma Pronghorn, already endangered, whose population has crashed to as few as 31 individuals. If congress had not exempted the border patrol from the ESA, this damage would have been sufficient to stop or dramatically alter the construction plans. Instead, building the wall has categorically ignored environmental damage and, as a result, threatened the survival of the only known pair of breeding jaguars in the United States.
Are environmental concerns sufficient reasons to stop this construction? Perhaps not. There are severe economic and social costs to unchecked illegal immigration. However, the wall should not have received blanket exemption from environmental regulation. The Obama administration claims it will step up to the plate to combat global climate change, yet their silent acquiescence to the destruction of the southwestern desert throws this commitment into question.
These may seem unrelated and, thus, some might understand how the Administration can separate climate change policy from broader environmental concerns. Their logic: Climate change is a global threat while the wall only damages a small section of desert. However, this view ignores the reality that the southwestern desert is a globally unique and important biosphere recognized by both The Nature Conservancy and the United Nations. Indeed, the wall threatens the San Pedro River, one of TNC’s eight “Last Great Places” in the world. Climate change is an issue so large that addressing it will entail broad behavioral changes—this, in turn, requires a new environmental consciousness. We cannot flip a switch and fix climate change, as it remains too pervasive for easy solutions. Only by considering the environmental impacts associated with all of our actions can we to truly address this global crisis.
Endeavors like the border wall demonstrate very clearly that this new consciousness does not yet exist. Unfortunately, this project has not occurred in isolation. The U.S. Navy conducts sonar testing that has little practical benefit but inflicts proven, lethal affects on marine mammals. Until the government shows a willingness to seriously consider environmental costs in all its decisions, the commitment to fight climate change is little more than empty words.
The fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago signaled a sea change in international policy and kick started a period of unprecedented global openness. While the border wall does not have this same public resonance, stopping its construction would be a first step toward creating a new environmental consciousness within the U.S. government. This sea change would prove no less significant than that which occurred after the fall in Germany. The last 20 years have seen international barriers shrink on an unprecedented scale; the next 20 must see environmental consciousness of the same scale.