Border Troubles


The San Pedro River winds from the Mexican border through southeastern Arizona, flanked by cottonwood and willow trees. Further from the water, thorny shrubs and desert grasses grow. Mountain lions, deer, and bobcats roam hereabouts, along with green rattlesnakes and Gila monsters; half the breeding bird species in North America can be spotted along the river’s banks.

Once desert-river ecosystems like this were common throughout the Southwest, but now, few remain: The lush banks of the San Pedro are both a living museum and a unique oasis of natural diversity in the dusty area.

Soon, though, all that could change: The river lies directly on the route of President Bush’s planned 700-mile border fence. Workers are already preparing to install a 16-foot steel-and-mesh barrier running up to the water’s edge; the river itself will be plugged with old railroad ties to prevent the passage of boats.

Greens fear that the fence - and the access roads needed for maintenance - will wreck the delicate balance of the San Pedro ecosystem, clogging the river, forcing animals to change migratory patterns, and destroying an irreplaceable habitat.

Shockingly, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has refused to adequately assess the potential damage to the site, even after a judge halted work on the fence pending a review. This week, DHS chief Michael Chertoff invoked powers assigned to him under the REAL ID Act to overrule the judge, waiving a swathe of inconvenient environmental laws and ordering the bulldozers back into the San Pedro conservation area.

Adding insult to injury, Chertoff suggested that the harm done by the wall would be outweighed by the fact that fewer immigrants and smugglers would now litter the area or build campfires as they passed through.

Similar stories are playing out along the border as officials rush to meet ambitious construction targets: With the fence due to stretch almost 400 miles by the end of 2008, officials say that up to three quarters of the environmentally sensitive land in the Rio Grande Valley will be affected. Activists complain that environmental-impact surveys are either desultory or entirely lacking; meanwhile, Chertoff says he’ll continue to waive the law as often as necessary to get the job done.

In the House, Arizona Democrat Raúl Grijalva is pushing legislation to rein in the DHS and repeal the REAL ID waiver. But even if he succeeds, it won’t come in time to save the San Pedro River. Unlike the environmental damage from immigrants and smugglers, the harm done by Chertoff’s headlong rush to seal the border could prove almost impossible to put right.

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