Trump's Border Wall Could Destroy an Icon of the American Southwest

The tip of a saguaro cactus against the backdrop of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
The tip of a saguaro cactus against the backdrop of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
Photo: Getty
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From Tucson to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, it’s 126 miles of largely open road. There’s just one area where traffic is likely to slow down, right after the barely-there town of Why and just before you hit the park.

There, a white canopy extends over the road with Border Patrol agents clustered underneath, away from the harsh desert sun. Cars are forced to slowdown at the checkpoint, answering questions by the agents. Dogs are there to sniff the cars for drugs and the agents’ eyes scan backseats looking for stowaways. It’s a jarring interruption for visitors en route to 330,689 acres of solitude, and one they’ll be forced to go through all over again on their way back to Tucson at another checkpoint on the eastern edge of the Tohono O’odam Nation.

The two checkpoints are part of a decade-plus effort to harden the border, slowly turning the southern fringe of the U.S. into a de facto militarized zone. But the various fences, checkpoints, surveillance apparatuses, and other tools to lock down the U.S. border haven’t been enough for the Trump administration. Recent reports indicate the big real estate man in the White House wanted to install spikes on the fences, allow soldiers to shoot immigrants in the legs to slow them down, and build a moat stocked with alligators or snakes (Donald Trump has, of course, called these reports “fake news”).

StreetView show Border Patrol stops just north of the national monument (left) and along Highway 86 near the Tohono O’odham Reservation (right).
StreetView show Border Patrol stops just north of the national monument (left) and along Highway 86 near the Tohono O’odham Reservation (right).
Screenshot: Google StreetView

While the suggestions read like white nationalist fanfic, here in what passes for reality nowadays, the administration is already hard at work militarizing the border even further. In late August, the Department of Homeland Security began prepping the site for construction of its new, 30-foot tall border fence in Organ Pipe, a move that is already damaging the fragile desert ecosystem and landscape that’s sacred to the Tohomo O’odham tribe that have lived in the area for centuries. The border wall going up in the park in many ways encapsulates the rotten core of the administration—from its flagrant disregard for the law to its willingness to trample the environment to outright cruelty, all in the service of the distilled racism at its heart.

The land that is now Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has a history of human use that stretches back millennia. The park’s lands are part of the Sky Island ecosystem, a landscape renowned biologist E.O. Wilson has called one of the “best places in the biosphere.” It’s a place where human and natural history have grown side-by-side like the stalks of the stately organ pipe cactus itself.

What makes the region so unique is that life has found a way to thrive even with precious little freshwater. One of the rare sources of aboveground freshwater sits within Organ Pipe’s boundaries. Quitobaquito Springs is an actual oasis in the desert. Humans have flocked to its reed-ensconced shores for at least 16,000 years, according to the National Park Service.

The site is also home to the endangered Quitobaquito pupfish, a minnow-sized fish that inhabits the spring and a few other isolated stretches of water in Mexico. Beyond the pupfish, there are three other endangered species that call Organ Pipe home including the Sonoran pronghorn, lesser long-nosed bat, and the tiny Acuña cactus. The park’s boundaries also help protect habitat for dozens of other plants and animals in one of the harshest landscapes in North America.

“Ecosystem connectivity is vital in the Sonoran Desert where wildlife need to be able to move freely to reach water, food, and mates,” Louise Misztal, the executive director of the Sky Island Alliance, told Earther in an email. “Wildlife do not see political borders and are always moving to find the things they need to thrive.”

There’s currently 654 miles of wall interrupting some of the landscape connectivity between the U.S. and Mexico. But the Trump administration wants to rapidly build up fortifications along the nearly 2,000-mile border, with the president claiming hundreds of more miles of wall will be built by the end of 2020. To do it, the president declared a national emergency earlier this year to circumvent funding mechanisms, allowing him to play a shell game with the federal government’s money. As part of that, the Pentagon announced last month it was moving $3.6 billion from military construction projects to border wall construction, upping the total Department of Defense contributions to wall construction to $6.1 billion. It also allows the administration to fast track construction and environmental reviews. In an effort to create a totalitarian, locked down environment on the border, the administration has essentially turned it into lawless territory.

“To really understand the borderlands in Arizona, you have to realize that most of it is public land or tribal land,” Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, told Earther. “The Department of Homeland Security is simply running roughshod over other federal agencies and Organ Pipe National Monument is a great example of that.”

Thousands of scientists have denounced the wall for the long-term ecological harm it could cause. And what’s happening at Organ Pipe offers a preview of that harm with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) waiving a number of environmental reviews to begin construction of a new barrier along 78 miles of the monument’s border with Mexico. There are currently vehicle barriers and what Kevin Dahl, Arizona’s senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association described as a “strong law enforcement presence” with both park rangers and Border Patrol agents staking out the border.

Officials have planned for the new sections of wall to be 18 or 30 feet in height depending on the location. In additions, the wall segments have been designed to include night lighting and a deep concrete footer to prop it up and prevent tunneling. There’s also what’s called a “Roosevelt Reservation” along the border, a 60-foot wide strip of land on the the U.S. side the government owns. Dahl told Earther he fears the DHS could basically scrape it clean, removing native vegetation.

