Nature may abhor a vacuum, but it just as surely loathes a fence. Hundreds of miles of new, double layer pedestrian fences - authorized by Congress and signed into law last October by the President - are planned along the US southern border with Mexico. The Border Security Act has yet to see meaningful funds appropriated for the fence - its key provision - although this year's budget session is still ongoing.
The border has a hodgepodge of existing fencing, as well as large areas that are without a fence. Attention and discussion has focused largely on the public policy implications of erecting up to 700 miles of security fence and infrastructure along about a third of the border with Mexico. The national security and immigration control objectives of this barrier have significant environmental implications as well, for what bars human passage may impede the migration of many other species.
The Houston Press states:
"Last year, the U.S. Congress endorsed a plan to put 700 miles of fencing along the border states. This month, it continues debating the subject, this time with Senate language calling for 370 miles of fencing — although this may not all be "physical" fencing — and 200 miles of pylons that would let people and animals through but stop vehicles.
The proposed fences are said to be ten feet tall; plans call for clearing out a path maybe 50 to 150 feet wide alongside them. No one knows anything for sure. According to a map leaked to South Texas officials a few weeks ago, a fence would go right through this countryside, right along the river through Father Roy's youth camp and right through many of the wildlife refuges that are a chief focus for tourism here."
Yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle highlights concerns about the environmental impacts of a proposed 3.5 mile stretch of border fence in the Tijuana estuary reserve, while Reuters reported last Fall last fall:
"The proposal under consideration by Congress would replace a patchy, chest-high barbed wire fence that cuts across the wilderness areas of the southwest with large sweeps of continuous double barrier fencing topped with bright lights.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wardens in Arizona say the planned barrier would impact the fragile desert ecosystem, and could also harm migratory birds such as Gray and Swainson hawks and Rufous hummingbirds that soar over it.
'The fence would have a negative effect on everything from the insects that would now be flying around the lights instead of pollinating the cactuses, to the birds that eat them, right up to the large predators like the jaguars,' said William Radke, the manager of the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, east of Douglas, Arizona.
Radke said the fence would prevent snakes and turtles, as well as wild turkeys and road runners from crossing. In addition, the bright lights at the top of the tall fence would interfere with birds' ability to navigate by the stars.
'A lot of migratory birds actually migrate at night, using stellar navigation and the moon to navigate. Suddenly lighting them up may disrupt a bird's ability to feed and rest and it may impact its survivability later on,'he added. "
A number of critical cross-border corridors for wildlife were identified in a 2006 Border Ecological Workshop held in Tuscan, Arizona, as well as a list of indicator species that could be impacted by immigration control barriers. These species include Jaguars, an endangered species that historically ranged on both sides of the border but is near its extreme northern limit here today. Sonoran Pronghorn are also potentially threatened by fencing, and as someone who has seen firsthand the devastation that double fencing can inflict on migrating antelope in Africa I know the effects of extreme dehydration on animals entrapped in desert fences. There are critical wildlife corridors between Namibia and Botswana where fences maintained as a veterinary cordon to control livestock diseases deny access to herds moving to find scarce resources in a harsh environment. Fenced nature preserves worldwide have become impoverished islands of diminished resources without free passage outside the parks for wide-ranging species. Mind you, folks ranching beyond the park lands have some real concerns about the impacts of expanding wildlife on their livelihoods. Either way, though, the result is almost unilaterally that fences favor livestock over wildlife.
There are other potential impacts from border control fencing and the activities of both those enforcing the law and immigrants seeking entry. They are remarkably like those threats posed to areas of conservation value far from the border: habitat fragmentation, spread of invasive species, disturbance outside that natural range of variation, direct wildlife mortality, erosion and alteration of hydrological processes. The substantial infrastructure involved in border control fencing and interdiction activities affects the environment much as a subdivision or six lane highway might compromise habitat elsewhere.
So by now some of you may be asking; "What is more important to you; the needs of wildlife or national security?" It is an understandable response but sets up a false dichotomy of choosing between the welfare of humans (who vote and pay taxes) and critters (who don't). Whenever the choice is narrowly defined as either people or wildlife, nature loses. Ratchet up the tension around the immigration issue -racial, economic, homeland security tension- and the environment generally gets short shrift. This tendency is also at work in moves by the corn lobby to relax environmental restrictions to boost ethanol production on lands voluntarily placed by farmers in the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program: a move that poses a simplistic solution to a complex problem, and to some smells more than a little like a boondoggle.
There may be solutions to the security of our southern border that can accommodate the needs of wildlife in sensitive areas and critical migration corridors. A local news station in Charlotte, North Carolina reports:
"Even the secretary of homeland security says in many border areas he'd prefer cameras, sensors, and so-called virtual fencing to real fencing.
"One size does not fit all. The lay of the land is different. The solution has to vary location to location,” said Michael Chertoff, United States Secretary of Homeland Security."
That is all well and good, but as long as we settle for all-or-nothing policies in our national debate, and view minimizing environmental impacts as an impediment rather than part of the policy agenda, we diminish the the very homeland we hope to secure. We also cannot rely on the government to keep the the environment on the table with the other policy concerns around policing our border. We've got to keep them focused on that ourselves.