Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega back with you on The Takeaway. We've been talking about the legacy of President Trump's wall along the US-Mexico border. The construction of the wall has not only affected immigration to the United States, it's also wreaked havoc on the natural world from endangering sensitive ecosystems to destroying sacred burial sites. Environmental and indigenous activists say the border wall has been devastating for people and wildlife in the region.
For more on the cultural and ecological impact, I'm turning to Myles Traphagen, Borderlands Program Coordinator for Wildlands Network based in Tucson, Arizona, and a tribal member of the Chickasaw Nation. Myles, thanks for being with us.
Myles: Thank you for having me on, Tanzina.
Tanzina: Myles. How would you characterize the physical environment and landscape of the borderlands?
Myles: Well, the borderlands, I think are often misunderstood by people who don't live in them. I think that the perception is usually that it's a desert wasteland and flattened, sandy, like picture Lawrence of Arabia, the sand dunes blowing across the desert, but nothing could be further from the truth. It's a highly varied landscape that ranges from a low desert scrub with saguaro cactus, the iconic species you see in the West, ranging up to 10,000-foot mountain peaks with Douglas fir and Engelmann spruce and Ponderosa pine.
Then of course in between, we have vast grasslands, which bison still roam in between Chihuahua and New Mexico. Then there's a great diversity of mammals and reptiles and plant species in this area. Some of the highest biodiversity levels on North American continent.
Tanzina: How threatened is this region right now because of the border wall, Myles?
Myles: This is the most extreme threat and the greatest ecological impact that we've ever seen here. Essentially, what's going on is that we are conducting, society is, the Trump administration inadvertently, an ecological experiment, because what's happening is that we're dividing the North American continent by a border wall and that's simply never occurred in the evolutionary history of North America. Essentially what we're doing is that we are inhibiting the movement of many animals from a lot of their home range and also their migration and dispersal routes between the US and Mexico.
Tanzina: What about flora of the borderlands, the plant life that you described, the cactuses? Are they also at risk?
Myles: Yes. In places, specifically, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and that's in Western Arizona. The Monument was established for the protection of the organ pipe cactus, which reaches its Northern limit from Mexico in this area. What they've done, they started doing this last year, is they raised a 60-foot wide road on the Northside of the border known as the Roosevelt Wasement. The Roosevelt Easement was set aside by Theodore Roosevelt, a 60-foot buffer between the border in Mexico.
They began bulldozing the cactus and all the vegetation along this strip. What makes this particularly troubling is that they don't have to do any environmental review. There's no environmental impact statement required NOAA NEPA process, which is the national environmental policy act. The Department of Homeland Security can essentially waive all laws in order to build border walls. That's specifically what they've done for this entire strip along the border.
Tanzina: Myles, the construction crews have also come very close to, if not have destroyed sacred indigenous sites. Can you tell us about that?
Myles: Exactly. That's in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument area. There's a place called the Monument Hill and this was the traditional burial ground, one of the burial grounds for the Tohono O'odham Nation, and the tribe ancestral lands and current lands span both sides of the border in the US and Mexico. They were essentially divided by the border.
There's an expression here in the borderlands that say, "We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us." What they did was, to build the border wall is they blasted through Monument Hill and to really add insult to injury, this occurred as chairman Ned Norris was actually testifying on the Hill about this issue, the day that they were blasting through this. Everybody who's been following what's happening on the border and what the Trump administration is doing and its contractors, it's just, you can't ignore that.
It appears as though there's a degree of spite in this, and that's the really sad part is that the border wall was entirely unnecessary when we had levels of immigration at their lowest in decades. They had essentially shut off most migration, illegal immigration, and drug smuggling through electronic means and surveillance and ground scanning radar and night vision. This is all just really come as a horrible shock to watch the destruction of our borderlands for such an unnecessary reason.
Tanzina: Myles, is all of the land that's being worked on right now, going to be used for the wall?
Myles: We don't think so. This is particularly sad because currently, they are blasting mountains in wilderness areas and protected areas, areas of critical environmental concern, in order to build access roads for a border wall. A lot of this region, the mountainous portions are inaccessible to a vehicle. In fact, some of these slopes are so steep that a person couldn't even walk up them.
Instead of incorporating the natural features, like they basically did with The Great Wall of China during the Ming dynasty, we're blowing up these landscapes and essentially providing more access for illegal activity or it to occur. On the ground right now, border patrol agents are reporting that smugglers are already taking advantage of these newly carved routes into places that were previously inaccessible.
Tanzina: Tell us a little bit about what water sources like the Rio Grande and even parts of the Colorado River, how they might be affected?
Myles: Well, the Rio Grande and the Colorado River will not be terribly affected in terms of water withdrawals. Some of the issues that we may see in the lower Rio Grande Valley is that they've constructed walls in places, in the flood plain. There could be catastrophic, devastating floods that occur after the next hurricane comes around. The real problem with water in the borderlands region is the withdrawal of groundwater, specifically in Arizona.
The first place to really be impacted by this was Quitobaquito Springs at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It's been there for thousands of years, and it's a traditional watering source for indigenous people and for wildlife.
Tanzina: Myles, what about legal challenges from the environmental advocates and indigenous communities about the construction of the wall? How far have those gotten?
Myles: Well, I'd have to say that we won cases. The Southern Border Communities Coalition, and the Sierra Club, along with other environmental groups, along with a separate lawsuit that was enjoined to that lawsuit that was filed by the state of California, Attorney General Javier Bissera and in 19 other states, those lawsuits prevailed in the ninth district court and the ninth circuit court of appeals.
They basically said that it was illegal to take funds from the Department of Defense when Congress did not allocate those funds. Basically, the Trump administration was not happy with the fact that Congress had only allocated $1.875 billion for border wall construction. Trump declared a state of emergency and robbed the DOD of their funds. Despite the fact that the courts ruled and put forth injunctions, and then summary judgments with injunctions, the Supreme Court stayed those injunctions.
Legally as a stay it means that they basically lifted the injunction and allowed construction to proceed until they decide the case. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear this case in the spring of 21. That's just entirely too late because as we're speaking right now, they are detonating mountains and wilderness areas with dynamite.
Tanzina: There is an incoming Biden administration, Myles. Are you hopeful that that might be something that will change the trajectory in advance of the legal fights that you're saying might be too late?
Myles: Yes, I am. We all urge the Biden administration to halt border wall construction on January 20th when he takes office and to not build any more border wall. In fact, beyond that, there are places where we really need to remove these structures because they are going to halt the flow of many species, some of which are endangered, some of which are common everyday residents, but never before, like I said earlier, have we seen a barrier that's been placed across the North American continent that has the ability to just alter the entire evolutionary history of the continent.
Tanzina: Myles Traphagen, Borderlands Program Coordinator for Wildlands Network and a tribal member of the Chickasaw Nation. Myles, thanks so much for joining us.
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