The Damage Done

https://www.hcn.org/articles/south-borderlands-after-months-of-border-wall-construction-a-look-at-the-damage-done

Borderlands

After months of border wall construction, a look at the damage done

As President Biden takes the helm, conservation groups take stock of the border wall’s environmental impacts.

This story is the first of three installments in a series by High Country News and Arizona Public Media on the implications for Donald Trump’s border wall, now that his successor, President Joe Biden, has taken the helm.

In the last year and a half, crews have raced to complete the border wall promised by President Donald Trump. By the time his term ended, many of the construction projects across Arizona’s Borderlands were complete. As President Joe Biden takes office, environmental groups are taking stock of the environmental destruction caused by the wall as they make the case for restoration.

Much of Arizona’s international border with Mexico is made up of public lands, places set aside by the federal government for special protection because of their unique ecological value — Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the San Pedro National Riparian Conservation Area, and Cabeza Prieta and San Bernardino national wildlife refuges, among others. So when the Trump administration released its first plans for new border wall construction in Arizona in May 2019, environmentalists were horrified to see that nearly all the proposed wall segments were on those public lands.

“(The administration) really started to push out into remote, rugged terrain on public lands all across the borderline in Arizona, where the ecological value of those places is so much higher that the damage done by this construction is much more egregious,” said Randy Serraglio, Southwest conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.

For months now, construction crews have been dynamiting, drilling, pumping, excavating and clear-cutting public land. In places like Guadalupe Canyon in far eastern Arizona, simply building roads to bring in construction equipment involved blasting mountainsides and sending the rubble down to clog drainages. Previously wide-open landscapes where wildlife and water could move freely have been severed by the huge steel barrier. The Sonoran Desert’s iconic saguaros, protected by law, have been found lying in heaps next to construction sites.

“This is damage that will not ever be remediated or mitigated,” Serraglio said. “This is permanent.”

In Guadalupe Canyon, a lush riparian corridor spanning northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security dynamited cliff sides and carved switchback roads up incredibly steep mountains to build a 30-foot-tall border wall.John Kurc

Under the Trump administration, contractors have replaced barbed wire or waist-high barriers with 30-foot-high steel beams, 6 inches wide, with only a 4-inch gap in-between. “Nothing larger than a cottontail rabbit could pass through there,” said Myles Traphagan, Borderlands program coordinator with the Wildlands Network. “So the common wildlife you see along the border, such as javelina, deer, mountain lion, bobcat, bighorn sheep, those are going to be completely impeded by this border wall.”

Traphagan’s organization works closely with ranches in Mexico that prioritize wildlife protection and cross-border migration corridors. He said their game cameras used to capture images of hundreds of animals per month traveling the drainages near San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge. “But the last few times I’ve been down there, those numbers have just plummeted,” he said.

“This is damage that will not ever be remediated or mitigated.”

Then there’s the impacts of water use: In many places, contractors have pumped water from deep belowground for construction purposes, wetting roads to keep the dust down or to make cement. Because Arizona doesn’t require data on water usage from wells in these areas, there are no hard numbers on how much has been used, but some impacts are already clear.

Quitobaquito is a rare desert spring in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, located on the ancestral homelands of O’odham tribes. Despite promises from U.S. Customs and Border Protection that the builders would respect a five-mile buffer around the spring and its pond, hydrologists and ecologists who monitor the site said last year that the pond dropped to its lowest levels in years after pumping began for the border wall. Since February 2020, CBP has withdrawn 45 million gallons of water around Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. 

Endangered Sonoyta mud turtle tracks dot the drying pond bed in Quitobaquito Springs, Arizona, last June.Ash Ponders

In the southeast corner of Arizona, the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Its artesian-fed wetlands and springs support several threatened and endangered species, including the Yaqui topminnow, Yaqui chub, beautiful shiner and Yaqui catfish. 

Last summer, documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity via the Freedom of Information Act revealed that nearby groundwater pumping for the border wall — as much as 700,000 gallons per day — was depleting the refuge’s wetlands. That ultimately forced staff to relocate fish and allow some wetlands to dry up in an effort to protect the species. Traphagan said the wall contractors installed higher-capacity pumps to keep the refuge wells from drying up completely.

“Right now, the refuge is on a ventilator. Because those flows would stop if they didn’t have the pumps installed,” Traphagan said.

“Right now, the refuge is on a ventilator. Because those flows would stop if they didn’t have the pumps installed.”

