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The Border Project: Border wall harms environment, some say

Bill Odle, 70, stands on his property, less than 400 feet from the Arizona-Mexico border. Photo by Rachel Morgan

Conchise County, Ariz — Bill Odle lives 385 feet from the border wall that separates Arizona and Mexico — so close he can see it from his straw-bale house.

And he’s seen firsthand the environmental degradation the 670-mile fence has inflicted on the surrounding area.

The $3.7 billion fence was intended to serve as a solid barrier between Arizona and Mexico to prevent illegal immigrants and drugs from passing over the border. What it has done instead is fragment an already stretched environment and prevent animals from accessing large portions of their habitats, which is pushing some toward extinction. It has even caused flooding in border areas.

“It’s just so enraging to have this put up, and it’s only harmful,” Odle said.

Odle’s 50-acre plot is located along the border in Cochise County, Ariz. He moved to the area in 2000, so he’s seen the area before, during and after construction of the wall, which went up in his area about two and a half years ago.

“When this first went up, I’d drive along and deer would be ahead of you; and they’d go a ways and try and go south, and they couldn’t cross,” he said. “I followed them a mile or so, and they eventually just went north.”

While Odle is not a rancher, he is very much an outdoors man — his eco-friendly straw-bale house and solar energy use can attest to that. A former Marine and Vietnam veteran, he wears a denim shirt, khaki shorts and a stained white hat. He drives a massive white truck with a National Rifle Association sticker affixed to the back window. Odle also cares deeply about the local wildlife.

“We’d see rabbits — rabbits can’t get through. Or roadrunners,” he said. “Well, who cares about rabbits and roadrunners? Well, I do. And it really pisses me off that this thing affects those critters the way it does. It’s really tragic.”

Bill Odle, who lives next to the border wall, says he's seen first-hand its negative environmental impact. Photo by Rachel Morgan

About a mile from Odle’s property, the wall abruptly ends over the San Padro River. There, the only barriers are sparse, steel beams low to the ground. If they can fly under the radar of the Border Patrol, who regularly patrols this area, it seems almost effortless for humans to cross here.

Animals don’t have it so easy.

They don’t have critical thinking and reasoning skills like people do, Odle said. “The animals aren’t like, ‘The word’s out; we can cross here.’ It doesn’t work like that.”

Odle isn’t the only one who sees the wall as a serious environmental hazard.

Environmentalists warn of habitat fragmentation, habitat destruction and hydrological issues.

“We’re talking about a solid barrier that’s chopping ecosystems in two,” said Dan Millis of the Sierra Club’s Rincon Group. “Migration corridors are being blocked, and that can have a huge impact, not only to (animals’) access to food and water, but to their genetic variability and basically the strength of the whole species.”

Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity points out that habitat destruction is more extensive than most people realize.

“There’s a lot of other land that’s disturbed along with the border wall than this tiny little strip of land that everyone thinks is so innocuous,” he said. “(The Border Patrol) still has to drive will-nilly all over the desert to apprehend these people. … The operation support activities do more damage than the wall itself.”

In 2005, The REAL ID Act allowed for the waiver of 36 environmental laws  so the wall could be built, laws that conserved migration patterns, maintained clean air and water, and protected endangered species.

Now, species such as the mountain lion and the endangered ocelots and jaguarundi are feeling the effects of the fence, Millis said. Other environmentalists name the jaguar, the long-nosed bat, the masked bobwhite quail and the Sonoran pronghorn as species that have suffered.

Serraglio warns some species will go extinct if the problem is not remedied.

“Any further construction of the wall, and we can pretty much say goodbye to jaguars in the United States,” he said.

Flooding is another issue. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, in the Sonoran Desert area, and the cities of Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico, experienced flooding that some environmentalists attribute to the wall.

“You had six feet of water on the Mexican side of the wall, and only a foot or two on the U.S. side, so it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the wall is playing a part in the hydrological disaster,” Millis said.

The flooding in Nogales caused the death of two people in 2008. Today, in Nogales, Mexico, the ironic words, ‘Walls are scars on the earth,’ are scrawled across the metal wall in white spray paint.

