On America's southern border, locals and scientists struggle to reconcile the interests of security and the environment
By Tim McDonnell
John Ladd's plaid flannel shirt is tucked into his jeans, and his clean, graying mustache undulates slightly as he works a wad of chewing tobacco. He's leaning on the tailgate of a white Ram 4x4 pickup, hips out, weight on one booted foot, arms crossed, peering out across a tinder-dry landscape of tall yellow grass and leafless mesquite trees.
The land is his, although the truck isn't. The pickup belongs to his neighbor and sometime ranch hand Bill Odle. Odle, a retired Marine with an all-denim outfit and Cabela's cap, is standing at the driver-side door, talking and gesticulating in an uninterrupted, high-pressure flow, spewing like a shook-up Budweiser.
"Anything the government gets into is gonna get bitched up," he says. "We don't have problems on the border. We have problems in Washington."
The border Odle is referring to is the U.S.-Mexico border, about 20 feet south of where he stands. On it—actually, about three feet north of it—is the object of his ire: the border wall, a 10-foot barrier of rust-colored pillars and mesh.
The wall runs out of sight to the east and can faintly be seen petering out up in the foothills of the Huachuca Mountains to the west. Since the wall was built here on Ladd's ranch, a few miles outside Naco, Arizona, five years ago, he and Odle have become the Odd Couple critics of U.S. border policy, and its inefficacy in stopping the flow of immigrants.
The wall, Odle says, "is like putting a Band-Aid on a chest wound."
"A sucking chest wound," Ladd adds.
Today, they are going to show me why.
With us is Dan Millis, the bearded desert rat who heads the Sierra Club's Borderlands campaign in Tucson. A few years back, Millis was famously given a littering ticket by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for leaving water bottles on migrant trails with a humanitarian activist group called No More Deaths; the trails happened to be on federally protected land. He reflects with a grin that he is "probably the only convicted litterer on the staff of the Sierra Club."
We pile into Odle's truck and cruise at walking speed down the grated dirt road that parallels the wall. Odle's loaded handgun and a pair of binoculars bounce on the dashboard. As he drives, Odle discourses on the crisis in his backyard. He sees undocumented migrants get over the 15-foot wall almost daily. He has seen them top the wall with homemade ladders and hardware store hooks used like ice-climbing tools. He once watched a pregnant woman climb the wall.
Ladd comments casually that in the past two days he has counted 11 groups, each with up to 5 migrants, cross his property. As far as he can tell, he says, the wall has not put the brakes on northbound traffic.
"It's put up to shut people up," Odle says.
Periodically, the road dips into dry, narrow depressions, each identified by a fading sign bolted to the wall. Ladd stops the truck at Gringo Draw and points to the right. There, the draw expands into a gaping ditch that cuts through his field where the wall's floodgates—closely spaced steel bars without the mesh found elsewhere on the wall—have funneled rainwater that used to flood the field and renew its grass. Natural erosion created such scars in the land even before the wall was built, and Ladd spent 10 years trying to fill this one. After the wall went up, it took one summer of thunderous desert rain to open it back up.
"Now it's deeper than it's ever been," he says. Ladd estimates that erosion damage from a major flood, amplified by the wall, could cost him $50,000 to repair.
If Ladd has one advantage in his campaign against the wall, it's that the damage the wall causes to his property is immediately evident—useful and tangible as evidence. But in this respect it is unique: A growing body of scientists is worried that the wall's worst environmental impacts won't be visible for years. In the meantime, there's been a distressing lack of research on the wall's impact on borderlands ecology, which means that by the time we understand just how damaging the wall is, it might already be too late.
Ladd's property is bordered to the west by the San Pedro River, which flows in a narrow gulch between rows of cottonwood trees as it crosses the U.S.-Mexico border. It is one of the last rivers in the Southwest to run unimpeded, and it is a critical artery of life in this otherwise parched landscape. Despite the area's renowned diversity of birds, it is quiet. Despite being sandwiched between drug violence to the south and militarization to the north, it is peaceful.
But a few steps up the bank, I encounter a jarring contrast to that tranquility: The same kind of crisscrossed steel barriers that greeted Marines on the beaches of Normandy lie piled up like carelessly tossed, menacing jacks.