A year ago, hundreds of protesters gathered along the San Pedro River, one of the Southwest’s last free-flowing rivers and a jewel of southern Arizona, to protest the plan to build a border wall across the riverbed. But despite active opposition by environmentalists, local residents and members of Congress, construction continued.

By November, that wall was complete.

“That river is a lifeline for hundreds and hundreds of species; millions of migratory birds use it as a flyway every year,” Serraglio said. “And yet they have constructed a wall right across the riverbed that will almost certainly act as a dam and completely disrupt the normal ecological functioning of that river.” 

Compounding the environmental impacts is the fact that 2020 was one of the driest and hottest years on record. For parts of the wall that cut across riverbeds and water crossings, Traphagan said, that means that some of the true impacts, such as flooding and erosion, have yet to be seen. The long-term impacts of severing wildlife corridors are also unknown, he said. “We have walled off 75% of the continent from the Rio Grande to (the) Pacific Ocean,” he said. “By doing so, we’re conducting an uncontrolled ecological experiment that is going to potentially alter the evolutionary history of North America for decades to come if these walls remain intact.”

Climate change also means that rare desert water sources are becoming even harder to find, so that animals need more room to roam, not less, said Emily Burns with the Sky Island Alliance, a conservation group. “In 2020, there was an incredible drought. It’s not over yet, and we’ve seen springs in the Borderlands completely dry up,” Burns said. “Animals now have this double insult of not being able to walk as far to find water because they’re cut off by the wall.”

In March, months before construction began in the wider region, her group installed a series of game cameras along part of the U.S.-Mexico border to gather data on cross-border animal migration. The initial results, which detected more than 100 different species, have been very encouraging, she said. That’s because the mountainous region where the cameras are located is an incredibly biodiverse area. Burns hopes her camera data can be used to convey a bit of what wildlife migration was like before the new wall was built.

  • Trail cam images show the many species that migrate across the U.S.-Mexico border in San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona. Myles Traphagen/Wildlands Network

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“Each species is going to respond differently to the border wall. We need to understand how they’re being impacted so we can work on a multi-species conservation strategy to minimize the damage that’s already been done by the wall,” she said.

This is one of the fundamental problems with any recovery or restoration of the Borderlands now that wall construction has ended or been stopped, said Serraglio. In order to speed construction, the Trump administration waived dozens of federal environmental and cultural resource laws that normally apply to such projects — laws that were created to minimize or mitigate their impacts. Stay up to date on the West with our free newsletter  

“We don’t really have the baseline science to be able to determine what all of the impacts are going to be, because all of the environmental laws that would have required that kind of analysis were waived,” he said.

Many environmental groups have begun to make their case to the Biden administration, suggesting ways to mitigate the impacts of the wall or even remove sections of it. But because those baseline studies never happened, many are worried we’ll never know exactly what was lost in the rush to build it.

Read more from Arizona Public Media and High Country News about next steps for the border wall. Read our next story in the series: Border wall scars: ‘It feels like if someone got a knife and dragged it across my heart.’

Ariana Brocious is a reporter and producer covering water and the environment for Arizona Public Media in Tucson. Email High Country News at editor@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.

https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/criticism-of-alaska-article-stirs-broader-discussion-GQce6KumvEmbza2KSt45fw

Criticism of Alaska article stirs broader discussion

*****Let´s go broader than this article.****

Manipulation 101

Why would native people want to be put first in line for an injection of something that is #1 experimental, #2 not fully safety tested, #3 has actually been responsible for reported serious adverse reactions and even some deaths, #4 does not stop infection. Because of the history of discrimination and racism, we are persuaded to think that NOW, during this pandemic, the powers that be are actually giving a care to indigenous people. We need to step back a moment and really look at what is being done and how things are spun into a narrative that puts people of color at the head of the line to being harmed.

I will add that one way to motivate people to do something is to play out the scenario that there is a scarcity – also to create the feeling that one group is getting something that others are not. So, you begin to see that this issue of indigenous getting better treatment actually is only a narrative that plays to the pharmaceutical companies´ agenda to persuade people who are reluctant to get the vaccine to race to get the vaccine.

A nurse administers the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Guy’s Hospital in London, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. U.K. health authorities rolled out the first doses of a widely tested and independently reviewed COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday, starting a global immunization program that is expected to gain momentum as more serums win approval. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, Pool)

Joaqlin Estus

Vera Starbard: ‘Any time Native people are perceived to be ‘doing better’ than the dominant group in Alaska, there will absolutely, without fail be a backlash from individuals or large groups about how it’s not fair’

Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Alaska Public Media reporter Nathaniel Herz has done numerous stories on the fight against COVID-19 in Alaska in the past year.

