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Border Fence Raises Environmental Concerns

by Aaron Glantz

SAN FRANCISCO - Retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major Judy Ackerman loves Rio Bosque Wetlands Park, a 372-acre wildlife sanctuary on the banks of the Rio Grande River where El Paso, Texas meets Juarez, Mexico.

The construction of the fence is mandated under the Secure Fence Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006 as a way of curtailing illegal immigration. As senators, both presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, voted for the Act. "It's a really wonderful place," Ackerman told OneWorld. "There are coyotes, and beavers, and frogs and so many wonderful migratory birds."

A member of Friends of Rio Bosque, Ackerman is organizing a tour of the park Nov. 15. She says it may be the last chance for visitors to see El Paso's largest park before the Department of Homeland Security's border fence walls off the Rio Grande River and changes it forever.

"There's the whole concept of desert life here," she said. "Here in the desert water equals life and unfortunately, once the border wall goes through all the animals will be cut off from the river. It's pretty disastrous and environmentally destructive."

The construction of the fence is mandated under the Secure Fence Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006 as a way of curtailing illegal immigration. As senators, both presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, voted for the Act.

On the campaign trail, McCain has said "we need a lot more fencing," while Obama has distanced himself from the vote, saying, while "there may be areas where it makes sense to have some fencing...for the most part, having Border Patrol, surveillance, deploying effective technology -- that's going to be the better approach."

The U.S. Congressional Research Service estimates the fencing could cost as much as $49 billion to build and maintain. The cost may go even higher if private landowners along the border fight for expensive buyouts.

The Department of Homeland Security is currently walling off a three-mile section of border to the immediate east of the Park. Park manager John Sproul expects the bulldozers to start humming at Rio Bosque "any day now." Sproul says the wall will make the Park much less hospitable to both birds and mammals and may prevent some animals, like badgers and bobcats, from returning to the area.

Sproul told OneWorld that Park officials "expressed our concerns as part of the environmental analysis process," but then Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived all environmental regulations on the fence, citing national security needs. Subsequent challengers to that ruling from environmental groups and localities, including the City of El Paso, have been unsuccessful.

"We have not been consulted," park visitor Judy Ackerman said. "The mayors of neighboring towns were specially asked for their input but now have basically been blown off. And this is consistent over time."

Homeland Security officials did not respond to requests for an interview, but documents posted on the Department's Web site argue that even though it "no longer has any specific obligations under the Endangered Species Act" or other environmental laws, the "the Secretary committed the Department to responsible environmental stewardship of our valuable natural and cultural resources."

The Department of Homeland Security elected to build only a single fence on this section of the border. At other sections, the federal government has used Sandia Fencing, where two fences made of triple-strength concertina wire are separated by a 150-meter dead zone that's big enough for a vehicle to drive through.

In addition, Sproul said the Department of Homeland Security has said it would leave four-inch-high gaps in the fence every 150 feet at ground level to "try to provide some opportunity for some small animals to move from side to side."

"But that's still a barrier," Sproul said. "They'll come in and put a set of poles in. Then they'll come back and lay cement, and then they'll put up the actual wall itself. We're next, and I'm not optimistic."

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