If nothing else, the timing was sickly appropriate.
Last Tuesday – April Fool's Day – Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff announced one of the most breathtaking assaults ever on half a century's worth of environmental protection, while simultaneously attacking some of the richest wildlife habitat in the country.
If only it were a joke, instead of a nightmare.
With a stroke of his pen, Chertoff waived 36 bedrock environmental and land-management laws designed to protect our most sensitive natural communities, announcing that the federal government could ignore them in order to complete more than 670 miles of "the Fence," the proposed barrier running along the Mexican border, in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
The magnitude of the loss to conservation became clear in the subsequent days. Although Chertoff had used his waiver authority before, including to ram the wall through two sensitive wildlife areas in Arizona, the border wall will devastate the lower Rio Grande Valley corridor, a showcase of land restoration that holds some of the greatest natural diversity in the country. It's also an economic engine in the Valley, as the region is known, attracting hordes of birders from around the world, who spend millions of tourist dollars every year.
National Audubon's Sabal Palm Audubon Center in Brownsville will be on the wrong side of the wall, cut off and effectively ceded to Mexico. Ditto the Nature Conservancy's thousand-acre Southmost Preserve, where last week birders were flocking to see a fork-tailed flycatcher. John Arvin, of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, has noted that virtually every birding hotspot in the Valley, except for those in urban areas, will be walled off.
Congress created this mess when it passed the 2005 REAL ID Act, tacking it onto a massive military spending bill. One facet of that rider gave the Homeland Security chief sole authority to ignore essentially any law hindering construction of border barriers, and severely limiting court review of his decision.
Environmental groups are preparing lawsuits, but the bill limits such legal challenges to constitutional issues only, a steep hill to climb, especially given the current 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
Congress is the only body that will be able to correct this mess. One solution would be the Borderlands Conservation and Security Act (H.R. 2593), introduced by Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, which would require DHS to abide by existing environmental laws, and to consult with land managers, Indian tribes and local officials on barrier construction. You can learn more, and contact your representative, here.
How are birders reacting? Mostly with a yawn. Many in the Valley are shocked and outraged, but otherwise, there seems to be little awareness of the issue nationally, or realization of what's at stake. Except for David Sibley, I couldn't find that any of the prominent birding bloggers have even addressed the issue.
It's not as though this is merely about access to birding sites. Once the wall (actually two walls, with a cleared and patrolled strip between) is built, the land on the far side effectively becomes Mexican territory, subject to the same abuse and degradation we've seen on the south side of the river already.
The barrier will also cut off movement of endangered species like ocelots – the very reason millions of federal, state and private dollars have been spent in the last 20 years, painstakingly assembling and restoring the Lower Rio Grande Valley wildlife corridor, which will be sliced apart if DHS is allowed to have its way.
And it's not just birds in Texas – the border wall will be devastating to Sonoran pronghorns and Mexican black bears, to the tiny, resurgent population of jaguars now recolonizing the sky island mountains of Arizona and New Mexico, and to countless other species.
The only thing that will stop this is outrage and protest from the millions of birders and conservationists across the country. If you've ever enjoyed the sight of a green jay at Santa Ana, or a chorus of chachalacas at Sabal Palm – get mad, and get involved. If you've ever hoped to one day look for tropical parulas or hook-billed kites in the Valley, or a jaguar in the Huachucas, get involved – because that chance is about to slip away.
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Here's a story from the New York Times about the fate of the Sabal Palm Audubon Center, along with statements on the border wall announcement from National Audubon and Defenders of Wildlife.