(Tribune News Service) — The 458-mile wall the Trump administration built along the southern border did extensive damage to the environment and cultural sites that was made worse by fast-tracking that enabled the project to bypass protective laws, a government watchdog said in a newly released report.
Tighter deadlines and the suspension of laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act prevented managers from doing thorough assessments of effects and exploring options less detrimental to ecosystems, wildlife and Indigenous cultural sites, the Government Accountability Office said in a 72-page report.
Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump’s orders to make the border as impassable as possible forced managers to install barricades that blocked migrating wildlife and, at times, required crews to blast sensitive areas with dynamite to make room for the barriers.
The $15 billion project sliced through wilderness areas, national monuments, wildlife refuges and tribal lands between California and Texas, leaving what conservationist says is an irreparable scar on once pristine areas, even as President Joe Biden’s administration works to repair some of the damage.
“[The wall] has been catastrophic in big ways and in small ways,” said Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.
About 60 miles of federally built barriers run along New Mexico’s southern border. The report doesn’t say how much of it was built under Trump.
In 2019, feeling pressure to make more progress on the wall that was a keynote promise in his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump declared the border a national emergency, allowing him to divert $10 million in military funds for construction.
The emergency order called for the Defense Department to support U.S. Customs and Border Protection in sealing off more of the multistate boundary with Mexico. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was brought in to aid with building a 450-mile wall the White House wanted finished by the end of 2020, the report said.
Both the Corps and Customs used their authority to waive or disregard federal laws they normally would have been compelled to follow on this type of large-scale project, such as National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, the report said.
The report notes some environmental impacts occurred after Biden called a halt to construction shortly after taking office in January 2021.
After the contracts were canceled, crews didn’t do erosion control and drainage work that were planned as part of the project in some places, the report said. They also didn’t reseed where they’d cleared out vegetation for staging areas and temporary pathways, resulting in invasive weeds growing there or the bare ground sustaining erosion, it said.
Still, Sen. Martin Heinrich applauded Biden for scrapping the project and lambasted Trump for cutting corners to build a wall Heinrich contends was polarizing and environmentally harmful.
“Former President Trump’s wasteful and ineffective border wall was an ugly symbol of hatred, fear, and intolerance,” Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, said in a statement. “Its construction was wrongly fast-tracked without consultation with border communities and Tribal nations. And as these findings reveal, it dealt severe damage to the environment, private land, wildlife corridors, and sites sacred to Native Americans.”
Heinrich said he is pressing Congress to divert leftover funds from this “reckless border wall” project to repair the damage done.
Agencies have begun some remediation in areas but have much more work to do, the report said.
Trump’s executive order called for the 458-mile fence to be composed of pedestrian barriers, which are metal panels 15- to 30-feet high and reinforced with concrete.
Roughly 87 miles of these barriers were placed on ground where no fencing had been before. The remaining 371 miles replaced existing barriers, half of which were ones designed to keep out vehicles but let wildlife slip through.
The pedestrian barriers acted as a pure barricade, which blocked not only people but animals searching for food and water. The structures also were equipped with lights to shine on potential border trespassers, but they had the unintended effect of disrupting and disorienting migrating wildlife.
Still, in some instances, wildlife managers told project leaders adding lights to smaller barriers would be preferable to replacing them with the hulking pedestrian obstacles, the report said.
But the project managers typically rejected the advice because the smaller barriers wouldn’t comply with the executive order and then dynamited the areas — in some cases, cultural sites — to make the bigger structures fit, the report said.
There were other adverse impacts, such as sections of walls or raised roads blocking water flow, and crews drilling wells to supply water for construction draining artesian springs. One spring now must be artificially pumped for the water to come to the surface.
Federal agencies often failed to consult with tribal and community leaders on how to work an area more efficiently and with less destruction, the report said. Agencies now must work with each other and with local leaders to mitigate damage and restore degraded resources, it said.
Under Trump, the most harmful sections of fence were built in remote areas where wildlife thrived and no migrants set foot, Robinson said. In other areas, determined migrants could cut through the barrier or climb over it, he said.
“The walls have been ineffective in blocking humans from crossing the border, but they’ve been devastating to wildlife,” Robinson said.
(c)2023 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)