Now, in winter, the river is so low that my boots barely get wet when I walk across it. But come summertime, heavy rains will cause the river to swell to at least seven or eight feet at its deepest point. Then, the steel barriers will ride the currents downriver—-north—-and become debris in the heart of one of the Southwest's greatest biodiversity strongholds, what U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Charles Van Riper calls "probably the most productive area along the entire border."
Van Riper heads a consortium of biologists, hydrologists, ecologists, and geologists who have proposed a program of pilot studies to predict—and potentially mitigate—the border wall's environmental impacts.
"People are so concerned about proximate causes associated with human welfare—drugs, killings, smuggling, illegal aliens, the whole nine yards," Van Riper says. "So they tend to be overwhelmed and lose sight of other things that are transpiring down there, and one is changing ecosystems because of [human] activities."
Typically, a wealth of environmental impact studies is required in advance of any major government infrastructure project. But not the border wall. In the wake of 9/11, politicians began clearing the way legally and physically for a wall that would, in theory, help stop the flood of "illegals" washing into the country from Mexico.
In 2005, Congress passed the REAL ID Act, which made it possible for the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security—-at the time, Michael Chertoff—-to waive any environmental-protection statutes that stood in the way of national security. The wall was built without the preliminary environmental studies that normally take place for a project like this.
A year after REAL ID, Congress dealt the environment a second blow when it passed the Secure Fence Act, which mandated DHS to build more than 700 miles of wall on the 1,960 mile southern border. Originally intended as an impenetrable deterrent to pedestrian travel, the wall has since been demoted by the Border Patrol, DHS's boots on the ground, who now refer to it as a "tactical infrastructure," aimed solely at slowing down migrants long enough for agents to spot them and swoop in.
"If this was done correctly, we would have had the opportunity to go in and at least take some kind of basic measurements prior to the fence going up," says veteran borderlands ecologist Paul Krausman, of the University of Montana. "Instead, it just went up overnight, so we don't have the 'before' and 'after' data except in a few species."
In the case of Ladd's ditches, the before and after picture is perfectly clear: The ditches had been filled, and then after the wall went up, they reappeared deeper than ever. But how the wall might impact, say, the genetic diversity of endangered pronghorn antelope takes much longer to measure.
The difficulties of borderlands research are nothing new to the scientific communities there. Remote study sites and small wildlife populations make gathering significant data difficult and time-consuming. Especially in recent years, drug trafficking has joined the blazing desert sun in making the borderlands inhospitable to all but the boldest field researchers. An Arizona Game and Fish Department agent told me that his work, although important, "is not worth risking a biologist's life for, quite frankly."
But there is no sense of fear as we all climb out of Odle's truck near the San Pedro and hike toward the river. Millis jogs down the bank and, with remarkable balance, walks across a steel bar that stretches like a tightrope over the river, connecting the barriers on either side. Odle says the shade of green spreading on the cottonwoods means spring is approaching.
A Border Patrol truck, the first we have seen all day, drives up, and the agent gets out to greet Ladd by name. Odle asks the agent how his day is going. "Another day closer to retirement," he responds. I want to listen to him and Ladd shoot the local bull, but at the sight of notebooks and cameras, the agent stays close to his truck and soon takes off in a cloud of dust.
Everyone gets quiet as we walk. After a while, Ladd opens up about the hypocrisy he sees in the wall. He and his family, he says, have been hounded by the feds for years to comply with environmental regulations on ranching, and they always have. For the government to then totally disregard its own rules in order to build the wall seemed like a slap in the face.
"I refer to Washington as America's royalty, 'cause they don't give a shit," he says. "Bill and I are their sacrificial lambs."
The wind, warm despite the season, picks up, and Ladd holds up a hand for silence. We hear the two sounds of the wind, layered over each other but totally distinct. One is the rustling of grass. The other is a ghostly howl made by the wall.
Despite Odle's and Ladd's opinions to the contrary, the wall might be a boon to wildlife in some places. A hundred miles west of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, an open border had for years allowed Mexican ranchers to drive their cattle north to feast on tall American grass. Overgrazing, USGS ecologist Van Riper says, had all but decimated these protected grasslands.
"There wasn't a blade of grass down there," he says. "It wasn't even a putting green—it was dirt and rocks."
