Trump's border wall 'catastrophic' for environment, endangered species: Activists

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — The promise of a "big, beautiful wall" along America's southern border was a cornerstone of President Donald Trump's campaign. From the moment he announced it during his candidacy kickoff address in June 2015, the proposal was hit with charges of racism and questions of effectiveness.

But during almost two years of heated debate over the wall, there has been an often overlooked issue — the potentially "catastrophic" environmental toll the wall could have on the hundreds of species that span the frontier, activists say.

"This would cause incalculable damage to the integrity of wildlife populations on either side of the border, as well as the massive societal disruption it would cause," Defenders of Wildlife's Senior Vice President of Conservation Programs Bob Dreher told NBC News.

10 PHOTOS
US-Mexico border and Border Patrol agents
See Gallery
US-Mexico border and Border Patrol agents

A U.S. Border Patrol agent stands for a photograph while keeping watch along the U.S. and Mexico border in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. The Trump administration outlined a sweeping crackdown on undocumented immigrants Tuesday, pledging to hire 15,000 more border patrol and immigration agents and to begin building a wall on the Mexican border to enact executive orders signed by the president on Jan. 25.

(Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

US Border Patrol agents speak with a woman on the US/Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, on February 20, 2017, prior to her crossing into the US. ATTENTION EDITORS: This image is part of an ongoing AFP photo project documenting the life on the two sides of the US/Mexico border simultaneously by two photographers traveling for ten days from California to Texas on the US side and from Baja California to Tamaulipas on the Mexican side between February 13 and 22, 2017.

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

US Border Patrol agents patrol the Rio Grande river on a fan boat on the US/Mexico border in Eagle Pass, Texas, on February 21, 2017. Attention Editors: this image is part of an ongoing AFP photo project documenting the life on the two sides of the US/Mexico border simultaneously by two photographers traveling for ten days from California to Texas on the US side and from Baja California to Tamaulipas on the Mexican side between February 13 and 22, 2017.

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

A U.S. Border Patrol agent stands for a photograph while keeping watch along the U.S. and Mexico border in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. The Trump administration outlined a sweeping crackdown on undocumented immigrants Tuesday, pledging to hire 15,000 more border patrol and immigration agents and to begin building a wall on the Mexican border to enact executive orders signed by the president on Jan. 25.

(Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A border fence that separates the U.S. and Mexico stands in Sunland Park, New Mexico, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. The Trump administration outlined a sweeping crackdown on undocumented immigrants Tuesday, pledging to hire 15,000 more border patrol and immigration agents and to begin building a wall on the Mexican border to enact executive orders signed by the president on Jan. 25.

(Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A boundary marker stands next to a border fence that separates the U.S. and Mexico in Sunland Park, New Mexico, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. The Trump administration outlined a sweeping crackdown on undocumented immigrants Tuesday, pledging to hire 15,000 more border patrol and immigration agents and to begin building a wall on the Mexican border to enact executive orders signed by the president on Jan. 25.

(Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A U.S. Border Patrol agent stands for a photograph while keeping watch along the U.S. and Mexico border in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. The Trump administration outlined a sweeping crackdown on undocumented immigrants Tuesday, pledging to hire 15,000 more border patrol and immigration agents and to begin building a wall on the Mexican border to enact executive orders signed by the president on Jan. 25.

(Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A suspected immigrant is escorted by the U.S. Border Patrol to a vehicle near the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Texas, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016. A security surge along the U.S.-Mexico border will use 'a military-style approach' with more Border Patrol agents, barriers and sensors and new authorities for law enforcement agencies, House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul said.

(Eddie Seal/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Border Patrol agents patrol the United States-Mexico Border wall during Opening the Door Of Hope/Abriendo La Puerta De La Esparana at Friendship Park in San Ysidro, California on Saturday, November 19, 2016.

(SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Trump has called for a 30-foot solid, concrete wall along the border to curb illegal immigration, and although Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly recently acknowledged that a wall "from sea to shining sea" was unlikely, many experts said there was no way of telling the full impact on the surrounding environment. The wall would likely cost $22 billion and take more than three years to build, according to an internal DHS memo.

Scientists and conservationists said such drastic increases in border security could be devastating for hundreds of species, and potentially lead to extinction in the U.S. for endangered or threatened animals like jaguars, ocelots, and the Mexican gray wolf.

They say construction of an impenetrable divider could destroy or damage natural habitats, cut off animal populations who depend on the ability to roam at the border, prevent genetic diversity that's important to sustaining animal populations and lead to a loss of natural resources.

More than 100 animals that are listed as threatened, endangered or candidates for such status under the Endangered Species Act from coast to coast could potentially be impacted by Trump's proposal, according to a 2016 analysis of data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"It will choke off life from both sides," wildlife biologist Jeff Corwin told NBC News.

17 PHOTOS
Stunning US border control stations
See Gallery
Stunning US border control stations
The Warroad Port of Entry designed by Julie Snow Architects

Located in Minnesota on the Canadian border, the Warroad Port of Entry services approximately 157,000 cars, buses, and trucks annually. A rich, dark cedar covers the facade of the building, which was constructed in 2012.

(Photo by Julie Snow Architects/Paul Crosby/GSA)

The Warroad Port of Entry designed by Julie Snow Architects

The wood continues in the interior. Large windows in the lobby and office area give a sense of openness and transparency.

(Photo by Julie Snow Architects/Paul Crosby/GSA)

The Warroad Port of Entry designed by Julie Snow Architects

"You need to be cognizant of officers' hyper-awareness, but you also have to provide them with a haven," the station's leading architect, Julie Snow, told the General Services Administration.

(Photo by Julie Snow Architects/Paul Crosby/GSA)

Source: GSA

The Canadian Plaza at the Peace Bridge designed by NORR Limited

The neo-futuristic Canadian Plaza at the Peace Bridge, located in Fort Erie, has a bridge that links Buffalo, New York and Ontario, Canada.

(Photo via NORR Limited/Open Buildings)

The Canadian Plaza at the Peace Bridge designed by NORR Limited

According to the architects, the design was inspired by the area's native long house shelters and canoes, one of the earliest types of transportation used to cross the Niagara River.

(Photo via NORR Limited/Open Buildings)

Source: Architizer

The Canadian Plaza at the Peace Bridge designed by NORR Limited

Completed in 2007, the two-story station on the Canadian side features a central skylight that brings in natural light.

(Photo via NORR Limited/Open Buildings)

The Mariposa Land Port of Entry designed by Jones Studio.

In Arizona, the Mariposa Land Port of Entry is "a study in balancing security with a dignified welcome ... and strives to be a cultural connection — rather than a division," the architects wrote in a statement.

(Photo via Jones Studio/Facebook)

Source: Jones Studio

The Mariposa Land Port of Entry designed by Jones Studio.

The designers made a conscious effort to have the open-layout station appear humane and welcoming.

(Photo via Jones Studio/Facebook)

Source: Jones Studio

The Mariposa Land Port of Entry designed by Jones Studio.

Constructed in 2014, the 216,000-square-foot port features a processing station for vehicles and pedestrians, a lush garden, and a system that allows it to collect and recycle rainwater.

(Photo via Jones Studio/Facebook)

Source: Jones Studio

The Murrieta Border Patrol Station designed by Garrison Architects

In California, the Murrieta Border Patrol Station was designed to blend in with the arid desert landscape. Constructed in 2004, the building's brick facade is a pale, sand-like brown.

The fence around the entrance for border agents is made of the same steel as the US-Mexico border fence. To access the building, they must walk through the fence "and experience it as a threshold, a reminder of the permeability of borders," the architects wrote.

Source: Garrison Architects

(Photo by Garrison Architects/GSA)

The Murrieta Border Patrol Station designed by Garrison Architects

Inside, the building prioritizes ventilation and natural light to create a comfortable environment. The walls are painted bright yellow.

