Conflicting Priorities on the Mexican Border
by Craig Deutsche
On February 8, 2019, environmental laws, regulations, and other legal requirements were waived in order to construct barriers and roads to “secure” the Mexican border.1 Approximately a year later (March, 2020 construction of the border wall was initiated in Southern California’s Jacumba Wilderness. The environmental damage was shocking. Because the Desert Report has described this in detail (Sept. 2020; June 2021), we give only a short summary here.
Two large roads were graded and hardened to provide wilderness access for the construction activities. Another very wide, graded road, set into a deep cement base, now runs alongside the wall. Photo: Craig Deutsche
Vehicle tracks abound, with significant destruction to drainages, shrubs, and Native American trails and artifacts. After Biden became president in January, 2021, he announced that new construction would stop, but the damage remained. Photo: Edith Harmon.
Road failure by concrete retaining wall. October 19, 2022.
Photo: Edith Harmon
In March 2021, ten months after construction began in the Jacumba Wilderness, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) filed a lengthy Environmental Stewardship2 plan, admitting for the first time, that the construction might cause significant environmental damage. A brief public comment period ensued, with no public meetings. The plan’s main objective was to secure the border; it promised that environmental consequences would be negligible or minor.
With the waiver of the Wilderness Act for security, the Border Patrol and the construction contractors still have unlimited vehicle access to the Jacumba Wilderness. Beginning in May, 2020, Edith Harmon, a resident of Imperial County, has walked into the wilderness nearly every week to monitor the work. She has filed dozens of reports with many hundreds of photos with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and with Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). The reports describe environmental damage and recommendations for alleviation. Among her recommendations:
- Border patrol activity should be limited to roads. The numerous vibration sensors and cameras should make off-road travel un-necessary.
- Berms along the hardened roads should be removed to allow natural water drainage.
- Where the road along the border has blocked natural drainages, there must be provision to allow water flow to protect flora.
- Dragging operations by the Border Patrol (to reveal footprints) should be stopped to preserve the flora. Sensors in place should allow detection of immigration activity.
At her request, Patrick Whipple, then chief enforcement officer for the Border Patrol accompanied Ms. Harmon into the wilderness. On another occasion, several BLM law enforcement agents met with Ms. Harmon at the wilderness edge. No other administrator from either BLM or CBP has yet accompanied her to observe in person what she has reported.
The other regular wilderness visitors (on foot) are the Border Angeles who regularly leave water and food for safety of immigrants crossing north in the desert. (Desert Report, June 2021 and December 2021). The Border Patrol has accepted these activities in order to save lives.
That the illegal crossings of the border into the Jacumba Wilderness represent a problem is not contested. BP agents and construction company personnel have reported these incursions to Ms. Harmon. She has photographed footprints, discarded food and water containers, backpacks, and clothing. On one occasion Ms. Harmon met a refugee in distress.
Several lawsuits have been filed against the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to require remediation for the damage. One suit, filed jointly by the California Wilderness Coalition and the Rio Grande Int’l Study Center has recently been resolved in a Settlement Agreement.3 The DOI and DHS agreed to consult with the plaintiffs on remediation work, but the DHS retained the right to make all decisions. Essentially, there were no promises to actually do anything. Another suit, brought against the DOI by the Center For Biological Diversity, was also resolved in March 2022. A suit brought by the Sierra Club remains to be resolved.
In June, 2022, the BLM and CBP jointly published a remediation plan for the Jacumba Wilderness – an official acknowledgement that environmental damage had occurred.4 Although notices of the plan appeared in several local papers, Ms. Harmon discovered it only by accident and only a week before the public comment period closed. With the exception of Border Patrol agents on the ground and the construction personnel, Ms. Harmon is much more familiar with the construction and damage than the agency officials who prepared the plan or the Native American tribes who were officially consulted in the preparation. It is nicely ironic that one of the photos that Ms. Harmon submitted to CBP has appeared in the remediation plan. Her shadow as photographer appears in that photo.
