While Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign focused heavily on his “build the wall” slogan, the story of the Trump administration’s actual wall is one of billions in government spending, fraudulent fundraising campaigns, and failed promises (no payment from Mexico has come yet). But hundreds of miles of wall were successfully built, so its most lasting legacy might be the ecological destruction it has wrought. Even if President-elect Joe Biden doesn’t remove the wall entirely, environmentalists hope he will take steps to mitigate its damage.
“We’ve seen our mountains being dynamited. We’ve seen our canyons filled in with rubble,” Dan Millis, manager of the Sierra Club Borderlands program, says of the Trump administration’s actions at the border. Though it’s been dry, Millis also expects we’ll see flooding and other consequences because rivers have been dammed when portions of the border wall were built across them. Natural water resources, such as the Quitobaquito Springs in Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, are also drying up, as contractors pump thousands of gallons of water out of the ground to mix concrete.
Biden has vowed that not another foot of border wall will be built by his administration, but he has also said that he won’t tear down what has already been built. Even if those additional miles of border wall aren’t torn down, Millis says they should at least be shortened. Though the Trump administration built just 47 miles miles of border wall where none had existed before, it completed 452 miles of its new border wall system: The majority of construction replaced shorter so-called vehicle barriers and pedestrian fencing that already existed with 18- to 30-foot steel walls.
By replacing miles of vehicle barriers—which are just four to six feet tall and not much of an issue for wildlife or water to maneuver around or over per the Sierra Club—with 18- to 30-foot steel barriers, the Trump wall has been a bigger disturbance on border ecosystems. Along with threatening the recovery of local jaguar populations by walling off their migration pathways in the U.S., the wall has made it more difficult for species such as the ocelot, the bighorn sheep, and even the cactus pygmy owl to cross the boundary, even though their range spans both the U.S. and Mexico. Fragmented habitats make it more difficult for these animals to find food, water, and mates, and even adapt to climate change, as they can’t migrate to new areas.
“What we need to do to address the damage done by the Trump wall is to cut the Trump wall off at the knees and convert it into a vehicle barrier,” Millis says. It would be cheap and easy to cut down the posts to a shorter height, he says. “What you’re left with is an environmentally friendly vehicle barrier that prevents cross-border vehicle smuggling but allows the natural flow of wildlife and water.”
The first thing Biden should do to address these environmental issues, according to Melinda Taylor, an environmental lawyer on faculty at University of Texas School of Law, is revoke a waiver that under the 2005 Real ID Act allows the Department of Homeland Security to waive any federal, state, or local environmental laws before constructing a border wall.
The Trump administration has invoked this waiver, as did the George W. Bush administration, using it to build miles of border wall after Bush signed the Secure Fence Act in 2006. The Obama administration built miles of border fence too, and also invoked this waiver to bypass environmental laws, according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition. By 2011, the Department of Homeland Security had completed 649 miles of fencing, which included both vehicle barriers and pedestrian fences.
Then, Taylor echoed Millis to say that the Biden administration should cancel existing construction contracts and tear down sections of the wall that have been constructed. “If it was done appropriately, it would have huge environmental benefits,” she says. “You would not have those water problems . . . you would reestablish that connectivity for wildlife habitat.”
It would also end the bifurcation of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge and the Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary. Trump’s border wall actually cuts through both protected areas. “The government wants to take [border wall] construction along a straight line, but clearly the border between Mexico and the U.S. is not a straight line,” Taylor says. “In a couple of instances, a fence exists where it puts U.S. land on the Mexico side, and it has significant impacts on America’s ability to manage that property.”
The border wall will undoubtedly be something that the Biden administration deals with early on. Whether Biden addresses the environmental issues associated with the wall, along with the immigration ones, is yet to be seen, but environmentalists are optimistic. “It’s been an ongoing crisis for years and years,” Millis says, “and we’re hopeful that now with a new incoming Biden-Harris administration, they can start to turn this around and restore the equal protection under the law for border communities and make sure that our wild areas along the border such as national parks get protection.”