This story originally appeared on LX.com
In March, Laiken Jordahl visited Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument for the first time in months. Jordahl’s has spent the past few years documenting the ecological impact of Trump’s $ 15 billion US-Mexico border wall, and the park has reopened after the Biden-Harris administration halted construction. Upon his return, Jordahl was horrified by the stadium-style lighting that he said would disturb nocturnal pollinators. He also found a number of dead saguaro cacti 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 crime. Hundreds of species depend on it. They are sacred to the local Tohono O’odham people. And some of these cacti are older than the US-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 a law allowing the Secretary of Homeland Security to bypass any law that stands in the way of a new border fence. Since then, 84 laws and regulations have been waived for the construction of border walls. These include the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Last year this gave crews permission to destroy an ancient burial site and bulldoze the culturally significant sources of Quitobaquito.
You’ve probably heard of the US-Mexico “border crisis” in the context of migrants. You may not have heard of the urgent environmental crisis that activists say was triggered by the wall itself. As conservation scientist Emily Burns puts it, “There is a misconception that the border is a dusty road crossed by tumbleweeds … and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Burns is a program director at the Sky Island Alliance nonprofit, which has installed 70 cameras along 30 miles of the US-Mexico border to track wildlife migration between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. In just over a year, they analyzed more than 2 million photos and detected 106 species. She notes that the few humans they’ve seen are border patrol agents, horsemen, and hunters.
She points out that there can only be a few jaguars at any given time in the United States. If they are separated from the rest by an impassable barrier, they may not be able to maintain a viable population. “We are really doing this massive evolutionary experiment to find out what happens to animal populations if they are separated from each other.”
Sky Island Alliance is 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 cut harmful sections and remedy existing damage. The wall, they write, has alarming potential to impede wildlife migration, genetic exchange, and access to food and water; drain water sources; increase the risk of flooding; and disrupt sites of cultural significance to Native Americans.
Burns explains that there is usually a comprehensive 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 would cut.”
In an environmental document on construction in Arizona counties of greatest concern to Burns and Jordahl, 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 federal agencies were still reviewing the Wall’s contracts and would soon submit a plan to the president. Burns says it’s too late to reverse some of the evil, which motivates her to tackle what isn’t permanent. “What I see as the real crisis at the border is the damage to communities caused by the creation of the wall and the resulting environmental damage.”