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Border Wildlife Refuges Heal Scars in the Earth

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Great blue heron at the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge | Photo: USFWS

Southern California and Baja California contain some of the most unique and varied ecosystems in the world.  The Mediterranean climate that characterizes the region is incredibly rare — about three percent of the earth’s land area — but it accounts for nearly 20 percent of the world’s plant species.  The California and Baja California coastlines are lush, too, filled with a rich array of plant and animal life.

Through the middle of this environmental wealth runs the border wall. From a distance, it looks like a scar on the earth. Closer, it looks like bars in a giant prison, strung with chicken wire.  It is a socioeconomic barrier that separates human populations, but humans have passports (or ladders). Plants and animals that need open borders to thrive have no such options.

The wall has never sat well with environmentalists. Operation Gatekeeper, the Clinton-era policy in which migrants were locked out of easy crossings near San Diego and shunted into the desert, was an environmental disaster from its inception in 1994. Fifteen years later, additional construction extended the fence by more than 600 miles, and triple-reinforced the piece of border wall that ends at the very southwestern edge of San Diego County. The extension was decried by environmentalists, ecologists, and biologists for its lack of forethought.

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When the border fence was expanded, then-secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff used his authority in 2009 to waive environmental statutes that applied to its construction.  The Mexican government called the wall plans “medieval,” saying the additional construction would endanger hundreds of plant and animal species in both the short- and the long-term.  There was backlash, locally, nationally, and internationally.  

Despite that backlash the border wall was reinforced, disregarding dozens of national and state environmental laws.  The immediate effects were manifold: migratory land animals were unable to get from one side of the border to another, plants were uprooted by the grading and excavation across the mountains and deserts, and human traffic shifted eastward, toward the rocky hills of La Rumorosa and beyond, where the land is less hospitable.

Greater San Diego - Preserving Our Future

As a way to offset or mitigate the damage done by building the wall, parks and refuges dot the length of the border.  At the very western end of the two countries, the wall juts out into the Pacific Ocean, cutting through a wide beach.  Just north of that, in the United States, is a refuge that is extraordinary because of its location — the only one of its kind on the border — and its wildlife.

San Diego’s Tijuana Slough is a collaboration between the state of California and federal agencies, housing the largest coastal wetland in southern California, but what makes it unique are the birds: 370 different species either live there or use it as a breeding ground and waystation.  However, the effects of the bright border lights, which law enforceent shines on the wall to pick out anyone who might be shimmying down it, can be deadly for migratory birds and nocturnal animals, and NAFTA-fed pollution from Mexico — not accounted for by Homeland Security — seeps downhill into the slough whenever it rains.  

Slightly to the east, mountain lions and bighorn sheep are among the larger species unable to pass from one side to the next, weakening potential genetic pools.

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Border wall in Imperial County | Photo: Eric White, some rights reserved

Since border wall construction began, 90 percent of the Tijuana River estuary habitat has disappeared or been filled in with debris and sediment, making this particular refuge all the more important. 

This is not to say the results of the increased fencing have been all bad — at least, not for the refuges along the Tijuana Slough. There have been positive effects on the coastal animal and plant populations that remain in the region because of the border wall, in that there is less foot and vehicle traffic through ecologically sensitive areas. With fewer people picking their way through the marshes, less trash gets strewn there. Developers have not been allowed into that segment of coastline. But in the end, this only serves to push the foot and vehicle traffic inland, into the equally spectacular and ecologically rich desert, where other species now find themselves isolated on their own sides of the fence.

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The Tijuana estuary near Imperial Beach | Photo by Mahat Tatva Dasa, some rights reserved

But things are changing for the better, incrementally.  Agencies such as the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Border Patrol are working together to find more sustainable solutions to the environmental issues the border wall creates.  High tech surveillance methods work in lieu of a fence in some areas to curb crossings by people allowing wildlife to move unimpeded. In other places, researchers have found ways to make the wall passable by targeted wildlife species.  

There’s a long way to go. The environmentally disastrous decisions that led to mass destruction of plant and animal life along hundreds of miles of borderlands cannot be fully mitigated, but the refuges along the border can offer important lessons to the future.  

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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