#rgvEarthDay2020: Conservationists document border wildlife
Updated: May 6
By Jonathan Salinas and Joshua Torres
On the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day this week, 22 April 2020, legislative victories won around that time do not apply to the southern U.S. border where they’re routinely waived to build border walls across swaths of crucial, endangered and precious wildlife habitat.
While the world is in pandemic, and governments order citizens to stay at home, as hospitals overflow and unemployment rises, the federal government pours several billions into border wall construction on the southern border in order to “secure the country.” Border walls, however, do not secure us; they harm us.
Border walls cause migrant deaths and environmental destruction, but are allowed because of the Real ID Act, passed without a single dissenting vote in the U.S. Senate in 2005, allowing the Department of Homeland Security to disregard literally any law, if found to interfere with “expeditious” border wall construction, which leading environmental lawyer, Dinah Bear, refers to as the “broadest waiver authority of law in American history.”
Bedrock environmental laws passed around the time of the first Earth Day, like the Endangered Species Act, Native American religious freedom laws, the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899—the oldest environmental law in the country, and dozens of other laws, are routinely “waived” across the southern border to build walls, which—if laws meant anything—would be illegal. Because environmental impact statements are not conducted before border wall construction, as the above “Acts” demand, the full extent of the environmental harm that border walls cause will never truly be known, until it’s too late to do anything about it, except document it.
Two environmental advocacy groups working in Arizona and the adjacent Mexican state of Sonora are photographing the wildlife of the Patagonia and Huachuca Mountains, as well as the San Rafael Valley. Sky Island Alliance, a nonprofit in the U.S., and Naturalia AC, a nonprofit from Mexico, want to showcase the abundant biodiversity that migrates between the Arizonan borderlands where walls are set to be built.
Setting up over 50 wildlife cameras across the region, their goal is to capture an accurate survey of wildlife that’ll be affected by the border wall, filling in the research gap left by waived laws. Dozens of laws have been waived in Arizona, billions stolen from military accounts. Looking ahead, the groups also hope to advocate for where border walls should first be removed after they’re built, based on the data recorded.
Earth-destroying construction equipment enters the Arroyo Ramirez tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Fronton, Texas. October 2019. Photo by Jonathan Salinas.
Emily Burns, Ph.D., lead scientist on the project and Program Director at Sky Island Alliance told Únete 956, “My concern is people will feel paralyzed by the wall construction and not feel that scientific efforts like ours are worthy because the Trump administration is not listening to science. I know that science is still necessary and will guide future policy with the protection or restoration of wildlife migration corridors.”
Within the first days of the project, which began in early April, these cameras captured more than 27 species. Some of these animals include mountain lions, white-nosed coati, ringtail, bobcat, gray fox, javelina, kangaroo rat, white-tailed and mule deer, Montezuma quail, American kestrel, Northern harrier, Mexican jay, and red-tailed hawk, attesting to the rich biodiversity existing in the borderlands.
Southern Arizona isn’t the only area with a large diversity of wildlife, though. South Texas and other communities on the southern border do, too. In search of food and breeding grounds, hundreds of birds and butterfly species daily and seasonally migrate through the wildlife conservation corridor that is the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, although, like Arizonans, New Mexicans and Californians, we do not and may never know its full extent. We don’t even really know exactly what’s being taken from us.
Unfortunately, the bedrock environmental laws many believed would protect all people, public health and wildlife mean nothing on the southern U.S. border. If the government gives us laws, they can evidently take them away, especially when they become inconvenient or hurt profits. In the flourishing biodiversity of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, wildlife certainly will be significantly affected and much of it lost, as walls will stop migratory wildlife in their tracks.
Although groups like Sky Island Alliance, Naturalia AC and others may concede the fight against “Trump’s wall,” while hoping and working for a future administration that is environmentally friendly, we believe local communities and workers councils should be empowered to veto any infrastructure projects that may adversely affect our health, without consideration for corporate profits. Only then could such important and wonderful research as this be meaningfully used in making decisions about our environment.
Jonathan Salinas served as the Rio Grande Valley No Border Wall Coalition chair from November 2018-November 2019. He also served on the Lower Rio Grande Valley's Sierra Club Executive Committee from January 2019-January 2020, also serving as a volunteer for the Sierra Club's Borderlands Campaign from January 2019-March 2020.
Where the Rio Grande meets the Rio del Alamo in Mexico, near the Las Ruinas tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Fronton, Texas, October 2019. Photo by Jonathan Salinas.
Joshua Torres has been active in The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Environmental Awareness Club’s leadership since 2017, serving as President and Vice President. Torres majors in philosophy.
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