The Environmental Impact of the Wall

On Wednesday, January 25th, 2017, current President Donald Trump signed an executive order to, “secure the southern border of the United States through the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border, monitored and supported by adequate personnel so as to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.” The order defines the southern border as the, “contiguous land border between the United States and Mexico.” It would create a physical wall made of the “appropriate materials and technology to most effectively achieve complete operational control of the southern border.” It would be approximately 1,900 miles of what would likely be steel and concrete.

Big Bend National Park near the border of Texas and Mexico. 

Big Bend National Park near the border of Texas and Mexico. 

Currently, the U.S. and Mexico border has around 700 miles of border fencing. Most of this was constructed during Obama’s presidency, as part of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, signed by George W. Bush. In addition to the physical wall, the border patrol operates “digital” wall of over 8,000 cameras monitoring the border.

At a cursory glance, the environment surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border would appear harsh, unwelcoming, and empty. But it’s host to two fragile biomes, and a path for migratory birds and animals moving north and south. This area is home to one of the highest diversity of mammals, birds, and plants in the continental United States, including 111 endangered species and 108 bird species. The North American jaguar, the ocelot, of which there’s only fifty left in southern Texas, and the cactus ferruginous pygmy owls (the tiniest and cutest of all owls), all make their homes here.

An adorable ocelot

An adorable ocelot

The construction of the wall threatens this already delicately balanced ecosystem. It disrupts wildlife corridors of migrating animals, fragments and destroys habitats, and disrupts the lives of wildlife with noise and light pollution. In southern Arizona, lies the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, where a year-round river nourishes cottonwoods, and the wall goes straight across the river. It is the only wildlife corridor for 29 miles, disrupting the migration and movement that have been happening for thousands of years. And a border wall could alter the course of crucial waterways.

Current border patrol practices already impact the surrounding desert landscape. The frequent driving of the border patrol in pursuit of border crossers tears up the top layer of desert soil and turns it into talc. Once a road is created, it remains with repeatedly more and more drivers. Compounding this is the practice of towing “drags,” chained-together tires that scrape away the traces of previous tracks, supposedly made by border crossers, so newer tracks would be more visible. This process deepens and widens existing tracks. Together, these conditions create localized “Dust Bowls.”

The impact on the wildlife and physical landscape is not the only environmental consideration. A 65-foot, 1,900-mile long concrete wall requires a considerable amount of concrete. According to a study by P. Kumar Mehta, concrete, “accounts for about 7% of the global loading of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” and “producing a ton of portland cement requires about 4 GJ energy, and portland cement clinker manufacture releases approximately 1 ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.” Mining materials for concrete production can lead to deforestation, and operating the mine and transporting the materials involves a considerable amount of energy.

The wall would mar the physical landscape of the southwest, disrupt the lives of wildlife, and alter the course of water. Increased traffic of border patrol, waste from more agents manning the wall, and the infrastructure to support the agents would put further stress on the habitats of rare plants and animals. There is a reason why much of this area has been put aside in refuges, wilderness areas, monuments, and national parks: the government at one point decided this was an area to be protected for perpetuity. A wall would be in complete opposition to this mission.