Policy Update Jan 16, 2019

Testimony: Border Wall Issues Forum

Written testimony of Christina Hazard, NPCA Associate Director for Government Affairs, before the House Committee on Natural Resources at the Border Wall Issues Forum on January 15, 2019.

Chairman Grijalva, members of the committee, thank you for providing this opportunity to discuss the impact of border barriers on national parks and public lands. I am Christina Hazard, Associate Director for Government Affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). Founded in 1919, NPCA is the leading voice for protecting and enhancing America’s National Park System for present and future generations.

There are six national parks along the U.S.-Mexico border, two in Arizona and four in Texas. Of those sites, half have manmade border barriers and the remainder have significant natural barriers. These national parks are connected to the lands and communities that surround them, and the impacts of border activities must be considered comprehensively.

For example—Big Bend National Park in west Texas is one of the more isolated parks in the lower 48. The park’s 118-mile southern boundary is the Rio Grande River and includes Santa Elena Canyon. With a Class IV rapid and up to 1,500-foot cliffs, it is nothing short of spectacular. And while other parts of the river might not move quite as swiftly, and the cliffs might not be quite as high, there is no question that this natural barrier makes crossing the border in this region treacherous, if not impossible.

Big Bend does have an official port of entry. Visitors traveling to Boquillas are greeted by a National Park Service law enforcement officer and speak to Border Patrol agents in El Paso via video conference. Hours from the nearest town in Mexico, Boquillas relies almost entirely on tourism. When the port of entry was closed from 2001 to 2013, the economic impact on the town was significant. The border may create two separate countries, but the reality is an extensive connected ecosystem and many connected communities.

Along a different section of the border, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in the Sonoran desert of Arizona is home to 31 species of cactus, Sonoran pronghorn and centuries of human history. It is also unnaturally bisected by border barriers. Vehicular barriers run along Organ Pipe’s 30-mile border and five miles of 15-foot pedestrian wall flank the Lukeville Port of Entry.

According to Customs and Border Protection, the pedestrian wall at Organ Pipe was designed to accommodate a 100-year flood. In July 2008, the wall was tested as a summer storm delivered over an inch of rain to the park in under two hours. Water drained directly into the border barriers. Silt and debris were caught by the wire mesh wall, resulting in high water marks up to seven feet, flooding of local businesses and a disturbed habitat once the floodwaters receded—all impacts the wall was supposedly designed to prevent.

The waiver authority provided to the Department of Homeland Security through the Real ID Act of 2005 prevents the National Park Service, other federal land managers, and the public from participating in decision-making processes for construction along the border. If the National Park Service had been able to participate in a full environmental review at Organ Pipe, they could have provided accurate information on flooding in the region and may have helped determine that a wall was not the best solution for achieving both environmental and security goals.

According to a 2017 GAO report, Customs and Border Protection does not have metrics to determine border fencing’s impact on diverting illegal entries or apprehension rates over time. So while CBP cannot prove that building a wall is achieving their stated goals, our public lands and local communities are feeling the impacts.

Already appropriated funds are being used to build new border walls through the Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Replacement walls have already been built in New Mexico and California. And although the plan to replace the pedestrian wall at Organ Pipe is known to the public, there has been no opportunity for public involvement – again, because it can be done under the waiver of laws. We are very concerned that the construction of new wall will negatively impact these ecosystems in the short- and long-term.

We are also concerned that the push for more border wall construction will target federal lands. Conversion of existing vehicle barriers at Organ Pipe or neighboring Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge would further disturb habitat for the endangered Sonoran pronghorn. While there seems to be general agreement that building a 30-foot wall atop the cliffs of Big Bend is not the best use of resources, walls built elsewhere in the region could impact river ecology and wildlife migration corridors.

The two examples offered today from Big Bend and Organ Pipe are emblematic of impacts at all the parks along the border, along with the numerous wildlife refuges, state parks, and tribal and private lands that collectively conserve diverse ecosystems, protect wildlife corridors and serve as gathering places for communities. There is no question that border security is vital to our country, which is why it’s so important we get it right. We need to look for solutions that are as unique as our landscapes and communities. And ensure the solutions we find don’t destroy the national treasures we’ve committed to protecting. A border wall is not the answer, for our national parks or our border communities.