The brief remediation plan4 (less than two pages) has what they call a story map which shows several new interior wilderness roads and a few other locations highlighted. By clicking on these you can see a very, very short description of the remediation planned for that location.
There is a promise to re-seed with “agency consultation.” No details are given: species, sources of seed, or plans for initial watering. Without more information, it is difficult to make useful comments. In several areas immediately east of the Jacumba Wilderness, habitat restoration undertaken some years ago by the BLM has left only dead brush on bare ground.
One story map photo shows equipment piled at a staging area with the promise that it will be removed and the area returned to its original condition. Ms. Harmon has reported – and her photos document – that the area had been cleared of equipment well before the remediation plan was published. She also has photos showing that even before construction occurred, the area was maze of ORV tracks on otherwise bare ground.
The map promises – with no details given – to restore the water drainages that have been impacted by construction, and it makes no mention of rehabilitating areas with many tire tracks along washes and on open ground away from the graded roads.
CBP representatives told Ms. Harmon that restoration activities will use heavy equipment; the possibility for using hand crews for planting or removing off-road vehicle tracks was not entertained.
Damage from Recent Rains:
On September 9 and October 15, 2022, extraordinarily heavy rains fell in Southern California. Water has always been a major factor in the formation of desert landscapes, and the creation of a number of deep gullies and mud flows in the Jacumba Wilderness was to be expected. Unique in this case was the presence of recent construction associated with the border wall. The following observations were made by Ms. Harmon on several visits in the weeks following the storm.
On the eastern side of the Wilderness, the scatter of brush and debris indicated that water once stood at least four feet deep where crucifixion thorn grow in the center of Skull Valley. Graded berms along the access roads entering the Wilderness had prevented water from running off on its natural course. Farther south at the border, a service road running alongside the bollard wall had been seriously undercut where gullies had formed in several places and eroded its foundation. Attempts to repair some of the flood damage were evident where heavy equipment had cleared mud off the roads, reconfigured road berms, or had dumped rocks and sand into gullies. On one occasion, Ms. Harmon had seen earth moving equipment at work. Some of the flood damage had occurred where the remediation plan had proposed either re-seeding along roadsides or re-contouring of the adjacent hills.
Flash floods are not unusual in the desert, and when another major storm arrives, further damage is certain. It is clear that planning for such an event is needed. It will be necessary either to rebuild some of the exiting infrastructure or else budget for continued maintenance in the future.
One of several gullies that now go from road area to base of Pinto Wash below. All photos of gullies are from standing next to gullies on road. October 19, 2022. Photo: Edith Harmon
Sand filled culverts where material collected because of failed effort to open up drainage to wash going north. October, 2022.
Photo: Edith Harmon
Proof of how deep the water had been with sand residue showing on the gates. October 19, 2022.
Photo: Edith Harmon
1) The federal agencies with responsibilities in the Jacumba Wilderness have embarrassed themselves. The Bureau of Land Management has used legal excuses to avoid its responsibility for maintaining wilderness character. The Department of Customs and Border Patrol has shirked a duty to adequately consider the environmental consequences of its actions or to collaborate with a wider public familiar with the local geography.
2) Given the facts of immigration and the physical presence of the border wall, it is not realistic to expect that the Jacumba Wilderness can be restored everywhere to its once natural condition. It is realistic to insist that away from the access roads and the wall itself, the flora, fauna, archeological artifacts, and much of the visual resource should receive all the protections enumerated in the Wilderness Act.
The clear lesson is that political influence in our federal bureaucracies makes it impossible to assure responsible land management without the involvement of committed citizen. We must speak; they must listen.
Craig Deutsche is an editor of the Desert Report.
An earlier version of this article was published in the August 2022 Sierra Club newsletter Words of the Wild.
3) United States District Court for the District of Columbia: