Environmentalists Fight Border Wall Over ‘Most Endangered River in US’

Existing barriers in the San Pedro riverbed allow animals to pass freely. This would be replaced with a 18- to 30-foot wall, the design of which has not been released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (Brad Poole / CNS)

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – Three environmental groups asked a federal court Tuesday to immediately block Trump administration waivers of environmental and other laws that ease the path for border wall construction on federally protected land in Arizona.

In a motion for an emergency preliminary injunction, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Legal Defense Fund claim acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan had no authority to waive federal laws to ease construction, which in Arizona is scheduled to begin Aug. 21.

The waivers, over which the nonprofits sued McAleenan and the Department of Homeland Security in July, allow the government to clear land and build roads without environmental impact studies or surveys for archaeological sites.

This gap in the Arizona border wall where the San Pedro River enters the United States would be filled in with an 18- to 30-foot wall similar to the existing sections under the Trump administration’s plan. (Brad Poole / CNS)

“We’re challenging the overall authority of those waivers,” said Laiken Jordahl, the Center for Biological Diversity’s borderlands campaigner.

In May, McAleenan pushed aside the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water and Clean Air acts, National Historic Preservation Act, Migratory Bird Treaty and Archaeological Resources Protection Act, and dozens of other laws that guard sensitive land from hasty construction.

Congress originally authorized the waivers near the border in 2008. In 2017, President Donald Trump ordered construction of a wall along the entire southern border, leading to new waivers.

“The authority for those waivers was never intended to be permanent,” Jordahl said of the 2008 congressional waivers, but instead involved specific border projects that are now complete.

In Tuesday’s motion, which applies to projects on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the San Pedro National Conservation Area, the groups decried the plan to disturb areas set aside specifically because they are fragile and because endangered species live there.

“Construction of border walls in these areas will not only directly damage their critical habitat, but even more importantly, will sever ecological connectivity with Mexico, undermining the very reasons for which these areas (and their sister conservation parks on the Mexican side) were safeguarded,” the groups said in the motion.

The San Pedro River, which winds from the Mexican border 250 miles north to the Gila River, is an important highway for migratory birds and hosts hundreds of species of mammals, reptiles and fish in a rare riparian oasis in the Sonoran Desert. Center for Biological Diversity wildlife cameras have captured mountain lions, coatimundi, skunks, deer, turkeys, raccoon and other animals in the river corridor.

The verdant stripe is an anomaly in a landscape dominated by scrub desert where few trees grow past 10 feet. The river is flanked by thick vegetation and stands of 70-foot cottonwood and sycamore trees. It is home to 14 fish species, including Gila chub, longfin dace and Sonora sucker, according to The Nature Conservancy, which declined comment for this story.

The San Pedro River is the only gap in a 40-mile stretch of border wall between Naco, Arizona, and the Huachuca Mountains to the west. (Brad Poole / CNS)

The group manages numerous ranches along the river, with some properties set aside to mitigate damage done by mining companies and some bought by or donated to preserve them. The nonprofit maintains the San Pedro House about 20 miles north the border, where the public can access the usually dry river or learn about the environment surrounding it.

A wall across the San Pedro, which is now blocked only by 4-foot vehicle barriers that allow debris, animals and people to pass, would be disastrous, Jordahl said. He said any flood control measures would almost certainly be inadequate, and round-the-clock lighting would scare away birds and other wildlife who use the river to cross the border.

“It’s the last gap in the wall for 40 miles,” he said.

Tuesday’s request comes on the heels of a July 26 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that cleared the administration to divert $2.5 billion from the Department of Defense for the wall, which would be built, maintained and patrolled by the Department of Homeland Security.

Plans call for 63 miles of 18- to 30-foot wall in Arizona. The Supreme Court ruling leaves vulnerable a river some call America’s most endangered.

“From a legal standpoint, there is nothing standing in the way of construction,” he said.

An outpost near where the San Pedro River enters the U.S. used to be home to the American Border Patrol, a now-inactive militia group labeled extremist by the ACLU more than a decade ago. Founder Glenn Spencer lived on the compound until recently. (Brad Poole / CNS)

About a third of a mile of new wall would span the San Pedro where it enters the United States from Mexico. Center for Biological Diversity staff saw surveying stakes near the border on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument last week, a hint that work is imminent.

Although the San Pedro only flows intermittently – like most Sonoran Desert waterways – when it flows, the water volume can be devastating and blocking it with any barrier potentially unwise. This week the river at the border was not flowing, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates 100-year flow rates at 24,000 cubic feet per second, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Some sections of the wall make little sense, Jordahl said, if the goal is to block cross-border traffic, including a spot on Organ Pipe National Monument that has gaps on either end.

“They’re requesting money from the Department of Defense to build 0.3 miles of a solid wall that someone could so easily walk around on either side. It makes no tactical sense,” he said.

The push to use military funding for the wall began in February, when Trump declared a national emergency on the southern border. He then ordered the Department of Defense to divert funds to Homeland Security for the latest round of wall construction. Congress had earlier authorized $3 billion for other wall projects.

The Department of Homeland Security, to whom Customs and Border Protection and construction contractor Southwest Valley Constructors referred questions, has not released detailed construction plans and did not respond to emailed questions and a request for an interview for this story.

The San Pedro River is the only gap in a 40-mile stretch of border wall between Naco, Arizona, and the Huachuca Mountains to the west. (Brad Poole / CNS)
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