(Photo by Garrison Architects/GSA)

The Cross Border Xpress designed by Legoretta

Built in 2015, the Cross Border Xpress connects San Diego, California with the Tijuana International Airport in Mexico. The architects used bright shades of orange and purple as an homage to the late Mexican architect Ricardo Legoretta, who was known for his vivid pops of color.

(Photo via Legoretta)

The Cross Border Xpress designed by Legoretta

The design focuses on making travel between Mexico and the US faster and easier, the designers told Business Insider. It is "a very much needed bridge in this new era of co-existence between the two nations," the firm wrote.

(Photo via Legoretta)

The San Ysidro Port of Entry designed by The Miller Hull Partnership

California's San Ysidro Port of Entry is the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere. An expansion of it, set to open in 2019, is "designed to be the port of the future," according to the GSA.

(Photo via The Miller Hull Partnership/GSA)

Source: GSA

The San Ysidro Port of Entry designed by The Miller Hull Partnership

The $735 million project will add 38 additional vehicle inspection booths, and ease traffic at the port.

(Photo via The Miller Hull Partnership/GSA)

Source: GSA

The San Ysidro Port of Entry designed by The Miller Hull Partnership

Like many recently constructed stations, the design shows that border stations don't need to appear hostile. Instead, they present an opportunity for the US to invest in stations that are both beautiful and secure.

(Photo via The Miller Hull Partnership/GSA)

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Corwin said that many species of animals and birds rely on the ability to traverse the border for everything from seasonal access to natural resources, nesting and reproduction sites to maintaining genetically diverse populations.

Last week, an environmental group and an Arizona Congressman filed what they say is the first federal lawsuit against Trump's border wall plan, calling on the administration to assess the proposal's environmental impact.

"It's been more than 15 years since the government has done any complete analysis of its border security policy," Randy Serraglio, a Southwest conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the suit, told NBC News. "So, it's long overdue."

The center and Arizona Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Arizona on April 13, urging Department of Homeland Security to conduct an environmental analysis of the proposed border program under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Under NEPA, which was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970, federal agencies must conduct an environmental review of major actions where there could be significant effects.

The lawsuit argues that it's time for DHS to provide a supplemental environmental impact statement to the one conducted back in 2001.

"What really compels the timing now, of course, is that we have a proposal on the table to dramatically ramp up border security activities," Serraglio said.

Gillian Christensen, the acting press secretary for DHS, said as a matter of policy the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Grijalva, who said that 300 miles of his district runs along the border, added that it was "time to bring some accountability" to the administration.

"We need an environmental impact assessment and analysis as to what the intended and unintended consequences are going to be," he said.

But the legal situation is complicated because of REAL ID, an act signed by President George W. Bush in 2005, which gives DHS authority to waive most environmental assessments — as well as many federal, state and local laws — in the name of national security.

Experts said REAL ID has kept scientists in the dark about the effects the fences and walls currently covering over 650-miles of the border have already had on the environment.

"There's a big gap in our knowledge here scientifically in terms of what actual impacts could be or will be," said Jesse Lasky, a biologist and professor at Penn State University who has conducted one of the few studies examining the effect of existing barriers on wildlife along the border.

"We would have a much clearer picture of it if some of the typical studies were done following the initial construction," he said.

Lasky's study, which was published in 2011, examined the impact of current and future barriers along the border for the range of 313 mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Among the species most at risk were four listed as threatened globally or by both border nations, plus an additional 50 species.

The study identified three regions that were most vulnerable — the two coastal regions along California and Texas as well as the Madrean Sky Island Archipelago, which is along the border in New Mexico and Arizona.

New barriers would increase the number of species already at risk, especially in those three regions, the study found, and Lasky said the effects could be much greater under Trump's proposal.

"I mean what they've proposed is many times worse than what we've done," he said, adding, "That kind of wall would stop any movement of anything that couldn't fly above the wall and that would be hundreds of species of animals."