His stories described historical pandemics that decimated Alaska Native populations, and the disproportionately high toll that COVID is taking on Indigenous peoples. He has reported on the tribal health system’s success in vaccinating tribal members despite logistical challenges.

Then last weekend Herz wrote and aired a story headlined: “Eligibility differences between state and tribal health systems frustrate some Alaskans waiting for vaccines.” The story said the Anchorage-based Southcentral Foundation was vaccinating people who work with Alaska Natives and for Native organizations. The story featured critics who saying the Native nonprofit should instead be giving shots to more vulnerable groups no matter what their relationship with Natives.

Nathaniel Herz, Alaska Public Media, covers climate change, environment and government and politics for Alaska’s Energy Desk. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Public Media)
Nathaniel Herz, reporter. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Public Media)

The reaction after the story was aired and then posted on Alaska Public Media’s web page was immediate and on social media dozens of angry responses were posted on Twitter and Facebook. In the sometimes hyperbolic and profanity-laden style of social media, people saw the story as horrible, divisive, super-biased, whiney, colonialist, and reckless.

If Southcentral should be sharing its allotment beyond its clientele, will the same demand be made to the Department of Defense to share its allotment beyond the military, asked one commenter. “Or is the criticism reserved only for the most marginalized in our community?”

The story “feeds into ill will against Natives in an already super racist state,” and non-Natives will use the views expressed in the story as a “justification to their racism” that “feeds into their own victimhood,” read other Tweets.

Vera Starbard, Tlingit and Dena’Ina Athabascan, an author and playwright, wrote in her Writing Raven blog that she was surprised to see what she called, “an absolute hit job piece of poor journalism published with a disgraceful slant toward how the system is failing the Anchorage community,” given the tribal health system’s success in getting people vaccinated.

Vera Starbard, Tlingit/Dena'ina, of Writing Raven, Writer. Editor. Wife. Reluctant Cat Owner. Born in Craig, Alaska. Editor for First Alaskans Magazine, Playwright-in-Residence at Perseverance Theatre through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's National Playwright Residency Program. Writer for the PBS KIDS animated children's program "Molly of Denali."
Vera Starbard, Tlingit/Dena’ina writer, of Writing Raven, writer, editor and playwright.  Anchorage, Alaska (Photo courtesy of Vera Starbard).

“Except it’s not surprising. Any time Native people are perceived to be ‘doing better’ than the dominant group in Alaska, there will absolutely, without fail be a backlash from individuals or large groups about how it’s not fair,” Starbard said.

“Never mind that instead of highlighting the state’s failed responsibility to the Pacific Islander community’s risk, and ask why it was not reaching this community more, this media organization chose to place the blame on an organization that is already serving those outside of its founding responsibility – and seeking to do more,” Starbard said.

Efficiency of distribution

The Alaska Public Media story questioned how Southcentral was distributing vaccines.

“Anchorage’s main tribal health provider is vaccinating employees of its affiliated for-profit company and nonprofit organizations, and their household members, without regard to their race, age or vulnerability,” Herz reported. “That’s frustrating some of the teachers, people with underlying conditions and others enduring an excruciating wait for shots from state government.”

“Southcentral Foundation’s vaccination framework has the effect of skipping over groups that face higher risk levels,” the story read, such as grocery store workers, the elderly and South Pacific Islanders, who are disproportionately affected by COVID.

One reason that Southcentral even had such a choice was its efficiency in distributing vaccines.

The number of doses provided to tribal health organizations is based on the same formula the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses to determine allotments to federal, state, and local governments. CDC considered 15 factors, including preparedness; critical populations; capacity for handling and managing the vaccine; and the number of providers to administer vaccinations.

While federal, state and tribal health systems are all limited by the number of doses allotted to them, the foundation has been able to get categories of people vaccinated more quickly than the state.

It’s had teams calling tribal members to come in for their shots, which it’s dispensing at the rate of 800 per day. By Feb. 1, it had administered more than 10,000 doses.

The foundation’s first priorities were health care workers and Native elders followed by the American Indian and Alaska Native “customer-owners” it serves. Next it vaccinated other employees and customers’ household members. Then it opened appointments to people who work for or with Native people.