The border wall near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, pre-Trumpification.
The border wall near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, pre-Trumpification.
Photo: AP

The construction process itself will put stress on wildlife. Chief among the issues is the water demand for the concrete and other construction processes. All told, construction will require nearly 80 million gallons of water according to an analysis by the Arizona Republic.

In the parched desert, water is in short supply and Dahl said NPCA is concerned that DHS could use groundwater or other sources that may be connected to Quitobaquito Springs, which sits just a few hundred feet from the new wall construction site.

“We know the spring’s output reduced when farmers in Mexico started pumping water,” he said. “If we were operating under normal laws, scientists and other concerned people would be able to comment and suggest that the water be trucked in from nearby reliable sources like Lukeville or Ajo, which have plentiful water supplies.”

While DHS has said it will not drill water wells within five miles of the Quitobaquito, it’s clear that the aquifer that feeds the spring extends well beyond that range. Tapping into the aquifer and even drawing it down a few feet could do long-term damage to the spring’s water flow. In addition, he said the footer could also cut off groundwater movement. How the whole aquifer and spring systems are connected is still an area of active research. That means wall construction could potentially disrupt it, permanently altering water flow in the spring and wiping out habitat for the endangered pupfish as well as a water source for other animals in the otherwise bone dry landscape.

“If they pull out enough groundwater, they could essentially destroy Quitobaquito Springs in perpetuity,” Serraglio said. “They could literally destroy it forever.”

Construction could also partially or completely wipe out 22 archeological sites according to a National Park Service memo the Washington Post obtained last month. In the report, the park’s cultural resources specialist wrote that the Roosevelt Reservation is an “area of great concern, whose cultural and natural resources are imperiled.”

If construction gets completed, it will open up a whole other series of ecosystem-altering consequences. Misztal said the “Sky Islands are a continental crossroads.” Bifurcating it with a wall would essentially bring migratory traffic to a standstill. Even species that fly could still face challenges with a 30 foot barrier.

Dahl said that bats, including the endangered lesser long-nosed bat, could be particularly impacted. The wall has slats that could mess with their ability to navigate. Add in the bright night lights and he said “we have no idea how that’s going to disrupt this major migration of bats.”

Among the only animals that could benefit are birds of prey. The wall will act as a perch to hunt from on high. And if the Roosevelt Reservation is scraped down to the dirt as Dahl worries, mice, lizards, and other small animals that rely on vegetation for cover will be easily picked off. In short, Dahl said the entire area could be “a unique animal killing field.”

The border wall as icon of the Trump era isn’t just because of its ecological impacts. Sure, the administration has trampled over the natural world, doing everything from proposing that Alaska hunters be allowed to kill bear families in their dens to attempting to dismantle the landmark Endangered Species Act.

But the administration’s willful disregard for climate science is on display as well. The Southwest is facing an unprecedented risk of megadrought—that is a drought lasting a decade or more—due largely to climate change. Changing rainfall patterns and more intense heat in what’s already the hottest part of the U.S. are increasing the odds of baking drought in place. Groundwater aquifers like the ones the administration are tapping to build the wall already take decades or longer to recharge as rain slowly seeps into the soil and percolates into the bedrock. With the odds rising for a long-lasting drought, drawing down already meager water resources is a surefire way to exacerbate the coming crisis.

The rain that does fall is expected to become more erratic. Heavy downpours are on the rise across the country, including the Southwest. With intense rain can come flash floods—to take one example, a 2017 Arizona flash flood created what rescuers called a “40-foot wide black wave”—that endanger communities and alter the desert landscape. The current border fencing already traps water and has led to worsening erosion according to a NPCA blog post by Dahl, and the most fortress-like barrier being constructed will only increase the damage.

Then there’s what the wall is purportedly being put up to do: deter migrants and asylum seekers and staunch the flow of illegal drugs. There are ample signs the wall is an ineffective solution to deterring people or drugs. While it’s true that large parts of Organ Pipe were shutdown from 2003 to 2014 following a ranger’s death at the hands of suspected drug smugglers, Dahl said it’s now “safer than your bathtub.” Indeed, most illicit drugs today come through regulated ports of entry, and previous border wall construction didn’t reduce incoming migration, it only shifted where people crossed into the U.S.

In an era of increasing climate turmoil, Trump’s border wall plan is a horrifying message to the world. Just last year, the Trump administration published the National Climate Assessment that synthesizes the best available science on climate change. The report warned that migration is a “potential national security issue.” Numerous recent reports and studies back it up, and there’s evidence current asylum seekers from Central America are in part being driven by climate disruption and attendant crop failures. All this as the U.S. is the biggest historical culprit when it comes to carbon pollution.

Taken as a whole, it’s not just national monuments and endangered species that are at-risk if border wall construction goes through at Organ Pipe. So too are equitable and just solutions to the biggest problem facing humanity today.