Thursday, August 5, 2010

Destroying the Borderlands to Secure the Border

By Scott Nicol

In the 1990’s politicians trying to explain away all of America’s ills, without blaming American voters or accepting their own fair share of blame, turned their attention towards the southern border. The ebb and flow of migrants across the border, which had been occurring since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established it at its present location, was recast as an invasion. The invaders (who were, conveniently, ineligible to vote) were blamed for rising crime and failing schools, unemployment and overstretched social services. Clearly, the invasion must be stopped before the nation was overwhelmed.

Time to call in the troops and wall off the border.

The first 14 miles of border wall, extending from the Pacific Ocean inland, were built of rusting steel helicopter landing mats left over from the Vietnam War crudely welded together. A second layer, 15-feet tall and made of steel mesh, was later added north of the first wall. In the no-man’s-land between these two walls was a graded road for Border Patrol vehicles, with towers for surveillance cameras and stadium lights.

The landing mat border wall entering the ocean between San Diego and Tijuana.

In 2004 the California Coastal Commission and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, sued to stop the Border Patrol’s plan to plug several canyons in order to create a level path for the border wall. The court found that the Border Patrol was in violation of federal environmental laws and that such a fill project would have a devastating impact on the Tijuana Estuary. The judge ordered that construction be halted.

In order to override the court’s decision, a provision was inserted into the Real ID Act of 2005 giving the unprecedented power to the US Attorney General (later transferred to the Secretary of Homeland Security) to waive all federal, state, and local laws, environmental and otherwise, to build border walls. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff used the Real ID Act to brush aside the laws that had stopped the border wall, and resumed construction. In waiving those laws he was admitting that border wall construction would violate them.

A few hundred feet from the border wall’s starting point in the Pacific, the Tijuana River Estuary spills into the sea. It is the largest of Southern California’s remaining salt marshes, where over 90% of wetland habitat has been lost to development. The combined Tijuana River Slough National Wildlife Refuge, Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve and Border Field State Park protect sand dunes and beaches, vernal pools, tidal channels, mudflats and coastal sage scrub. During the wet winter season, water drains into the marsh from the Tijuana River and surrounding creeks and canyons, infusing the marsh with fresh water and creating a delicate balance on which its many highly sensitive habitats depend. The site is a key stopover point on the Pacific Flyway, and provides over 370 species of migratory and native birds, including six endangered species, with essential breeding, feeding and nesting grounds.

Smuggler's Gulch filled in to make way for the border wall.

Following the passage of the Real ID Act the canyon known as Smuggler’s Gulch, south of San Diego, was filled in with over 2 million cubic yards of earth that had been ripped from adjacent mountaintops. A border wall was then perched on top. With no regulations in place and no oversight by other agencies, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) put little effort into erosion control, and the still bare slopes of the earthen dam threaten to wash tremendous amounts of dirt into the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, which is only 600 feet away. In addition to smothering vegetation, burying the estuary in sediment may raise its surface level enough to disrupt the twice-daily inundation of sea water upon which its fragile ecosystem depends.

A few miles up the Tijuana River, the Otay Mountain region is home to the last surviving stands of Tecate cypress, an ice age tree that survives by absorbing coastal moisture from the air. This tree in turn is the host plant for the rare Thorne’s hairstreak butterfly. In an attempt to protect these and other rare and endangered species that inhabit this unique ecosystem, 18,500 acres of the Otay Mountain region were designated a National Wilderness Area.

Border wall in the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area, California

When the Environmental Protection Agency reviewed the plan to build this section of border wall, they expressed concern that plans to fill in canyons and waterways that feed into the Tijuana River would violate the Clean Water Act. The Department of the Interior warned that 6 endangered species would also be harmed by the wall.

San Diego Sector Border Patrol spokesman Richard Kite said in 2006, "At the mountain range, you simply don't need a fence. It's such harsh terrain it's difficult to walk, let alone drive. There's no reason to disrupt the land when the land itself is a physical barrier."

Ignoring his observation, DHS decided to “disrupt the land” of the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area with a border wall and an access road. The rugged terrain of the Wilderness Area necessitated the blasting and removal of 530,000 cubic yards of rock and extensive grading and leveling. The Otay Mountain Wilderness Area is so steep that the goal of blasting was to achieve an elevation grade of 15%, even though the Secure Fence Act states that if the elevation grade of an area exceeds 10% walls do not need to be constructed there. Border wall construction caused tremendous erosion, and involved cutting down more than 100 Tecate cypress trees.

Because this is clearly incompatible with a wilderness designation, the goal of which was to limit human activity and protect fragile ecosystems, the Otay Mountain Wilderness Act was among the 36 laws that former Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff suspended using the Real ID Act. He also swept aside the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, rather than listen to the concerns of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior. With the wilderness no longer protected by law, DHS blasted through it and built the border wall. The Otay Mountain Wilderness Area now suffers from a barren scar and erosion that will bleed sediment into the Tijuana River for years to come.

Unchecked by environmental protections, the walls that began in California’s borderlands now extend over 600 miles, inflicting tremendous damage upon many sensitive ecosystems. In Arizona the border walls that cross washes and streams in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument have caused severe erosion and flooding. Border walls built in New Mexico’s Playas Valley block the movement of one of the last wild herds of bison, whose range straddles the U.S. – Mexico border. In Texas the walls that slice through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge have fragmented habitat that is critical for the survival of endangered ocelots.

Border wall in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.

Environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and many others, have attempted to protect fragile border ecosystems from DHS’ lawless actions. They have challenged the constitutionality for the Real ID Act’s waiver provision in court, and have worked to educate Congress and the public about the wall’s environmental impacts. The Sierra Club has also produced a short documentary, Wild vs. Wall, that gives an overview of the border wall’s environmental impacts from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico.

Even the Department of Homeland Security admits that border walls have negative impacts on border ecosystems, though they consistently underestimate the extent of the damage. In Environmental Stewardship Plans prepared ahead of construction, DHS identified the purchase of equivalent replacement lands as the most practical way to make up for the many thousands of acres of land that walls would tear through. Setting aside the question of where one would find replacement land comparable to a mountainous wilderness area, Congress allocated some of the necessary funds in 2008 and 2009. The Department of Homeland Security has yet to provide the Department of the Interior with those funds, and not a single acre of replacement land has been bought.

The Department of Homeland Security’s dismissive attitude towards environmental laws and border ecosystems is a direct reflection of that of some politicians, who whip up hysteria about “broken borders” and are openly hostile towards environmental protections. Chief among them has been Utah Representative Rob Bishop, who has repeatedly called the idea that DHS should pay to fix some small portion of the damage that it has done “extortion”, and has worked to keep mitigation funds from reaching the Department of the Interior.

Bishop recently said, "If wilderness designation gets in the way of a secure southern border, I want the designation changed. If it means you lose a couple of acres of wilderness, I don't think God will blame us at the judgment bar for doing that."

In 1968 an unnamed Army major justified the bombing of the Vietnamese provincial capital of Ben Tre by stating coldly, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” The same Orwellian logic seems to animate Representative Bishop, and some of his colleagues, when they look at the U.S.-Mexico border. Blinded by the myth that the border is a war zone, they ignore inconvenient facts like the low crime rates in the border cities of San Diego, El Paso, and Brownsville, and call for a scorched earth campaign to stop the imagined invasion. They fail to see the hypocrisy in setting aside all of our nation’s laws to stop those whom they call “illegals”. They are destroying the borderlands to “secure” the border.

The Sierra Club documentary Wild vs. Wall can be viewed at .