President Trump ran for President with the idea of building a wall between the USA and Mexico as one of his campaign promises. He considers it a solution to overcoming drug importation, human smuggling and illegal alien migration concerns. So, knowing I was going to be in an area slated to eventually get the wall I hoped to learn a little about how the wall would impact that particular area.
To write this I’ve done some research on the wall and this is what I’ve found: The total length of the border is about 2,000 miles. Currently a wall covers only 650 miles of the border and about half of that is designed to stop only vehicles. There was no consistent design for the 300+ foot of pedestrian wall currently in place. In places it is simply high chain link fence; in other places it is what looks like 40′ high X 20′ wide X 4″ thick concrete slabs stood on edge; in other places it is what looks like H piling driven about 4″ apart, maybe 30-40′ high; others are what looks like 30′ high segments of driven sheet piling; another design looks to be a 20′ or so panel of alternating 4″ X 2″ tubing stood on edge, alternating with 4″ space . As far as I could find, there are currently no standards for new wall construction either (although I did see 8 potential prototypes of 30′ high wall on the internet). Border patrol agents have expressed preference for a fence that allows them to see through to the other side of the fence.
There is also no standard for where, in relation to the border itself, the wall be built. More than half the border is dictated by the Rio Grande River. The border is at the deepest point of the river. By a 1970’s treaty with Mexico nothing can be built to impede the flow of the Rio Grande so the wall can not be built right at the border. There has also been no clear definition of whether the wall will be built in places where the terrain itself is more of a deterrent than a wall. At one time Trump said the entire 2000 miles of the border would get a wall. At another time he said 1000 miles is all that would be needed. [He also said Mexico would build the wall but that changed, too.]
Another consideration is purchase of the land on which to build the wall. A survey of landholdings shows potentially 4900 privately owned land parcels in Texas alone would need to be bought, or seized and the price litigated, to build the wall. The Federal Government does own the land in Big Bend National Park (and several other National Parks or Monuments near the border), making it much easier and cheaper to build a portion of the wall in these locations to answer the campaign promise – a very chilling truth.
Concerning to me: many environmental impacts will be waived. To date Homeland Security waived 37 environmental laws and regulations just to build the prototypes and reconstruct 15 miles of wall near San Diego, California. For highway projects, strict requirements have been put in place for evaluation and subsequent damage mitigation designs during the project planning stages. FHWA and state DOT’s learned the hard way how damaging indiscriminate construction can be to the history, economy, culture, air, water and animal life in an area before, during and after construction of a project, mainly while building the interstate system. The environment is fragile and ruining a portion of it can negatively impact much more than anticipated over the long run. This wall will definitely have long term impacts anywhere it is built.
Big Bend National Park abuts Mexico for about 118 miles along the Rio Grande River. I only saw about 10 miles of the Rio Grande in the far western part of the park so I can’t speak to the eastern side, that, I understand is not as mountainous on the Mexican side. Below are pictures in the Santa Elana Canyon area of the park.
Looking at the pictures above I wonder where a wall would be built. This is taken in the Santa Elena Canyon area of the park. How could a 30′ high wall be built without obscuring the beautiful views of Big Bend National Park? Note the picture, Row 2 Right. A wall would probably slash somewhere across that photo. Any of the prototypes would ruin the view.
To access the Rio Grande River or many of the hiking trails in Big Bend National Park a US citizen would have to cross the wall somewhere, which I assume would be treated much like a border crossing. During my research I saw that Homeland Security was in the process of installing electronic gates in gaps in the in-place wall using the money that was appropriated for the wall. These 60′ or so wide gaps had been left intentionally (approximately 34) so agents could access the no-man’s land between the wall and the border. I could see how such gates could be used to enable National Park guests to access the park but this seems like a hardship to American citizens when they formerly had free access. The technology would need to be almost seamless for guests to use it. And how safe would this “no-man’s” land be for guests to the park?
The Rio Grande River offers an opportunity for river tours and guides. A tourist economy has grown up around the river. This area of the country has no industry to speak of and tourism is important to everyone who lives in this area of Texas. In 2018 Big Bend National Park saw over 440,000 visitors. Compare this to Grand Canyon’s 6.2 million in 2018 and Big Bend does not appear to be a major park but what is the purpose of the National Park system? Its not only about the tourist.
The elevation at Big Bend ranges from 1800 feet at the Rio Grande to 8000 feet in the Chisos. Big Bend National Park includes canyons, vast expanses of the Chihuahuan Desert, forested mountains and the Rio Grande River. Big Bend provides a habitat for 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, 56 species of reptiles, 40 species of fish and 11 species of amphibians. Over 1,500 species of plants support the wildlife. The Chisos hedgehog cactus and the Guadalupe fescue, a grass, are found only in Big Bend NP in the US (although both are found in places in Mexico). The Big Bend gambusia fish, only two inches in length, only inhabits four ponds in the Rio Grande Village area of Big Bend, that’s it. No where else in the world.
Black bears were once common in the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend before 1900 but about the time the area became a park, in the 1940’s, there were no resident bears in Big Bend. In the late 1980’s bear sightings became common again. Now it is estimated there are 30 -40 resident bears in Big Bend. I was lucky to see a black bear cub when I was at the Chisos Basin Visitor Center. These bears have a large range and come and go into Mexico regularly. The wall would prevent this ranging and could result in the loss of the black bears in Big Bend again. Certainly, if the wall would have been in place in 1980, Big Bend would not have bears now.
I’m not even going to argue the potential efficacy of a wall, especially in this remote and rugged area. I only hope common sense prevails. Since I have been here and seen for myself the terrain at least in this area and heard the concerns of people living there, I feel I should share that knowledge and also let you know the potential consequences and impacts to this National Park.
As I was gathering information for this post I also came across concerns that Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument could be impacted with more disastrous consequences if some care isn’t taken if/when the wall comes to that area.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
– Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad