Why the Environmental Crisis Sparked by Trump's Border Wall May Be Irreparable

You’ve likely heard about the U.S.-Mexico “border crisis” in the context of migrants. You may not have heard about the urgent environmental crisis that activists say has been triggered by the wall itself.

In March, Laiken Jordahl visited Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument for the first time in months. Jordahl's devoted the last several years to documenting the ecological impact of Trump's $15 billion U.S.-Mexico border wall, and the park had reopened after the Biden-Harris administration paused construction. Upon his return, Jordahl was horrified by stadium-style lighting that he said would disrupt nighttime pollinators. He also found a number of saguaro cactuses that had died after being transplanted by Customs and Border Protection. 

In Arizona, cutting down a saguaro cactus is illegal under state law and can result in a class 4 felony. Hundreds of species depend on them. They’re sacred to the local Tohono O’odham people. And some of these cacti are older than the U.S.-Mexico border itself. But the same rules don’t apply when it comes to the wall, and the saguaro isn’t the only exception.

In 2005, the Bush administration passed an act allowing the Secretary of Homeland Security to bypass any law standing in the way of a new border barrier. Since then, 84 laws and regulations have been waived for border wall construction. These include the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Last year, that gave crews permission to blast an ancient burial site and bulldoze the culturally significant Quitobaquito Springs.

You’ve likely heard about the U.S.-Mexico “border crisis” in the context of migrants. You may not have heard about the urgent environmental crisis that activists say has been triggered by the wall itself. As the conservation scientist Emily Burns puts it, “There's a misconception that the border is a dusty road with tumbleweeds rolling across it...and that couldn't be further from the truth.” 

Burns is Program Director at the nonprofit Sky Island Alliance, which has set out 70 cameras along 30 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border to track wildlife migration between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. In just over a year, they’ve analyzed over 2 million photos and detected 106 species. She notes that the few humans they have seen are Border Patrol agents, horseback riders, and hunters. 

She stresses that there may only be a few jaguars at any given time in the United States. If they’re divided from the rest by an impassable barrier, they may not be able to maintain a viable population. “We're really doing this massive evolutionary experiment to find out what happens to animal populations if they're separated from one another.”

Sky Island Alliance forms part of a coalition of 70 organizations that recently sent a letter urging the Biden-Harris administration to cancel all border wall contracts and divert those funds to remove harmful sections and address existing damage. The wall, they write, has alarming potential to hinder wildlife migration, genetic exchange, and access to food and water; dry up water sources; increase flood risk; and disturb sites of cultural significance to Native Americans. 

Burns explains that there’s typically an extensive environmental review that takes place before federal construction projects begin, “just like we wouldn't build a two thousand mile long highway without looking to see where the road was going to cut through.”

In an environmental document on construction in the Arizona counties Burns and Jordahl are most concerned about, Customs and Border Protection wrote that the agency was “committed to being a good steward of the environment.” In the same paragraph, they noted that they had no legal obligation to do so. 

In early April, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that federal agencies were still reviewing wall contracts and would soon submit a plan to the President. Burns says it’s too late to reverse some of the harm, which motivates her to address that which isn’t permanent. “What I see as the actual crisis at the border is the damage that's being done to communities by creating the wall and the environmental damage that comes along with that.”