The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) have signed an agreement that will allocate up to $50 million to projects selected by DOI to mitigate environmental damage done by the construction of the border fence along the border between the United States and Mexico. Funding for the mitigation projects would come from the 2009 Border Security, Fencing, Infrastructure and Technology appropriation to the DHS’ U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency. The Department of Interior, if provided with sufficient funding from CBP, would be responsible for implementing the selected mitigation projects.

“Our biologists and land managers have examined the expected impacts from these projects and proposed a range of mitigation measures,” said the Deputy Secretary of Interior Lynn Scarlett, “This Memorandum of Agreement will allow them to implement these actions.” The DOI is required to submit a list of prioritized projects to CBP by the 1 June 2009 to receive funding.

Matt Clark, southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife commented on the agreement, “It demonstrates goodwill on the part of both agencies… We see this as a down payment; $50 million will not come close to fixing the damage caused by the wall. Some of these impacts may not be able to be offset.”

Construction of a border fence between the U.S. and Mexico was mandated by the Secure Fence Act passed by Congress in 2006. In April 2008, then Secretary of DHS, Michael Chertoff, used the power vested in him under the REAL ID Act of 2005 to waive a suite of state and federal environmental regulations and expedite fence construction. Numerous lawsuits filed by environmental advocates followed, but none have been effective in halting fence construction.

The list of environmental harm inflicted by fence construction continues to grow. In the San Diego sector of the fence, creation of a towering earthen berm is expected to increase the flow of sediment into the Tijuana River estuary. Over the last several decades, the estuary has been the site of a massive restoration effort funded by the state of California. If fence construction continues as proposed in the Rio Grande Valley wildlife corridor south of Brownsville Texas, the Nature Conservancy’s Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve will be bisected by the border wall, destroying part of the preserve and making access and management of land between the fence and the river nearly impossible. Nearby, the Audubon Society’s Sabal Palm Center is faced with closure as the preserve will be completely south of the fence, but north of the border. Along the length of the border, many organisms with populations in both the U.S. and Mexico will no longer be able to inter-breed which prevents gene flow and makes species more vulnerable to the effects of small population size. Critics of the fence, including Jim Peugh, conservation chair of the San Diego Audubon Society, note that it would have been smarter and more cost-effective to address environmental concerns while the fence was being designed.

The new DHS Secretary, Janet Napolitano, repeatedly criticized the fence project while governor of Arizona. Napolitano has stated, “Show me a 15-foot-high fence, and I’ll show you a 16-foot-high ladder.” Whether Secretary Napolitano will push for a change in the current border policy remains to be seen.


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