A Deer Looks at an Orange Wall

One of the defining policy proposals of the Trump campaign was substantial investment into the Mexico-United States barrier. At this time the border is made up of a series of physical barriers secured in between with a “virtual fence” which includes a system of cameras and sensors monitored and maintained by the United States Border Patrol. The Trump campaign’s proposal was an expansion of the physical barriers to form a physical wall along the entire length of the border. Amongst the most controversial of the policy proposals put forth during this past election cycle, the desired outcome was a reduction in illegal immigration from Mexico, Central and South America.  This proposal has been mired in controversy from the outset. Criticisms regarding the cost of the potential project, mixed opinions on its effectiveness, and accusations of racism have all been responses to the newly proposed wall. Absent from much of the discussion surrounding has been the potential ecological impacts including the potential the project has to run afoul of existing environmental policy and law, disruption of animal migration routes, and environmental impacts from the proposed construction.

Activist groups that strongly oppose expansion of the border wall may attempt to leverage Endangered Species Act (ESA) to delay or prevent construction. To do so, they would face a major road block. In 2008, the Secretary of Homeland Security waived all environmental considerations under federal immigration law, departing from standard federal procedures. While the waiver may still be in place, according to the Border Network for Human Rights, it may be unconstitutional and should be revisited. Should the waiver be unconstitutional, it could run afoul of existing environmental policy and law. The ESA could create a barrier to construction in some areas. Over 111 endangered species could be threatened by the construction of the Trump border wall, including the bald eagle, an iconic symbol of American patriotism. The wall would likely overlap with four national wildlife refuges, which could trigger requirements for review.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) the federal government would almost certainly be required to perform a full environmental impact statement for the expansion of such a physical barrier. These kinds of analyses can take years, especially when we consider the size of the area under consideration. The US-Mexican border is approximately 1,989 miles long and is the most frequently crossed controlled international boundary in the world, with approximately 350 million legal crossings being made annually. This analysis, if properly completed, could take much up much of the Trumps first term. According to a 2008 study in the journal Environmental Practice by Piett and Carole deWitt, the average length of time for an environmental impact study was 3.4 years.

An important area of discussion that would inevitably come up in the course of an environmental impact assessment would be that many ecosystems along the border have economic value.Ecosystem services are the economic value contributed to a region from relevant ecosystems. For example the wildlife watchers in the Rio Grande Valley spend $463 million each year, which is home to more than 700 species of vertebrates. The Rio Grande Valley is a major destination for hundreds of species of migratory bird. Migratory bird species can create incentives for nature tourism, providing economic benefits to other major bird watching areas. Nature based tourism is valued at approximately $344.4 million dollars per year and creates over 4400 full and part time jobs.

A physical border wall would form what is called in ecology a clementsian boundary. This is a sharp boundary for an ecosystem that cuts it off from adjoining systems, in this case, a physical wall splitting a variety of ecosystems and ecological communities that exist along the border. Such barrier would disrupt the migration routes for many species and create fragmented ecological communities. This becomes an even bigger issue when we consider climate change, which will disrupt the ecological niche of many species. In response to climate change, species that are capable of moving to follow the optimum environmental conditions likely will, and could very well run into a barrier when reaching the proposed border wall. According to a 2011 paper by Jesse Lasky from Penn State, the existing barrier reduced the range for some species as much as 75 percent. New barriers, such as what is proposed by the incoming Trump administration, would increase the number of species at risk.

Part of the strength of the current virtual fence is that it avoids many of the environmental problems that a physical border wall would create. A series of cameras with a physically permeable border would not carry the same range reductions for species along the border. Many of the proposed aims could be achieved utilizing machine learning methods. Image recognition has been an area of constant improvement in machine learning for many years and citizen enforcement efforts, based on citizen science projects such as Instant Wild, could reduce manpower requirements.

The proposed wall project has been derided for its potential cost, political differences on the question of illegal immigration itself, and whether it could be effective. Just as in the end of the Bush administration, the last time the border wall saw major development, environmental groups are likely to begin to express serious concern about environmental impacts. While there is a mechanism for a Trump administration to side step federal environmental law, expect legal challenges to appear to prevent this and the potential for unexpected legal barriers.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on February 2, 2017.


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