Southcentral Foundation had no comment on the Alaska Public Media story.

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Alaska Public Media’s side of the story

Anchorage-based Alaska Public Media combines news stories of its own with those of reporters at public radio stations across Alaska, many of them located in rural communities that are as much as 75 percent Alaska Native. The resulting news shows regularly have Alaska Native issues in the forefront, and has for decades.

Alaska Public Media News Director Lori Townsend, said, “in the 18 years I’ve worked for the [Alaska public radio] network, I can think of no other time that we were accused of racist coverage by the Alaska Native community.”

Herz said the story was meant to prompt a conversation about the foundation’s distribution but erred in its presentation.

“…the story was framed in a way that was inflammatory and hurtful — and particularly to a lot of Native people but to plenty of white and non-Native people [too] — that didn’t allow anyone to engage with its content and with the question that we were trying to raise. It just caused hurt and pain and confusion about why we would do something like this,” Herz said.

Speaking for himself and the two editors who worked with him from concept to completion of the story, Herz said, “we thought we were being sensitive … we didn’t appreciate how sensitive and delicate the conversations around tribal healthcare are, and just sort of how much work and labor and explicating and justifying Indigenous people have to do around their healthcare whenever the subject comes up.

“This was absolutely… a personal and professional and human failure on my part. And I take full responsibility for that,” Herz said.

He said he and the editors “who considered ourselves to be sensitive and connected to the Alaska Native community and compassionate and aware of the sensitivity of these topics… had no sense of how the piece would hurt Alaska Native people, and how it would fail to connect with Alaska Native readers.” Herz said he and his institution are reflecting on the matter and are committed to making sure it doesn’t happen again.

Herz said, “the intensity of the reaction and just all of the different ways that people shared their feelings, I’ve never experienced anything like this in my entire life and it really hurt. But I am really hoping that this whole thing can be in the service of more responsible and complete and sensitive media coverage of Alaska Native people and really important personal lessons for me” and the institution where he works.

He also wrote an open letter of apology.

Townsend said a careful approach, talking through who should be in a story, and taking the time for careful editing is “so incredibly important. And having more diversity in our newsroom is crucial.” Herz said Alaska Public Media had already been taking steps to increase staff diversity.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

Indian Country Today is a nonprofit news organization. Will you support our work? All of our content is free. There are no subscriptions or costs. And we have hired more Native journalists in the past year than any news organization ─ and with your help we will continue to grow and create career paths for our people. Support Indian Country Today for as little as $10.

Stop the Oil

Lakota Law

Despite multiple court rulings denying its permit on valid environmental grounds, the Dakota Access pipeline continues to pump noxious oil through the heart of my homeland every day. As you know, this injustice has to be corrected. And if the courts won’t take the necessary steps to protect my relatives on the Standing Rock Nation, then once again it’s up to us — the grassroots — to use our voices and find a political solution.

Fortunately, as you can see in our new blog and video, our movement to stop DAPL has gained new traction. I feel echoes of the days when our protest camps filled with tens of thousands. Four Lakota tribal leaders, several organizations, and an online army of folks like you have taken up the call to tell President Biden to use his authority as the chief executive and stop this dangerous pipeline before it spills and kills.

Watch my video with Chase Iron Eyes to get caught up on our NoDAPL movement

We’ve got an organizing and media team on the ground here at Standing Rock — I’m so happy to be working hand-in-hand with my nephew, Chase Iron Eyes, on this — and we’re cooperating with members of our tribal council to help get the word out about the need to act now. We met at length on Tuesday with the full council, and we have been given a room in the tribal building to shoot interviews with tribal leaders and make videos featuring a range of knowledge and perspective.

We’re distributing all our videos to other concerned organizations via a sharing tool created by Earthjustice, the law firm representing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in its NoDAPL legal resistance effort. It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment, and many organizations — from the Sierra Club to one affiliated with actor Mark Ruffalo — have joined the effort to pressure the president and the Army Corps of Engineers to do right by my people.

I offer my gratitude to you for standing with us. The president has already made several positive decisions on pipelines and the environment, but he has yet to show that he understands the gravity of our plight here at Standing Rock. Our immediate goal is to make sure that he does — ideally before this Wednesday, the pipeline’s next day in court. By working together and by reforging our movement in bigger numbers, with more volume than ever, I believe we can do it.

Wopila tanka — I can’t thank you enough for your activism and your prayers!

Phyllis Young
Standing Rock Organizer
The Lakota People’s Law Project