Moreover, vehicle traffic on protected lands from human traffickers and drug smugglers created thousands of miles of unauthorized roads and disturbed wildlife. But once vehicle barriers were placed on the border, motor and cattle traffic effectively stopped, allowing the wilderness to reclaim the roads and regrow its grass. John Hervert, an Arizona Game and Fish Department biologist, says the vehicular barricades appear to have little effect on the movement of animals such as pronghorn, who might be stymied by a larger wall, like the one that runs across Ladd's ranch.
"We feel very strongly that the border vehicle barrier was a positive thing," Hervert says.
But there's a catch. The overlap of vehicle barrier locations and pronghorn habitat was a mere coincidence, not the result of a conscientious mitigation effort. Elsewhere, most decisions regarding the border wall have been so "crisis driven," as Van Riper puts it, as to place speed above environmental impact research.
Millis says that even the occasional bone that Homeland Security throws environmentalists is little more than "lip service." He cites the wall's "cat holes" as an example. The small openings were intended for the benefit of traveling bobcats and other small animals. But they are often spaced too far apart to be useful to an animal that is trying to follow a certain path and doesn't know to look for openings. But the holes do not always correspond to existing animal trails.
A similar disconnect between wall design and environmental protection can be seen in the case of Ladd's ditches. The Border Patrol gets hydrology tips from the International Boundary and Water Commission—-a binational water-use advisory board. "Everything is designed so that if there is that water flow, we're not hindering or stopping it," Border Patrol spokesman Mario Escalante says. But an accumulation of brush and trash at the wall's base often funnels water to a few select floodgates, leading to the concentrated flow that reopened Ladd's ditches. There is no regular procedure for removing this blockage, Escalante says.
"The whole thing is a joke," Millis says. "But it's not a funny joke."
A few days after I visit Ladd's ranch, Millis invites me to join him and a group of 40 high schoolers and their teachers, from Prescott, Arizona's Northpoint Expeditionary Learning Academy, for a hike on a migrant trail several miles north of the border. Armed with gardening gloves and trash bags, our objective is to remove some of the clothing, backpacks, water bottles, and other detritus left in the desert.
Millis explains to the group that as migrants approach the road where they will be picked up to be driven into town, they are typically instructed by their guides to change clothes, brush their teeth, and dump their belongings. That way, if they have an encounter with the Border Patrol, they won't look like they just walked 20 miles through the desert. A little litter seems immaterial in the context of the border's bigger environmental issues, but Krausman, for one, is adamant that it is a serious problem: "There's no mechanism we have right now to get rid of that stuff."
Millis is apparently more optimistic, and he has hit upon mobs of energetic, altruistic teenagers as the perfect mechanism for "an environmental problem we can do something about."
As we make our way down the dry, rocky creek bed that is the trail, I try to imagine following this route at night, with no flashlight, exhausted from hunger, thirst, and fear. Even on this cloudless afternoon, Millis urges the group to stay together because the trails "are like a bunch of spaghetti," which he knows firsthand from being lost here twice. With every step, I realize more and more that "litter" is an inappropriate term for what we are stepping over. It feels like wading through a terrestrial version of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Crushed Red Bull cans, diapers, a bloodstained high heel, a backpack (which one Prescott student identifies as the exact same kind that she brings to school)—it is painful to realize that these items did not appear spontaneously but were left behind. Away from every pack walked an unsupplied hiker; out of every shoe walked a bare, blistered foot.
One teacher asks aloud whether anyone else is "having a hard time wrapping their brain around how many people have been through here." I silently agree that the volume of traffic evident here is difficult to comprehend.
Plans to extend the wall are still on the congressional table. A bill introduced in mid-March by Representative Duncan Hunter of California would tack on 350 miles, and Representative Rob Bishop of Utah has led a campaign against enforcing environmental regulations on the border. There is little indication that an environmental-monitoring scheme on the scale necessary to protect areas affected by the wall will be launched anytime soon. Last year, Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona organized a groundbreaking series of discussions between policymakers and scientists about the environmental impact of border security, but it lost traction after she was shot in Tucson in January.
Back on the trail, it takes less than 10 minutes for the students to fill their trash bags. As the kids hike out, exhausted and sunburned and dragging the bags behind them, one girl turns to look back. "We haven't even scratched the surface," she says.
Tim McDonnell is a freelance environmental journalist, currently working as a fact-checker for Mother Jones.