New York Times
Student Journalism Institute
January 10, 2010
by Stephen Ceasar
The border fence separating the United States from Mexico is intended to impede illegal immigration and drug smuggling. But to environmentalists, the fence is a barrier of yet another kind: a man-made hazard that fragments the natural world.
“So far it has been nothing but an unmitigated disaster,” said Dan Millis, a campaign organizer in Tucson for the Sierra Club.
The U.S. government, acknowledging numerous environmental problems with the barricade, is studying ways to lessen the fence’s impact on the surrounding ecosystem. In December, the Department of the Interior asked 16 scientists, including several from the University of Arizona, to create a plan to balance environmental concerns with security needs along the country’s Southwest border. Their recommendations, expected in April, are intended to serve as a road map for national security officials.
In Arizona, the fence has contributed to flooding on both sides of the border, changed the roaming patterns of the area’s native jaguars and destroyed the desert habitats of several bird species, including an endangered quail, according to federal land managers and environmentalists.
But the fence is not without its environmental positives, some say.
“It protects the lands inside the fence because those have been heavily trampled and impacted by the people crossing,” said Edward Glenn, an environmental science professor at the University of Arizona who is working on the plan. “It’s hard to overemphasize how much traffic” was crossing the border, he added.
Fencing and other barricades span nearly 643 miles of the almost 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border, and more are being built, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security.
“You couldn’t think of a worse thing to do to the delicate Sonoran ecosystem than put an impermeable barrier through it,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, a national wildlife defense group based in Tucson.
Meanwhile, there is no clear indication that the fence is integral to national security, according to a September report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. In its report, the GAO states that the impact such barriers have on border security is not known and has not been measured by Customs and Border Protection.
“Until CBP determines the contribution of tactical infrastructure to border security,” the report said, “it is not positioned to address the impact of this investment.”
Representatives for Customs and Border Protection did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
According to a 2008 Homeland Security report, the agency conceded that the fence would alter the environment by splitting animal habitats. But the report stated that the effect would be “minimal,” as most wildlife would not perceive the vehicle fence, a lower type of barricade, “as a barrier.”
Part of the problem, environmentalists say, is the speed with which the barricades have been built. In 2007, Michael Chertoff, then the secretary of Homeland Security, expedited fence construction in Arizona at Congress’ request. To do so, he invoked a little-known provision in the Real ID Act of 2005, which set a federal identification standard, allowing the agency to bypass numerous environmental reviews that would have examined the ramifications of the fence.
Chertoff’s action concerned several environmental groups. “These regulations are not only designed to protect the environment, but also protect democratic process,” said Matt Clark, Southwest representative for the wildlife conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.
The fence has already caused several problems. In the border town of Lukeville, Ariz., flooding occurred when trash and debris clogged a drainage gate on the fence during a monsoon rain, according to a 2008 report from the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which manages the area around that part of the fence. The water overran businesses, private property and government buildings.
Clark said similar damage occurred in Nogales, on the Mexico side, where a concrete portion of the border fence acted as a dam, contributing to flooding that inundated businesses.
Native animals have also left the area or have been cut off from their natural habitats. For instance, a jaguar nicknamed Macho B by officials of the Arizona Game and Fish Department once roamed the border, said the Sierra Club’s Millis. After officials tried to follow the jaguar’s movements by placing a tracking collar around its neck, the jaguar experienced kidney failure and was euthanized.
Because of the fence, no other jaguar has roamed into Macho B’s territory, as would usually happen, Millis said.
“They would if they could find their way around the wall — that’s a big if,” Millis said.
A representative for the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument said the endangered lesser long-nosed bat has also suffered. While building the fence, workers cleared more than 200 cactuses in the national monument commonly used by the bats, which migrate long distances and spend the summer in Mexico.
In addition, during construction of a patrol road in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Tucson, the endangered masked bobwhite quail lost at least 50 acres of habitat, Millis said.
The building of patrol roads has also decreased the Sonoran pronghorn’s habitat, as the antelopelike animal rarely crosses roads, according to a 2006 report from Defenders of Wildlife. The pronghorn’s limited jumping ability also does not allow it to leap over barriers.
Bill Odle, 69, a retiree, says he knows the ambiguous nature of the border barrier all too well.
A steel mesh fence was built 380 feet from Odle’s home two years ago, with little to no communication from the Department of Homeland Security before construction, he said. The fence has done little to prevent border crossers from tromping through his property, located between Bisbee and Sierra Vista.
“We have had pregnant women, kids, guys climbing over it,” Odle said. “Ladders have turned up in the yard — it hasn’t stopped.”
What the fence does do, Odle said, is confuse the local wildlife.
“The deer just stand there staring at it,” Odle said, “or they run up and down the fence until they give up and go back.”
The government’s new plan — part of its Border Fence Monitoring and Mitigation Project — is expected to address some of these issues. It will be a “standardized, scientifically defensible approach to monitoring the border,” said Robert Webb, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a member of the 16-person team working on the plan.
Scientists will identify priorities and make recommendations based on their expertise in varying areas of study. Webb said he would like to look at the different types of border barriers and how they affect water flow.
If the Department of Homeland Security agrees with the recommendations, Webb said, proposals will be made, financing will be found, and implementation of the program will begin. Work could start late this year, he added.
Environmentalists said that the project was an important first step and that they hoped national security officials would take the recommendations seriously.
“It looks like the ball is rolling, and that’s positive,” said Clark, from Defenders of Wildlife, “but we are starting well after the damage was done.”