The biggest threat to some larger animals along the border — including jaguars, ocelots, mountain lions, bears and wolves — was habitat "fragmentation," Howard Quigley, Jaguar Program Executive Director and Puma Program Director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, said.

"Anytime you fragment or break up a habitat, you begin the demise of vertebrate populations," he said.

If you step beyond the fence erected north of the Rio Grande that serves as the border between Texas and Mexico, you'll find a nature preserve that preceded the fence and has been maintained, and resuscitated, to conserve the last of the state's remaining natural growing Sabal Palm and all the wildlife that surrounds it.

"It would be catastrophic for the environment, because for the first time in the geological history of this natural corridor, which affects North to South America, there would be a barrier like that," Corwin said.

Sprawling for nearly 2,000 miles from Texas all the way to California, conservationists say the border is home to valuable wildlife refuges, national parks, public lands and important biodiversity.

In Texas, where the Rio Grande Valley is dotted with areas that often go overlooked in the national discussions of life on the border, one of the poorest areas in the country has tried to preserve and promote its natural resources for ecological and economic purposes.

Yet once again, there is worry and uncertainty about what blow their conservation efforts will take as Trump moves forward in building the wall.

"I think there's some trepidation and fear — what does building a wall through that habitat do? How much of it gets destroyed? How does it affect what people have spent decades trying to preserve and keep in its native habitat?" said former Brownsville Mayor Ygnacio Garza.

Alejandro Fierro Cabo, an assistant professor at the School of Earth, Environmental and Earth Sciences at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, told NBC News the wall wouldn't just hurt animals, but plant populations critical to the area.

Collin O'Mara, president and chief executive officer of the National Wildlife Federation, told NBC News the Rio Grande Valley was "one of the most important habitats in the country."

O'Mara said the NWF found that Trump's proposal would affect as much as 75 percent of the valley's national wildlife refuge complex.

A 34-mile area in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas is the administration's highest priority for a border wall, according to a draft of a report to the White House.

Already, some private land owners further west on the Rio Grande have received condemnation notices from the government notifying them they plan to build the border wall on their property.

O'Mara said he expected there would "a series of challenges" to Trump's border proposals, both for its potential toll on wildlife and human beings.

"I think our hope is that there's room for thoughtful conversation based on some science," he said.

Lasky said the new lawsuit stands as long as the Trump administration hasn't filled out any waivers regarding environmental laws.

"But it seems that as soon as they want to file those waivers, I don't see the suit has much more power," he said.

Dreher on the other hand, was more hopeful.

Back in 2008, Defenders and the Sierra Club turned to the Supreme Court after then-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff waived 19 laws in order to speed up construction of over 300 miles of border.

Defenders argued that the secretary's power was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court declined to hear their case, but Dreher said he hoped someone would once again take the mantle should the DHS pursue those waivers.

"It's still ripe and if there are new waivers issued by the secretary of Homeland Security, my hope is that someone will lead that challenge up to the Supreme Court and that we will get a ruling on this sweeping waiver authority," he said.

According to a statement from Defenders, this waiver power has already been invoked five times to exempt DHS from more than 35 environmental laws, which include the Endangered Species Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, NEPA, and the Antiquities Act.

But Corwin said his environmental concerns with Trump's administration went beyond the proposed border wall.

"What I have come to believe is that the Trump administration is crafting the perfect extinction storm," Corwin said.

The wildlife biologist cited the president's appointment of climate change skeptic Scott Pruitt to head the EPA and his proposal to slash funding for governmental institutions "responsible for national environmental stewardship" and resource management — such as the EPA, the Department of the Interior and NOAA.

"I have seen nothing that gives me any comfort that this administration has remotely entertained the level of the conservation challenges that it faces," he said.

Corwin argued that the country's rich landscape, natural resources and biodiversity were part of "what makes America great."

"Isn't that part of what we have that no one else has?" he said. "I don't want to lose that."

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.