Environmental Impacts of a Border Wall

One of Donald Trump’s most memorable claims during his presidential campaign was that he was going to build a “big and beautiful wall” along the U.S.-Mexico. The barricaded border is around 700 miles long, with 300 miles of barbed wire and 400 miles of 15-foot walls. Trump’s plan is to expand the border nearly 2,000 miles. The media has focused primarily on the repercussions of such a construction on U.S.-Mexico diplomatic relationships, especially since President Trump has voiced that he intends to make Mexico pay for the wall, a project estimated by the Department of Homeland Security to cost over 21 billion dollars.  However, conservationists in both countries have also expressed deep concern for national wildlife and ecosystem protection efforts. The wall is expected to cross through ecologically sensitive areas that include the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in Texas and Rancho Los Fresnos Wildlife Reserve in Sonora. This would pose a major threat to the migration routes of various large mammals including bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, and jaguars as they search for water, food and mates.

Porosity across borders is also invaluable to the genetic diversity of different species, such as black bears for example. Genetic research studies on black bears have found that populations in southern Arizona are more closely related to bears in Mexico than those in the northern part of the state. By creating barriers that restrict the bears’ movements, the already small population faces challenges that could result in inbreeding, which increases the risk of local extinction over time.

Construction for the wall would also bring excessive noise, pollution and large vehicles, thus disturbing both animals and habitat. According to Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change, a total of 800 species would be negatively affected by the separation of territories, 100 of which are already in danger of extinction, according to a 2016 report from U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Furthermore, NPR reported in April 2017 that Mexican engineers are expressing concerns about how the border wall could act as a dam and lead to increase flooding in areas that would threaten lives of border communities and border ecosystems alike.

The administration has declared its intent to waive environmental policies such as the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act through the Department of Homeland Security citing the REAL ID Act of 2005. This anti-terror law is what gives federal agencies the ability to sidestep these policies and fail to provide an environmental review in order to build infrastructure that is deemed a matter of national security.

However, the administration’s decision is currently facing much criticism from a wide range of stakeholders including state governors, environmental organizations and members of the Sierra Club, which gives hope that there might still be a potential for the government to have to take into consideration environmental impacts of the walls construction. Advocacy groups this past year have sued the federal government under NEPA because Homeland Security has failed to involve the public and update environmental reports that were last issued during the Bush administration. In a letter written to congress on January 17th, 2018, 58 environmental groups and organizations urged congress to oppose any provision that would allow the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to waive major local, statewide and tribal community concerns of damaged ecology, threatened species, and permanently divided border families.

Furthermore, the agency is facing two legal battles: One from the Center for Biological Diversity and congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), and the other from the California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Both lawsuits argue that the counter-terrorism law of 2005 is outdated and is only applicable to projects that happened before 2009. California’s lawsuit also claims that the waiver violates elements of Procedural Due Process of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits government officials from exerting power arbitrarily.

Ultimately, this issue reflects how economic-based policies centered on infrastructure development can have severe consequences on the environment. These negative externalities must be addressed if we do not want to face risking the loss of countless endangered species, while also compromising the core principles that great environmental leaders have inspired our nation to follow over the past century. Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, who birthed environmental U.S conservation actions in the early 1900s, have led Americans to value protected and accessible land all across our diverse country. Writers and activists like Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold brought visibility to detrimental human impacts on the wilderness and the huge public responses to their work triggered a series of radical federal laws passed in the 70s, including the Endangered Species Act. This fear of the other and emphasis on national security that the Trump administration is promoting by the construction of a border wall is impinging on our right and our duty to preserve spaces of diverse ecological communities and is a clear sign of continental divisions, which ultimately discourages communal action to prevent environmental threats.

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