Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Environmental Disaster of America's New Iron Curtain

by Glenn Hurowitz
The Grist Magazine
October 16, 2007

The bobcat turned, looked at me, and jumped into the mesquite brush. It was the first day of a three-day visit to South Texas, and I was exploring the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge along the Rio Grande River. Seeing the bobcat was a treat for me -- but the kind of treat that could become increasingly rare if the Bush administration and Congress go ahead with plans to build between 370 and 700 miles of double-layered concrete wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The efficacy of this plan to keep out "unwanted" foreigners is dubious at best, and highly controversial. But one thing is sure: it is likely to be the last nail in the coffin of some of the most extraordinary, and extraordinarily vulnerable, wildlife of the American Southwest.

Most of the wildlife of the border region has already been battered by more than a century of hunting, fencing, ranching, and agriculture. Ocelots, for instance -- a kind of small, but equally spotted version of a leopard -- once reached their northern limit in Arkansas and Louisiana. Now the 80 to 120 individuals still surviving in the United States cling to life along a small corridor of brush and forest along the Rio Grande -- the last 5 percent of wild land in South Texas that hasn't been cleared to make way for cotton, sorghum, and shopping malls.

Like jaguars, pronghorn antelope, and other endangered creatures of the Southwest threatened by the wall, ocelots need to reach the larger breeding populations south of the border to maintain the viability of their species. But they're unlikely to be able to climb over the wall planned under last year's Secure Fence Act. The wall's scale will equal or even dwarf some of the great human-made natural disasters of the past: perhaps the greatest similarity is to the railroads that divided the Great Plains bison into northern and southern herds that hastened their near-total destruction.

And this is no hypothetical barrier: Contractors have already built over 150 miles of it in Arizona and California. Later this year, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff plans to break ground on the Texas portion of the wall. And Senate Democrats are using $3 billion in funding for additional border wall construction to lure enough Republican votes to override President Bush's expected veto of the Homeland Security appropriations bill.

If you haven't heard about this great wildlife disaster in the making, it's not that you haven't been paying attention: despite the severity of the impact, until recently the nation's largest environmental groups have been nearly silent about it. When you ask officials from those groups to explain the lack of email alerts, television ads, media blitzes, town hall meetings, and finely orchestrated lobbying pushes that have become the hallmark of a modern national environmental campaign, they usually say on the record that they're still studying it.

But there's more to the story.

Read more at The Grist.

©2007 Grist Magazine, Inc.


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