It’s easy to see how the wall can cause flooding. Near Odle’s land, debris of grass, vegetation, clothing, shoes and discarded water bottles form somewhat of a dam on the Mexican side of the fence.

Debris can easily accumulate against the border wall, as it does near Bill Odle's home. Photo by Rachel Morgan

“The fact (is) that it affects the wildlife, the environment,” Odle said. “You can see the flooding that occurs down here — that’s another aspect of it. But it doesn’t stop people.”

The Department of Homeland Security sees it differently.

“I think there’s a misconception that the border fence is supposed to be a solution to any and all border problems,” said Colleen Agle, public information officer for the Tucson Sector of DHS. “It’s not the solution by itself. We see that as part of a solution that consists of our infrastructure, agents and technology.”

Opponents have referred to the fence as a multibillion-dollar “speed bump” that doesn’t really keep illegal immigrants from crossing; they said it only slows them down.

“That’s not my terminology, but that might be fair to say,” Agle said. “It allows our agents time to respond to an area so we can make the proper law enforcement response to whatever type of border incursion it is.”

Agle maintains that the border fence does, in fact, deter potential illegal immigrants.

“When our agents go in to make an apprehension, a lot of people realize they are going to be apprehended, and (they) run back across (the border),” she said. “If they’re going to have a challenge to get into the United States, our agents can respond. Also, if they’re going to have a challenge getting back into Mexico, there’s basically a certainty of arrest. If an individual knows there’s going to be a certainty of arrest, there’s a deterrent.”

DHS wouldn’t comment on the environmental effects of the wall.

Despite the Border Patrol’s arguments, local residents and environmentalists are not convinced the wall really does anything to deter illegal immigration and drug traffic.

“The nature of this wall is a knee-jerk political reaction to this anti-immigration hysteria that has swept the country since Sept. 11 and has intensified more recently,” Millis said. “What it is not is a solution to any of the problems it claims to address.”

Odle agrees.

“It doesn’t stop people,” he said. “So why was it put up? Well, it was put up because some lard butt up in Dubuque, Iowa, was sitting on his overstuffed chair, eating his supersaturated fats, watching his wide-screen TV and says, ‘Oh yeah, that’ll stop them.’ It would stop his fat ass, but it doesn’t stop some 20-year-old who wants to come up here, wants to work and is hungry.”

Even Odle’s dog Jake has wandered onto the Mexican side at various times. Once, he was gone for three months until a woman in Mexico called him and let him know. So Odle had to get his dog’s registration papers, then go get him and bring him back.

Millis points out the hefty price tag of the wall in relation to its overall effectiveness.

“Now (DHS is) saying what it really is is a speed bump,” Millis said. “It slows people down for five minutes or so, and then we have more time to respond. And that’s just ridiculous. How many billions of dollars do we have to spend on a five-minute speed bump?”

The wall, which isn’t finished and spans only 670 miles across the nearly 2,000-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico, already has a price tag of $3.7 billion.

As far as a solution to the rash of environmental issues that have arisen, some say baseline data research and funds allocated to mitigate existing damage could be the answer.

An ongoing protocol developed by researchers from the University of Arizona and U.S. Geological Survey will monitor the environmental effects of the wall. The protocol will study its environmental effects, including effects on wildlife and vegetation, hydrology, erosion, species migration and movement, and the isolation of species on both sides of the border.

“The problem is, we don’t have the baseline data on a lot of these species and how they use the border region,” Serraglio said. “So it’s really hard to tell scientifically what exactly the border wall is doing to them.”

Ideally, protocol would remedy this issue, deciding what areas along the border fence should receive funds to counteract the environmental effects of the wall. It is currently under review by DHS, said Laura-Lopez Hoffman, one of the UA researchers working on the project.

Money allotted to mitigate the environmental degradation is another point of contention. Currently the DHS and the Department of the Interior are embroiled in a bitter struggle over $90 million appropriated to repair environmental damage inflicted by the wall.

“It’s a little complex, with Homeland Security refusing to hand the money over to Department of the Interior, because they are worried about an obscure provision of the 1930 Economy Act,” Millis said. “There was supposed to be about $50 million per year dedicated to this effort, but it has been held up for two years now, and the wall continues to be an unmitigated environmental disaster.”